During the past ten years a somewhat intellectual game of second-guessing has become a popular line of reasoning among people who for some reason are not satisfied with how things actually worked out. They are very serious about their efforts to tell history in a "different" way, and they call it "Alternate History." I first ran into the growing phenomenon about ten years ago when I was a member of an author's panel on writing military history for publication, and a member of the audience asked me if I had ever considered writing an Alternate History. He asked the question as though there was/is a useful alternative to what actually happened. I told him the thought has never entered my mind because what is--is. It is absolutely impossible to go back and change what has already happened. In short, in my opinion, there is no such thing as an Alternate History.
I agree that historians, working with primary material, might arrive at different conclusions as to why something happened the way it did, or they might posit what might have happened if something else had happened to change the outcome. But to go from acknowledging the obvious fact that a different cause-effect relationship might have, with varying levels of probability, produced an entirely different outcome, to a position that the questionable outcome is actually history, is playing at "ifs." If wishes were horses, all beggars would ride. But the truth is wishes aren't horses and beggars generally don't ride.
As I see it, the problem with the people who pursue these Alternative Histories is that they equate what might have been with a certainty of what would have happened. They are, in that sense, the same as the conspiracy theorists who see all cause and effect results occurring in a linear fashion that result in a predictable and utterly certain final outcome.
Let me give you an example of an historical premise that might lead one into the area of Alternate History. It is a matter of historical record that the Entente Powers defeated the Central Powers in World War one, and both the act of fighting the war and its outcome resulted in previously unimaginable social, political, and economic changes. But would those changes have occurred if the war had ended differently, or would Europe had continued on as before, the Kaiser in place, social structure basically unchanged, and the Communist Revolution crushed?
I would like to hear from Forum members about how they view Alternate History. Is it a useful tool for understanding what actually happened or is it another form of science fiction, or just plain fiction? If you feel Alternate History has value as a historical research tool, please explain how that is so. I will tell you in advance that though I might not agree with you, I will carefully read what you have to say. This Forum is as much yours as it is mine, so whatever opinion you hold, it has a right to be stated and listened to.
The only thing that I ask is that you stick to the topic of Alternate History, which offers an enormous arena for discussion, and avoid restating the many current conspiracy theories that are not only an entirely different topic, but are often assertive and confrontive. Dwight