What if historians started taking the ‘what if’ seriously?

Rebecca Onion writes: What if Adolf Hitler’s paintings had been acclaimed, rather than met with faint praise, and he had gone into art instead of politics? Have you ever wondered whether John F Kennedy would have such a shining reputation if he had survived his assassination and been elected to a second term? Or how the United States might have fared under Japanese occupation? Or what the world would be like if nobody had invented the airplane?

If you enjoy speculating about history in these counterfactual terms, there are many books and movies to satisfy you. The counterfactual is a friend to science-fiction writers and chatting partygoers alike. Yet ‘What if?’ is not a mode of discussion you’ll commonly hear in a university history seminar. At some point in my own graduate-school career, I became well-acculturated to the idea that counterfactualism was (as the British historian E P Thompson wrote in 1978) ‘Geschichtwissenschlopff, unhistorical shit.’

‘“What if?” is a waste of time’ went the headline to the Cambridge historian Richard Evans’ piece in The Guardian last year. Surveying the many instances of public counterfactual discourse in the anniversary commemorations of the First World War, Evans wrote: ‘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 favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken in August 1914 were right or wrong.’ It’s hard enough to do the reading and research required to understand the complexity of actual events, Evans argues. Let’s stay away from alternative universes.

But hold on a minute. In October 2015, when asked if, given the chance, he would kill the infant Hitler, the US presidential candidate Jeb Bush retorted with an enthusiastic: ‘Hell yeah, I would!’ Laughter was a first response: what a ridiculous question! And didn’t Bush sound a lot like his brash ‘Mission Accomplished’ brother George W just then? When The New York Times Magazine had asked its readers to make the same choice, only 42 per cent responded with an equally unequivocal ‘Yes’. And as The Atlantic’s thoughtful piece on the question by Matt Ford illustrated, in order to truly answer this apparently silly hypothetical, you have to define your own beliefs about the nature of progress, the inherent contingency of events, and the influence of individuals – even very charismatic ones – on the flow of historical change. These are big, important questions. If well-done counterfactuals can help us think them through, shouldn’t we allow what-ifs some space at the history table? [Continue reading…]

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