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Altered Pasts

Counterfactuals in History

Richard J. Evans

Publication Year: 2014

A bullet misses its target in Sarajevo, a would-be Austrian painter gets into the Viennese academy, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill: seemingly minor twists of fate on which world-shaking events might have hinged. Alternative history has long been the stuff of parlor games, war-gaming, and science fiction, but over the past few decades it has become a popular stomping ground for serious historians. The historian Richard J. Evans now turns a critical, slightly jaundiced eye on a subject typically the purview of armchair historians. The book's main concern is examining the intellectual fallout from historical counterfactuals, which the author defines as "alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred." What if Britain had stood at the sidelines during the First World War? What if the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow? The author offers an engaging and insightful introduction to the genre, while discussing the reasons for its revival in popularity, the role of historical determinism, and the often hidden agendas of the counterfactual historian. Most important, Evans takes counterfactual history seriously, looking at the insights, pitfalls, and intellectual implications of changing one thread in the weave of history.

A wonderful critical introduction to an often-overlooked genre for scholars and casual readers of history alike.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. xi-xiv

The following pages reproduce, with additions, the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures that Richard J. Evans delivered in April, 2013. Before coming to Cambridge, where he has been professor of modern history, Regius Professor of History, and president of Wolfson College, he had taught at...

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pp. xv-xx

This short book is an essay on the use of counterfactuals in historical research and writing. By counterfactuals, I mean alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred. In the chapters that follow, examples that are...

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1 | Wishful Thinking

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pp. 1-30

What if? What if Hitler had died in a car crash in 1930: Would the Nazis have come to power, would the Second World War have happened, would six million Jews have been exterminated? What if there had been no American Revolution in the eighteenth century: Would...

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2 | Virtual History

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pp. 31-63

Many times more books and essays on what their authors, following Niall Ferguson’s lead in his 1997 edited volume Virtual History, now call counterfactual history, have appeared since 1990 than in the whole of real history before then. Counterfactual histories have now become so frequent...

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3 | Future Fictions

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pp. 64-91

Many historical subjects have been treated counterfactually. Novelists have been as wide-ranging in their choice of topics as historians have. Often their purposes, however, have been dramatically different. Jorge Semprún’s experimental novel L’Algarabie, published in 1981, for instance, sets...

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4 | Possible Worlds

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pp. 92-126

Counterfactuals, or what some historians term counterfactuals, come in many different guises, and it is important to disentangle them before reaching a conclusion as to their usefulness or otherwise. Politically motivated fantasies, however widely they are believed, involving, for instance, the survival of Nazis...


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pp. 127-140


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pp. 141-150

About the Series, Other Works in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9781611685398
E-ISBN-10: 1611685397
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611685374

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Imaginary histories.
  • History -- Philosophy.
  • Historiography -- Political aspects -- Great Britain.
  • Great Britain -- History -- 20th century.
  • Right and left (Political science) -- Great Britain.
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