Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

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What if there had been no World War I or no Russian Revolution? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo in 1815, or if Martin Luther had not nailed his complaints to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, or if the South had won the American Civil War? The questioning of apparent certainties or "known knowns" can be fascinating and, indeed, "What if?" books are very popular. However, this speculative approach, known as counterfactualism, has had limited impact in academic histories, historiography, and the teaching of historical methods. In this book, Jeremy Black offers a short guide to the subject, one that is designed to argue its value as a tool for public and academe alike. Black focuses on the role of counterfactualism in demonstrating the part of contingency, and thus human agency, in history, and the salutary critique the approach offers to determinist accounts of past, present, and future.

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1 Introduction

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It was the meteorite that landed in the Western Approaches to the English Channel on the night of June 5–6, 1944, that doomed the long-planned Anglo-American invasion of Normandy. No fleet, especially one with heavily laden landing-craft, could have survived the resulting tidal wave, which was funneled up the Channel to devastating effect. By leaving the Germans in control of France, the total failure of this invasion attempt enabled them to concentrate on resisting the advance of the Red (Soviet) Army and to do so beyond April 1945 when Berlin might otherwise have fallen. As a result, the United States had the opportunity in August 1945 to drop on Berlin one of the two atomic bombs that were ready. The U.S. needed to do so to show that it could play a major role in overthrowing Hitler. However, with no Anglo-American ground forces yet in Germany, the Soviets were able, amidst the ruins of the Nazi regime, to occupy most of it. A Cold War frontier on the Rhine followed, as did a Communist bloc benefiting from the resources and capacity of the Ruhr industrial belt and from the revival of the German economy after World War II.

 

2 A Personal Note on Life and Times

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One of the great pleasures of being a “nuts and bolts” historian is that every so often my intellectual betters explain what I am doing. The French playwright Molière phrased it better when, in his comic masterpiece Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), he gave the ridiculous, fictional Monsieur Jourdain the line, “Il ya plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose sans que j’en susse rien” (For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it) (act 2, scene 4). In light of the critique of counterfactualism by Richard Evans,1 I have discovered that I have been “liberal Whiggish” or “conservative, pessimistic,” if not a “young fogey,” for I have employed counterfactuals,2 frequently lecture in the United States on the topic “Could the British have won the American War of Independence?” (not “should”—more interesting, but outside my competence), and have discussed, on radio and in print, the topic of “What if, instead of turning back toward Scotland, the Jacobites had advanced on London from Derby in December 1745?”

 

3 Types of History

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In his history of Rome, Livy (Titus Livius, ca. 59 BC–17 AD) offered what has become the classic instance of counterfactualism in ancient literature. In book 9, sections 17–19, he considered what would have happened had Alexander the Great of Macedon (r. 336–323 BC), the greatest conqueror then known, lived longer, instead of dying young in Babylon, and had used this opportunity, having vanquished the Persian empire to the east, to turn west and invade Italy. In doing so, Livy was departing from the norm in ancient literature in order to respond to Greek claims that Alexander would have succeeded against the Romans. Livy was therefore challenging the counterfactualism (Alexander could have conquered Rome) of others. Clearly uneasy, Livy felt it necessary, at the outset, to explain why he had introduced “ornamental digressions” that provided “agreeable bypaths for the reader.”1 Livy felt able to reassure his Roman readers that the might of Rome would have proved invincible. He commented on the quality of the Roman generalship of the age, and argued that Alexander had become degenerate as a result of his absorption of Persian culture. This argument, directed against the Hellenistic rivals of Rome in Livy’s lifetime, such as Cleopatra’s Egypt, was also a warning to Rome about the dangers of empire, a theme that was to be taken up in the late eighteenth century by the British historian Edward Gibbon. Advancing a structural interpretation, Livy also contrasted the achievements of one man, Alexander, with those of the Romans, a people in its four hundredth year of warfare. He argued, moreover, that Roman numbers, weaponry, and formations were superior, and that Rome was resilient and, in addition, as a sign of respective strengths, had subsequently defeated the Macedonians at Cynoscephalae (197 BC) and Pydna (168 BC).2 The Romans had gone on to conquer Macedon and Greece. In this section, Livy anticipated part of the modern discussion of counterfactualism. He also captured the tension between individual circumstances, specifically Alexander’s ability, and those that were more “structural,” in this case the shape of Rome’s military culture.

 

4 Power and the Struggle for Imperial Mastery

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Counterfactual speculations are most valid intellectually if considered like historical scholarship. As such, it is appropriate that these speculations engage explicitly with the problem of assessing both ideas and material factors, as well as conjunctures and structural factors, and treat each set of them as interdependent. The following three chapters relate, with a steadily sharper focus, to the struggle for imperial mastery that culminated in Britain becoming the leading world power. This chapter offers some theoretical points, the next considers the rise of the West, and chapter 6 assesses Britain’s success in terms of “Which West?” They should be read as a sequence, but can also be considered separately. This sequence links specific counterfactuals to a wider global approach. Moreover, aside from the inherent significance of the eighteenth century, it is also favored because it is easier to establish and discuss the alternatives from a more distant perspective and without the controversies, notably political controversies, that more recent counterfactuals lead to.

 

5 The West and the Rest

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In 1730, London audiences could laugh at Politic, a London tradesman depicted in Henry Fielding’s play Rape upon Rape, who is so convinced that the Ottoman Turks could advance to Britain that he does not notice the attempt on the virtue of his daughter: “Give us leave only to show you how it is possible for the Grand Signor [the Sultan] to find an ingress into Europe. Suppose, Sir, this spot I stand on to be Turkey—then here is Hungary—very well—here is France, and here is England—granted—then we will suppose he had possession of Hungary—What then remains but to conquer France, before we find him at our own coast” (act 2, scene 11).

Thus, nearly half a century after the Turkish failure to capture Vienna in 1683, this aspect of the “world question” could be an item for fun, an instance of the socially condescending theme that tradesmen should stick to their work and position, and not get involved in politics. Yet, there were also more profound issues at stake in that period, as the world was in part shaped—economically, politically, and intellectually—by and through this question.

 

6 Britain and France, 1688–1815

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The struggle between Britain and France from 1688 to 1815 enables one to amplify and reconsider the discussion of the rise of the West, by offering a very different perspective from that provided in the last chapter. The rise of the West is one of the metanarratives of world history over the last half millennium, but more attention has been devoted, not least in counterfactual discussion, to the linked questions of “When/How/ Why rise?” rather than to “Which West?” Yet, the latter question can be profitably reexamined. It is important in its own right and also needs to be addressed as a second-order counterfactual. In short, “Would the rise of the West have occurred at all, or possibly followed another path, and with other consequences, had there been a different West?” At the outset, instead of posing the question of whether, once Western dominance had been established, it had to take the forms it did, it is more pertinent to link with the last chapter by asking if a variety of possible courses of Western development existed that might have precluded such a dominance. This issue is a variant of the questions in chapter 5 about Chinese weaknesses and how far they helped lead to a tipping point toward Western success. This chapter focuses on the struggle between Britain and France in 1688–1815, although that is not the sole possible counterfactual in terms of “Which West?”

 

7 Counterfactualism in Military History

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Quebec was besieged three times within sixteen years: French-held, it was besieged by the British in 1759; British-held, by the French in 1760; and British-held, by the Americans in 1775–76. These sieges readily provide opportunities for counterfactuals, not least what would have happened had the British success of 1759 been repeated by the besiegers in 1760 and/or 1775–76. “What needed to happen” in order for this “What if?” to be achieved is also a question of considerable interest. It leads to a focus on naval superiority in the St. Lawrence River, which was vital to the British capture of the city in 1759 and to its relief by British amphibious forces in 1760 and 1776, and to the subsequent success of those forces: the advance on Montreal in 1760 and the expulsion of American forces from Canada in 1776. This amphibious capability highlights the importance of British naval victories in 1759, and the failure of American naval forces to act to strategic effect by challenging the British command of the St. Lawrence estuary, either in 1775–76 or during the War of 1812.

 

8 Into the Future

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In his futuristic novel L’An 2440 (The year 2440), published in 1770, the radical French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier described a monument in Paris depicting a black man, his arms extended rather than in chains, and a proud look in his eye, surrounded by the pieces of twenty broken scepters. He stands atop a pedestal bearing the inscription, “Au vengeur du nouveau monde” (To the avenger of the New World). Alternative histories deal with the past, but counterfactuals comprehend future histories as well, including, crucially, ones produced in the past foretelling a future era we have now passed. Of course, no future option from the present is yet factual—no option has yet been instantiated—so the question arises as to whether these options can really be counterfactual. However, there are important similarities in the intellectual processes involved in generating alternatives for both past and future. Looked at differently, although it is easier to assess the validity of alternative histories than alternative futures, the issues and methodological problems raised by the latter require discussion, not least, in this context, because they cast some light on alternative histories.

 

9 Skepticism and the Historian

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Hitherto, the emphasis in this book has been in part on the place of counterfactualism in widening the scope, and strengthening the appeal, of a properly scholarly history, with all its archival care. This widening has been presented in terms of the stimulus of a more imaginative and flexible conceptualization of past possibilities. In this chapter, I take this argument forward, but also consider counterfactualism as the nemesis of often stuffy and unreflecting academic methods. Counterfactualism certainly challenges conventional scholarly rationales of the management of risk in historical analysis. It explicitly expands the range of explanations by emphasizing the number of possibilities, and, in doing so, there is a danger that a chaos of multiple routes, each mediated by contingency and chance, open up. Counterfactualism, in short, can become a Trojan horse for postmodernist anarchy. Nevertheless, without going so far, multiple routes may make for a fertility in speculation that attracts attention and elicits the interest, even enthusiasm, of the public. Such interest and enthusiasm should be one of the goals of academics, whether or not they are writing for commercial motives.

 

10 Conclusions

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You will not find a serious student of history, or any commonplace man of intelligence, for the matter of that, who, if you asked, would it not have been God’s blessing for the world if Buonaparte [Napoleon] had been assassinated on his return from Egypt [in 1799]? would not answer without hesitation, Yes. But we—we are murderers.

Manfred, one of “The Four Just Men,” employing a counterfactual to discuss the response to their plan to assassinate the British Foreign Secretary.1

Counterfactualism is valid under a number of heads. Firstly, it helps return us to the uncertainties and contingencies of the world as experienced by contemporaries, and of the events we study. In one light, counterfactualism thereby indicates the fallacy of drawing lessons from the past.2 Instead, there is no firm past from which to dictate to the future. That conclusion emerges from the study of periods and cultures for which evidence is plentiful, and can also be suggested for others for which there is not comparable evidence.

 

11 Postscript

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This book is an invitation to debate, one addressed not only to academics and others concerned with the subject of history as conventionally taught and studied, but also to specialists in other fields who are interested in the past and in the processes of change through time. Other specializations have much to offer historians. We should welcome this, not least because an understanding of the validity of different viewpoints ought to be part of academic history understood as a humane subject. As such, there is scant comfort here for the notion that academic history can provide definitive accounts of the past. This point provides room for reflection, indeed counterfactuals, at both professional and personal levels. As far as the former is concerned, it can be asked whether the search for definitive history is not misleading, indeed a conceit that tells us more about the pretensions of particular intellectual, academic, and publishing systems than about the extent to which our understanding of the past is always a work in progress, and indeed, because of the number of possible interpretations, an interim report. Counterfactualism may demonstrate this variety, but, in doing so, it simply underlines a situation that would exist even if counterfactuals were not pursued.

 

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