The history essay: the past that never was

What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, Franz Ferdinand had survived in Sarajevo or Hitler had never come to power? Counterfactual histories are all the rage – but their historical value is questionable

Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy’s The Apocryphal Napoleon imagined what would have happened if the emperor had conquered Russia in 1812 instead of being defeated at Moscow. In this painting, Napoleon retreats from Moscow. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

A new historical fashion has come to the fore since the mid-1990s. Proponents and practitioners call it counterfactual history: alternative versions of the past in which one small alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually happened. Starting with the pioneering and still unsurpassed Virtual History, a collection of scintillating essays edited by Niall Ferguson in 1997, an unceasing stream of books and essays has appeared.

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