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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: 50,278 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
9 of 9 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book is about counterfactuals or "What If's" where events of history are altered either subtly or more radically to provide alternative fictional "histories" of varying degrees of plausibility. This may help us understand more clearly why the actual events happened as they did, our view often clouded by hindsight and challenge our perceptions of the inevitability of the historical record. Evans is a respected Professor of History and in this book, based largely on a series of lectures he gave to an academic audience in Israel in 2013, he shows his knowledge of counterfactual writing and discusses its value for the study of history making this book of interest to students of historical theory and historiography.

Evans traces the development of counterfactuals both as entertainment and more recently as a serious tool for professional historians. In particular he engages with the writings of Niall Ferguson whose 'Virtual History' (1997) makes him one of the leading exponents of this type of analysis. Readers of 'In Defence of History' (1997) Evans's earlier work of historiography will be familiar with him stating the positions of others, breaking down their arguments and challenging them.

I must admit that sometimes I found the finer points of discussion beyond me but I understood the broad gist of his criticism. Evans does not like counterfactuals in the main and whilst entertained by some he finds the best of them are those which most narrowly circumscribe the changes made to reality. A telling point he makes is that the counterfactualists generally make no provision for future digressions from known events assuming that the one change they have posited will not trigger future mutations in the historical record making the present unrecognisable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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