When reading about decisive battles, campaigns and decisions of any conflict, I am always struck by 'what-if' moments. Because all wars are dynamic processes, with moments in time that can, and indeed must affect the future course of events and even determine the entire outcome.
It is always interesting to speculate on missed opportunities, snap judgements and split-second decisions, especially in the context of wars that have had a significant impact on the social and geopolitical aspects of human history. The most pertinent example, I feel, is questioning whether Nazi Germany could have won the Second World War, and the horrifying consequences if it had. Given the latter consideration, it's not surprising that the most popular subject of alternative historical writing is the idea of the Nazis winning.
At this point, it would be wise to discuss the distinctions within the concept of 'Alternative history.' On the one hand, we have 'alternate history' which is a type of fictional writing, most often taking the form of a novel. On the other, we have 'counterfactual history' which is a form of historiography which conjectures outcomes that did not happen, thereby gaining a deeper insight into what did happen. The only example I have ever read, is a book called 'Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War: Was Defeat Inevitable?
One of the most salient points I remember from the book was regarding the author's motivation and justification of writing a history of this type. This was to demonstrate that the assumption that the US would necessarily win the war, that there could be no other outcome, is flawed, even dangerous. initially I thought a counter-factual exercise like this was completely bizarre, but then in light of that line of reasoning, I began to wonder whether the author was right. Do we become too complacent if we accept the way things went as the only possible outcome?
Yet there is also a risk in speculating in this manner. Take for example the German generals after the war, many of whom insisted that the war was winnable had they only been free of Hitler's meddling. This was especially true of the Kursk debacle, a battle in which certain German Generals insist they were not defeated, merely hampered by a withdrawal of their most powerful reserves to combat the Allied landings in Scicily. But had they known the leviathan extent of the Soviet resources of men and machines, would they still have held this opinion? At times, a feeling bordering on sympathy for Wehrmacht commanders has surfaced, directed mainly at their constant frustrations at having their plans, altered, tampered with and sometimes entirely reversed or countermanded by the Fuhrer. Evidence for strong disagreement and ideological differences between Hitler and the Old Prussian aristocracy which comprised most of the German officer class is undeniable, but it must not be used to whitewash the actions of the latter, many of whom were still involved with or sanctioned terrible war crimes.
With all of this in mind, it is time for my ramblings to end and for me to come to the point
Have you read many, or indeed any examples of counter-factual history, and what do you make of it? useful historiography, or pointless, even damaging speculation? Discuss!