'What If' is a useful way to know 'what now'

What if Hitler had won the Second World War? What if Einstein had been run over as a child? What if Al Gore had won the presidency? What if the Gunpowder Plot had worked? What sort of mess would we be in today? Speculating about the "What if's" of history is denounced in some quarters as a silly parlour game. Marxists in particular disapprove of it which, notes historian and editor Andrew Roberts in What Might Have Been, is one good reason for taking the opposite view.

Here's another. Any judgment about current events, from rising gas prices to turmoil in the Middle East, contains an implicit judgment about the lessons of history. We can't compare this present with some other present, but we have to compare it with something to separate the essential from the trivial. For instance, are there many examples of big successful economic conspiracies in market economies in the past?

It's bad science fiction, as Mr. Roberts says, to give Lenin an atomic bomb. But it's highly instructive to ask if Britain and France could have stopped Hitler at minimal cost in 1938. If you think so, you are guided to the conclusion that any leader who resembles Hitler sufficiently should be dealt with early and firmly. Of course you might accept this argument while maintaining that Saddam Hussein didn't resemble Hitler closely enough to make it relevant. But if you really think you can't know what would have happened if the Allies had not betrayed their Czechoslovakian ally at Munich, you have no basis for making any judgment at all. (Even the Marxist view, that history was bound to turn out as it did, secretly depends on the notion that if individuals had acted differently nothing much would have changed.)

Making historical judgments is not easy, of course. Hence all the bickering over public policy. It's not even clear whether history tends in certain directions or is dizzyingly random. In Mr. Roberts' book, Norman Stone has Gavrilo Princip fail to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and there's no First World War. But since the German general staff were optimistic about war with France and Russia in the short run and pessimistic in the long run, I could easily write a version where they find some other excuse. Oh, and instead of the "Miracle of the Marne," Germany wins by Christmas 1914, western civilization is not discredited by four years of futile carnage, and there's no Hitler, Stalin, Holocaust or Second World War.

Or to take a Canadian example that's not in the book, Jean Chretien famously wished he'd been there to wake up Montcalm in time for him to win at the Plains of Abraham. But one can imagine an outcome in which France, beaten in the Seven Years' War, hands over Quebec anyway. Or French power in North America deters the 13 colonies from rebelling in 1776, a British and colonial expedition conquers New France in the 1780s, the colonies revolt, war starts in 1812, York is burned down, and...

Given this wide range of possibilities, it is particularly valuable that Mr. Roberts' 12 contributors not only deal with a range of events from the Spanish Armada to the 2000 vote in Florida but offer such a variety of treatments. Simon Sebag Montefiore immerses us in a parallel-universe scenario where Stalin flees from Moscow in October 1941, is overthrown by the Politburo in favour of Vyacheslav Molotov, and ... I don't want to spoil the surprise. Mr. Roberts himself similarly offers us a chapter from Kerensky's Triumph on the assassination of the demagogue Lenin in April 1917.

By contrast, Conrad Black offers a sober argument that if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, FDR would have led the U.S. into war with Germany anyway. And since from little acorns mighty oak trees grow, Robert Cowley puts aside the geopolitical consequences to focus on the improbable way Benedict Arnold's treason was discovered.

It's very hard to know what might have been. The most famous counterfactual is Pascal's 17th-century observation that the whole history of the Roman Empire would have been different if Cleopatra's nose had been half an inch longer, or shorter, so that she failed to bewitch both Caesar and Anthony. But as Mr. Roberts notes, "for all we know her nose might have been the one thing that neither of them liked about her." And I'm not sure I buy Adam Zamoyski's benign European unification after Napoleon defeats Russia. Bad as it was, I'm frequently amazed history wasn't worse.

The book's cover, showing the first man on the moon planting a Nazi flag, is certainly sobering. But hey, it might have been.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson