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

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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.

Andrew Roberts, Robert Cowley, Geoffrey Parker and many others have edited further collections. The prolific Jeremy Black has, inevitably, weighed in with a short survey of the genre. Military historians have produced hundreds of essays on what might have happened had this or that general adopted different tactics in this or that battle. Dominic Sandbrook wrote a sequence of 40 counterfactual essays for the New Statesman. Iain Dale and his collaborators at Biteback Publishing produced a string of collections imagining what things might have been like had Michael Portillo, or any one of a number of other politicians, become prime minister instead of the people who actually did. The cascade of books and essays seems never-ending. But how do we account for this trend?

Before the mid-1990s such speculations were few and far between. Occasional asides can be found in the works of historians going back to the ancient Greeks, but it took the end of Providentialist history, which viewed all events as part of the working-out of God’s purposes, and the advent of the Romantic view of the past as a succession of epochs, each essentially different from the previous one, before writers began to speculate at greater length on what might have been.

The two earliest extended essays in the genre were both French. 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; he would, in Geoffroy’s alternative version, have gone on to conquer the known world, eventually being crowned by the pope with the hereditary title ‘The All-Powerful’. Later in the 19th century, Charles Renouvier coined the term ‘Uchronia’ (in a novel of the same name) to denote “the rewriting of history not as it was, but as it could have been”.

Both writers had axes to grind. Geoffroy was Napoleon’s adopted son; he wrote his essay in the mid-1830s, when Bonapartism was beginning to re-emerge as a political force. Renouvier, for his part, was prompted by Napoleon III’s close alliance with the church to imagine a history of Europe based on the survival of a tolerant, multi-faith Roman empire. As these fantasies suggested, wishful thinking, along with a clear political purpose, has been a prime constituent of counterfactual history from the outset.

At the same time, however, this kind of writing has always coexisted with a view of ‘what-if?’ history as an amusing entertainment – sometimes in the same book or article. In 1931 the first collection of essays in the genre – If It Had Happened Otherwise, edited by Sir John Collings Squire – presented two articles that adopted a procedure opposite to wishful thinking. GM Trevelyan’s piece imagined the grim fate that England would have met had Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, while Monsignor Ronald Knox’s contribution depicted a Soviet-style regime that he posited would have descended upon Britain had the General Strike of 1926 been successful. The political thrust of such dystopian fantasies was obvious enough, but they have always represented a minority strand in the literature.

The publication of those essays perhaps reflected the political uncertainties of the early 1930s. But they had no successor for nearly half a century until 1979, when Daniel Snowman edited If I Had Been… Ten Historical Fantasies, in which 10 historians showed how they could have done better than the personalities they discussed – for example, by preventing American independence or avoiding the First World War. These essays were a product, perhaps, of the sentiment spread by Margaret Thatcher and her government – that Britain had taken a wrong turning in 1945, with the retreat from empire and the foundation of the welfare state.

Nevertheless, until the 1990s counterfactualism as entertainment remained the dominant theme in the periodic contributions to the genre. Characteristic was the collection edited by John Merriman in 1985 under the title For Want of a Horse, advertised by the publisher as “humorous speculations”.

But in the 1990s the landscape changed. The shelf-loads of counterfactual histories that have appeared since then still include essays designed mainly or even purely as entertainment: Dominic Sandbrook’s witty series is probably the best example. Most practitioners of the genre have, however, presented their work as making a serious contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the past – indeed, they have been rather sniffy about those who would see it as nothing more than harmless entertainment.

The most common justification presented for ‘what-if?’ speculations is that they restore openness and indeterminacy to the past, and undermine or even destroy the determinist belief that what happened was inevitable. Their main target here is Marxism – which, ironically, had collapsed as a political and intellectual force immediately before the vogue for counterfactualism began. Already, the German historian of ancient Rome, Alexander Demandt, had in 1984 produced a book designed to demonstrate by means of counterfactual scenarios that things could have turned out differently from the way they did. This then became a mantra repeated endlessly by the new counterfactualists.

But does asking what might have happened if, say, the Spanish Armada had triumphed, or the Glorious Revolution had failed, actually undermine Marxist and other kinds of determinism?

To say that things might have been different is, in the end, rather banal. Moreover, the counterfactualists seem to operate with a variety of different meanings of the word determinism. One of these is the idea that history is moving towards a predetermined end, so that each event is judged in terms of the contribution it made, or did not make, towards that end (teleology, to use the technical term) – for example, a post-revolutionary communist utopia. In fact, of course, as Karl Popper pointed out long ago, teleologies are not falsifiable because we cannot know the future.

More common is the view of determinism to mean that political events are determined by social and economic forces – or, in a more extreme form, that history is governed by immutable laws of development. Of course, Marx and Engels – unlike some of their followers – only ever claimed this in a general sense, and conceded that chance events and personalities could alter the course of history, at least temporarily (“People make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.”)

The danger here is that, in attacking the idea that economic and social forces determine the course of history (a view now held by very few serious historians), the proponents of counterfactualism run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water and discounting wider historical contextual factors altogether. Time and again their speculations involve the influence of personalities over the course of events as if they were unfettered free agents who had autonomy to make completely free decisions. But many a tyrant in history, from Hitler to Napoleon and farther back in time, has discovered to his cost that this is not the case at all.

And if we take a closer look at counterfactual scenarios, we can see that far from freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism – in the sense of restoring chance and contingency to the past, and freedom of action to its personalities – they immediately imprison it in a far more confining kind of determinism.

In almost all of these scenarios, one small change in events – Archduke Franz Ferdinand is not assassinated at Sarajevo, or Charles Martel does not defeat the Moors at the battle of Tours, or Napoleon wins the battle of Waterloo, or the gunpowder plot succeeds in blowing up King James VI & I and the English political elite, to list a few favourite examples – inevitably leads to a whole further series of changes: the First World War does not happen, Hitler does not rise to power and the Holocaust is averted; Europe is ruled by the Moors instead of the Christians; the Napoleonic empire is re-established; England becomes Catholic.

If counterfactuals really did restore our belief in the role of chance and contingency in history, of course, we could not draw any conclusions about the long-term consequences of such events. Thousands of other possible chance events might have happened farther along the timeline: the archduke might have been killed somewhere else, the Byzantine empire might have invaded western Europe, Napoleon might have been killed by a stray shot in the heat of battle, there might have been a civil war in England in the early 1600s instead of a few decades later. We simply cannot know. Once you let the genie of chance out of the bottle of history for one particular contingency, you can’t eliminate the possibility of further unforeseen events by trying to put it back.

In practice, no historian writes as if history were governed entirely by chance; if we did, we would never be able to explain anything, and history would degenerate into chronicle. The fascination of studying the past lies in weighing up the interaction of context and event, large and small causes, historical situations and individual personalities.

All too often, the projection of long-term consequences from single events ends up as little more than wishful thinking: if only the First World War hadn’t happened, if only Napoleon hadn’t been defeated, if only England had become Catholic again. And in many of the counterfactual speculations of the 1990s there was a more immediate political subtext: if only Britain hadn’t become a member of the European Union, portrayed in essays by Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, John Charmley and others as a German-dominated Fourth Reich that would not have come into being had Britain stayed out of the First World War or, indeed, the Second.

This highlights some interesting features of the boom in counterfactual speculations. First, these writings are overwhelmingly British and, to a lesser extent, American. They have not taken off on the continent or in other parts of the world. In Germany, for example, speculating that Hitler might not have come to power looks too much like making excuses. For almost all continental Europeans, imagining what their country might have been like under German rule – a favourite topic of British and American counterfactualists – isn’t necessary: they already know what it was like. Second, almost all counterfactualist historians are on the right of the political spectrum. People on the left generally believe that progress is taking history in their direction. Why should they regret what has happened in the past when they feel instinctively that the future is still theirs?

Third, and perhaps more interestingly, counterfactual speculations are almost entirely confined to the history of kings and battles, high politics and diplomacy, reflecting a belief – not shared by left-wing historians – in a ‘great men’ approach to the discipline. In these iterations, small alterations in the biography of individuals such as Hitler, Churchill, Napoleon or Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or in the course of a battle or a political confrontation, lead to enormous changes in the general course of events, in relations between states, in the fate of political systems, societies, economies and cultures. Typically, therefore, the counterfactualist is conservative not only in a political sense but in terms of historical methodology, too.

This hasn’t stemmed the tide of counterfactuals, but it has ensured that the range of scenarios to which they are applied has been very narrow. The same topics turn up again and again: the battle of Tours, the battle of Waterloo, the First World War and, above all, Hitler and Nazi Germany.

As a result, different counterfactualists come up with strikingly different speculations. For example, a favourite starting point is Britain concluding a separate peace with Nazi Germany in 1940 – but this leads in different scenarios to the preservation of the British empire; the victory of Nazi Germany over Stalin’s Russia and then the Germans’ destruction of the British empire; a long stalemate in the war on the eastern front; or the Soviet conquest of western Europe, including Britain.Take your pick.

What this plethora of rival scenarios highlights is the essential arbitrariness of the whole procedure. No wonder so much of it is politically motivated. Historians need evidence to back up their arguments; counterfactuals don’t have any, so those who propose them can indulge in whatever fantasy they please.

In fact, strictly speaking, many of these fantasies aren’t counterfactuals at all. A number of them – for example, Dominic Sandbrook’s essays and Niall Ferguson’s Afterword in his Virtual History – have been parallel histories, shadowing the actual timeline of events we know happened, without positing a single cause for the divergence in the timeline from reality.

Had Richard Cromwell, on succeeding Oliver, taken seriously his role as lord protector, he would (says Sandbrook) have founded a dynasty including the dissolute George Cromwell (a parallel of George IV), the philandering Herbert Henry Cromwell (a parallel of Asquith) and even rival contenders for the Protectorship in 2012, Praise-God and Ed Cromwell (parallels to the Miliband brothers).

It shouldn’t need pointing out that, if Richard Cromwell had stayed in politics, the course of events would have been entirely unpredictable, except for the fact that it would undoubtedly not have included the emergence of the successors named by Sandbrook.

Many alterations made by military historians to the outcomes of battles aren’t really true counterfactuals, either. There are by now scores, if not hundreds, of accounts in which armchair generals show how they could have won this or that battle by deploying the troops of one side or the other in a different way to that chosen by Wellington, Napoleon, Lee or Grant. However, their interest ends there: they do not draw wider or more long-term conclusions.

The same is true of books that claim Hitler and Eva Braun survived the bunker in Berlin (doubles having been incinerated) and escaped to South America, or that the Rudolf Hess in Spandau was not really Rudolf Hess. Their interest is in making the claim look plausible (not that they do), but they have nothing to say about the consequences.

Of course, timelines can be altered in other ways, too. Famously, Stalin had his erstwhile rival Trotsky airbrushed out of photographs of Lenin and his closest comrades, as if to prove that Trotsky never had any association with the founder of Soviet communism. And rewriting the past has been a favourite of science-fiction novels and movies involving time travel. Indeed, alternate history is now a recognised sub-genre in the science fiction world.

All of these flourishing fiction and non-fiction works share a common background in the postmodern cultural turn that began towards the end of the last century. The collapse of the great ideologies of the 20th century, above all Marxism, banished teleology and opened up the past to a multiplicity of possible trajectories. The concept of progress also took a hard knock as new threats – from religiously inspired terrorism to global warming – brought disorientation and anxiety about the future.

As belief in a knowable future declined, so speculation about the course of history to date – a narrative that had now also began to seem open-ended – became more popular.

Postmodernism encouraged a blurring of the lines between past and present, truth and fiction; it undermined linear concepts of time and introduced a strong emphasis on the subjectivity of the historian.

The digital revolution has enabled us to manipulate at will the photographic record of the past. Much of what we see in the cinema is now computer-generated imagery rather than film of real people or places. In cyberspace, we can no longer be certain that the people with whom we are communicating are who they say they are.

Counterfactual history essentially belongs to this new world of alternative realities, even if its proponents might reject postmodernist approaches to the past. As history it is, in the end, worth very little.

We don’t need counterfactual speculation to do most of the things the genre says it does: undermining untenable theories, for example, or establishing the role of chance and contingency in historical processes and events. Instead, all we need is a careful examination of the historical evidence. Counterfactual imaginings can be fun – they often are – but it is time to recognise that, as serious contributions to historical scholarship, they are pretty much a waste of time.

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Sir Richard J Evans is regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge