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22Historically Speaking March 2004 gians, politicians, journalists, and other professional soothsayers can expect in any foreseeable future. Ifthe learned professions and politicians cooperate, interrogate one another, and consider the courses of events and weigh the data each sort of specialist assembles and argues about, then local clusters ofworkable hypotheses and agreed-upon ideas may continue, as they have in the past, to guide collective human actions, and raise some populations to positions ofpower over others who find it harder to agree. That, at least, is what historians and their fellow intellectuals have done before, andwill, I suppose, continue to do in time to come. Assuredly, the job ofconstructing credible ideas aboutthe pastand tryingto make human affairs intelligible is a high and serious calling . We share and compete with other professions in defining such ideas. Discussion of what did not happen can be a useful part of thateffort, soberingand oftenamusingaswell. Let us therefore continue to exercise the far reaches ofhistorical imagination and cheerfully ask "what if from time to time. William H. McNeill is the Robert A. Millikan DistinguishedService ProfessorEmeritusat the University ofChicago. Most recently, he has written with hisson,Jf.R. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View ofWorld History (Norton, 2003). He contributedan essay, "What ifPizarro HadNotFoundPotatoes in Peru?"for What If? 2, editedby Robert Cowley (Berkley Books, 2001). Alternate History and Memory Gavriel Rosenfeld What would the field ofalternate history do without its opponents? Since its recent emergence into the Western cultural and intellectual mainstream in the last generation, alternate history has garnered increasing attention in no small part due to the enduring opposition to it among many skeptical historians. By giving rise to controversy and sparking discussions such as the one printed in the pages ofthis bulletin, the critics ofalternate historyhave ended up further contributingto the field's prominence. For this reason, itis safe to saythatwithoutits opponents, the field ofalternate history—to paraphraseJean Paul Sartre's flawed observations about anti-Semites' views ofJews— would have to invent them. Fortunately, RichardEvanshas spared the supporters ofalternatehistorythis demanding task by entering the fray with a long list of objections to the field. Evans raises important points inhis eloquent critique ofalternate historyand scores anumber ofhits. Buthis overly narrow conception ofthe field ultimatelyends up weakeningthe strength ofhis analysis. Evans's complaint against alternate history is largely political in nature. He criticizes alternate history by identifying many of its leading practitioners as members of what he calls the "young fogey school" of conservative British historians, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. Evans describes these historians as embracing alternate history (and its attendant valorization of chance and contingency) as part of a broader conservative assault on the tradition of historical determinism long associated with Marxist historiography. This is a valid point thatEvans augmentswith a convincing discussion ofhow conservatives have misunderstood the true nature of determinism in traditional Western historiography. Yet no matter how valid his lengthy discussion of determinism maybe, Evans himselfexhibits signs of deterministic thinking when he effectivelyequates alternate historywith conservative political thinking, asserting "itisno accident (emphasis added) . . . that so many proponents [ofit] . . . have been located on the right wing of the political spectrum." Evans is correctthatmanyconservatives have embraced alternate history; and he is convincing in showing, for example, how Niall Ferguson's speculative account of British neutrality in World War I expresses a clear conservative fantasy (in Ferguson's piece, Germanywins the GreatWar, thus preventing the eruption ofWorld War ? and allowing Britain to preserve its empire). Yet Evans goes too far in dismissing counterfactual history as "in the end little more than a rather obvious form ofwishful thinking." Here, he seems ready to throw out the allohistorical baby because conservatives allegedlypoured in the bathwater. In fact, a broader surveyofpostwar alternate history reveals that it is far more complexin its political valences. Numerous examples could be cited, but alternate histories on the subject ofthe Nazis winningWorld War II provide an excellent example of demonstrating alternate history's compatibilitywith numerous political agendas. In England the scenario ofthe Nazis invading, defeating, and occupying Great Britain has been explored in an exceptionally large number ofnovels, shortstories, plays, films, televisionprograms, and speculative essays. Some have, indeed, been conservative in their political motivations . Early postwar...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 22-23
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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