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What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?

Studying history with hypotheticals

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans (Brandeis University Press)

As everyone knows, the supreme court 
ruled six–three for Al Gore in the great dispute over the Florida recount in 2000. As everyone also knows, Gore emerged as the ultimate victor in that recount, and with his poetic and moving inauguration address he managed to unify a badly divided nation. For a long period, the Gore years continued the peace and prosperity established under President Clinton, punctuated by the successful prevention of an apparent terrorist plot in 2001, by the enactment of health care reform in 2003 (mocked by critics as GoreCare), and by aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, culminating in the historic Copenhagen Protocol, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2005.

It was not until the nation’s financial collapse, beginning in 2007, that Gore’s presidency started to unravel. Senator John McCain, a longtime critic of Gore’s “failure to respect free markets,” succeeded in convincing the American public that the collapse was partly a product of the Democratic Party’s “regulatory overreach,” and he was able to trounce Senator Joseph Biden in the 2008 election. Now in his second term, McCain has presided over a successful recovery (with unemployment levels down to 8 percent from their high of 13 percent in 2010). But his own legislative agenda, including repeal of GoreCare and immigration reform, has been stymied by what McCain calls the “do-nothing Senate,” 
which has a slim Democratic majority. Many insiders think that the Democratic nominee in 2016 will be Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. According to University of Chicago law professor Barack Obama, a specialist on election law, “Klobuchar is perfectly positioned to win her party’s nomination—and to triumph in the general election as well. She’s audacious.”

What if Jesus had never been crucified? Can we imagine a world without Christianity? Suppose that Germany won World War II. What would Europe and the United States be like now? Imagine that Kennedy had not been assassinated. Would the Vietnam war have been avoided? Would the 1960s have been fundamentally different? Would Reagan have become president? Would the Soviet 
Union still exist?

Speculative writers love to explore counterfactual history. Science fiction novels dominate the territory, and perhaps the whole area can be treated as science fiction, but in literature we can find a number of counterfactualists who do not fit easily in that category, including the Roman historian Livy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Vita Sackville-
West, and Philip Roth. An anthology that was published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War. (Mackinlay Kantor wrote a once-famous novel on the same subject.) Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, from 1962, describes a world in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assassinated and Japan, Italy, and Germany won World War II. (In Dick’s narrative, people are even reading a counterfactual novel, The Grasshopper 
Lies Heavy, in which the Germans and Japanese lost the war.) Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) has a similar theme, which has become a favorite, even an 
obsession, of counterfactual novelists.

Counterfactual history has intrigued and confounded philosophers, social scientists, and some distinguished historians as well. Psychologists focus on “hindsight bias”—the judgment that whatever happened was bound to happen. An appreciation of hindsight bias naturally leads to an investigation of counterfactuals. But many historians are deeply skeptical, seeing the whole enterprise as childish and silly, a kind of parlor game. After all, the Supreme Court ruled for Bush rather than Gore; Jesus was crucified; Germany lost World War II; Kennedy was assassinated. What is the point in asking about how things would have turned out otherwise? Who can possibly know, or care? E. P. Thompson described “counterfactual fictions” as “Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical shit.” Michael Oakeshott, who rarely agreed with Thompson, on this point had the same view, declaring that the “question in history is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.”

Richard Evans is a widely admired historian with a particular interest in twentieth-
century Germany. With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally useless—possibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

To those who enjoy such speculation, Evans will seem a bit of a killjoy, and he seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject. His exploration of counterfactual history is in part a history of the topic. In his account, one of the noteworthy early publications was Louis Geoffrey’s Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, in 1836, which offers a narrative in which Napoleon ultimately conquers China, Japan, and the United States, and is deemed “Ruler of the World.” Geoffrey much admired Napoleon, and as the example suggests, much writing in this vein tends to reflect wishful thinking (and to be self-consciously whimsical).

In 1857, the philosopher Charles Renouvier gave a less-than-felicitous name to this kind of work: Uchronie, which he defined as “a utopia of past time,” in which history is written “not as it was, but as it could have been.” Renouvier himself contributed to the genre. His elaborate counterfactual tale imagined that Marcus Aurelius had been replaced by the Roman general Avidius Cassius, eventually leading to a free peasantry rather than a slave class. Through a number of bizarre twists, the ultimate result was a more secular Europe and a very different form of Christianity, without confessionals, monasteries, or purgatories, but with a firm commitment to science and learning, producing a federation of independent European states. One of Renouvier’s main targets was Catholicism, and in his idealized counterfactual narrative, Catholicism never amounted to much, and so freedom 
and peace prevailed.

Evans is particularly interested in the 1960s and 1970s, when historians produced a series of counterfactual narratives in their areas of specialization. William Shirer, author of the best-
seller The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, wrote a short essay called “If Hitler Had Won World War II.” Concerned that people might start to forget what Nazism actually was, Shirer depicted a world in which Hitler succeeded in conquering the United States (and brought about a Holocaust for American Jews). Geoffrey Parker, the British historian, explored what might have happened if the Spanish Armada had successfully landed in England in 1588. In Parker’s telling, Philip II of Spain would have conquered the British isles, restored Catholicism, and ultimately established Spanish rule in North America. In 1972, Barbara Tuchman published an essay in Foreign Affairs imagining that Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had asked, in 1945, to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. Tuchman speculated that the United States might have been convinced not to support the Nationalists, that Mao might not have regarded the United States as China’s enemy, and that the result could have been to avoid the wars in both Korea and Vietnam.

Evans insists that such works are frivolous and whimsical, and not worth taking seriously. “Historians have always considered it their first task to find out what did happen, not to imagine what might have happened.” In his account, historians must follow the rules of evidence, and in exploring what might have happened “there is little or no evidence to which those rules can be applied.” In Evans’s telling, historians are rightly “suspicious of speculation,” and so they respond to counterfactual history with either 
hostility or indifference.

He acknowledges that some people have tried to meet that response with more disciplined approaches. In 1979, for example, 
the historian Daniel Snowman edited a book of essays called, If I Had Been ... Ten Historical Fantasies, in which he announced a series of methodological constraints. Snowman insisted on what Evans calls “a framework carefully circumscribed by historical facts,” in which a central character 
decides on “a slightly different, but entirely plausible course of action from that actually adopted.” In one of the resulting essays, for example, Benjamin Franklin succeeds in moderating national discontent and prevents the American Revolution. 
Evans welcomes the imposition of constraints, but objects that such “speculations put enormous imaginary power into the hands of individual politicians, giving them retrospectively the means to defy or overturn the massive historical forces with which they were confronted.”

In short, Evans is wary of “a naïve belief in the extra-historical powers of great or at least powerful men.” He does seem to have respect for the work of economists such as Robert Fogel, who developed a statistical model of what would have happened to the economy of the United States if railways had not been built. Fogel’s striking conclusion is that the economic effects would have been modest. Evans contends that Fogel and other econometricians are not really asking “a ‘what-if’ question at all, since no real alternative to what happened is being posited.”

With respect to counterfactual history, Evans thinks that the 1990s marked a real (and unfortunate) change, above all with the publication of a volume edited by Niall Ferguson called Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, which received a great deal of attention and spurred an outpouring of additional work. Ferguson’s book is a collection of essays by professional historians asking “what if?” questions; and it begins with an elaborate ninety-page 
introduction by Ferguson himself, exploring questions about the philosophy of history. Deeply unhappy with Ferguson for moving historians in what he sees as unproductive directions, Evans seeks to explain what he calls the “recent fashion,” especially among apparently serious people. He believes that a major contributor to this lamentable line of inquiry is “the decline of the great ideologies,” such as fascism, communism, socialism, and Marxism: to fill the void created by that decline, people have turned to fantasy. Evans also holds postmodernism responsible, contending that it has invited counterfactual history “with its skepticism about the possibility of real historical knowledge, its blurring of the boundaries between past and present, fact and fiction, and its questioning of linear concepts of time.”

Evans objects that Ferguson has inspired work by people who “take themselves very seriously indeed.” In Evans’s telling, many of the contemporary counterfactualists seek to respond to Marxist historians, to suggest that impersonal forces are 
overrated, and to demonstrate the importance of human agency and free will. Indeed, Ferguson saw his collection as a “necessary antidote” to historical determinism, which was his particular target. In Ferguson’s words, the “reality of history ... is that the end is unknown at the beginning of the journey: there are no rails leading predictably into the future, no timetables with 
destinations set out in black and white.” Ferguson seemed to suggest that once we reject determinism, and see that decisions were contingent and might have produced counterfactuals, we can better illuminate the past. Evans thinks that this is deeply confused. He contends that the very idea of determinism is too broad, because it includes a range of different ideas, from strong claims about the specific directions mandated by social and economic forces to much weaker claims about limitations in the set 
of available options.

Some counterfactualists believe, for example, that in the 1930s Germany could have gone in many different directions. 
Evans disagrees. He believes that by the early 1930s, Weimar democracy was essentially doomed—which rules out a large number of counterfactuals. At the same time, Evans acknowledges that an understanding of the situation cannot “explain precisely the timing or the nature of Nazism’s triumph or indeed lead to the claim that the Nazis and not, say, a different form of dictatorial regime with the German 
military in charge and the Nazis only lending support would have come to power in 1933.” Evans insists that historians ought not to make abstract objections to determinism, but should instead work “out how chance and contingency operate in a context that constrains the extent to which they can have an impact."

With these points in mind, Evans strenuously objects to the suggestion, made by some counterfactualists, that Britain might have remained neutral in 1914, in which case “German war aims would have been more modest, and the Germans would have won.” Ferguson himself speculates that “had Britain stood aside even for a matter of weeks [in 1914], continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today, but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of the two world wars.” In this scenario, there might have been no Hitler, no gas chambers, and no Holocaust, and the British Empire might still be with us. Evans thinks that this is exasperatingly bad history, for “there is no actual evidence that German war aims would have been more limited if Britain had stayed out of the war.” In his view, “the British neutrality counterfactual does not stand up 
to close examination.”

He is even less happy with the historian John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory, a controversial book that appeared in 1993, which claims that if Churchill had allowed the appeasers to find a compromise peace with Germany, he would have saved the Empire, and Germany and the Soviet Union would have fought to a standstill, essentially destroying each other. Evans thinks it more probable “that had Britain not entered, or stayed in, either of the two wars, the German government of the day would have declared war on Britain anyway, and with vastly greater chances of success.” In 1940, Churchill warned his war cabinet of the risk of becoming “a slave state,” and Evans contends that Churchill’s contemporaneous views are “a better basis for counterfactual speculation” than Charmley.

Evans particularly rejects “what-if” statements that have “hard-edged certainty,” because he believes that “the historian’s way of going about explanation” is “almost invariably tentative and involves considerable use of the word ‘probably.’ ” In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.” 
Evans also believes that “long-range counterfactual speculations are unconvincing and unnecessary for the historian because they elide too many links in the proposed causative chain after the initial altered event.” He concludes that for historians, the fatal mistake is to insist on “the seriousness of the counterfactual enterprise.” He finds that enterprise “most useful, and most interesting, as a phenomenon in itself, a part of modern and contemporary intellectual and political history, worthy of study in its own right, but of little real use in the serious study of the past.”

Much of Evans’s argument is sensible 
and wise. He is certainly correct to insist that many counterfactual speculations “tread on thin evidential ice.” But I think that the topic is much richer than he allows—
that once we identify the strongest objections to counterfactual history, we can find that it nonetheless has a significant place. Indeed, for those who seek to venture historical explanations, including Evans himself, counterfactual 
history is inevitable.

It is important to distinguish among three quite different objections. Some counterfactual narratives are implausible, because they are inconsistent with what we know about the historical context. With respect to Germany, Evans offers precisely this objection to both Ferguson and Charmley. Or consider the speculation with which I began, to the effect that if Gore had become president in 2001, the United States would have ratified an international agreement to regulate greenhouse gases. The problem is that developing nations, including China, have long been unenthusiastic about such a treaty, and without their participation, it is highly doubtful that the U.S. Senate would ratify any agreement. Some counterfactual histories rest on an inadequate understanding of historical constraints.

Others suffer from a different problem. They are hopelessly speculative, because they depend on wildly elaborate causal chains that are best treated as the 
exercise of an active imagination. Some counterfactualists suggest that if some apparently trivial change had occurred, large consequences would follow (“the butterfly effect,” made famous by a short story by Ray Bradbury). As a matter of logic, it may not be possible to rule out such elaborate causal chains, but they require a large number of contingencies to come to fruition (and a large number of other contingencies not to do so). Much of Evans’s exasperation is reserved for narratives that fall into this category. As 
examples, consider Tuchman’s suggestion that if Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s, the wars in Korea and Vietnam might not have happened, or Parker’s claim that if the Spanish Armada had successfully landed in England in 1588, Philip II would have established Spanish rule in North America. OK, maybe—but who could possibly know?

Still other counterfactuals run into difficulties because they depend on a change that cannot logically be made without simultaneously introducing, or allowing for, other changes which the counterfactualist is attempting to bracket. Once we introduce some changes, all bets are off. Gloria Steinem offered a memorable counter-
factual: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But if men could get pregnant, they would not be men, at least not in the same sense, and in a world without men we cannot say much about the legal status of abortion. The most fantastic counterfactual narratives fall in this category. If Nazi Germany had cell phones, Hitler might have won the war—but if Nazi Germany had cell phones, the world would be so unrecognizably different that it is not clear that we can say anything at all. If horses were smarter than people, they might rule the Earth. As Ferguson writes, “No sensible person wishes to know what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings.” (Though come to think of it, that’s a pretty interesting question.)

We can therefore dismiss counterfactual history when it is based on false historical claims, wildly elaborate causal chains, or all-bets-are-off changes. But what if it is vulnerable to none of these objections? Evans does not give a satisfactory answer to this question. In recent years, President Obama and his advisers made a 
series of decisions without which the United States, and the world, would be different. In 2010, for example, Obama decided to push for enactment of the Affordable Care Act, rejecting the reported advice of Vice President Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It is legitimate, and even instructive, to ask how things might have turned out if Obama had decided otherwise. In their superb anthology Counterfactual Thought Experiment in World Politics, Philip Tetlock and Aaron Belkin identify a set of criteria for assessing counterfactual arguments. Econometricians, such as Fogel, are using statistical tools to produce counterfactual histories, and it is not clear that Evans can plausibly bracket their work.

Some counterfactual narratives have independent goals, which Evans does not recognize. They are designed to depict a social or psychological tendency, and perhaps to suggest that human beings, and cultures, are more complicated than we like to think. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is not a work of history in Evans’s sense, or an effort to identify any hypothesis; it is an attempt to characterize some aspects of American society in the 1930s and 1940s, and perhaps to say something about sentiments and tendencies today.

Yet the most fundamental problem is that Evans does not grapple sufficiently with the fact that historians do not only offer narratives; they also offer explanations. They say that some event—the rise of Nazism, the Vietnam war, the election of Ronald Reagan, the attacks of 9 / 11—had particular causes. It is not possible to take a stand on the existence of causes, or on their relative importance, without thinking about what the world would be like if one or another were removed. If we say that the Vietnam war or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “caused” by the Kennedy assassination, we must be imagining a world in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and hence making a claim about what would have happened in that alternative and historically unrealized world. And if so, we are engaging in counterfactual history. As Jon Elster puts it, historians “have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it.

Evans himself is no exception. In responding to Ferguson’s argument about the likely consequences of British neutrality in 1914, he offers some counterfactual history of his own. He suggests that if Britain had stayed out of the war, Germany would not have scaled back its war aims. And in responding to Charmley’s arguments about the potentially beneficial effects of appeasing Hitler, he suggests that Germany would have attacked Britain in any case, with a higher probability of victory. He appears to support Churchill’s suggestion that Britain could have become a “slave state.” True, his statements on these counts are qualified, but in explaining the rise of Nazism (an area in which he has great expertise), Evans writes more firmly, saying that the “key factor” was “the Nazi’s storm troopers’ escalating use of violence” —which is an unambiguous suggestion that in the absence of that violence, the Nazis might not have come to power. He even speculates that with “more skillful maneuvering by men like General Schleicher,” a representative of the army might have ended up running Germany, 
rather than Hitler.

Or return to Evans’s attempt to explain the explosion of counterfactual history since the 1990s. In pointing to the decline of grand ideologies and the rise of postmodernism, he is arguing counterfactually. He is claiming that if the grand ideologies had not declined, and if postmodernism had not arisen, we would not have seen so much counterfactual history—which is itself counterfactual history.

Evans is aware of the claim that 
whenever historians designate a cause as necessary, they are implicitly using counter-
factuals. In his view, however, “normally historians are not so bold as this,” and they prefer to use the word “probably.” But this response is hardly sufficient. If historians say that one factor was “probably” a necessary condition, they are engaging in counterfactual thinking, just with a qualification. (Surely Evans would not withdraw his objections if Ferguson, Charmley, and other counterfactualists had inserted “probably” in the appropriate places.) Evans adds that even when historians call a “cause necessary rather than possible or contributory, they almost never speculate about the alternative course events might have taken had it not been operative.” This misses the point. Whenever historians call a cause necessary, they are, in the same breath and by virtue of that very statement, speculating about an alternative course.

Here is another way to make the point. Social scientists test hypotheses. They might hypothesize, for example, that if people have to pay a small tax for plastic bags at convenience stores, they will use fewer plastic bags. To test hypotheses, social scientists usually like to conduct randomized controlled trials, allowing them to isolate the effects of the tax. Such trials create parallel worlds and hence alternative histories—one with the tax and one without it. Historians cannot conduct randomized controlled trials, because history is run only once. Yet they nonetheless develop hypotheses, and they attempt to evaluate them by reference to the evidence. Evans is himself engaged in this enterprise. There is no difference between hypothesis-testing and counterfactual inferences. Any claim of causation, resulting from such tests, requires a statement that without the cause, the effect would 
not have occurred.

Evans appreciates the entertainment 
value of the most imaginative counterfactual narratives, but he doesn’t want them to be taken seriously, or to be seen as what historians do. With Thompson and Oakeshott (and countless others), he thinks that historians should explain what did happen, not what didn’t happen. The problem is that, to offer an explanation of what happened, historians have to identify causes, and whenever they identify causes they immediately conjure up a counterfactual history, a parallel world. Sure, there is a lot of distance between science fiction novelists and the world’s great historians, but along an important dimension they are playing 
the same game.