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Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History Hardcover – 27 Mar 2014

3.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown; First Edition edition (27 Mar. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408705524
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408705520
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 2.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 46,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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3.9 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As usual with Professor Evans, very clear writing in complex discussions. A good study of the whole question of alternative history and counterfactuals, although I didn't always agree with this conclusions. Recommended.
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By Dr Barry Clayton TOP 500 REVIEWER on 1 April 2014
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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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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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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