Can fictionalized history be more serious than sci-fi?


Speculations about 'what if' can be compelling intellectual exercises -- or just plain silly.

June 20, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

"Predicting" the past as if it were the future has long divided historians. A new debate about it is bubbling up now in Britain. Can it be done? Is it even worth trying? Or is it just silly? I would answer those three questions: Yes, sometimes. Yes, very much. Yes, sometimes.

British historian Niall Ferguson reignited the old debate about history that asks what if...?, and especially about history that claims to be able to answer that question. He believes it is possible in many instances to demonstrate that if historical characters had made different decisions, great changes would have occurred in subsequent developments.

Ferguson has done this with a fascinating new book, "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I" (Basic Books, 563 pages, $30). "Pity" is not a narrative of the war, but a series of long analyses of different aspects of the contestants, individual and national. (If you are interested in reading about the course of the war itself, a better choice is the excellent new "The First World War" by John Keegan [Knopf, 475 pages, $35]).

Ferguson argues that the war's great pity was that it and all the resulting bloody history of Europe in the 20th century was the fault of -- Britain. Not Germany. "It was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war," he writes. He calls the result "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." An error not a tragedy, he stresses, making the dramatist's point that errors have results that could have been avoided. Tragedies don't.

Blaming Britain has outraged British patriots; and saying "Britain's war" directly caused long-range evil results (world depression, the rise of Hitler and Stalin, World War II, Holocaust, Cold War) has offended determinist historians and philosophers who believe history unfolds as a consequence of immense economic, religious, cultural or geographic forces not always comprehendible or avoidable. One or two men or political decisions or battles or military grand strategies or alliances don't count for much in their view.

Other British historians agree with Ferguson on one or another point. For instance, John Keegan begins his new book this way: "The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict."

What really upsets historians of the British establishment is not so much the blame-Britain-first tone of Ferguson's analysis, but his championing of the "what if" school, his disrespect for determinists. He calls his approach "counterfactual" or "alternative" history. He goes further than most in asserting almost categorically that it can be said that if A had happened instead of B, then instead of X, Y would have followed.

If Britain had stood aside in 1914, Germany would have won the war and imposed a benign peace, and therefore there would have been no Nazi regime, no Russian revolution, and so on.

One historian calls Ferguson's counterfactual predicting of the past "clever-silly." Another says it is no more than "a parlor game." It has even been called a sort of social-science-fiction.

Interesting insult. Fictional history based on changing the details of great events has long been a staple of sci-fi. For one example, the forthcoming novel "The Great War: Walk in Hell" by Harry Turtledove continues his saga of a World War I fought on American soil.

Turtledove's counterfactuals are a little different from Ferguson's. The South wins the Civil War thanks to time travelers. The threat of space aliens unites Nazis and Jews. And so on.

A lot of serious historians have played the what-if game, usually in short pieces for anthologies. But as even Ferguson acknowledges, they haven't all come across as serious. Not silly, not quite parlor games, but, it seems to me, a little arch, a little too clever, even whimsical.

The best of the lot is the first, the 1931 "If, Or History Rewritten," by an all-star lineup that includes Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, Andre Maurois, Emil Ludwig among others. The most recent is "What If?: The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been." It is a mostly pedestrian collection to be published in September.

One thing that surprises me about the debate that "Pity" touched off in Britain last year and is beginning to in this country now that the book has been published here, is that only about 1 percent of it -- the very last five pages -- is dedicated specifically to what if? And even there Ferguson resorts to "could have been" and "perhaps" and "might still have been" and "Hitler could have" and "Stalin could have," etc. Very subjunctive. He backs back from his argument that a historian often can be pretty definite in predicting the recent past on the basis of what was known in the less recent past.

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