Re-writing the Past? Counter-Factual Debates about Crucial Events

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Re-writing the Past? Counter-Factual Debates about Crucial Events

<p>What is the point of speculating about the past? Why even try to ‘rewind history’? Why, that is, attempt to refight battles of the past or reconstruct events? A number of eminent scholars (Richard

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What is the point of speculating about the past? Why even try to ‘rewind history’? Why, that is, attempt to refight battles of the past or reconstruct events? A number of eminent scholars (Richard J Evans, Niall Ferguson, Philip Tetlock, John Elster, etc, see below) have pressed the point that ‘opening up the past’ does indeed offer significant promise to enhance our understanding of key events in history; for example -

  • After their loss at the Battle of Midway, could the Japanese really have successfully invaded Australia?
  • Even if the Luftwaffe had won the ‘Battle of Britain’, would a virtually intact Royal Navy in any case have prevented a successful cross-channel invasion of England by Hitler?
  • And, with the 80th Anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact next year, we can indeed ask: what difference – if any? – did the 1939 Nazi-Russian Pact make to the progress of WWII, or even to the subsequent ‘Cold War’?

Raising these kinds of questions comes under the quasi-technical rubric of the ‘Counter-Factual Analysis of History’, itself an arena of significant scholarly debate. We will first look at some of these questions of method. For example, if we are to ‘alter the past’, is it a case of ‘anything goes?’ - ie, can we imagine away all and any historical events in order to speculate? So, can we re-imagine the West, without stories of Christ’s Resurrection? or imagine the West without the American War of Independence? [eg, in order to imagine ‘no American War of Independence’, what else do we have to ‘change’]?
And just how much freedom do we have in speculating about – given changed circumstances in say, one, historical particular – how events might have turned out differently? For instance had the Turks won the Battle of Marathon – indeed a close-run thing – would the West have had a very different, and ie, Islamic, theocratic past/present & future?


SUGGESTED READING

  • Elster, J (1978), Logic & Society: contradiction & possible worlds, NY, John Wiley.
  • Evans, RJ (2013), Altered Pasts: counterfactuals in history, Waltham, Mass, Brandeis Univ. Press.
  • Ferguson, N (ed.) (1977), Virtual History: alternatives & counterfactuals, London, Macmillan.
  • Magenheimer, H (1998), Hitler’s War: Germany’s key strategic decions 1940-1945, London, Cassell.
  • Tetlock, P et al (eds.) (2006), Unmaking the West: “what if” scenarios that rewrite world history, Ann Arbor, Univ. of Michigan Press.
  • Innumerable recent books based on speculation of the sort: “what if the Allies had lost in Normandy?” / "what if Germany had won in Russia?"
  • The 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors rests on similar premises, ie, ‘possible world’ ontologies; & indeed the marvellous German art-house film Run, Lola, Run! (also 1998) very successfully uses possible worlds & counter-factual reasoning.


COURSE OUTLINE

  • Session 1: A discussion about the contested quasi-technical, methodological issues, but that set in the context of grounded, down-to-earth particular examples (not just esoteric theory!);
  • Session 2: Close discussion of some rich, important historical examples, illustrating the value of counter-factual analysis in widening our grasp of historical events: eg,
    • What if Whitlam had immediately contacted the Queen (instead of indulging in a hefty steak for lunch) after he was sacked by the GG?
    • What if the hare had not stopped for a nap in its race with the tortoise?
    • What if the UN had taken immediate, forceful action against China after it had in spite of International Law illegally annexed the Spratley Islands?