Countering the Facts…

19 04 2008

I return after my two week hiatus full of various ideas, opinions and thoughts, some of which I shall undoubtedly put down in words at some point. However first things first. Being the slower reader that I am, it was only last week that I read a piece by Dominic Sandbrook on the First World War. The thoughts of other people on the article are here to read. The article, basically suggested that Britain didn’t need to go to war in 1914, and if she hadn’t, Europe would have been fine under the control of Germany.

Now, as much as I find counter-factual history entertaining, this cannot, to my mind at least, claim to be ‘good’ history writing. For me, the suggestion that had Britain not entered the war, the likes of Hitler and Stalin would never have cast their long shadows over the 20th Century, is flawed. I cannot, in all honesty, understand the ‘what if’ arguments. They have the misfortune of doing two things. The first is that they make the writer seem, bigoted, arrogant, and consequently, stupid. Having read a lot of Sandbrook’s other stuff I know that this isn’t the case. Yet his thoughts that it was, in fact, very easy to opt out of the war, thereby avoiding the millions of deaths that came to pass, are basically nonsense.

However, the second reason that ‘what if’s?’ should be disgarded is one of common sense. They are neither useful nor productive to consider. They do not change the facts of the matter, nor do they change thoughts about the matter. They do very little but theorise about the possible outcomes of events had they not happened the way they did.

“What if Harold was not killed by that arrow in the eye at Hastings in 1066?”

“What if Cook had missed New Zealand and Australia?”

“What if Hitler hadn’t been elected in 1932?”

“What if 9/11 had never happened?”

All are interesting questions to think about, but ultimately meaningless. The trouble is, they all did happen, and consequently shaped history.

The emphasised quote on the page of Sandbrook’s article read “Had Britain stayed out of the First World War, our recent history- and that of Europe- would have been a good deal rosier”. I am struggling to find the words to explain how stupid and flawed this idea is. Sandbrook presents a picture that suggests that it was a simple case of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as if someone simply asked the question “Does anyone fancy going to war today chaps?”.

The reality, as anyone with half any iota of intelligence will tell you, was very different. A complex series of agreements, both verbal and written, as well as a concern for Britain’s own empire and the security of Europe were all contributory causes for Britain’s entry into the war. It is ironic therefore that as a result of entering the war, Britain eventually came to losing most of her empire by the 1950s. But this is to stray away from the point.

My own point, albeit briefly discussed here, is that counter-factual history is really a very flawed, ultimately stupid, waste of time for people who like to think that they are intelligent. It avoids tackling the big questions in favour of the hypothetical nonsense. It contributes nothing to debate surrounding these topics. It seems to me that it is just a timewasting device for the historian until they can actually find something worthwhile contrbuting to the discussion.

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