Can counterfactuals say anything deep about the past?

Rebecca Onion in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_1542 Dec. 08 20.07What if Adolf Hitler’s paintings had been acclaimed, rather than met with faint praise, and he had gone into art instead of politics? Have you ever wondered whether John F Kennedy would have such a shining reputation if he had survived his assassination and been elected to a second term? Or how the United States might have fared under Japanese occupation? Or what the world would be like if nobody had invented the airplane?

If you enjoy speculating about history in these counterfactual terms, there are many books and movies to satisfy you. The counterfactual is a friend to science-fiction writers and chatting partygoers alike. Yet ‘What if?’ is not a mode of discussion you’ll commonly hear in a university history seminar. At some point in my own graduate-school career, I became well-acculturated to the idea that counterfactualism was (as the British historian E P Thompson wrote in 1978) ‘Geschichtwissenschlopff, unhistorical shit.’

‘“What if?” is a waste of time’ went the headline to the Cambridge historian Richard Evans’ piece in The Guardian last year. Surveying the many instances of public counterfactual discourse in the anniversary commemorations of the First World War, Evans wrote: ‘This kind of fantasising is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it in favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken in August 1914 were right or wrong.’ It’s hard enough to do the reading and research required to understand the complexity of actual events, Evans argues. Let’s stay away from alternative universes.

But hold on a minute.

More here.