The Long View: Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

An early book review by John of a collection of alternative history edited by Niall Ferguson. I think alternative history and historical fiction are fun ways to explore the structure of history, and help give you concrete hooks to provide a mental map or structure that will allow you to remember far more than you would otherwise be able to. It is so easy to get lost in history, sometimes characterized as just one damn thing after another. A little bit of narrative goes a long way.

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
by Niall Ferguson
Picador, 1997; Basic Books, 1999
548 Pages, US $30
ISBN 0-465-02322-3
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
Alternative history, urchronie, virtual history, all these terms have been applied to the practice of writing histories of what might have happened but did not. People with any interest in actual history often find frankly fictional exercises of this sort to be entertaining, but the spectacle of serious historians giving systematic consideration to the "what-ifs" tends to be greeted with misgiving. After all, except for people who think of history as a species of propaganda, history is supposed to be the attempt to arrive at an honest and objective knowledge of the past as it actually was. Even the "idealists," the school of historians who hold that any image we form of the past is an illusion, cling all the more closely to the evidence as it appears in documents and physical remains: history may be an illusion, they say, but it is not an arbitrary illusion. Seen from this perspective, elaborate counterfactual narratives are a corruption of what historical writing is supposed to be all about.
This collection of nine "virtual histories," by working historians, should clear up whatever unease you may feel about the value of exploring the historical alternatives. The editor, Niall Ferguson, is an economic historian, an Oxford don, whose most recent book, The Pity of War, explored the context of the choices that determined the outbreak and course of the First World War. As Ferguson explains in an Introduction that outlines the history and theory of counterfactual writing, the consideration of the "what-ifs" is actually required by the pure Rankean principle of sticking to the documents.
People in the past did not know the future; all they knew was that they had a set of alternative courses of action before them. It is the job of the historian to determine what alternatives were discussed and how well informed the actors were when they discussed them. While a major drawback to this approach, as with all Rankean history, is that it tends to focus inquiry exclusively on questions that can be answered from the information in archives and memoirs, nonetheless there is a deeper principle that should underlie any decision about which historical episodes to investigate. Not all actors in the historical record and not all the decisions they made were equally influential. Just as courts assign blame, not to all the parties connected with an accident, but only to those without whom no accident would have occurred, so historians should concentrate on those decisions "but for" which the historical outcome would have been substantially different. Information about such decisions may not always be available, but even then historians are justified in speculating about which alternatives must have presented themselves to the people at the time.
Having explained these sound and sober principles, Ferguson and his collaborators then proceed to have a party with them.
The first counterfactual, "England without Cromwell" by John Adamson, considers what might have happened if Charles I had managed to avoid a civil war and continued to rule without parliament. The turning point here, according to Adamson, was the abortive English invasion of Scotland in 1639. The Scottish Covenanters were in fact much weaker than the English knew. Had Charles moved against them, rather than withdrawing after negotiation, he might have removed the only organized threat to him in Britain. Indeed, Adamson coyly suggests, no new parliament might have been called in England "until 1789."
J.C.D. Clark, in his essay "British America," considers ways in which the American Revolution might not have occurred, in part by ringing some changes on Adamson's proposal. Clark suggests that a longer-lived Stuart dynasty, far from attempting to suppress parliamentary government per se, might well have preferred a kind of imperial federalism, with power shared among parliaments in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Had that been the case, then the imperial government would have had much less trouble accommodating the demands of the several American colonies for autonomy.
While acknowledging that the Revolution of 1776 seems to have been rather more inevitable than that of 1688, which was a comedy of errors and personalities, nonetheless it is possible to point to some near-term consequences of the failure of the Revolution to occur, or to get off the ground if it began. The chief of these is that there probably would have been no French Revolution in 1789. That event was sparked by the collapse of French finances, which had never managed to pay down the debt for France's military assistance to the American colonists. So, if the American Revolution had not occurred, would that have meant no Napoleon, or anyone like him? Such a question goes beyond the record. Surely.
Among the more painfully constrained of the counterfactuals is Alvin Jackson's "British Ireland." The utmost surmise he can reach about a happier course of Irish history in the second and third decades of the 20th century is that Home Rule might have been enacted in 1912. In the event, of course, it was enacted in 1914, simultaneously with the outbreak of the war, and put on hold for the duration. By the time the war was over, revolution in Ireland had made irrelevant the original, moderate scheme that would have maintained many ties to the United Kingdom.
Jackson's main point is that, now that we can examine the inner counsels of both sides, we know that a compromise was possible between the Liberal government in London and the anti-Home Rule Protestants in Ulster. However, this compromise would not have retained the reality of a united Ireland: the power of an autonomous administration in Dublin would not have been extended to four or six counties in Ulster for some specified period of years, at the end of which the matter would have been reconsidered. This was pretty much the deal under which the Irish Free State and a separate Ulster were created in the 1920s, after years of rebellion. Even so, it sparked a civil war. The best that Jackson can suggest is that the rebellion might have been avoided. The civil war was likely to happen anyway, as nationalist maximalists recoiled at the loss of Ulster.
Then there is Ferguson's own favorite counterfactual. What would have happened, he asks, if Britain had remained neutral in 1914, or had merely dithered for another week or two about supporting France. The title of the essay, "The Kaiser's European Union," pretty much sums up Ferguson's idea of the real "peril" that Britain faced in 1914. The outcome of a German victory would have been a Europe very much like that of 2000, with the exception that no Great Depression, no Second World War, and no hurried liquidation of the British Empire would have been necessary to achieve it.
Without going into detail about the merits of the long-term scenario, still I might mention that there is an internal contradiction to Ferguson's preferred method of achieving it. Ferguson notes that no British government could have tolerated German control of the Belgian coast, something that would probably have occurred had the Germans achieved the war aims they formulated in September of 1914. However, he reminds us that there is no official record of such extreme ambitions before the British entered the war in August. On the contrary, the German leadership is on record, as late as July, as having been willing to guarantee Belgian neutrality as the cost of keeping Britain out of the war. While this sounds promising, the fact that the Germans failed to communicate this willingness to the British government probably made no difference. The Germans understood "neutrality" in Belgium's case to mean that the Belgian government would not have resisted the deployment of German armies through the country on the way to northern France.
Few counterfactuals have inspired so much fiction as the topic of Andrew Roberts' and Ferguson's collaboration, "Hitler's England," no doubt because we possess the plans for a Nazi invasion of England in 1940. The exercise in this book comes as close as a counterfactual can to "refuting" some other counterfactuals on the subject. For one thing, it disposes of the notion that Hitler would have been as easy to live with as Ferguson thinks Wilhelm II would have been. Contrary to what John Charmley suggested in his assessment of Winston Churchill's decision to keep fighting after Dunkirk, there is no real doubt that the Nazis intended to incorporate Great Britain into the New Order. Neither would there have been any hope of preserving the British Empire, had the metropole existed at the sufferance of a greater empire. Additionally, the authors cast grave doubt on the hypothesis that the English would have been as supine under occupation as were the inhabitants of the British Channel Islands. All the men of military age had been evacuated from those territories before the Germans arrived, and the occupation force amounted to one soldier for each two remaining civilians. That would keep anybody quiet.
The real problem with scenarios of this type is that it is very difficult to conjure up a plausible way by which Britain might have been invaded in 1940. By setting the tentative invasion date for the fall, Hitler gave the English enough time to organize sufficient defenses on the ground to make a successful landing very doubtful. There was almost no defense in May, of course, but the Germans just did not have the shipping ready. Still, assuming that the Germans had begun making preparations for the invasion of England at the same time as they did for the invasion of France, it is possible to outline what the occupation regime would have been like, and even to speculate about the composition of the Quisling government. The suggestion that it might have been installed in the hotels of the resort town of Harrowgate does, once again, go beyond the evidence.
Speculation about a general Nazi victory tends to go quickly beyond the considerable amount of evidence we have available into the realm of dark fantasy. Michael Burleigh founds the scenario for "Hitler's Europe" on an analysis of the Germans' avoidable strategic mistakes in the opening phase of the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and tries to maintain a distinction between the actual plans of the Nazis and their somewhat inchoate ambitions. He also draws attention repeatedly to the adversarial nature of internal German politics. Both Alfred Rosenberg's "Ministry for the East" and Heinrich Himmler's SS had elaborate and contradictory plans for the occupation and colonization of former Soviet territory, for instance. There is no good way to choose which would have been more likely to prevail. (Rosenberg's ministry had little real power, but then Himmler's plans were more than usually insane, even for Himmler.)
Burleigh leans toward the school of thought which holds that Hitler imagined himself to be building toward total global domination, which would have meant a direct assault on the Americas within two generations. The argument for this position is pretty good, but producing a counterfactual based on it requires the assumption that the Nazi plans for economic and demographic expansion would work in the meantime. There is reason to doubt this. The Nazis just were not good at the things that Germans are supposed to be good at. Hitler did not even drink real beer. One suspects that the longer the regime remained in control, the less effective it would have become.
Among the other counterfactuals that are cast into doubt in this book are the revisionist hypotheses that the West started the Cold War and that the US dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 primarily to intimidate the Russians. Jonathan Haslam deals with both in "Stalin's War and Peace," which is primarily concerned with whether the Cold War could have been avoided entirely.
The problem with the proposition that the West frightened the Soviet Union into clamping down on Eastern Europe is that we now know that the Soviet leadership was not frightened. Thanks in large part to the efforts of his agents, Stalin knew almost as much as Truman did about American nuclear capabilities. The one or two bombs that the US possessed at the beginning of the Cold War would not have proven decisive in the event of a shooting war. In any case, it was not at all clear that the US could have delivered them to the western Soviet Union. (This, by the way, remained true throughout the 1950s.) Similarly, the initiation of the Marshall Plan could not have raised doubts in Stalin's mind about the intentions of the West: he sometimes had the telegrams sent by the western delegations concerned with devising the plan before their own governments did. The initiative does seem to have lain with Stalin from the beginning.
Still, Haslam does suggest that the Cold War may been inevitable, less because of personalities than because of conceptual differences between the two sides. Churchill had been eager to negotiate an agreement regarding spheres of influence in Europe, and Stalin was happy to oblige. The problem was that, once the Nazis had been defeated, it soon became clear that the Soviet idea of a sphere of influence was closer to the western idea of colonization.
Counterfactuals need not be concerned simply with the decisions reached by committees: they can also usefully address how important were the accidents that substituted one leader for another. This is what Diane Kunz does with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in her essay, "Camelot Continued." Her particular concern is to ascertain whether the United States would have Americanized the war in Vietnam had Kennedy won the election of 1964, rather than Lyndon Johnson.
She finds little evidence to suggest that the American buildup would have gone differently. Although Kennedy, at the time of his death in 1963, was considering the withdrawal of some of the American advisors already in Vietnam, this option was being considered on the basis of optimistic reports from his advisors. They said that current levels of aid to the South Vietnamese would be enough to win the war by 1965. Just a few months later, those same advisors were saying that the roof was about to fall in, and President Johnson acted accordingly.
The main difference between Kennedy and Johnson was that Kennedy was chiefly interested in foreign affairs, whereas Johnson considered them a distraction from his program of domestic reform. Of the two, Johnson was the more likely to seek disengagement. Kunz also suggests that, in any case, all the Kennedys are bastards by nature whom longevity does not improve.
Since Hitler died, perhaps no great historical development has depended more on the accident of individual leadership than did the collapse of Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991. This is the conclusion that Mark Almond reaches, with some justice, in "1989 without Gorbachev." Reviewing some of the more embarrassing statements make by western experts in the 1980s that insisted on the durability of the Soviet Union, Almond suggests that they may have known what they were talking about.
The Soviet system was hardly ideal. It was resistant to new technology. It remained in power by keeping its people poor. It was widely hated by its Eastern European subjects. Nonetheless, it did what it was supposed to do, which was to underwrite a military strong enough to keep it in power, all the while providing a significant degree of luxury for the nomenclatura. The system would certainly have been stressed in the 1980s by the collapse of oil prices, its largest single source of hard currency, as well as by the growth of sentiment within its borders for something closer to western norms of human rights. However, the system had repeatedly shown itself capable of dealing with such problems in the past.
What did Soviet Communism in, according to Almond, was the accident that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was a relatively honest man. He did not discover how irresilient the system was until he tried to reform it. Although the Soviet Union could justify itself only by claiming to be surrounded by implacable enemies, he naively sought a permanent lowering of military tension with the West. A more cynical leader might have prolonged the life of the Soviet Union by escalating the Cold War, in the justified hope that the West might tire of the conflict as pacifist sentiment grew.
In the book's "Afterword," Ferguson tries to tie all the counterfactuals into a single narrative. This is, of course, impossible, since some of them are mutually exclusive, but "A Virtual History, 1646 -- 1996" should surely hold a special place in the annals of alternative historiography. A history buff would have to have a heart of stone not to warm to a history that makes it plausible for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have said, "We have nothing so dear as beer itself."
"Virtual History" is good evidence for the proposition that close attention to alternative scenarios is a necessary part of understanding what actually happened, but there is a theme running through the book with which I must take issue. Ferguson in his "Foreword," and some of the contributors in their counterfactuals, seem to imagine that plausible virtual histories are incompatible with historical determinism. Ferguson at one point even suggests that history is not a story, but a chaos without direction. In support of this, not altogether apt use is made of analogies from popular science.
Ferguson seems to think that the "spacialization of time," the metaphorical depiction of the future as a point on a path that already exists, is a fallacy that has been exposed by modern physics. In fact, for better or worse, that is exactly how general relativity does view time. Perhaps, as the famous "butterfly effect" in chaos theory suggests, the beating of an insect's wings in one hemisphere can trigger tornadoes in the other a few weeks later. Be this as it may, no one, at least to my knowledge, has ever suggested that the beating of a butterfly's wings can cause an ice age, which is the scale of change some counterfactuals seem to contemplate. Then, inevitably, he mentions Stephen Jay Gould, about whose ideas on teleology the less said the better. However, rather than undertake a systematic defense of determinism, let me try to split the difference with Ferguson & company.
Ferguson notes that systematic attention to counterfactuals, even as fiction, is a modern invention. Though there are a few examples from the 19th century, alternative history only became a recognized practice in the 20th century, and mostly in the late 20th century at that. The reason for this is clear enough. Most of history before modern times seems as uniform as white noise. For want of a nail in a horseshoe, a dynasty might fall. However, such changes rarely made a fundamental difference in the way the world worked. There was little point in considering what would have happened, had the horseshoe stayed on. In modern times, in contrast, each generation began to be conspicuously different from the previous one. Radical changes in technology, regime and style of life followed a few years after key decisions that key leaders made. The alternative decisions became interesting because their consequences became really different.
The changes from generation to generation in modern times do not appear to me to be altogether chaotic. There are conspicuous linearities in the history of the past few centuries, whether we are talking about population growth, economic output or even longevity. Trends of this sort are not destined to go on forever, of course, but they seem to be impervious to minor accidents. It is probably also true that certain cultural trends over the same period have a trajectory with a similar, intrinsic durability. If these things are true, then counterfactuals must respect a "main sequence" that runs through modernity.
I myself would argue that there have been periods like modernity in other times and places, and even that history as a whole has a loosely defined trajectory. However, these are different questions. Only the last few centuries, and especially the 20th, are usually of much interest to today's virtual historians. If there are more constraints on their imagination than those that appear in the primary sources, that is no real reason to complain. Constraints are what make it possible to tell a decent story.
Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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