Really? Richard Evans Thinks Counterfactual History Is a "Waste of Time?"

Maybe it was Richard Evans’s editor at The Guardian who gave his latest op-ed its strident title (presumably in order attract attention and boost readership), but it’s hard for me to believe that the esteemed historian really thinks that counterfactual history is a “waste of time.”

After all, he just devoted a decent chunk of the last few years to researching and writing a new book on the subject, Altered Pasts, which has just been published by Brandeis University Press.

I hope to post some comments on the book in the next few weeks, once I’ve read it.  But in the meantime, I’d like to go on record as saying that his new Guardian piece does not convince. 

Evans is  apparently fed up with the recent spate of counterfactual musings in the British media about the origins and consequences of World War I, pointing to comments by other rival historians, such as Niall Ferguson, whom he has long viewed with suspicion for his counterfactual (and conservative political) tendencies.  (I commented on the Evans/Ferguson rivalry and offered my own riposte to the Cambridge historian some years ago in a forum published in Historically Speaking.  For my response, click here).

In expressing his critical, present-day position, Evans argues that “this kind of fantasising is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.”  In fact, it is doubtful that this is true, given that the lion’s share of books already (and still to be) published on World War I will be straightforward works of narrative history. Books entirely devoted to counterfactuals, such as Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! represent a very small niche in the market and can hardly be described as “pushing aside” attempts to explain the past.

Evans goes on to argue that “the problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by…larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way.”  Yes, maybe bad counterfactual history does this, but any decent version of it balances structure and agency.

It is equally off-base for Evans to describe counterfactual history as “a form of intellectual atavism in…[the] sense [that] "what-ifs" are almost invariably applied to political, military and diplomatic history: they represent a "kings-and-battles" view of the past.”  The rich field of counterfactual history boasts narratives on plenty of topics outside of this narrow range.  Just to cite one specific example, my own edited volume on Jewish alternate histories (due out with Cambridge University Press within the next year) contains sixteen essays, none of which mentions a king, few of which mention battles, and most of which deal with non-diplomatic history.  They explore questions like: What if the Exodus had never happened?  What if Herod’s Temple had never been destroyed?  What if early modern ghettos had not been established?  What if the Jews of Spain had not been expelled in 1492?  These and many other fascinating questions clearly show the existence of a broad range of topics that beckon for counterfactual analysis.

This is why Evans’s fatalistic conclusion is so disheartening: “It’s time to be sceptical about this trend. We need, in this year especially, to start to try to understand why the first world war happened, not to wish that it hadn't, or argue about whether it was "right" or "wrong". In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren't any real use at all.”

This just goes too far.  It’s a straw man argument to say that counterfactual history is currently threatening to overwhelm real history and thus should be viewed skeptically and, ideally, ignored altogether.  In fact, there is just no understanding what happened without understanding what didn’t.  (This is Derridean supplementarity 101, if I dare invoke a representative of postmodern thought). 

Moreover, while Evans claims that counterfactual history became popular in the 1990s (a development that still needs to be fully explained), he certainly knows that the counterfactual impulse has been part of the historical profession since the ancient Greeks and can hardly be wished away.  I agree with him that the present day mass media may be inclined to raise counterfactual questions above real historical questions.  Given the media’s penchant for ratings and eyeballs, it may in fact tend to play the entertainment card over the education card.  That said, I am not afraid that counterfactual history will degenerate into a sideshow of freakish, flippant, or otherwise distracting hypotheses.  Counterfactual history can devolve into silly sound bites (witness the recent NPR listing of listener generated comments about World War I), but it will always remain tethered to real history, without which it makes zero sense.

We need to remember that counterfactual questions are what make many of us interested in history in the first place.  I know this is true of many of my students.  Moreover, the frequency with which academic historians employ counterfactuals in their mainstream historical writing shows that it is true of professionals as well.  I dare say, Professor Evans probably appreciates counterfactuals as well (although I will refrain from any definitive speculation until I read his new book).

In the end, I would argue that counterfactual history, at its best, enhances our interest in real history.  It does so by raising evocative questions about how things might have turned out otherwise.  These can be rhetorically and emotionally charged.  But they bolster our commitment to being engaged with the past.  

Perhaps counterfactual history’s relationship to history should be likened to the relationship of spices to food.   We can live well enough with the latter alone, but adding a dash of the former makes it much more interesting.   


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