Counterfactual story: why what didn’t happen matters

In 1997, Niall Ferguson published a book titled Virtual history: alternatives and counterfactuals, where experts reflected on what the world would be like today if the American Revolution had never happened, if Hitler had invaded England in 1940, or if JFK had never been assassinated.

Yet despite a few such illustrious cases, counterfactual history – sometimes referred to as virtual, hypothetical, or alternative history – is generally frowned upon by historians more interested in what is actually in the archives. Now, however, two French researchers have set out to challenge this hypothesis in a major new book, A past of possibilities: a story of what could have been (Yale University Press). Both history professors, Quentin Deluermoz is based at the University of Paris, while Pierre Singaravélou works at King’s College London and at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

It’s not uncommon for researchers to say they don’t want to “step into the realm of ‘counterfactual’,” the couple said. Times Higher Education by e-mail, before continuing, do so. And this is not surprising, because “one cannot compare, evaluate a trajectory, rank the causes, criticize the role of a great man, without resorting to this mode of reasoning”. When the British historian Jay Winter wanted to verify the claim that “the Great War precipitated the demographic decline of England”, he did so by hypothesizing that the war “never took place. and showed that there would have been a demographic decline anyway ”. , thus indicating that it was “the result of structural and not contextual causes”.

The two professors also made the somewhat paradoxical point that “the history of the distant past always depends on the events of the near past”. Had the French succeeded in colonizing southern India between 1750 and 1850, they pointed out, British influence would have been confined to the northern half of the country – and even today researchers could write separate stories. of “Dravidia” and “Hindustan”, rather than treating pre-modern India as one unit. Being willing to explore counterfactual issues helps to see this.

It was also useful, suggest the authors, “to study the feared and hoped-for future of the actors of the past” and “to reread the archives without knowing what happened next”. Such “hoped-for futures” at the time of the revolution of 1848 in France, for example, were expressed in the abundance of expectations and promises, which can be read in the countless petitions, placards, poems and written appeals. at the time. In addition, these unrealized futures are then reflected in memories and reused in other situations.

History being “often written by the victors”, add professors Deluermoz and Singaravélou, it “tends to” crush the untapped potential of the past “, as Walter Benjamin put it so well. By giving voice to the “losers” of history, the counterfactual approach allows a reversal of perspectives.

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