, also sometimes referred to as virtual history
, is a form of historiography
that attempts to answer "what if
" questions known as counterfactuals
. Black and MacRaild provide this definition: "It is, at the very root, the idea of conjecturing on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen." The method seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had an outcome which was different from that which did in fact occur. It has produced a literary genre
which is variously called alternative history
, speculative history
, or hypothetical history.
One goal is to estimate the relative importance of a specific event, incident or person. For instance, to the counterfactual claim "What would have happened had Hitler
instead of tea
on the afternoon he committed suicide?", the timeline would have remained unchanged—Hitler in all likelihood still would have committed suicide on April 30, 1945, regardless of what he had to drink that afternoon. However, to the counterfactual "What would have happened had Hitler died in the July 1944 assassination attempt
?", all sorts of possibilities become readily apparent, starting with the assumption that the German generals, had they been able to consolidate power over remaining Nazi functionaries such as Goebbels
, would probably have sued for peace, bringing an early end to World War II
. (Historians generally feel popular support for the Party was still very strong in July 1944, and the party apparatus of Himmler, Goebbels, Speer
etc. would survive even an assassination of Hitler.) Thus, the counterfactual brings into sharp relief the question of how important Hitler was as an individual and how his personal fate shaped the course of the war and, ultimately, of world history. Read more...