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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What If ?
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...
Published 8 months ago by Dr Barry Clayton

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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars NOT what it says on the tin
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...
Published 6 months ago by Captain Kirk


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What If ?, 1 April 2014
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Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (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. It is a superb tool to oppose deterministic history. It emphasises the contingencies and conjectures that pervade history. It emphasises that there is no such thing as inevitability about outcomes.

In my own field, war, counterfactuals play a major role. The bridge that failed to blow, the new CO killed as he was about to assume command and a NATO Operation Archer that nearly caused the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack, all these and many more are examples of the indeterminacy of war and war threats. Battles are so often turning points-read Gibbon. War involves choices-tasking, strategy, tactics, allocation of scarce resources and risk. Each is subject to friction and error. The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are replete with human error and unexpected developments. Counterfactual analysis also helps to clarify the choices open to decision makers and which have particular consequences.

They also bring out the key role of the scholar as an interpreter and an organiser of awkward questions. There are very few answers in history, much to the dismay of many. To appear to explain all is bogus, it misleads. Panoptic vision is a myth. Counterfactuals encourage humility. Hence beware of so called definitive history, it does not exist and never will for the uncertainties of the world are too immense.

In international relations counterfactual approaches remind students of the importance of domestic issues-see their importance in the current Ukraine crisis. In brief, the method contributes to scepticism that should be at the centre of all enquiries.

This is not one of Evans better books but if it makes readers think about the What Ifs of life it will have served a useful purpose.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Counterfactuals - Helpful to Historians or a Hindrance? - A Useful Discussion, 25 May 2014
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This review is from: Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (Kindle Edition)
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.

Evans is clearly to the left of the political spectrum and at times makes political comments e.g. regarding the EU that may not be shared by all. This is important as he considers that many counterfactuals are the result of rightward leaning historians wishing the present was different and constructing their alternative versions of events as a form of solace. This is an argument he develops with regards to British non-intervention in the First World War and the possibility of peace with Hitler in 1940. The decline of British power and the rise of German economic and political strength are as much 21st century issues which he considers are factors influencing these authors in their discussion of alternatives to these historical events.

Like EH Carr in 'What Is History' (1961) Evans considers whether counterfactuals overemphasize the influence of great men over the slower and less obvious trends in society and economic relations that may have limited the freedom of these largely political and military figures to have acted as they wished. He questions the championing by counterfactualists of freewill over determinism and shows that Ferguson's own examples reveal evidence of the latter.

This is a though-provoking book (I read the hardback not the e-book as stated by Amazon) and certainly worth reading. I would however suggest that you first read Niall Ferguson's Introduction to 'Virtual History' and the individual essays in that book as it will aid your understanding and appreciation of 'Altered Pasts'.
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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
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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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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars NOT what it says on the tin, 24 May 2014
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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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Neo-Modernist / Impressive flag bearer, 27 Mar 2014
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Another compelling polemic, from one of the UK’s most accomplished practitioners of this ever controversial, incessantly navel gazing discipline. Evans once again takes on an aspect of history so common place as to seem inconsequential yet by use of persuasive argument and apposite research gives it the twist it needs to be both illuminating in its own right and revealing about modern western societal attitudes. Well done again Richard Evans although a slim volume – certainly worth waiting for and an enjoyable read for historian or layman alike.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read, 17 April 2014
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Bacchus (Greater London - Surrey) - See all my reviews
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I have admired Richard Evans since reading his account of his contribution to the Irving v Lipstadt libel trial. His book, Telling Lies about Hitler, gave me a fascinating insight into the work involved in being a professional historian.

When I studied history as school, I recall two bits of advice from my teachers in tackling the subject. The first was that no-one should assume that historical events are somehow inevitable and the second was that you should not speculate about what might or should have happened - stick to what actually did happen.

This is valuable advice if you are writing essays and trying to get good grades. However, there is much fun in asking yourself what might have happened if key events had happened differently. This goes back to the first piece of advice of not assuming that things are inevitable. Events often turn on the behaviours of individuals. Some of the key questions include the following:
- supposing Hitler won the Second World War
- supposing Hitler survived and escaped to South America
- supposing Franz Ferdinand of Austria was not assassinated in Sarajevo

Most counterfactuals (the term used for this kind of speculation) seem to concern war and indeed Hitler seems to feature in many of them. While such speculation has been a popular vein of fiction, Evans is more concerned about the practice of counterfactuals being adopted by professional historians. He mentions those of Geoffrey Parker, Niall Ferguson and Dominic Sandbrook.

Clearly some counterfactuals are ridiculous exercises in wishful thinking and Evans can't help but point out the flaws in many of them. I do wonder whether in engaging with counterfactual debate one ends up somehow legitimising the practice.

Evans, however, gave me one interesting insight into the work of professional historians in trying to explain the past; that is that historians tend to look for multiple causes and reasons for events rather than single ones. This for me explains the biggest flaw in counterfactual speculation. The removal of a single element may not be sufficient to make the complete about-turns that counterfactual historians imagine. An example might be the Battle of Waterloo. If Napoleon had won this battle, would it have changed the overall course of history and enabled Napoleon to continue his domination of Europe. Evans' guess is that it would only have delayed his downfall. The British forces were still stronger than the French and maybe Napoleon's depleted army would have suffered a crushing defeat months later. Similarly, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which was the trigger for the start of the First World War, may not have been the underlying cause for the War and therefore there may have been other potential triggers.

I enjoyed reading this book although I did occasionally find the style a bit dry. However, it is not a long read.
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