What if?

Mark Grimsley has posted about his experinces writing a column about ‘What if?’ history from World war 2. Here’s a taster:
clipped from warhistorian.org

A few months ago, I agreed to write a column for World War II Magazine dealing with various “what-ifs” from that conflict. I took the assignment for four reasons. In no particular order, they are: 1) to indulge my interest in counterfactual history; 2) to have fun — academe can be kind of a grind; 3) to make a little money [my living room won’t recarpet itself]; and 4) to expand my knowledge of World War II [I invariably find that counterfactuals force me to explore questions that might otherwise never occur to me].

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2 Responses to “What if?”

  1. David Says:

    I do find ‘what ifs’ a strange historical device. Radio 4, if I remember correctly, ran a series on ‘what ifs’ and I found them to be strangely frustrating. There is enough room to speculate on the interpretation of history without speculating on what might have happened if…

    The only value I can see is in the last reason Mark Grimsley provides – to explore questions that might not have otherwise occurred to him.

    Perhaps I am missing something. But what if I am not?

  2. Mark Grimsley Says:

    What you’re missing, I think, is that any historical interpretation that makes a causal connection between events — for example, that Germany never attempted an invasion of Great Britain because the Luftwaffe never achieved command of the air — involves an inherent counterfactual — that had the Luftwaffe achieved command of the air, Germany could (and presumably would) have made an invasion effort. In that case, German command of the air is alleged to be the key variable, and a counterfactual would have to come up with a plausible “minimal rewrite” by which the Luftwaffe *does* achieve command of the air. A good counterfactual would not then go on to assume a priori that an invasion would have succeeded. Instead, it would look for plausible “second order” counterfactuals — such as the ability of the British to repel an invasion based on naval and ground defense — that would have returned events to their original trajectory; i.e., Britain survives intact and continues the war. In addition to the reasons I named in my post, counterfactuals are useful because they offer a corrective to hindsight bias and restore a sense of contingency to history.

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