Wednesday, 23 May 2007

The Usefulness of 'What If?' History

'What If?' history also known as alternate history or counter-factual history occasionally strays into mainstream culture. It imagines what would have happened if there had been a different outcome of certain events in the past. Notable over the past few years have been 'Fatherland' which was both a bestseller book and a not so successful movie in 1994 starring Rutger Hauer. The story was set in the 1960s in a world where the Nazis had won the Second World War and Germany ruled Europe, having pushed the Soviet Union back over the Ural Mountains. A kind of Cold War had developed between the USA and the German Empire. More recently was the movie 'C.S.A. - Confederate States of America' (2004) which envisaged that the Confederate States, i.e. the South had won the American Civil War. Each year numerous books come out covering various 'what ifs?', the Nazis and the South being the most featured, but there are many other scenarios such as a successful Spanish Armada or the Black Death wiping out far more of Europe's population. I hope to feature some lists of these on future posts.

So is 'what if?' history simply an entertainment, a kind of game to speculate how things might have turned out if someone had done something differently? This is an aspect, but I think there is a more serious side to the approach. The BBC website used to run an excellent 'what if?' discussion board. It was set up in conjunction with a series of radio programmes in the 1990s that would bring in historians, politicians, commentators, etc. to discuss a 'what if?' scenario. The message board became very busy with people putting forward different scenarios each week and people being free to comment on them. I found that it would often provoke me to go and read more on what had actually happened. The contributors varied from school children to retired people and it was a stimulating way to spend a lunch break. However, the BBC discontinued it in the mid-2000s. What it demonstrated though, was that rather than just being a game, speculating on counter-factual history actually aids getting to grips with actual historical events.

For one thing, the message board sometimes showed that changes in history might not have had as great an impact on how things turned out as we might think. In Stephen Fry's book 'Making History' (1996) scientists stop Hitler being conceived. What happens is that another leader, a German hero from the First World War ends up effectively in Hitler's place. However, being calmer and more calculating he executes the war more effectively and wins, the world breaks into the kind of Cold War envisaged in 'Fatherland' but for the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Russians in the occupied territories, the outcome is the same as if Hitler had existed: they are slaughtered. Thus, one can argue that in a broad sense it was Germany per se that was leading to such an outcome and it would be a difference in small details if it had been Hitler or Himmler or whoever, who had been the actual dictator.

A classic case of some factors not mattering as much as we might think is the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon did not start the attack until 11 a.m. arguing that the ground made muddy by rain would prevent cannon balls from working effectively. (Most damage caused by cannon balls was as they bounced along the ground hitting rows of troops, with mud they just plonked into it and stuck). However, waiting a couple of hours, it is argued gave little time for the ground to dry but allowed the Prussian troops to move that closer to aid the British and their allies. However, through discussion and even reconstruction of the battle (easily done these days with even cheap software) you can see it did not matter what time Napoleon started as the British defensive position was so strong and even if Napoleon had wiped out the British and their Dutch and Belgian allies, the Prussians would have swept up his exhausted army later in the afternoon. Wellington might not have been a hero, but Napoleon still would have lost and Europe would have changed as it did. Add into this the factor that Napoleon was ill and could not focus on the battle and you see the 'what if?' of Napoleon starting earlier makes a difference to the course of the battle but no difference to the world 190 years later. So we can argue, that is not a key factor. Contrast this with, for example, Hitler's decision to stop the German troops storming the British and French forces contained at Dunkirk in 1940 which allowed over 300,000 troops to escape and the basis of the Free French movement to be established, as well as Winston Churchill to retain his position as British Prime Minister you can see that sometimes a 'what if?' would have meant a very different world.

In the late 1990s Eric Hobsbawm, a veteran historian, gave a lecture about counter-factual history. People might have expected him to dismiss it as a kind of game for popular novels or the discussions of historians over a beer. However, instead, he showed how putting forward counter-factual scenarios can be used to test the significance of contributing factors to a particular historical event, along the lines of what I have said about the Battle of Waterloo earlier. Too often historians simply assume that something is important without testing it. So using 'what ifs?' is like a scientific test, you alter one factor and see if it is important, then try another and so on. Obviously it is not objective as we can only speculate on what might have happened we cannot see it. Yet, it is better than simply thinking something was important and not making any test.

Hobsbawm did make one vital distinction between types of 'what ifs?'. The only ones he would accept were those in which someone could make a different decision based on the knowledge they possessed. Both Napoleon and Hitler could have chosen something different at the time of the examples I have used. However, Hobsbawm, unlike novelists, would not accept speculation on 'what if it had not rained the day before?' or 'what if Hitler had atomic weapons in 1940?'. He would not tolerate speculation about things over which people have no control, especially the weather (important in many battles) or things that would have needed changes in behaviour across a whole society, especially in terms of technological development. For him, the testing of causes had to be about human choices rather than working miracles. I agree with him to some extent, though I would also note that in dictatorships and even in democracies often the leader can shape broader developments. For example, it was Hitler's personal enthusiasms which led to the development of the V1 and V2 rockets and to tanks which were far too complicated and too heavy to be of much use in fast moving war, in contrast to the Soviets whose tanks were comparatively easy and effective. Different decisions by the leader would have meant a different war.

A very interesting location for discussing counter-factuals (especially since the BBC closed its 'what if?' discussion board in 2005) is: There is even help and advice about how to think about counter-factual history. If you are interested in alternate history fiction (whether in English or other languages), a wonderful site is: with reviews, it seems of every counter-factual book written and with a regularly changing front page showing recent releases in the genre.

'What if?' history can be interesting and good for your knowledge too. It is a form of entertainment but also has very useful functions in 'serious' history. If anyone knows a good online venue where different alternatives are discussed, let me know. It might be a minority, slightly geeky hobby, but one I miss. I intend to start posting some of my favourite scenarios and details of 'what if?' books on this blog in coming months.

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