- Unmaking the West: “What-If” Scenarios that Rewrite World History
E. H. Carr once remarked dismissively that "one can always play a parlour-game with the might-have-beens of history," but since its rechristening as "counterfactual history," the discussion of might-have-beens has become quite the fashion in some quarters. In the wrong hands, counterfactual history serves as a license for undisciplined speculation and for the fanciful spinning of sterile theories. In its more thoughtful and constructive versions, though, counterfactual history has usefully emphasized the contingency of historical development and in some cases has also helped scholars tease out improved explanations of the conventional historical record. The essays in Unmaking the West largely do credit to the genre of counterfactual history. [End Page 1330]
The editors of Unmaking the West made a good-faith effort to steer counterfactual history in constructive directions. They asked their contributors to observe the "minimal-rewrite rule" by initially diverging from the historical record only in ways that were likely and plausible (even if later consequences of an initial divergence had much wider ramifications), and they called for discussions drawing on the historical record so as to reflect as faithfully as possible the plans, programs, and intentions of historical actors. Their larger purpose was to explore alternatives to world history as we know it by imagining changes in the roles Europe (reified throughout this volume as "the West") has played in the larger world. Contributors proceed by killing "the West" in its cradle, by radically changing its cultural and historical development, or by imagining the rise of China as an alternative source of global influence.
Some contributors hypothesize monumental consequences flowing from a single altered event. Victor Davis Hanson argues, for example, that in the absence of Themistocles' victory at Salamis, Persian forces would have overwhelmed Greece and throttled "the West" in its infancy. Similarly, Jack A. Goldstone proposes an early death for William of Orange, thus precluding the Glorious Revolution as well as the American, French, and Latin American revolutions, while also derailing democracy, modern science, and industrialization. Most professional historians regard complex processes like "the rise of the West" as multi-stranded developments drawing on numerous sources, so that single-hinge theories offer limited illumination. Hanson and Goldstone begin their essays with minimal rewrites, but they quickly work themselves into total rewrites because they suppose that a single crucial initial condition bore the weight of all subsequent historical development.
A large quantum of actually existing counterfactual history has focused on battles and wars, presumably because they appear to represent decisive moments when the direction of history hung in the balance, so that small and plausible differences might have had large implications. Readers of this journal will find several essays in Unmaking the West to be of immediate professional interest: Victor Davis Hanson's contribution on the battle of Salamis mentioned above, for example, as well as Barry Strauss's rejoinder suggesting many ways in which "the West" could have survived defeat at Salamis, and Holger H. Herwig's remake of World War II in which Germany defeated the Soviet Union but still lost the war. Carlos M. N. Eire complements these contributions and complicates the understanding of historical development by arguing that religious affairs may have been even less predictable than military affairs and more pregnant with potential for sending historical development along alternative paths.
The most persuasive essays in Unmaking the West take more general counterfactual approaches. Robin D. S. Yates imagines the Song dynasty as the foundation of a Chinese superpower, and Kenneth Pomeranz asks if European industrialization would have been possible in the absence of readily available coal, natural resources from American colonies, and modern science. Joel Mokyr contributes a particularly sophisticated essay that juggles counterfactual analysis with more conventional factual history as well as comparative reasoning in focusing on the epistemological foundations [End Page 1331] that were essential for the...