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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Grab-bag, but an interesting one, March 12, 2006
This review is from: What Might Have Been: Imaginary History From Twelve Leading Historians (Hardcover)
"What Might Have Been" is an exercise in academic alternative history - the "counterfactual" approach. Where traditional history writing tells us about what actually happened, counterfactual history speculates on what might have happened if things had gone another way. Sometimes, this approach ends up looking like intellectuals playing parlour games, but at its best, it is quite an interesting way of looking at the world.

This collection, thankfully, falls into that second category. Andrew Roberts' introduction pays homage to what is considered to be the classic of the genre - Niall Ferguson's "Virtual History" - but clearly demonstrates that this is going to be irreverent at best. Having shown his hand, it's over to the individual contributors to write about their own What If moments.

Several of these are from unexpected sources. The customary "Royalists Win The Civil War" scenario makes an appearance, and the conclusions here are quite interesting - and far removed from the continuation of absolutist rule that tends to be given as the natural result. As well, we are treated to some musings on a very different American Civil War (with the Trent Incident bringing England into the war), a successful Gunpowder Plot, the Spanish Armada landing in England and even the untimely death of Margaret Thatcher at the hands of the IRA.
In all of these, the contributors skillfully detail the real facts and the point at which their assumptions take over. In some cases - particularly the Gunpowder Plot essay - it is the facts themselves which are quite startling and the reader is treated to a crash course in "What Really Happened" as well as "What Might Have Been".

Another great strength of this collection is that the contributors all tend to assume very little background on the part of their readers. Thus, events such as the Trent Incident and the Brighton Bomb - which may be particularly famous to historians of certain periods - are explained in simple terms to those of us who have no prior knowledge thereof. In addition, the important actors in these dramas are fleshed out in much greater detail than the average textbook.
At the same time, it is also important to note that not all contributors indulge in the wild fantasy of "The world would be a very different place if...". The sucessful Gunpowder Plot, for example, is argued to be potentially of no real import at all, while Conrad Black's essay on a world where Pearl Harbour did not occur basically posits that the Second World War would have continued in much the same way. Of a similar cut is the conclusion of the Brighton Bomb essay, which almost implies that the Conservatives would have been stronger after the short-term problems the loss of Mrs Thatcher would have caused.

Two essays in particular stand out as particularly playful. The first of these is Roberts' own "Lenin Is Shot At The Finland Station", in which the mysterious Lev Harveiovich Oswalt creates the conspiracy of "Who Shot VIL?" before the Bolshevik leader could take control. This essay purports to be part of a Russian history textbook, and so speculates on what could have happened had Lenin survived, thereby blurring fact and fiction even more.
In a similar vein, although less expertly performed, is Simon Sebag Montefiore's discussion of what would have happened if Stalin had fled Moscow. This is a highly enjoyable read, not least for its creation of "Colonel Fiktionashvili" (Son of Fiction), a Georgian security guard. Ultimately, however, it falls flat as Vyachslav Molotov becomes the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev of this alternate universe - which seems a rather hasty conclusion to draw.

Sadly, though, there are three essays which are not up to the same standards as the rest of the volume. The first of these is a discussion of Benedict Anderson's treason during the American Revolution being successful - at least, it would be, but the author involved merely rehashes Anderson's career and provides a number of points at which something could have changed. We are not treated to any discussion of what might have happened if the Revolution had been put down.
The second is Conrad Black's on America not being attacked in Pearl Harbor. While his thesis - that Franklin Roosevelt would have gone to war regardless - is cogently argued, it never really reaches the heights of the other contributions.
The third of these is David Frum's take on Al Gore's potential response to September 11. While this may have been intended as humour, it is in reality a thinly-disguised partisan piece in which Gore and his team embody everything the American conservative movement fear. The sheer nonsense of most of what Frum writes demonstrates that it is far too early to write a counterfactual on the 2000 election, as partisan issues will still come to the fore. Of course, there may well be other readers who will take this drivel about handing Spain back to Syria (from which it was never really ruled in the first place, despite Frum's assertions) as a good reason to buy the book.

In conclusion, as with any edited volume "What Might Have Been" has its highlights and lowlights. In this particular case, the former outweigh the the latter. Students of history who are not afraid to cock a snook at the orthodoxy of the discipline should enjoy this collection immensely.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 25, 2007 4:23:57 PM PDT
Ixion28 says:
"Benedict Anderson"? You're kidding, right? Even people who know zilch about history have heard of Benedict ARNOLD. Jeez!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2007 6:03:37 AM PDT
Cut the guy a break - he's an Aussie!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 23, 2010 4:08:13 PM PDT
Benedict Arnold, Al Gore---not much different, except that Arnold was competent and brilliant BEFORE he became a traitor.
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Location: Brisbane, Queensland Australia

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