Alternate histories can be fun, but they are (inevitably) inadequate. The world is too complex for anyone to capture a comprehensive picture of the changes from a butterfly flapping its wings twice instead of once or the implications of a member of Hitler’s staff unknowingly moving a briefcase that held a bomb to the far side of a heavy oaken table leg, leaving the Fuhrer to fight another day.
My favorite example is the famous incident in Sarajevo in June, 1914. Serbian assassins had planned to throw what we would call a hand-grenade under the car in which Archduke Ferdinand rode to a banquet from the train station. The bomb rolled too far and exploded in front of the second car. The Archduke sped away to his banquet, but afterwards decided it would be appropriate to visit the injured driver of the second car in the hospital. The Archduke’s chauffeur didn’t know the route and made a wrong turn. He stopped to back up and get back on the right road. As it turned out, he stopped the Archduke’s car right in front of a café in which Gavrilo Principe, another of the Serbian conspirators, was sitting, trying to figure out what to do since their initial plan had gone awry. Hmmm…Principe saw the Archduke stop, stood up took out the pistol he had in his pocket and shot the Archduke and his wife dead.
So, World War I started because of a fluke. If the barista had taken another few minutes preparing Principe’s macchiato, no assassination, no confrontation between Austria and Serbia, no revving up of the German military plans, no invasion of France, etc. etc. etc.
Now the broad geopolitical trends might well have pushed Europe into a war at some point, but not that war, at that time, with that particular configuration of technologies, manpower, and alliances. Everything since then is different. Among other things, my grandfather would not have gone to France to drive an ambulance for the US Army and returned safely home to the life that eventuated. Instead, he would have gone over two years later, met and married a French countess from the Loire (et maintenant, un centenaire plus tard, je vous ecrirais en Francais).
But here I am (writing in English) trying to get students to understand that if everything is different, then extracting meaning from the world around us is a fool’s errand. If we define ourselves from our cultural milieu (ok, un peu mot francais) and that milieu is the product of a fluke (as I have shown), then we can’t be too sure we know who we are—as individuals, groups, countries etc.
Of course, most contingencies are closer to the hockey-game-date or butterfly-wing-flapping variety than Von Stauffenberg’s briefcase bomb or Principe’s pistol; but the lack of drama doesn’t make them less powerful. They’re just harder to see.
I was fortunate a few years ago when students in one of my historical (not-quite-) reenactment classes made the point for me. It was the last day of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The student playing George Washington was stalling the final vote (he didn’t think he had enough support to approve the adoption of the Constitution and one of his supporters had texted him that he was stuck on a BART train and would get to class as soon as he could). Finally, I had to force Washington to call the vote. As the period expired and the Convention Secretary was about to announce the results, the door flew open, the supporter dashed in, looked at a delighted Washington, and voted “Aye!”
As the next group of students came into the classroom, our group was in an uproar. I ruled that the vote counted and, as it tipped the balance in one state from abstain to “aye,” the Convention now had the nine votes required to approve the Constitution as a whole. In the end, a far better lesson than I could ever have designed.
That’s the history of what happened. However, there are so many different stories that can be told from those facts: the power of individual perseverance, the influence of student commuting patterns, or George Washington’s savvy time-management. If all this had happened IRL, no Constitution (at least not adopted in 1787), a different line of development for 13 small states on the east coast of the American continent, etc. etc.
With the weight of history bearing down on us, it’s hard to see that it all could easily have been different. We’re hungry for the (apparent) certainty, for the epistemological security that history brings.
Living day-to-day, we’re buffeted with instant interpretation and media hyperbole. The fate of the universe is made to depend on small things. In 2016, we were told that but for a swing of 80,000 votes, Hillary would be President and we could avoid all the dire predictions (generally accurate, as it turned out) about the implications of a Trump presidency. Last year, we saw the end of that particular worldview and a “return to normalcy” with Biden’s win. But Joe only won because 45,000 votes (in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) swung his way. Is America a different place because of 80,000 votes, or 45,000?
I suspect the same is true with regard to the events of January 6. Let’s imagine that Trump had said what he said and the crowd had marched as they marched and the Capitol police had kept the fences up and all we had was a loud protest/demonstration on fringes of the Capitol for a few hours. It’s not likely that we would have seen more than a tiny fraction of the hand-wringing about the state of the nation which has dominated the news for the past month. Yet, would the state of America and the meaning of democracy in the 21st century be all that different?
So, yes, there is contingency and there are underlying trends and patterns. The art is figuring out which is which.