Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
Ferguson (Niall), Ed.
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Amazon Product Description

  1. Edited by Niall Ferguson, Virtual History applies 'counterfactual' arguments to decisive moments in modern history.
    • What if Britain had stayed out of the First World War?
    • What if Germany had won the Second?
    • How would England look if there had been no Cromwell?
    • What would the world be like if Communism had never collapsed? And
    • What if John F. Kennedy had lived?
  2. In this acclaimed book, leading historians from Andrew Roberts to Michael Burleigh explore what might have been if nine of the most decisive moments in modern history had never happened.
  3. "Ferguson constructs an entire scenario starting with Charles I's defeat of the Covenanters, running through three revolutions that did not happen and climaxing with the collapse of the West, ruled by an Anglo-American empire, in the face of a mighty transcontinental, tsarist Russian imperium ... A welcome, optimistic assault on an intellectual heresy.
    Sunday Times
  4. Niall Ferguson is one of Britain's most renowned historians. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. His books include The House of Rothschild, Empire, The War of the World, "Ferguson (Niall) - The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World", The Great Degeneration and Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist. His many prizes include the Benjamin Franklin Prize for Public Service (2010), the Hayek Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2012) and the Ludwig Erhard Prize for Economic Journalism (2013).

Amazon Customer Review
  1. I borrowed this book on a whim from an e-library and was impatient to move onto the first of the analyses - how would British history have turned out had Cromwell never come to power. But I thought I had better read the introduction first. Over 80 pages later, I finally finished it, enthralled by a fantastic critique of various approaches to history (broadly the deterministic approach of the 'historicists' such as Marx and his followers, but also the Whig school, etc., and the idealists such as Collingwood1). Ferguson ends by making a very strong case for 'counterfactual' history as consistent with the essentially chaotic nature of events and as allowing the historian to consider causality more critically - in a world of multiple necessary but not sufficient causes, how do we ascertain which were actually necessary? By considering what would have happened without them, he proposes. He places historical discipline on this: alternative courses of action should not only be obvious to us in hindsight, he proposes, to be appropriate for analysis, but must have been seen as possible to people at the time. And should be supported by historical records.
  2. As an ex-historian myself in my first degree many years ago, I found this extremely interesting and plausible. Ferguson's use of modern science such as chaos theory and quantum mechanics2 and evolution is well-informed and also persuasive.
  3. The introduction would be excellent, thought-provoking reading for a historian at A-level or International Bac level or in the first year or two of a university course. And of course for the general reader as well.
  4. The book, for me, was worth reading for the introduction alone3. I have now read three4 of the counterfactuals. To be honest I did not enjoy them nearly as much as the Introduction and so I did not go on. The problem is probably with me not with the articles. They are very much written by academic historians and focus on the types of issue that I found (to be honest) so boring in my old university course 40+ years ago: what were the ages of the more senior judges in 1639 and how might the composition of the bench have changed had the Covenanters not defeated Charles 1? How did the political views of members of parliament differ by their age and how long would it have been before few if any of the Commons had any personal memory of the King ruling through Parliament. In other words, data rich, highly analytical, very professional and really quite tedious5 to read. The same for the American war of Independence and even for the non-assassination of JFK.
  5. This is exactly what Ferguson was arguing for - counterfactuals as a tool for professional historians - so there's nothing to complain about. But I put the book down with relief that I don't have to read this type of thing anymore and picked up Jeremy Paxton's far less academic but infinitely more enjoyable and provocative History of the British Empire instead.

  1. Introduction: Virtual History: Towards a ‘chaotic’ theory of the past
    Niall Ferguson
  2. England Without Cromwell: What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?
    → John Adamson
  3. British America: What if there had been no American Revolution?
    → J.C.D. Clark
  4. British Ireland: What if Home Rule had been enacted in 1912
    → Alvin Jackson
  5. The Kaiser’s European Union: What if Britain had ‘stood aside’ in August 1914?
    Niall Ferguson
  6. Hitler’s England: What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?
    →Andrew Roberts
  7. Nazi Europe: What if Nazi Germany had defeated the Soviet Union?
    → Michael Burleigh
  8. Stalin’s War or Peace: What if the Cold War had been avoided?
    → Jonathan Haslam
  9. Camalot Continued: What if John F. Kennedy had lived?
    → Diane Kunz
  10. 1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not collapsed?
    → Mark Almond
  11. Afterword: A virtual history, 1646-1996
    Niall Ferguson

In-Page Footnotes ("Ferguson (Niall), Ed. - Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals")

Footnote 1: Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Footnote 5:

Penguin Books, London, 5 May 2011

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