I was interested to see counterfactual reasoning being used for a new purpose this past weekend in The New York Times Book Review.
In his review of John Keay’s new book, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia Since Partition, Isaac Chotiner made a claim about the alleged limits of “what if? thinking.
“Some historical events have such utterly catastrophic consequences that no amount of “what if” counterfactuals can yield a more awful result. World War I, for example, resulted in an enormous number of fatalities, largely entrenched the imperialism that initiated it and paved the way for both Nazism and Stalinism. How could a different path have been worse?”
“The 1947 partition of British India, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan as independent countries, was undertaken with nobler motives. But “Midnight’s Descendants,” John Keay’s solid new history of the subcontinent over the past 67 years, leaves the reader with the same depressing thought: No alternative could possibly have been more calamitous.”
“Partition laid the groundwork for the very civil war it was supposed to prevent — as many as one million people may have died — and created a lasting enmity between two states that are now nuclear-armed. If you include the 1971 genocide Pakistan perpetrated against its restive eastern wing (which became independent Bangladesh in December of that year) and the wildly unstable nature of Pakistan today, you are confronted with a disaster of astonishing proportions.”
I am no expert in the history of South Asia and so cannot advance a scenario in which the avoidance of partition in 1947 causes a calamity of such proportions as to make the original partition look like a reasonable solution.
But there is certainly evidence that Chotiner’s premise – however appealing -- is incorrect. It’s pretty safe to say that the human imagination is quite capable of taking any historical reality and making it even more nightmarish than it already is.
Stephen Fry’s novel, Making History, is a good example of this. The novel famously satisfies the urge to prevent Hitler’s birth and thereby prevent the Second World War (by having a graduate student send a birth control pill back to the local water well where Hitler's never-to-be-mother, Klara, fetches her drinking water in Hitler’s not-to-be hometown of Braunau-am-Inn). But while Hitler is successfully eliminated from history, his role ends up being performed by an even more capable and ruthless figure, Rudolf Gloder, who ends up helping the Nazis develop nuclear weapons, win World War II, and so forth….
Similarly, Richard Ned Lebow’s recent book, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! imagines a world in which the avoidance of World War I ends up leading to a later war in western Europe in the 1970s in which both Germany and England suffer severe nuclear destruction and millions of fatalities.
These and other examples show that Chotiner’s claim is not borne out by the evidence.
That said, the fact that he raises the point in the first place is significant for showing how counterfactual claims are becoming increasingly salonfähig (ie. acceptable to use in polite company; I don’t often get a chance to use this great German word, so there – I said it).
Chotiner could have easily written his review of Keay’s book by sticking to the real historical record and underscoring the magnitude of Great Britain’s calamitous decision to partition India in 1947. But adding a counterfactual angle provides extra rhetorical emphasis. Chotiner’s point is essentially to argue that the partition plan was so bad that we cannot even imagine a worse possible outcome than what actually happened.
Except, there’s probably always someone who can.
Had Britain somehow been able to hold on even longer to the Raj, might an eventual policy of partition have been even deadlier? There are few iron laws of history, but one that is worth considering would hold that “if any event is destined to happen, it is best for it to take place sooner than later.” Given the fact that the destructiveness of war is increased by advances in technology, it is likely that the later occurrence of any number of real historical wars -- the Civil War, World War I, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 – would have led to even worse death and destruction.