Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Counterfactualism, wargaming, and historical analysis

Paths of Glory (GMT Games)

WWI as depicted in Paths of Glory (GMT Games)

In the pages of today’s Guardian, historian Richard Evans unleashes a blast against the popular and academic use of counterfactual history:

Too much of the current debate about 1914 and the outbreak of the first world war focuses not on why it happened, but how things might have been if Britain hadn’t entered it.

…this kind of fantasising is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it in favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken in August 1914 were right or wrong. For that way, of course, leads not to historical understanding but to all kinds of wishful thinking, every hypothesis political in motivation. “We” – the identification is telling – were right to fight the continental despot; “we” were wrong to involve ourselves in the continent’s conflicts; you pays your money and you makes your Eurosceptic choice.

“Counterfactuals”, as such “what-if” speculations are generally termed by the aficionados, are often claimed to open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people. But in fact they imprison the past in an even tighter web: one tiny change in the timeline – Archduke Franz Ferdinand escapes assassination in Sarajevo, the British cabinet decides not to enter the war – leads inevitably to a whole series of much larger changes, sometimes stretching over decades almost up to the present day. Yet this ignores, of course, an infinite number of chances that might have deflected the predicted course of events along the way – Franz Ferdinand might have fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet, or died in a hunting accident; Britain might have entered the war later on; the US might have come into the conflict on the side of the French; Austria-Hungary might have collapsed in the face of nationalist revolts; and so on.

If counterfactuals really did restore chance and contingency to history, then we wouldn’t actually be able to extrapolate any consequences at all from changes in the timeline such as a British decision not to enter the war in 1914. In practice, of course, every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense. The problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn’t the case, as many a tyrant in history, from Napoleon to Hitler, has found to his cost. To suppose otherwise is to regress into a “great man” view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.

It’s also a form of intellectual atavism in another sense: “what-ifs” are almost invariably applied to political, military and diplomatic history: they represent a “kings-and-battles” view of the past…


Wargaming even gets a particular swipe, as Evans dismissively notes that “Armchair generals refight hundreds of battles to show they could have done better than Napoleon or Montgomery.” A similar swipe appears in the blurb for his new bookAltered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (emphasis added):

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.

It is an important topic, and one hopes that it receives more thoughtful attention in the book than Evans offers in his op-ed. This, unfortunately, gives every appearance (whether intended or not) of petulant annoyance that the mainstream media and fellow-travelling academics have sought to engage the public imagination through informed speculation on alternative history.

In responding, I would first note that all social science theorizing—without exception—involves implied counterfactuals. When scholars argue, for example, that certain types of constitutional arrangements are more or less conducive to containing  ethnic strife, they are suggesting that different constitutional outcomes are likely to have produced different outcomes had they been adopted. Certainly, the variables embedded in such theories may not be the sorts upon which human agency can easily operate, but rather may be structural characteristics of a broader and more complex system. However, a great deal of theorizing does involve the effects of policy choices (like constitutional structures) that were, in fact, constrained choices among several possible alternatives.

Second, a great deal of policy-making—including almost all foreign-policy making that I have ever observed—involves the explicit (if often unstructured) use of alternative future scenarios, whereby decision-makers examine the chain of consequences that seem likely to arise from doing X or Y. Similarly, intelligence analysis not only involves exploring the branch-points of possible future events, identifying the drivers associated with multiple future possibilities and even the predicted probabilities of these taking  place. All of this is a sort of pre-counterfactualism whereby future history is assumed to be contingent.

51eGL+7O5iL._SY445_Third, the piece seems to harbour a particular animus for an excessive focus on the historical role of  individuals and the conduct of warfare. Pointing to the straw man of “kings and battles” history is hardly helpful, though: most historians (and political scientists) would argue that both structure and agency matter, and that good analysis involves finding the appropriate balance. With regard to the conduct of war, it presumably matters, for example, that German offensive of August 1914, based on a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, failed to defeat the French and allied armies or capture Paris. Given that, it seems to me that understanding what strategic and operational decisions shaped  battlefield outcomes (and vice-versa)  is a useful set of questions for historical enquiry. Was German failure inevitable? If so, why? If not, what alternative actions by Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, or others might have made a difference? It is probably also helpful to know what difference military capabilities and their tactical employment made too. As Philip Sabin has argued, wargaming provides a lens, through a sort of structured counterfactualism, that allows for the manipulation of key variables to enable exploration of such questions.

Answering such questions, moreover, does not imply a narrow focus on battlefields, generals, and military hardware. It inevitably raises questions about logistics (and hence road and rail networks), communications, men and materiel (and hence labour force structure, industrialization, and economic development), ideology, and politics.

k9206.gifFinally, and perhaps most importantly, Evans seems to ignore the increasing amount of sophisticated scholarly work (like this, this, this, and this, among many, many others) that has been done on counterfactualism as a methodology for exploring historical contingency.

In fairness, of course, his piece a pithy one intended for a popular audience. He is engaging contemporary political controversies in the UK over commemoration of World War One rather than genuinely addressing the state of the art in the scholarly field. He seems upset by a parochial focus by politicians and the press on Britain’s impact on the war, rather than the broader historical context within which the war took place.

That being said, however, it is a shame that one would decry shallow populist counterfactualism in  history by offering such a shallow critique.

In his closing paragraphs, Evans tries—rather speculatively— to link all of this to broader social trends:

Why are we so prone in the early 21st century to approaching history in this way? The fashion for counterfactuals, after all, only began around the mid 90s: before that, they were few and far between, and seldom taken seriously even by those who indulged in them. Now you find them everywhere….

Perhaps it’s because we’re living in a postmodern age where the idea of progress has largely disappeared, to be replaced by uncertainty and doubt, and where linear notions of time have become blurred; or because truth and fiction no longer seem such polar opposites as they once did; or because historians now have more licence to be subjective than they used to. But it’s time to be sceptical about this trend. We need, in this year especially, to start to try to understand why the first world war happened, not to wish that it hadn’t, or argue about whether it was “right” or “wrong”. In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.

Ironically, the very statement embeds some apparently counterfactual assumptions: namely that great prior skepticism among professional historians might have blunted this trend, and that our understanding of the causes and consequences of WWI would be all the richer for having done so.

5 responses to “Counterfactualism, wargaming, and historical analysis

  1. Shane Cagney 13/02/2018 at 4:52 pm

    For me, all Evans is saying is do a bit of due diligence when listening into or engaging in counterfactual history as to the motives of people leading the speculation. Seems utterly sensible.
    And counterfactuals should not substitute for solid fact-based historical research.
    A counterfactual argument doesn’t have the same rigor as real research by definition. An interesting exercise yes, but it should not equate in importance.
    Counterfactual speculation is as benign depending on the group involved. If a group of people play board games or war games speculate on what would have happened down the road if a battle had gone the other way; that’s a fun exercise. A parlor game.
    But it’s a different story if you believe the current Western democracies have lost their way (possibly they have) and then imagine some counterfactual event would have prevented our current predicament.
    Like somehow we would have avoided our present troubles had Britain not fought in WW1 or good lord, Germany won the war or, India be kept in the empire by force, or whatever.
    These are not such innocent speculations. Know the motives behind people making these counterfactual claims, if they have them. Some do, some don’t.
    There is definitely political issue in Western democracies right now where people can’t seem to agree on basic facts on the economy or climate or whatever. If we can’t get basic facts pinned down – in history (as much as we can) or otherwise – let’s not go tearing off into speculation land.
    Lastly, Evans is an historian of European and German history with great experience and deserves a fair hearing regardless.

  2. Rex Brynen 16/03/2014 at 3:57 pm

    Tell us what you really feel, Peter ;)

  3. Peter Perla 16/03/2014 at 3:35 pm

    I had to smile at the intellectual arrogance of the man, making snide remarks about previous fashions in history as if today’s orthodoxy is the be all and end all of “true” historiography. As with so many (most?) dismissers of wargaming, counterfactual reasoning, or any other technique without being intimately familiar with its principles and professional practices, he exposes only his own prejudices and desires for self validation by demeaning those who disagree. Or, perhaps, to save those of us less intellectually rigorous or capable of understanding the issues than he from falling into the trap of thinking something valuable when he, in his wisdom, so clearly sees the dangers. He could easily have argued that it might be of more utility to focus on the issues he believes more important than those raised by the counterfactualists without demonstrating such petty petulance. I look forward to seeing Phil Sabin’s response, as I hope he will undertaken his more calm and polite manner than I seem capable of today.

  4. John Curry 14/03/2014 at 5:58 am

    Counterfactualism is an idea tool for helping engage undergraduates to develop a deeper understanding of history. Wargaming can be a very useful teaching method to develop the higher levels of understandings we all strive to get across. To dismiss it as an education tool displays a misunderstanding of good modern teaching practise.

  5. brtrain 13/03/2014 at 1:24 pm

    Very good post Rex.
    To think at all is to posit counterfactuals.
    I always like to quote AJP Taylor (at least, I’ve seen this attributed to him more often than anyone else): “History is what happened, in the context of what could have happened at the time.”
    One can use counterfactuals to understand why something happened as it did; or one can use them as a wishful-thinking, straw man exercise. And to speak of the dark “hidden agendas” of counterfactual historians and use it to condemn the whole exercise is not helpful at all – you might as well condem the study of all history just because some people like to revise it (and have always revised it, and will always revise it).
    I think Evans really overstates the “kings and battles” angle too; perhaps he has read too much counterfactual fiction, which tends to emphasize the role of individuals because it makes a good story. It’s certainly a staple of science fiction.

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