Niall Ferguson, ed.
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.
Originally Published London: Picador, 1997. New York: Basic Books, 1999. x
+ 548 pgs. Contributors, Acknowledgments, Notes, Index. $30.00 (cloth),
ISBN 0-465-02322-3 .
R. B. Bernstein, New York Law School.
and the Perils of
Whether dealing with students or with general readers,
historians confront a vexing problem -- the belief that history had to
happen the way it did happen. Responding to this problem, historians seek
to demonstrate the power of the contingent and unforeseen -- in other
words, to show that the history that has happened is only one of a myriad
of possible ways it could have happened.
Paradoxically, although human beings have speculated for
centuries about how history could have happened other than it did, only
recently has "virtual history" -- also known as "counterfactual history"
or "alternative history" -- attracted serious attention from professional
historians. Previously, historians either disdained "what if?" or indulged
it as a shame-faced diversion from more serious scholarly endeavors.
Alternative history has fallen mostly to popular writers, and in
particular to writers of science fiction, who have made it an enduring
subgenre that has produced work sometimes profound and sometimes merely
silly. By contrast, drawing on the time-honored tradition of the Socratic
analysis of fact patterns both real and hypothetical, legal scholars
regularly indulge in "what if?" speculations -- often driving their
historian colleagues to distraction by their breathtaking assumptions
about what is and is not historically possible.
Hence the question lurking at the core of the volume under
review: How can historians harvest the promise of "what if?" without
risking its perils?
is the brainchild of Niall Ferguson, a fellow and tutor in modern history
at Jesus College, Oxford, and the author of a formidable history of the
House of Rothschild and a challenging study of the First World War, The
Pity of War. Ferguson has enlisted eight colleagues in writing a
series of essays on various junctures in history that could have gone in
ways quite different from what actually happened. Writing with verve and
erudition, Ferguson and his colleagues demonstrate that counterfactual
historical speculation can be a valuable and enlightening enterprise -- if
(and this is a big "if") undertaken with respect for historical evidence,
plausibility, and implausibility.
In his long, occasionally digressive introduction (pp.
1-90), Ferguson traces the history of alternative history, offering a
series of meditations on the competing philosophies of determinism and
contingency in history -- a natural dichotomy, as determinism is, at
bottom, the claim that history had to happen the way it did happen.
Ferguson is on firm ground in elucidating the interplay between the
competing claims of determinism and contingency; his closing pages, which
borrow from the realm of the sciences, enlisting "chaos theory" to justify
the claims of contingency and alternative history, are shakier.
John Adamson, a Fellow of Peterhouse,
launches the main enterprise with "England Without Cromwell: What if
Charles I had avoided the Civil War?" (pp. 91-124). Adamson identifies a
critical moment in 1639 during the Scottish Crises when, had Charles I
acted decisively, he might have deflated the building momentum of
Protestant and Parliamentary opposition to his Personal Rule, thereby
redirecting the course of English (and perhaps Anglo-American)
constitutional and political history.
J. C. D. Clark, the Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished
Professor of British History at the
University of Kansas,
throws down another gauntlet in "British
America: What if there had been no American Revolution?" (pp. 125-174).
Pointing out that "[h]istory labours under a major handicap in societies
suffused with a sense of their own rightness or inevitability" (p. 125),
Clark argues that, if the constitutional history of England had taken a
course more favorable to the ideas and principles of the Stuart monarchs
of England and their supporters, the result might have gutted fatally the
ideas and principles on which Americans resisting English policy relied in
the 1760s and 1770s. Clark does not take account of the work of John
Phillip Reid on "the two constitutions" of the British Empire and the
conflicts between them that lacked a clear and generally authoritative
means of resolution. Nonetheless, his essay does raise fascinating
questions about the institutional and political settings of political and
"British Ireland: What if Home Rule had been enacted in
1912?" (pp. 175-227), by Alvin Jackson, Reader in Modern History at the
Queen's University of Belfast, raises a question with profound, even
agonizing significance for our own time. Throughout the nineteenth
century, Home Rule for
had been a recurring proposal to resolve a constitutional anomaly -- the
status of Ireland in the British Empire. Jackson shows why Home Rule
constantly fell short every time its adherents proposed it -- and then
plausibly suggests the consequences if the advocates of Home Rule had
prevailed on their third and last attempt to achieve it, in 1912. In
Jackson's view, Home Rule possibly could have produced a democratic,
pluralist Ireland -- but the gravity of the political risks and the
likelihood of failure could have brought a result not only contradicting
the hopes of Home Rule's advocates but perhaps even worse than the actual
course of Irish and Northern Irish history since 1912.
Building on his own controversial study The Pity of War,
Ferguson then takes center stage with his essay "The Kaiser's European
Union: What if Britain had 'stood aside' in August 1914?" (pp. 228-280).
In The Pity of War, Ferguson suggests that Britain's decision to go
to war with Germany and its allies in 1914 was catastrophic for
Britain's future development; in this essay, Ferguson boldly outlines an
alternative history in which Germany would have won the First World War,
truculent but unscathed.
Based on his interpretation of Germany's pre-war aims,
Ferguson concludes that Germany would have consolidated its victory into a
recognizable variant of the European Union under German hegemony; that
Russia had a better chance of transition to a constitutional monarchy or a
parliamentary republic than a slide into civil war and Communism; and
America would not have been drawn into European affairs. Moreover,
suggests, the severe strains that the First World War brought to the world
economy would have been abated if not evaded by a swift German victory and
British abstention, and a victorious Kaiser would have been a preferable
alternative to the weak democracy and power vacuum that allowed the rise
of Fascism, Nazism, and Hitler.
Andrew Roberts, formerly an Honorary Senior Scholar at
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, explores a favorite scenario of
novelists in "Hitler's England: What if Germany had invaded Britain in May
1940?" (pp. 281-320). After exploring a few variants on this scenario --
whether standing up to Hitler would have worked; whether Britain could
have coexisted peacefully with a victorious Hitler; whether a German
invasion of Britain would have succeeded -- Roberts focuses on the extent
to which Britons would have collaborated with German conquerors, and
reaches dismaying conclusions about how many Quislings would have been
ready to do the Nazis' bidding. (Note that the essay's byline attributes
it to Roberts alone but the contents page [p. vi] describes this essay as
a collaboration between Roberts and Ferguson.)
In a companion piece to the previous essay, Michael
Burleigh, Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of
Wales, Cardiff, and author of many histories of Nazi "racial science,"
outlines an alternative scenario: "Nazi Europe: What if Nazi Germany had
defeated the Soviet Union?" (pp. 321-347). Burleigh explores the range of
proposed policies within the Nazi regime for governing a conquered U.S.S.R.,
and suggests further that the historical evidence supports the view that
Hitler's ambitions indeed ranged beyond Europe to world conquest. Thus,
Hitler would not have stopped with a Nazi Europe.
Jonathan Haslam, a Fellow and Director of Studies in
History at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and Assistant Director of
Studies in International Relations at the Cambridge University Centre of
International Studies, contributes "Stalin's War or Peace: What if the
Cold War had been avoided?" (pp. 348-367). He poses three crucial
questions, answering them differently from the way they actually turned
out: (i) the United States does not develop nuclear weapons; (ii) the
U.S.S.R.'s espionage program does not penetrate upper echelons of British
and American intelligence; and (iii) Stalin restrains his ambitions to
spheres of influence in ways compatible with Western leaders'
expectations. Haslam concludes that Stalin and his allies were only
slightly influenced by American nuclear weapons, so their lack would not
have made much difference; that Stalin's lack of reliable intelligence
could have made him more defiant or more accommodating based on his
assessment of Western nations' firmness; and that even had Stalin adopted
a more cautious and accommodating definition of spheres of influence
acceptable to the West, conflict between East and West was likely anyway.
Diane Kunz of Yale University explores another favorite
source of speculation, in her essay "Camelot Continued: What if John F.
Kennedy had lived?" (pp. 368-392). Drawing on the extensive historiography
of the Kennedy administration, Kunz defiantly -- and persuasively --
insists that "John F. Kennedy was a mediocre president. Had he obtained a
second term, federal civil rights policy during the 1960s would have been
substantially less productive and
actions in Vietnam no different from what actually occurred. His tragic
assassination was not a tragedy for the course of American history" (p.
The last essay is by Mark Almond, Lecturer in Modern
History at Oriel College, Oxford. In "1989 Without Gorbachev: What if
Communism had not collapsed?" (pp. 392-415), Almond actually explores why
Communism did collapse, first in the Warsaw Pact nations and then in the
U.S.S.R. itself. Almond posits that, rather than actual economic
conditions, it was the miscalculations of the Gorbachev-led Soviet elite
that led to the collapse of the Soviet system. Had Gorbachev and his
colleagues cleaved to the ideological rigidity of their predecessors and
taken a hard line at home and abroad, Almond suggests, they could have
maintained their hegemony and the Soviet system and perhaps even profited
from such events as the 1990-1991 Iraq-Kuwait crisis.
concludes the volume with his daring "Afterword: A Virtual History,
1646-1996" (pp. 416-440). In this essay, he attempts to synthesize
elements of each of the previous essays into an account of three hundred
fifty years that increasingly departs from the history we know, leading to
a world in which an increasingly besieged Anglo-American empire finally
collapses in the face of a German-dominated European Union and a
formidable, theocratic Russian Empire. In
alternative history, the leading ideological forces are nationalism and
religion rather than Communism, totalitarianism, and democracy.
A few observations are in order. First, the overall
standard of Virtual History is high; at their best these essays
illustrate the skills needed to launch a truly suggestive counterfactual
historical speculation -- mastery of the relevant primary sources and
historical literature, a sure sense of plausible and implausible
alternatives, and a due modesty on the part of the historian about what is
and is not "inevitable" or "contingent." Second, most scholars who attempt
virtual history focus on military "decision points" -- a battle lost
instead of won, a war avoided instead of launched -- obvious points in the
historical narrative at which events could have taken another path. A
second favorite is to speculate on the presence or absence of key world
leaders -- growing out of the enduring controversy over the role of the
individual statesman in national or world affairs. It is correspondingly
more difficult, as Alvin Jackson's "British Ireland" suggests, to pursue
alternate-history speculation in the realm of political choices, for
politics (or "public choice") introduces so many complex and intractable
variables as to make it increasingly difficult to chart an alternative
course from a different political choice.
In sum, this book suggests the power and potential for
enlightenment inherent in historians' posing key "what if?" questions. At
the same time, Virtual History offers a caution for historians and
legal and constitutional scholars who ask such questions as "What if
-- or Vermont -- had ratified the Constitution in 1788?" It is tempting,
in light of the contrast between such airy speculations as these and the
tough-minded essays gathered in this volume, to quote anew Alexander
Bickel's wise counsel, "No answer is what the wrong question begets."
Library of Congress
Call Number: D413.5.V57 1998
* History, Modern -- 20th century
* History -- Philosophy
* Counterfactuals (Logic)
Citation: R. B. Bernstein . "Review of Niall Ferguson, ed,
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals," H-Law, H-Net Reviews,
January, 2000. URL:
“Ferguson seeks to
address critics of virtual history in a compelling introduction whose
particular strength is its criticism of the de facto determinism that
permeates history’s teaching and writing…[Virtual History] invite[s]
historians to step away from their footnotes and outside their minds, into
times when contingency becomes meaningful.”
Dennis Showalter, review
of Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, by Niall
Ferguson, ed., The Journal of Military History 64 (July 2000):