Saturday, 17 November 2012

What if? Counterfactuals and the Possibilities of History

Book: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski
Context: Counterfactual History

I like to try and find the positive bits of any book I read. It’s why I probably wouldn’t really make a very good book critic. It’s just the way I was brought up – be polite and don’t say anything you wouldn’t like to hear about yourself. Which is fine, unless you’re trying to give a balanced and objective view about a book. However, I always feel that reading a good book is like a love affair. While you’re in it, it can take up your whole life and when it’s over, you feel the pain and some part of it will always linger on. Unfortunately, reading this book was more like a school crush. It starts with all hope of giving you something fulfilling, but ultimately ends up just being a lot of running around. Suffice to say, I checked out of this relationship early.

The premise of The Company of the Dead is a world where time-travel has changed the course of history, perhaps permanently. In 1912, a mysterious man, who is actually from our present, is travelling on the Titanic in full knowledge of what is about to happen. He tries to change the past – to drastic consequences. In the new present of 2012, the world is unrecognisable. Because J.J. Astor survived the Titanic, the US never entered WWI, so the Central Powers were victorious. This in turn led to an expansionist, but monarchical, German Empire, engaged in a Cold War against a Japanese Empire with a Mexican Empire in control of South America and a US which has engaged in a second civil war and emerged as two nations. The point of the plot, as far as I could gather, was to try and reverse this by going again back in time and killing the original time-traveller. I really wanted to enjoy this. In fact, the first section depicting the Titanic sinking was very exciting, and I did want to keep reading to find out of history was ever righted.  Nearly halfway through, though, I found I just didn’t care enough. As disappointing as I found the book, however, there’s one part of it that has kept me thinking ever since. It’s something which unites my love of history with a very amateur interest in science and metaphysics – time travel.

Just imagine, for a moment, that it is actually possible to go back to an earlier time in history. You press a button, or pull a lever and *boom* you’re in the 1920s. At first, the novelty of the old-fashioned clothes, houses and objects are very exciting. But if you’re going to spend a lot of time here, what are the rules? Could anything you do affect future history, or is it more like ‘Lost’ – Whatever Happened, Happened? The thing is, either of these choices creates a complication in the way that we look at the world. If history is so unstable that a small difference in 1920 can make huge alterations for 2012, then what happens to the people who were alive in 2012, but because of your changes will never be born? They were once alive, for you saw and knew them. They had brains, hearts, blood, maybe souls. Do these just disappear, and do they have any inkling of what is happening? But if history is fixed, and you cannot change it no matter how hard you try, then what does that say about free-will? Is our future so predestined, just as the past is? As a character says in The Company of the Dead, we can cope with the thought of aliens as that only affects the present, but the idea of time-travel affects our past, present and future.

Of course, none of these questions have an answer because time-travel is impossible, but we can use history to think about predestination in a more practical way. It’s not just science-fiction that plays about with alternative timelines, though there are some particularly good ones – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one. There are lots of popular books out there like Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. (For those of you not from the UK, Michael Portillo is a British politician and broadcaster who might well have been Prime Minister in 1997 if Tony Blair’s party hadn’t won the election and Portillo hadn’t lost his seat).  Another scenario imagined what US politics and history may have been like had Kennedy not been assassinated. In an entertaining way, you can start to think about the alternative options history had, and how different it could have been.

 I remember coming across an article at university about ‘What-If’ history, or ‘counterfactual’ history, which sounds much more academic, which showed how history can treat this concept in a serious way. In looking at what might have happened, you can look at the consequences of what did happen, and think about whether these were inevitable or if things could have panned out completely differently. This doesn’t work, of course, if the alternative situation is very unlikely – say, what would have happened if there was a mass cholera epidemic in New York during the 2008 election. It’s got to be an alternative that was just as likely to happen at the time. Let’s say, for example, that Hitler had been killed in the First World War – a completely plausible scenario. How different might Germany’s (and the world’s) history have been? Hitler would obviously have been unable to establish the Nazi party, but does this mean that a right-wing, fascist, racist party would never have arisen in Germany? This raises questions about how important Hitler himself was to the movement. Much is made about Hitler’s personal charisma, and this was certainly an important factor in the party’s success, but the trend of history is bigger than Germany’s own experience. Germany was hit hard by the Great Depression – is it really plausible that Hitler was the only possible person who would have responded as he did? Following the example of Italian and Spanish fascism, it is not hard to imagine another German leader establishing a totalitarian state in a similar vein to Nazism. The question then is to determine how different this regime might have been to Hitler’s. Who would have been in a position to become leader and to topple the democratic state? What resources would they have had, and how would they have led the nation? Maybe the rise of fascism in Germany was inevitable, and the existence of Hitler made little difference. But fascism without Hitler would probably have been quite distinct from Nazism.

An alternative outcome of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, however, would have had a much more profound effect on British history. Had the Normans not successfully invaded England, the culture, language and nature of England would have been very different. The aristocracy would have been Anglo-Saxon, not French, and might therefore have had a very different relationship with the continental ruling classes during the Medieval period. How different might the English class system be now if the aristocracy had always been the same as the people? Would the English monarchs have intermarried with French aristocrats as much? If not, then the wars between England and France throughout the 14th and 15th century may never have happened. Joan of Arc would have remained an ordinary peasant girl. English kings and queens would never have held large parts of the continent, so England (or Britain) may never have become a world power. What consequence would this have had on American history? Would the New England colonies ever have been established? Would the Mayflower ever have set sail? The United States of America might have fought a War of Independence against the French or Spanish, rather than the English, if at all. The possibilities are endless.

Perhaps the point that I’m trying to make is that by taking individuals out of the equation, the picture only changes slightly. But by changing events, centuries of history can become uncertain. The Company of the Dead, for all its faults, has a game go at grappling with this idea - getting us to think about the Titanic and its impact on 20th century history. So many separate factors led to the sinking; if just one had been different, for example if Freddie Fleet had had binoculars, would the ship still have sunk? But counterfactual history is more than just a fun exercise – it can reveal how important certain people and events were in history, and, taken seriously, you can really begin to appreciate how history happens. Although it is kind of fun too!


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Prime Minister Portillo: and other things that never happened ed. by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale

How We’d Talk if the English had Won in 1066 by David Cowley

‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’ by Martin Bunzl, published in The American Historical Review (June, 2004)

‘Counterfactuals and the study of the American Presidency’ by Jeffrey M. Chwieroth, published in Presidential Studies Quarterly (June, 2002)

‘Making Books: The ‘What-Ifs’ That Fascinate’ by Martin Arnold, published in New York Times (21st December, 2000)

‘Taking Counterfactual History Seriously’ by Naomi R. Lamoreaux, from the Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011, published in California History (December, 2011)

‘Past Tense’ by Fredric Smoler, published in American Heritage (September, 1999)

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