‘Too much of the current debate about 1914 and the outbreak of the first world war focuses not on why it happened, but how things might have been if Britain hadn’t entered it’, says Richard Evans, in an article arguing that counterfactual, “What if?” history is ‘a waste of time’. His arguments are informed by the recent spate of TV documentaries on the First World World to mark its centenary. He says that to speculate on what might or might not have happened is unproductive, because of course it is unprovable. Speculation is after all speculation and, traditionally, ‘not history’.
I don’t wholly disagree with what he’s arguing either. I just can’t help but wonder— Isn’t it time we stopped arguing that counterfactuals are counterproductive? Because, let’s be honest, doing so won’t just make them go away. They’re really popular, as Evans rightly points out, not just in literature but increasingly in the visual media. Isn’t it time we started asking what these things mean — if indeed they seem to mean so much to the wider public of non-historians as well as select historians themselves —, rather than to risk claiming that they don’t mean anything at all?
Evans somewhat accounts for the fact that people clearly, by asking these questions, might like to wish the First World War hadn’t happened; they might believe that it was “right” and want to reinforce that, or that it was “wrong”, and alleviate a little of the national guilt by being subjective and questioning. It could be argued that to engage in counterfactuals suggests that perhaps someone isn’t convinced or content with the way things ‘actually were’— which is fair enough, but being content isn’t part of ‘doing history’ is it? But if all we need to do this year is to ‘try and understand why the first world war happened’, doesn’t that necessitate counterfactuals anyway? In reality, being 100 years away from the event itself, the sources that we still have from which to recreate the events of the past —whether they’re ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ or whatever other category we can come up with— all exist within a minefield of ‘reliability’, ‘accuracy’, ‘fallibility’, ‘problems of memory’, or just purely prey to the fact that historians and people in general know absolutely nothing about what it was like to live in those circumstance between the years of 1914 and 1918— No amount of ‘balancing out the elements of chance’ in order to construct (and construct is here the operative word) ‘some kind of explanation that makes sense’, is going to make up for the fact that we do not know the minds of the people of the past. And how could we anyway?
Here’s a sentiment that is so commonly uttered and deployed in certain realms of historiography and historical theory that it doesn’t really need a footnote or reference: Historians are the products of the times in which they live. The questions an historian may or may not ask when they look to the past to try and explain its ‘truths’ are not immaculately conceived. ‘Counterfactual’ is itself an unhelpful title when academics, since the latter decades of the twentieth century, or even as far back as Carl Becker in the 1930s, have challenged historians and the discipline for claims to simple ‘facts’ that tell us one single ‘truth ‘ all about the past. It suggests that someone is proposing something that is contrary to the cold hard facts, which increasingly, historians are accused of not holding. Many have questioned the right of historians to say what’s true and what isn’t, when the basis of their claims themselves are highly subjective, prone to personal opinions and selectively of sources, and the fallibility of the sources they select anyway. But this is all old news— Historians would be lying if they didn’t admit they knew this, because we all do. And we all at one point or another will readily admit to it.
The not-so-simple truth, and I shudder to suggest such a thing might actually exist, is that history is just so complicated, and now more so than ever because it’s not just historians who are staking their claim over it. Now filmmakers, TV producers and writers of historical fiction are too. For the sake of citing recent examples, Tarantino has in spectacularly graphic fashion been questioning what would have happened if Hitler had been killed by a small army of Jewish-Americans and French and German resisters. He’s asked us to question what might have happened if an African American slave became a bounty hunter in the supremely white pre-Civil War South. Like history did so long ago, counterfactuals are now moving rapidly into the realm of public memory, not just sitting in the corner of the academic world being shunned by all the rest of the ‘real’ histories. And if this is another social and cultural trend — one of the few ‘larger historical forces’ that Evans argues historians take into account— we should probably be asking why, and what they mean, and what they are trying to convey.
So, what we maybe should be asking is: Why is Max Hastings trying to argue that Germany would have always rendered itself into something akin to Nazism (with a bit less racism) anyway? More interestingly we could ask: Why is Niall Ferguson now trying to figure out what might have happened to the British Empire, and why we should have avoided making ‘the biggest error in modern history’, in 2014, in view of Britain’s (and the West’s) current world position? Furthermore, shouldn’t we be asking why politicians like Michael Gove are determined to give the conflict a facelift by rebranding it grand and patriotic, contrary to what historians themselves have been arguing for a number of the decades since? That’s arguably a ‘counterfactual’ too— one that Evans himself vehemently responded to.
Isn’t it more dangerous to just say no to these trends; to dismiss them and to try and be empirical in a ‘postmodern’ world filled with uncertainty and blurred distinctions between what is real and what isn’t (in other words, a world that is increasingly questioning the ability to be empirical in the first place), without actually trying to understand why?
I think, in the end, I just don’t want to believe that counterfactuals ‘aren’t any real use at all’; I think I’d like to see them for what they are— a way by which the past is, in our memory of it, being slowly and deliberately altered, and (potentially) totally out of most historians’ control.