Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Respectable" or Not? The Ongoing War Over Counterfactual History

As I continue to work on my new book on the history of the Fourth Reich (a project that, incidentally, employs abundant counterfactual reasoning), I’ve tried to stay up to date about the latest goings-on in the world of “what if?” 

Two recent essays struck me as simultaneously discouraging and heartening with regard to the future of counterfactual history.

On the one hand, a recent short essay in The Guardian by Nicholas Lezard entitled, “Altered Pasts Review: Counterfactual Histories Should Be Fun,” gets no objection from me in declaring that “We love a good counterfactual, don’t we? They are a bit of fun, in which we tweak history’s nose by imagining what might have been.”  However, Lezard then proceeds to lose me entirely by endorsing many of Richard Evans’s ill-grounded objections to “what if” thinking and by ultimately concluding – in overly sweeping fashion – that “counterfactuality is not a respectable historical tool, so don’t treat it like one.”

I don’t know what Lezard’s definition of “respectable” is, but I would think that we were past the point where such baseless accusations continue to be recycled.  I would like to think that we’ve arrived at a point where we don’t need to rehash all the reasons why counterfactual reasoning is not only essential to historical analysis, but has always been a tool (however unacknowledged) used by the leading figures in the western historical profession.  (For what it’s worth, I plan on meticulously documenting this fact in a future study of the field).


On the more positive side of the ledger:  Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison have recently received a decent bit of attention for their Applied History manifesto, “Establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers Now,” which was recently published in abridged form in The Atlantic.

Anyone interested in counterfactual history will be thrilled to see it endorsed by Ferguson and Allison as one of the key ways in which historians can contribute to policy making decisions.

They write as follows:

“A fifth type of assignment where applied historians could be helpful in the current policymaking process: by posing and answering “What if?” questions designed to analyze past decision-making. Addressing such questions requires disciplined counterfactual reasoning. While many mainstream historians have voiced reservations about counterfactual analysis, this method lies at the heart of every historical account. As one of us argued in Virtual History, “it is a logical necessity when asking questions about causation to pose ‘but for’ questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if our supposed cause had been absent.”

“When assessing the relative importance of various possible causes of WWI, historians make judgments about what would have happened in the absence of these factors. Methods developed for doing this systematically can be employed by applied historians in considering current policy choices. Thus, President Obama’s successor could ask his Council of Historical Advisers to replay 2013. What if Obama had opted to enforce the “red line” in Syria against the Assad regime, rather than delegating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria to the Russian government? And what if, in January 2014, the EU had not offered Ukraine an economic association agreement that was clearly designed to pull Kiev westwards? Would President Putin have intervened militarily in Ukraine?”

People may differ on the value of historians diving into political work, as Jeremy Adelman has recently written in a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  But whatever one’s views on the subject, it is significant that the manifesto elevates historical “what ifs?” to such prominence. 


At the very least, it refutes Lezard’s erroneous claim that they are anything but “respectable.”

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