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Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History [Hardcover]

Sir Richard J. Evans FBA FRSL FRHistS
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

27 Mar 2014

A bullet misses its target in Sarajevo, a would-be Austrian painter gets into the Viennese academy, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940: seemingly minor twists of fate on which world-shaking events might have hinged.

Alternative history has long been the stuff of parlour games, war-gaming and science fiction, but over the past few decades it has become a popular stomping ground for serious historians. Richard J. Evans now turns a critical, slightly jaundiced eye on the subject. Altered Pasts examines the intellectual fallout from historical counterfactuals. Most importantly, Evans takes counterfactual history seriously, looking at the insights, pitfalls and intellectual implications of changing one thread in the weave of history.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (27 Mar 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1408705524
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408705520
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.6 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 91,268 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Unfailingly interesting (Andrew Holgate Sunday Times)

A stimulating, thought-provoking and in places quite humorous book that will be of interest to professional and lay readers alike (Times Higher Education Supplement)

His critique is eloquent and lively, without rancour or cruelty (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto The Times)

Characteristically pugnacious (Jonathan Derbyshire Prospect)

Evans is at his best when dissecting the motives of right-wing thinkers (SFX)

Wide-ranging polemic . . . Evans is at his best on questions of historical causation . . . Altered Pasts brings an impressive historical intelligence to bear on what are too often dismissed as parlour games (Sunday Telegraph)

Evans is ruthless, forensic and totally convincing in demolishing this pretext, finding instead an even greater determinism, where the autonomous actions of a handful of great men set in motion enormous, immutable forces (Guardian)

The place of Richard Evans in modern historiography - a distinguished place - is assured (Times Literary Supplement)

One of the most important and prolific historians of our time . . . Altered Pasts provides much food for thought, not only for professional historians but also for general readers interested in how and why history is written in certain ways. Intelligent, lucid and engaging (Irish Times)

A good read, which stimulates further reflection about the nature of history (Financial Times)

Evans's book is an excellent contribution to thinking about this playful type of historical investigation (Evening Standard)

Book Description

The question 'what if?' has always fascinated historians. Richard J. Evans imagines what could have been, and how alternate pasts could have shaped alternate futures.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What If ? 1 April 2014
By Dr Barry Clayton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
Richard Evans is Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He has written a number of superb books on, in particular, Nazi Germany.

His latest book based on a series of lectures is about counterfactualism, that is the what ifs of life. Counterfactuals have become increasingly popular in the past 30 years particularly with historians and teachers of international relations. Evans is a long-time critic of them.

Counterfactual are the 'frictions' of life. There are literally thousands of examples throughout history . For example, what if: Hitler had invaded England instead of the Soviet Union; England Had decided not to enter WW1; the Cuban
Missile Crisis had turned out differently; the radios had worked in Operation Market Garden; there had been no Pearl Harbour, and Montgomery had not found details of Rommel's dispositions prior to El Alamein, and what if Overlord had failed which it came close to doing in the first 48 hours?

Of course we will never know but as an heuristic device counterfactuals are a very useful method to encourage undergraduates and others to think. Admittedly they can become 'if only's' but not if properly taught. Counterfactuals bring home the important lesson that nothing is determined, that accidents and errors frequently change outcomes even of the best placed plans. In 1944, for example, the invasion date was determined not by readiness but by the weather forecast.

Might-have-beens are replete in life. Evans raises political objections to counterfactuals arguing that they are popular with right-wing historians-which Evans is certainly not. His reasoning is weak and betrays his own political bias. Counterfactual history is a method, not an issue, certainly anot a political issue.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars NOT what it says on the tin 24 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From the blurb, I thought this was a book of counterfactuals. It is not - it is a book ABOUT counterfactuals. Based on a series of lectures by a historian to other historians, it reviews and discusses counterfactual historys and their value. The gist is that counterfactuals are used by those historians who wish to denigate predeterminist ideas and promote the role of individuals and chance in history. He points out that such historians will pick a point of departure in history where a decision could have gone the other way or circumstances be slightly altered and the whole track of events alters, yet they will consider subsequent events as being unalterable, wheras if the initial PoD is almost random, then so would be all the subsequent events. I agree with his argument and that most often there are many factors which lead to a particular outcome, and that history is not entirely predetermined but that the protagonists act within the prevailing social milieu.

The book is well written and the arguments well presented.However, I did not buy this book to read a viewpoint in the historians debate. I bought it, as I buy all books about counterfactuals, to be entertained, be it by a scholarly work or "counterfactual fiction " (such as Bring the Jubillee, which this author mentions or Man in the High Castle, which he doesnt). I realise the publisher rather than the author is responsible for the somewhat misleading publicity, but I feel let down and a little cheated.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Another good book from Richard Evans. 4 Jun 2014
By P J
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Richard Evans book: Altered Pasts, is very well written and enjoyable to read. His arguments are in my opinion, clear and well explained. The book is not too long and although I am a slow reader, I found myself not wanting to put it down once I had begun reading. However, due to other commitments, I read it over several days and would recommend it to anyone interested in history and a good read.
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