What is Counterfactual History?

Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as virtual history, is a recent form of historiography which attempts to answer “what if” questions known as counterfactuals. It seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had an outcome which was different from that which did in fact occur.

The purpose of this exercise is to ascertain the relative importance of the event, incident or person the counterfactual hypothesis is negating.

For instance, to the counterfactual claim “What would have happened had Hitler drunk coffee instead of tea on the afternoon he committed suicide?”, the timeline would have remained unchanged — Hitler in all likelihood still would have committed suicide on April 30, 1945, regardless of what he had to drink that afternoon. However, to the counterfactual “What would have happened had Hitler died in the July, 1944, assassination attempt?”, all sorts of possibilities become readily apparent, starting with the reasonable assumption that the German generals would have in all likelihood sued for peace, bringing an early end to World War II, at least in the European Theatre. Thus, the counterfactual brings into sharp relief the importance of Hitler as an individual and how his personal fate shaped the course of the war and, ultimately, of world history.

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