Counter-factual history and fake news


Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?



Early last month, I joined a group of Historians and their guests to spend a Saturday morning hearing about the Vikings. They were centre-stage because it’s the millennium of Cnut’s conquest of England.  (To put this in context, the next conquest was by the Normans in 1066.)

Before we started, the jury was a bit out on how interesting people would find the topic. Frankly, it seemed a tad unfashionable and it might not be something people would know anything about and could identify with.

Any worry was wasted. The only complaint was that there wasn’t long enough for all the questions people wanted to ask.

Afterwards, some of us speculated why there was so much enthusiasm for the topic, apart from three excellent speakers who brought the Viking world to life. It took a couple of the younger people to make a point that escaped the rest of us.

Apparently, older history (if you’ll excuse the phrase) has a particular appeal to a generation raised on twentieth century history. The causes of the First World War, the origins of the Second World War, the rise of the United States, the Cold War and the like all have their place, but there are History students at universities who’ve studied little before the twentieth century.  The opportunity to hear about Vikings was manna from heaven.

As someone who studied up to the 1850s and considers anything after that date as politics, this was a revelation. I hadn’t realised that what I think of as “proper” history is so thin on the teaching syllabus.

Someone also pointed out that television programmes such as Game of Thrones help to provide connections between contemporary culture and historical periods.  I’d be interested to see a film or TV series that makes the Angevin kings cool, Oliver Cromwell a hero or Charles James Fox aspirational.  It’s time for proper history to fight back.