People who see a divine hand or the iron laws of dialectical materialism at work in human affairs bridle at the question: “What if things had turned out differently?” To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a “parlour game”. To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was “unhistorical shit”.
Other historians have confessed to being more intrigued. “The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes,” wrote Johan Huizinga. It is important to recognise that, at any moment in history, there are real alternatives, argued Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Happily, none of this argument deters the writers of fiction or the public. Germany’s possible defeat of Britain in 1940 is by some distance the national treasure trove of might-have-beens. As long ago as 1964, the film It Happened Here by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo raised the then unthinkable thought that collaboration would have thrived in Hitler’s Britain. More recently, a succession of novels, including Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Resistance by Owen Sheers and CJ Sansom’s Dominion – which imagines a Vichy Britain in 1952 ruled by Lord Beaverbrook and Oswald Mosley – have explored the same theme.
By comparison, the first world war has been the subject of far less counterfactual speculation. Niall Ferguson is one of the exceptions, in an essay which considers the possibility that Britain might have stood aside from the European war in August 1914. And although his essay suffers from the fact that the Eurosceptic Ferguson is over-eager to portray the kaiser as the godfather of the later European Union, his account of the cabinet debates of 1914 is fascinating because Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government could so easily have decided to stay out of the war – and very nearly did.
With the centenary of the first world war almost upon us, 2014 is likely to witness plenty of debate about the right forms of commemoration and about whether the war achieved anything. At present, argument about the war mainly consists of two mutually uncomprehending camps. On the one hand, there are those who, as Margaret MacMillan put it recently, think the war was “an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud”. On the other, there are those who insist that it was nevertheless “about something”. At the time, says MacMillan, people on all sides thought they had a just cause. “It is condescending and wrong to think they were hoodwinked.”
But what was the something that the first world war was about? To answer that it was a war between empires, which it surely was, is fine as long as some effort is made to distinguish between the empires. But this rarely happens in a debate that is polarised between collective myths of national sacrifice on the one hand (certainly in Britain and France) and an indiscriminate muddy catastrophe on the other.