I've been taking a bit of a break from posting on the CHR this summer, as I've been completing my new book on the Fourth Reich and continuing work on my study of the history of counterfactual history.
Unfortunately, however, world events have not taken a break -- especially events in the world of "what if?"
Especially in the U. S., the intensifying public debate about the legacy of the American Civil War unleashed by the HBO series, Confederate, and the growing radicalization of the right-wing, white supremacist movement -- as seen in the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- has placed counterfactual history once again in the spotlight.
And not in a good way.
I am busy collecting critical op-eds about Confederate for a longer essay down the line, but I thought that the genre of counterfactual history deserved something of a defense in the court of public opinion, lest its perennially fraught reputation be further damaged by misunderstandings about its origins and character.
Theses on Counterfactual History
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
1. Counterfactual history imagines events that never happened in order to determine how history might have been different. The imagination is an inherent part of human nature. To imagine how history might have been different is thus an inherently human activity.
2. Counterfactual history is as old as history itself. It originated in Antiquity, continued through the Middle Ages, and became increasingly pronounced during the modern era. It is a global phenomenon that has been visible not only in western but also non-western culture.
3. Counterfactual history typically imagines historical events turning out differently in three ways: as better or worse than -- or no different from – how historical events turned out in reality. Counterfactual history thus takes the form of fantasy, nightmare, and stasis scenarios.
4. Counterfactual history expresses deep-seated psychological feelings and emotions. The two most important are regret and relief. When we ask “what if?”, we either express discontent or satisfaction with how history actually turned out.
5. Counterfactual history is inherently presentist. In commenting on how the past might have been different, counterfactuals reveal how people believe it really was. Counterfactual history thus provides an important means of analyzing contemporary views of history and memory.
6. Counterfactual history sheds light on the dynamics of historical causality. We can only really understand what happened in history by examining it in the context of what might have happened.
7. Counterfactual history is essential for drawing moral judgments about the past. If we want to judge how people in the past behaved, we can only truly evaluate their actions if we know what alternatives were available to them and how they might have acted differently.
8. Counterfactual history is politically ecumenical. It is neither left nor right. Imagining “what if” scenarios can be used for any kind of political purposes: liberal or conservative; moderate or extreme; progressive or reactionary. “What if” questions have been posed in every form of polity: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy. They have been asked in religious as well as secular societies. Counterfactuals should not be viewed as possessing any inherent political valence.
9. Counterfactual history is a form of narrative representation that possesses the same claim to legitimacy as any other. Counterfactual questions have long appeared not only in the form of historiography, but in literature, film, television, theater, and poetry. When it appears in these diverse genres, counterfactual history is usually called “alternate history.”
10. Counterfactual history has frequently been misinterpreted and sparked controversy. Because it plays with, and reinvents, the facticity of the past, it has often been viewed with suspicion as “revisionist” or “denialist.” This is especially true when counterfactual questions have been applied to “unmastered” pasts that remain contested within a given society.
11. Counterfactual history nonetheless should be accepted as a genre of narrative representation that embodies contemporary society’s commitment to the free expression of ideas. Where ideas about the past are in conflict, where consensus about the past is absent, works of counterfactual history – and the popular reception of those works -- will reflect deeper social and cultural divisions.
12. Counterfactual history is ultimately one method among others for understanding the past. It is not merely a supplementary method, however, but an integral method, of historical analysis. By challenging us to think unconventionally about the past, counterfactual history can prompt us to think more deeply about important historical questions.