“What if?” We’ve all played that game. It’s a dinner party standby. It can be fun to wonder how things would have been different, if that, this, or whatever had happened. The scenarios are endless. What if on September 11, 2001, instead of hi-jacking jetliners and murdering thousands of innocent people, those responsible for the atrocities missed their flights in a series of seemingly innocuous, yet world changing events, i.e., they overslept, or maybe an over-caffeinated traffic cop towed their vehicles for double parking and they couldn’t make it to the airport. What if one of them had a change of heart and dimed the others out? Or, heaven forbid, they were caught before hand and jailed for life? Would the world we live in be different? Absolutely. But it did not happen. To surmise otherwise, is the tantalizing game historians call ‘the counterfactual.’
Now, imagine if a group of eminent historians were paired with some of today’s finest novelists and presented with a list of paradigm setting historical events, their task to rewrite history. What emerged from their minds and into print was a series of plausible and provocative essays sure to chill and scintillate with what could have been. And they do not shy from the controversial, pondering the crucial events of history and their corresponding impact on today’s world.
What if Pontius Pilate had pardoned Jesus Christ? What if William the Conqueror never conquered England? What if the South had won the Civil War? Imagine if Pope Pius XII had spoken out against the Holocaust. What if on D-Day, the unspeakable happened and the Allies were defeated, and Hitler survives? What if Germany wins the first world war? Imagine if the Mongols had succeeded in conquering Europe.
Alluring and frightening, these and many other intriguing scenarios that altered the course of history are explored in Robert Cowley’s collected edition of “What if?”. Though ‘counterfactual’ , the essays served reminder that history may seem to bend at the whims of events or people, but that ultimately fate is inexorable.