I have a question of the type "how would history have changed if ...", the stereotype being Hitler wins WWII (but not that one). It is mentioned in this page that questions about "Predicting the future based on historical trends" are off-topic. However the question is not about what would happen in the future, but rather about what would have been different given a different contingency.

Are such questions regarded as off-topic on this site? What site is appropriate for such questions?

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    Note that there is an SE site, Worldbuilding, made specifically for speculative reality questions. – T.E.D. Jun 30 '20 at 21:30
  • I've offered my opinion below, but dissent is welcome. – MCW Jul 1 '20 at 0:14
  • Related discussion in 2012: “What if” questions – Andrew T. Jul 2 '20 at 4:58

Thank you for asking. Seriously, I appreciate the courtesy and forethought.

Having said that, hypotheticals and alternate history are usually out of scope. History deals with what actually happened. Once we start considering what might have happened, then all opinions are equally valid, and it isn't possible to select an authoritative answer.

The community seems slightly more tolerant of hypothetical questions in the scope of military history. Not my field, but I gather that is an accepted part of the discipline, and there are conventions about how to analyze the forces that constrain the outcomes of military conflicts.

If you are really interested, you may be able to construct the question along the lines of analyzing the forces/constraints/historical trends that governed a situation. We cannot answer what would have happened if Washington had decided not to attend the Continental Congress. We can however discuss the economic and political strength of pro-union and anti-union forces in the colonies at the time. We can analyze the forces that affected the Articles and be relatively safe in predicting that the Articles would not survive. We can discuss what contemporaries believed about the prognosis, and the plausibility.

In my opinion, the critical factor is "Can we identify an authoritative answer?" If all answers are equally valid, then the question is out of scope. Even if most of the answers are clearly wrong, but there are a set of potentially plausible answers, then the question will probably be out of scope.

I hope that helps.

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    This discussion can easily get philosophical, for instance you can ask "we know how history developed but could it have developed in some other way?" We'll never know. But we know many of the constraints. The question I was drafting is roughly "Union and Confederacy reach an impasse and decide to sign a peace accord, disrupting the course of the Civil War. Given what we know about the relative strength of the two States united and separate, what latter events are likely or not to have occurred (an occupation of northern Mexico for instance) that were rendered impossible under the Union. – Buck Thorn Jun 30 '20 at 22:04
  • Thanks for your answer. I think for the time being I'll let the question rest. – Buck Thorn Jun 30 '20 at 22:06
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    Harry Turtledove has written a fantastic series on the topic, and I found his speculations both interesting and credible. – MCW Jul 1 '20 at 0:15
  • Thanks for the information! I am not surprised somebody jumped at the opportunity to play with Civil War alternative histories. – Buck Thorn Jul 1 '20 at 21:35

"Predictions are difficult, especially those regarding the future." There is no way to avoid speculation. In my opinion(!), if it can be made clear where the border between speculation and factual base lies, an answer can be tackled. Let's say, the weather in 3 days at a location as a pretty good likelyhood of actually happening as modelled.

In the case of history I would say that there are too many crossroads, breaches, sudden changes, opposing and proponent forces for a trend, so that in order for a future projection to have some relevance too many constraints must be identified (and never will there be all of them considered i daresay) and too unrealistic might the assumptions then be, too watered and opinionated the prediction or vision. If we can assume that opinions are given and marked as such, then go ahead, but too often that's not the case, even from high ranked members, I must say.

To avoid too much speculation, I would vote for "yes, they should be off topic". Special cases might exist. But I may be much more on the down-to-earth side than my colleagues.

I want to add that, for the given example "What if Hitler had won ..." that the American series Star Trek has discussed that theme in several variations. That's the right place :-)

  • Granted, one would have to consider a stream of possible outcomes, of which the one we are living might not even be "the most likely" (and we might never know). In any event, just starting to think about this led to other questions (starting with what were the likelihoods of different possible outcomes of the Civil War). Beyond that I was also interested in the westward and southward expansion of the USA (and CSA), relations with South America and Europe, and the emergence of the USA as a global power. – Buck Thorn Jul 3 '20 at 15:13
  • I think it is not valid to isolate a single event. Changing one, changes following events, even if theiy're unrelated, they will follow a different course or not take place or events that haven't taken place will take place etc. That's the fictional, world building part. No problem with that, it's surely entertaining, even thriling, but not history. History doesn't deal with the future. Yet. Or does it ? Maybe tomorrow :-) – user43870 Jul 3 '20 at 16:43
  • There are certain outcomes that are unavoidable, for instance discoveries, simply because they are unique. There is only one law of electromagnetism to discover. Aside from some species we wiped out and ecosystems we irreparably altered, the natural history of North America was set to evolve as it did, humans only spectators in that theater, the particular identity of the occupants not altering much of what was to come. This at least is the view if you look at humans as Homo economicus. Naturally historians would focus on Homo politicus, and this is where it gets interesting. – Buck Thorn Jul 3 '20 at 17:14
  • If the original Homestead act hadn't been implemented in 1862, wouldn't something like it have come in its place? Or might the laws have differed significantly? Would the settlers have had different rights, and behaved differently, come in different numbers? – Buck Thorn Jul 3 '20 at 17:16
  • Did the Civil War pressure Lincoln to push for the occupation of the western USA? If so, how would an early end of hostilities and the establishment of the Confederate States have altered this push? Undoubtedly the two countries would have continue to fight, the bloodiness of the Civil War is evidence that they would not get along easily. The CSA would have seen an expansion south, perhaps an aliance with Mexico or other nations in SA (as weak as they were notwithstanding) to its benefit. – Buck Thorn Jul 3 '20 at 17:25

A "straight" alternate history question is off topic, because a "what if" question, by definition, is not answerable.

On the other hand, it is possible to ask what I call a "related" question. Mark C. Wallace has given some examples of such questions, but I would like to add one type to the list.

A question such as "Would Germany have won World War II if it had concentrated on submarine building and winning the battle of the Atlantic" is unanswerable. But a simple change could make it answerable. It is, "What do historians and historical actors feel about Germany's chances of winning World War II if it had concentrated on submarine building and winning the battle of the Atlantic?"

A very plausible answer would cite Winston Churchill, a reputed historian (and major historical "actor"), who wrote, "“The U-boat attack was our worst evil. It would have been wise for the Germans to stake all upon it."

I would also tag such as question as "historiography." The answer is an informed opinion, but it is an "expert" opinion which is acceptable as "fact" (about the expert, not the subject matter itself).

  • I don't disagree, but this in part relies on the fallacy of the global conspiracy of historians. It presumes that there is agreement among a body of people who are incentvized to disagree (nobody gets published for agreeing with the community; nobody gets tenure for submitting a paper that says "yeah, I think the old guys have it all right"). And getting a Marxist historian to agree with a Whig historian, to agree with a feminist historian, to agree with .... Military history has slightly different conventions, but in general historiography, consensus is a career killer. – MCW Nov 6 '20 at 11:03

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