Causality, consequences and counterfactuals: can individuals change history? – Chris Rouse

Chris Rouse is a final year History and Politics student at the University of Birmingham, and starts an MA in Medieval Studies at York in September. He enjoys writing about the premodern history of politics, religion, ideas and globalism. 

Roser 02 (Chip)


Causality, consequences and counterfactuals: can individuals change history?

Can history be ‘changed’? Are there individuals or events that can be said to have changed history? If so, how? And when? The trope of moments or people who ‘changed history’ is pervasive in modern analyses and is a common way of conceptualising key points in and of the past. On the face of it, this concept’s idea is fairly clear- there were individuals and events so significant that they sent history veering off in a different direction.

The notion, however, rests on a certain understanding of what ‘history’ is. That there were moments in time that proved hugely important for a group, polity or set of beliefs is beyond doubt – Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312; the work of Copernicus and Galileo in challenging religious orthodoxy in science; and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand are but a few examples. These were occurrences, however, which only affected ‘history’ – the past – from a later perspective. Put another way, they did not ‘change history’ (what happened happened, and is the only scenario we can ever know) but influenced the present, albeit an older present than ours.

In one broad sense, ‘history’ is what happened – the grand narrative of the past. To speak of moments which ‘changed history’ is seemingly to comprehend the past as a fundamentally fluid phenomenon. But the past happened as it did, and always has done. Constantine converted. Copernicus and Galileo developed their heliocentric theories. Franz Ferdinand was murdered. These events set the present and dictated the future; they can only be said to have ‘changed history’ when we look back and perceive discontinuity.

In one very firm sense, then, the past is not fluid – it happened in a certain way, and key events are stitched into the grand, linear narrative of human development. Yet we should be wary of conflating ‘the past’ and ‘history’. ‘History’ is a post hoc phenomenon, the interpretation of the past using available evidence and framed through modern ideas, norms, and prejudices. It is less ‘what happened’ (which is ultimately unknowable in any complete form) and more our understanding of what happened.

This understanding of history has several consequences. One is that, although the past is set, ‘history’ is more mutable. To return to the cliché at the start, there are moments and people which change history, but these are not the big players or set pieces of the past like Charlemagne or the invention of printing. Rather, ‘changing history’ is a post hoc epistemological phenomenon, the points in time when our conception of the past is substantially altered through new information and new arguments. The discovery of evidence, textual or archaeological, does not alter the past but can radically change what we think happened, and how. History – a subjective, fluid concept – is changed insofar as we change our view of the grand narrative of the past: the set list of actors and events. The moments which change history are moments like Aurel Stein discovering lost scrolls in West China elucidating the ancient race of the Sogdians,[1]and the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard making us reinterpret culture and political structures in the early medieval period.[2] The past can never change, but our ways of thinking about it are everopen to radical revision as new pieces of the puzzle emerge.

If this appears overly semantic and pedantic, that is far from the intent. Partly, it is a concern for separating two different phenomena, and for always thinking critically about what we think we know. On one hand, it is interesting to note the facet of the human condition that looks backwards to identify pivotal moments in the past, either to instil in history a pragmatic function (using prior examples to establish what, or what not, to do) or to engage in thought experiments. This relates to the other consequence of treating ‘history’ as the subjective interpretation of past events; alternatives to and different analyses of the set timeline can be posited.

The notion of historical crossroads, moments where events could have panned out in different ways with significant aftereffects, often manifests in the medium of counterfactuals. I have often seen counterfactuals – attempts to answer the ‘what ifs’ of history – rejected as academic fluff, the self-indulgence of historians seeking to have fun in creating stories which are ultimately neither provable nor falsifiable. Thus for every imagining of ‘what if the Chinese discovered America’; ‘what if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated’; ‘what if the Greeks lost at Salamis’, and so on, there is someone disputing or dismissing the alternative series of events. I would challenge the notion that counterfactuals are innately frivolous and useless exercises. It is true that they are primarily intended for entertainment and that their verity cannot be proven either way. But it is equally true that answers to ‘what if’ are not plucked out of thin air. Good quality ones are, generally, grounded in fact and the context of the events in question. Historians can look back from the critical moment and use knowledge and interpretation to project forwards. This enables valuable insights and critical analysis of moments in the past which are taken to be crucial. The popularity and persistence of counterfactuals demonstrates the intertwined facets of human nature and what we take to be history; there is an innate desire to play with the facts and see what might have been, demonstrating the endless capacity for interpretation and reinterpretation of facts and evidence.

Part of understanding history, and intrinsic to producing counterfactuals, is in tracing causality, trying to establish what specific sequence of factors led to particular events. To do so, fixed events must be interpreted through the limitations of imperfect sources (different groups of which will point towards certain explanations) and the historian’s personal prejudices, either conscious (like a Marxist methodology which would emphasise economic factors) or subconscious (the ideational and material contexts in which the historian works). There will hence be varying accounts of any single event. World War Two is a classic example here, and a favourite case study for counterfactuals, either academic or in literature, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I’ve long nursed a theory concerning the causes of the war. Many reputable academics would probably shout it down, and I’ve not formally studied the interwar years since A Level, but it’s an example of how causality can be interpreted in many ways, and also how ‘history’ can rarely be fundamentally disproven.

My basic hypothesis is that the death of the German chancellor Gustav Stresemann was responsible for World War Two. To examine this, steps will be retraced from September 1939. The war began as a consequence of Adolf Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy. Hitler initially came to power through (somewhat) democratic methods rather than a military coup, suggesting a broad degree of support. Such support stemmed from those upper classes who feared Communism, and the working classes who were economically disadvantaged. The fear and poverty was a result of the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash in 1929. My argument is that Stresemann, who died in 1929, may have been able to weather the worst of the crash, as Stanley Baldwin managed in Britain and as Stresemann had done in Germany in the years immediately after World War One. No Stresemann led to economic hardship, which led to support for the Nazis, which led to war. Much of this theory can be taken as tenuous and unverifiable, not to mention based on many assumptions, not least that Stresemann could have handled the economic situation. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how the ‘past’, the basic list of ‘what happened’ can lead to highly complex ‘history’, the process of interpreting these events through contentious and contended evidence.

Understanding and interpreting causality, tracing backwards from what to posit why should be key to any discussion of the historical. As such, we think of history as a process, a series of chronologically staggered but interlinked events – this much is evident. However, only a long view would take the above argument, for instance, and relate it to the medieval actions of the Holy Roman Empire which led to the movements of the ancestors of the key political actors in interwar Germany. At what point, in analysing causality, do we stop going backwards? This is a thorny area. Logically, everything since the first humans is responsible for World War Two, but it is unfeasible to analyse modern phenomena starting in a primeval context. This suggests something of a paradox where we consider ‘history’ to be an overarching, unbroken process, but historical events as more chronologically isolated and discrete phenomena.

A similar effect can be seen in consequences; taking an occurrence and going forwards rather than backwards. Just as it is highly difficult to know when to stop working backwards with attributing causality, it is contentious as to when the historian should stop working forwards with regards to impact. A first year undergraduate question concerned the ‘impact’ of the Vikings. Again, this seems simple at first viewing, as long as ‘impacts’ are interpreted in the short term. The Vikings arrived in Britain, for instance, murdered some reeves, looted some monasteries, butchered some monks and ravaged Kent.[3] Short term impact, at least according to the victims’ sources: bloodshed and economic loss. Looking to the longer term, it gets complicated. Under Rollo, some Vikings were given part of the north of France. Later, this Normandy would produce a ruler, William the Bastard, who would gain from his conquests both a kinder nickname and the kingdom of England. Thence, England would become heavily involved in European and global politics and economic affairs over the centuries. Is one impact of the Vikings hence the British empire? The individual steps can be traced. But it seems ridiculous to project consequences this far forward. We could maybe stop speaking of impact within two or three degrees, so that an impact of the Vikings can plausibly be said to be the Norman kings of England. But since various stages of assimilation reduced the ‘Vikingness’ of the Vikings over time,  it is harder to justify later stages as a consequence of theirs, despite the Danes originally setting events in motion.

Such issues of causality and consequences, in reducing the big picture to historical pixels, get to the nub of how we think about history; there is a human urge to apportion millennia into manageable chunks. This can be seen similarly in periodisation; we speak of ages and of dynasties, masking discontinuity within the ‘Tudors’, for instance and hiding continuity between the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. This further shows that history is a construct, formed not just by past agents who act, but by present thinkers who dissect and reform the past in a way which suits them.

So what is history, and how do we think about it? Thinking about history is thinking about events, people and possibilities and interpreting them in the context of a fixed, linear timeline to which we also try to attribute flexibility. Thus, to the fixed past, we add counterfactuals – what if the past were not what is was – and interpret sequences of events in different ways. We look backwards for causes and forwards for consequences from key moments in time, asking what sequence of factors led to an event, and then what that event sparked. Thus, thinking about history is another facet of the boundless nature of human curiosity. We excel not just in exploring in space but also in time, positing alternatives where none exist and tracing different lines of cause and effect backwards and forwards. History is our past and our interpretation of the past. Thinking about it is to consider where we came from, where we could have gone, and where we still can.






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