25 June 2014

All History is Alternate History

Back in March The Guardian had an article by Richard J. Evans entitled 'What If' is a waste of time. Of course the speculations are unprovable. There are also countless variables that would change with every alteration to a timeline that the counter-factual writer wouldn't be able to consider. They are unprovable and in most cases if it was possible to go back and make the changes in certain divergence points the results are unlikely be be anything the creator made.

Counter-factuals, alternative history, what ifs?, and such do have value however. From basic entertainment to developing a better understanding that actions have consequences. It is even possible to develop a better understanding of 'real' history since it is needed to develop a better appreciation of alternates. For example I read a book on alternate sports history - a few of the more famous athletes I knew and the alternate history was comprehensible to me. For many of the other alternate sports stories I had no knowledge at all of the original event so the alternate was lost on me.

Now one thing that isn't mentioned in the article on the low value of counter-factuals is that all history is in some way an alternative history! What do I mean by that? We live in an era where history is constantly being re-written, tweaked, and modified. Many times the changes to the historical record are made due to better information, the elimination of old biases, and other legitimate reasons. On other occasions history is changed to fit the politics of the day and are far more dangerous than any counter-factual could be. I remember in my youth the many jokes about the Soviet Union changing history and claiming credit for anything good in the world. While the Soviet Union is gone there are still individuals and groups that make questionable arguments about the past.

A century from now more changes - both legitimate and illegitimate - will give our descendants a different understanding of history than we have. That means that the history we know is an alternate history to what our grandchildren will know or our grandparents have known.

Given the number of newspapers and government reports that can go into some historical research it is amazing we have as clear an image of the past as we do. Newspapers lie, especially during wartime. Editors decide what information gets published and may not print stories and bias could affect what gets printed. Pressure from governments to suppress or alter a story are also possible. Government agents can file faulty reports that are examined years later by historians. Individuals involved in important events may lie in their memoirs to make themselves look more favorable than they may have a right to be.

Then there are holes in the historical record that are filled by those, who may be very intelligent, but were not directly involved in the events. A historians own cultural and personal biases may also affect the product of their research, even unintentionally.

Finally there is the simple fact that we don't know what historical figures were thinking. Why did they do everything they did. Some may have left memoirs explaining their actions, but such accounts may be twisted for the author to save face. In recent years I've read numerous books on war guilt for the Great War. Of course Germany gets blamed in many, but I've seen Russia blamed, Austria-Hungary, and even the British Empire being blamed for turning it into a global war. While I'm happy to put most of the blame on Germany... their ultimatum to France was left no choice but war, they had reasons to want war and from Sean McMeekin's The Russian Origins of the First World War I see that it may have come even it the Kaiser was reasonable when dealing with the French.

The only thing that is certain is that there was a war and the Central Powers lost. The whats are usually pretty easy to determine, its the whys that cause the problems.

I do agree with Richard J. Evans on his fear of regression to the 'great man' view of history. One of the fun things with alternate history is seeing how a famous person is different in the new timeline. However, depending on the divergence point, most of them would have never been born or would have had uneventful lives. I guess it depends on how big the butterflies would truly be. In recent research in changing more modern American history I've noticed that in most cases it really doesn't matter who the President is, the mass of the established American political body has momentum taking it into a certain direction. Perhaps I should explore something other than famous people and wars in future divergent timelines. Perhaps focusing more on economics, culture, and science. That might make for some interesting posts.

The most important thing to take away from alternate history is to be open to other ideas and to look at situations from different points of view. When we are hip deep in our day-to-day lives we sometimes ignore the forest because of the trees right in front of us.

Enough of my rambling, I'm just throwing out some ideas. Of course I'm biased myself.... I need to justify the value of counter-factuals since that is the focus of this blog. Any thoughts?

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