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.

Speaking Russian


Peter the Great seeking a window on the west. Charles XII of Sweden’s march on Moscow. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the Battle of Stalingrad. The establishment of the Eastern Bloc. The fall of the Berlin Wall and dismemberment of the Soviet Union. NATO and EU enlargement.

And, in spite of the evidence of history, there are still some in the G7 and the EU who consider that sanctions will put an unacceptable level of pressure on Russia and its government and there are those who think that Russia can be persuaded to leave Ukraine to manage its own affairs.

The Fellow who’d drawn the short-straw and took me for tutorials on eighteenth and early nineteenth century European history used to make me have conversations with various people who featured in the subject for that week’s essay. I distinctly remember Napoleon sitting in a very comfortable armchair while I was perched on the sofa and told to ask him questions. (The particular trick of the questioning was that I had to answer the questions for Napoleon – or whoever else was in the hot seat that week – too.)

I don’t pretend to have answered the questions at all well (and I had to be prompted to ask a number of them), but I did learn to look at both sides of a situation, particularly where there are preconceived ideas, such as Napoleon bad, Russia good – or, perhaps, Russia bad and Ukraine good.

I’m not making any judgments about the rights and wrongs of the case of any of the many players in relation to the situation in Ukraine (although I can’t see that the death, injury, displacement and loss of homes and belongings of those who live in the disputed zones can ever reflect with credit on any of those involved).

What I’m saying is that history teaches us not only to look at patterns of behaviour in a country over a longer term, but that history also teaches us to look at both sides of a dispute and to explore why individuals act in a particular way. It’s far from the whole of the answer to solving the dispute in the Ukraine and addressing wider Russian objectives and concerns, but there most certainly won’t be a sustainable outcome – or ceasefire – without that.

A history lesson on The Broken Road


Considering that my degree is in History, I have a disgraceful lack of knowledge of the history of south-eastern Europe. Worse still, I’ve only realised it in the last couple of weeks.

I’m approaching the end of The Broken Road, the final part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy of his walk across Europe to Constantinople in 1933-4. (There are previous blog entries about the first in the trilogy, A Time of Gifts.) The Broken Road covers time travelling through Bulgaria and southern Romania and follows the account of time spent in Hungary and Romania in the second book, Between the Woods and the Water.

Historians are notorious for saying that something isn’t their period, but a lesser-known fact is that Historians have their countries too. For instance, I’ve “done” northern Europe and can wax lyrical on the Swedish empire with particular reference to Gustavus Adolphus and his military campaigns in what is now Russia. I extend to Spain, through France, the Netherlands and Prussia. I’ve heard of Jan Sobieski and I can manage parts of Russian history, but this is northern Europe, not the areas further south, bordering the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

What shines through in Mr Leigh Fermor’s writing is a far more complex history than I had any idea of, with a fiendish web of ethnicities. But two points have struck me in particular.

The first is that the history I’ve been involved in had a western-European focus. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, countries generally formed alliances with, and went to war against, their neighbours, until the mid-nineteenth century. (I know that the Crusades are an exception and the American War of Independence too, but the Crusades are indeed an exception and let’s keep colonies out of this particular equation.) South-eastern European countries weren’t neighbours of western European countries and the result seems to have been that their history fell off my map. The result is that there are all sorts of characters, issues, invasions, battles and alliances that I’d never heard of.

The second point is very closely linked to the first. For centuries, a dominating factor in south-eastern Europe was the challenge of the Ottomans. I was aware that the Ottomans had reached – and besieged – Vienna in 1683 and victory over the Ottoman army (cue reference to Jan Sobieski) had marked a turning point in the Ottoman threat. But I hadn’t realised the profound impact that Ottoman incursions and occupation had on south-eastern Europe over such a long period.

I started reading The Broken Road because I was fascinated by Mr Leigh Fermor’s journey and wanted to see how it would end. I hadn’t realised that I’d be receiving a History lesson in the process.