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Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History Hardcover – 27 Mar 2014
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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)
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.See all Product description
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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.
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.
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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