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This meaty, scholarly collection of essays by gifted historian Niall Ferguson tackles the controversial topic of counterfactual questions: What if Hitler had invaded Britain in WWII? What if JFK had survived his assassination? What if there had been no Gorbachev to usher in the collapse of Communism? What if there had been no American Revolution? Ferguson points out that while questions such as these are a vital part of how we learn as individuals ("What if I had observed the speed limit, or refused that last drink?"), there remains a great deal of resistance--even hostility--to such musings among professional historians. "[I]n the dismissive phrase of E.H. Carr, 'counterfactual' history is a mere 'parlour game,' a 'red herring.'" E.P. Thompson is less charitable, calling counterfactual histories "'Geschichtswissenschlopff', unhistorical shit."
But Ferguson and his distinguished collaborators (many of whom are also Oxford fellows) lodge some convincing counterfactuals of their own to counter this arguably blinkered notion, this "idea that events are in some way preprogrammed, so that what was, had to be." In addition to the what-ifs above, Ferguson and his comrades tackle eight questions in all, including "What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?", "What if Home Rule had been enacted [in Ireland] in 1912?", and "What if Britain had 'stood aside' in August 1914?" Virtual History makes for a stimulating and intellectually rigorous trip, with Ferguson's own delightful afterword as the collection's crowning jewel, a brilliant--and often bitingly clever--timeline tying together all the threads from 1646 to 1996. --Paul Hughes [via]