Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Review of Richard J. Evans's "Altered Pasts"

I can't yet post my full (7800 word) review of Richard Evans's provocative new book, Altered Pasts, which appears in the current issue of History & Theory, but I thought interested readers might want to see the abstract below.  (I'm new to the legalities of posting one's own work on one's own blog, but apparently the PDF can only be posted a year after it appears in print).  Alas....



Here's the abstract:

WHITHER “WHAT IF” HISTORY?

Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures). By Richard Evans. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, 2014. Pp. 176.

Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts, offers a perceptive but flawed critique of the field of counterfactual history. The author provides a useful historical survey of the field’s recent rise to prominence and intelligently analyzes its respective strengths and weaknesses. His overall assessment of the field is quite skeptical, however. Evans cites many reasons for his skepticism, but his overall critique can be summarized in three words: plausibility, politicization, and popularity. Evans faults works of counterfactual history for their frequently implausible narratives, their promotion of political agendas, and their distressing degree of popularity. In advancing his critique, Evans makes many valid observations that call attention to important deficiencies in the field. But his view is a partial one that neglects countervailing evidence and never penetrates to the heart of why the field has left the margins for the mainstream. Evans’s study provides a useful introduction to an understudied topic, but further research—ideally of a less partisan nature—is required for us to better understand counterfactual history’s increasing appeal.

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