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Niall Ferguson, Virtual History

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It might be thought that historians have enough to do trying to understand what actually happened in the past without spending time discussing things that didn’t. In 1997, however, Niall Ferguson edited a collection of essays that launched the idea of counterfactual history on the world.

The famous historian F.W. Maitland once remarked that historians should always remember that events which are now in the past were once in the future. This was not just a warning against hindsight; it was also pointing out that at any point in the past, the path events actually took was only one of a number of possible paths that they could have taken. Historians often remind readers of this; the Duke of Wellington himself remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was a close-run thing and that it could easily have gone the other way. However Ferguson went much further than historians had done before and edited a set of essays that posited a number of counterfactuals and then tried to imagine how history might have been different. These ‘what if?’s included a royalist victory in the English Civil War, a settlement of the grievances of the American colonists which meant they did not need to declare themselves independent, a Nazi invasion of Britain and a President Kennedy who was not assassinated.

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