Counterfactual history

Counterfactual history

By asking “What if?” questions, this hook invites students to explore how today might have been different if the First World War had had alternative outcomes.

Interactive timeline of WW1

Interactive timeline of WW1

This is an audio clip from an All Things Considered series

This is an audio clip from an All Things Considered series that imagines a counterfactual history of World War I.



What might have happened if the Allies had won the Battle of Gallipoli? What would life be like in Samoa if it had remained a Germany colony? Questions like these are sometimes called counterfactuals. Exploring what might have happened if history had played itself out differently is an interesting and useful way to explore the cause and effect of actual historical events. Counterfactual history can be used to evaluate the contribution of an incident to an historic event. Some writers have used this as the basis of an essay or novel, for example, imagining what might have happened if Nelson had been chosen as the capital of New Zealand instead of Wellington. Not all historians think that counterfactuals are useful. This is because reality is complex and historical events are seldom the result of a single event. However, counterfactuals can still be an engaging tool for debate. 

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led to the First World War: for example, Austria–Hungary blamed Serbia for the archduke’s assassination. The audio clip above explores what might have happened if the assassination had not occurred. 

Possible discussion questions 

Tensions were high when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. How might these tensions have been resolved (or not) if the assassination attempt had been unsuccessful? 

If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated, what other events might have been the spark that led to the outbreak of the First World War? 

What would New Zealand society be like if New Zealand had chosen not to participate in the First World War? In what ways has New Zealand’s participation in the First World War influenced our society? 

How might counterfactual history help us learn more about the First World War? How might it hinder our understanding?

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