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Niall Ferguson, Virtual History: Commentary

What Happens in this Passage?

Germany dominates the European continent and in 1940 defeats and conquers both France and Britain.


Ferguson is teasing here, especially as he is writing in the first instance for a British audience. The knowledge that Britain successfully defied Hitler in 1940 is deeply ingrained in the British collective consciousness, so it is an audacious act to overturn it in this way. He turns our expectations on their heads throughout the passage: Hitler ignores ‘Anglo-America’; Austrian troops march into Berlin (rather than Germans into Vienna, as actually happened); Hitler meets not Chamberlain but Attlee; the British know nothing of tanks (in reality, a British invention). Ferguson sprinkles just enough real history – the invasions of Poland and France, the subjection of Bohemia and Moravia – to keep us in touch with reality, before confounding expectations again.

Counterfactual history is a controversial topic and by no means all historians see any value in it whatsoever. It is one thing to say that Britain faced the possibility of German invasion and conquest in 1940 – no historian would deny it – and one might even use captured German plans or the German record in other occupied countries to speculate on what a German occupation of Britain might have been like; it is quite a different matter, however, to build up an entirely imaginary narrative based on not one but a number of counterfactuals. It might be said that to create one counterfactual makes it necessary in due course to create many more; critics say that this proves their point. The question to ask yourself is, having read this passage from Ferguson, what have you learnt?

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