On Counterfactual History

I’ll let you into a secret: Last week’s post, the one in which I tried to explain what might have happened if the 1973 Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal had failed, was inspired by a French magazine, Guerre et Histoire, that asked me to write it for them. For that I am grateful, for it forced me to think about the nature of counterfactual history. What it is good for (assuming, that is, it is good for anything) and what its problems are. Today I’d like to put some of my thoughts on paper.

As a rule, historians dislike counterfactual history. E. H. Carr (1892-1982), an Oxford historian perhaps best remembered for his little book, What Is History? (1961), went so far as to call it a mere “parlor game.” Not, mind you, that there is anything wrong with parlor games, incidentally. I find them very useful in keeping my grandchildren amused. And some of them, notably chess, go and others, are excellent intellectual exercise indeed—at least as good as writing history.

That, aside, though, Carr was wrong. Counterfactual history has its uses: it can counteract determinism and remind us that what happened was not necessarily what had to happen. It is, in other words, a method for keeping historians, and indeed anyone else interested in the way human affairs work, away from the ever-present danger of hubris.

But that is not the end of the matter. History, certainly history as practiced by modern academics over the last two centuries or so, is to a large extent an attempt to answer the question: why did X, or Y, or Z, happen? Rerum cognoscere causas, “to know the causes of things,” is the motto of the London School of Economics where I myself did my PhD almost half a century ago. This is good and well. However, without counterfactual history the search for causes, showing that everything that happened did so because it had to and could not have happened otherwise, will end up by degenerating into sheer idiocy. If, as Hegel (“the real is the rational and the rational is the real”) claimed, everything that happened was bound to happen, then what is the point of looking for what caused it?

That is all the more the case because the “laws” on which historians rely when they speak of causation are not nearly as strict as those we know from the natural sciences. There is no equivalent in social science (if it is a science) to Galileo’s laws of mechanics, Newton’s law of gravitation, Bernoulli’s law of pressure, and countless others. With very few exceptions, indeed, they are not laws at all; just generalizations that seem to make intuitive sense to those of us who have been educated within a given civilization, at a given place, at a given time.

In one sense all of us are constantly engaging in counterfactual history even if we do not mean to. When I say that A caused B, the implication is that, but for A, B would never have happened. When I say that World War I was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (see the above image) the implication is that, but for the assassination, the war would not have broken out. When I say that President Reagan, by increasing America’s defense budget to an extent that the Soviet Union could not match, caused the latter to break up, or at any rate helped it break up, the implication is that, without him and his arms buildup, it would not have happened. And so on. Paradoxically, then, counterfactual history is built even into the work of the very historians who claim to despise it so much.

All this means that counterfactual history is both useful and inevitable. However, that is not to say that all counterfactual narratives are born equal any more than all historical narratives are. Some are clearly much better than others. This leads me to the question, what is good counterfactual history? Follow some preliminary thoughts:

  1. Counterfactual history must be plausible, i.e it must not introduce all kinds of things that are a priori impossible. For example, the question what would have happened if Hitler and not the US had built the first nuclear weapons is a plausible one, given that, as late as the summer of 1939, German nuclear research led the world. An attempt to answer it can result in some interesting answers that will shed light both on the Fuehrer and on the role the weapons in question have played and are playing in international relations. However, asking what would have happened if Napoleon, or Genghis Khan, had had them does not make sense and should be discouraged.
  2. Counterfactual history should only go so far and no further. That is because, in human affairs, few if any events have one cause only. Trying to trace the immediate chain of events that might have resulted from one counterfactual event is hard enough. Pushing this more than a very few steps forward will, in the words of Winston Churchill (at a time when, as Lord of the Admiralty, he was responsible for guessing what future naval warfare would be like), cause thought “to diverge too fast.” The outcome is likely to be pure fiction with no link to reality at all. Let me provide another example of this. Many years ago I had a student, an American, who wanted to do a paper on the consequences following from the invention of print. This being Israel, he said that, without print, there would never have been a kibbutz. He was right, of course; yet writing a paper on the topic did not make sense. The reason why it made no sense was because, between Guttenberg and the kibbutzim, there were too many intermediate steps far more relevant to the topic than print was. I told him to limit his inquiry to the years before 1550. What came of it, if anything, I cannot recall.
  3. This warning also has an obverse side. The more plausible a counterfactual narrative, the less it will deviate from what actually happened. As it does so, it may very well turn into an exercise in futility. What is the point of writing counterfactual history that is only marginally different from that which actually took place? On second thought, perhaps this is what I did in the piece I posted last week, perhaps not. Let the reader be the judge of that.

Thus writing good counterfactual history is a question of navigating between the Scylla of unforeseeability and the Charybdis of banality. In other words, it requires judgement. But isn’t that also true of most other things in life as well?