Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

New Alternate History Film: "April and the Extraordinary World"

I’ve been derelict about posting to the CHR in recent weeks, but I’ve had a good reason.  I’m currently wrapping up a chapter of my new book on the Fourth Reich, which deals with lots of counterfactual scenarios involving unrepentant Nazis in the early 1950s as well as the possibility of Kurt Schmacher as chancellor instead of Konrad Adenauer.

Anyway, wrapping up this major chapter has taken me away from online posting.  But today I saw a news item that I thought deserved to be shared. 

It pertains to a new animated film that will premier this weekend in New York City (and then elsewhere in the coming weeks).  It’s called April and the Extraordinary World and, according to Vince Mancini’s review, which I am sharing from Uproxx, the film “is set in an alternate history version of 1941, where Napoleon’s heirs still rule France, the world’s most famous scientists have gone missing, and coal and steam power a sooty police state where empires fight each other over control of timber.”

Mancini continues:

“Yes, you could probably call it “steampunk.” I call it a whacked-out combination of Tintin, Miyazaki, and Terry Gilliam, with a typically French flair for slapstick (which, in April and the Extraordinary World, totally works).”

“It follows April, the descendant of a great French scientist, who, along with the pickpocketing police informant sent to spy on her (who falls in love with her) and her immortal talking cat named Darwin, has to find her parents and rescue them from a pair of megalomaniacal lizards, all while dodging agents of the Empire who want to kidnap her and force her to do science for them. She lives in the head of a giant statute of a muscular Napoleon with a rooster on his lap. To call April inventive would be an understatement, but it’s also charming, funny, and smartly executed.”

As a longtime fan of Tintin and Gilliam – and as a devotee of all things counterfactual – I am very excited to see this film.  Hopefully this weekend….

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Sneak Preview: "What Ifs of Jewish History"

Here is a sneak preview of the cover of "What Ifs of Jewish History," featuring essays by Steven Weitzman, RenĂ© Bloch, Jonathan Ray, Bernard Cooperman, Eugene Sheppard, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Derek Pendular, Adam Rovner, Iris Bruce, Kenneth W. Stein, David Myers, Michael Brenner, Jeffrey Herf, Dirk Rupnow, and Jeffrey Gurock.

I'll post the table of contents and other relevant information closer to the volume's publication (with Cambridge University Press) in May.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

From the Archives: Harry S Truman's Counterfactual Critique of Polls

Because it's election season and we're all beholden to polls, we should recall Harry S. Truman's great counterfactual put-down of polls (which I came across today):

"I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership--men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world."

(From Truman's diary, 1954, Post-Presidential Papers).

I suppose we can classify this "what if?" scenario as an example of a "transplant counterfactual."  It's not the classic version of the scenario, in which a historical figure is re-situated in a different historical era.  But it does imagine present-day technology (and populist expectations) being transplanted into the past as a method of showing how the ability of world historical figures to lead their followers forward would have been limited.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What If Anne Frank Had Survived? An "Extended Play" Counterfactual

I was interested to learn about a new play being performed in Montreal: "The Secret Annex," written by Alix Sobler and directed by Marcia Kash.

As reported in a story in The McGill Tribune, the play features an intriguing "what if?" premise:

"What if Anne Frank had survived? What would her life and struggles consist of after enduring the most well known genocide of the past century, possibly of all history? This is the alternate universe that writer Alix Sobler portrays in The Secret Annex, directed by Marcia Kash. With a cast of only five, Sarah Farb stars as the surviving heroine. A veteran to the role of Anne Frank, Farb played the protagonist at the Stratford festival last season and now reprises her role effortlessly in Montreal. Anne Frank, a young German Jew, was hidden in an attic for three years during the Nazi control of Amsterdam. In Sobler’s world, however, Anne survived through Nazi rule and is now living in New York City at the age of 25. As an aspiring writer, she struggles to have her diary published to show the world her collection of memories from her confinement."

The article concludes by noting;

"The play succeeds in asking the uncomfortable and disturbing question: Do people love the story of Anne Frank because she represents a martyred heroine of tragedy? Would Anne’s beloved story be as loved if she had survived, or would it never make it past the publisher’s office? It’s lovely to pretend that her story had a happy ending, but it didn’t. The reality of the holocaust pervades even the alternate universe of the play. Anne never lived to see her 16th birthday; an infinite amount of possibilities halted the day she entered the Amsterdam attic. Anne’s diary serves as a stark reminder of the lives that were lost during the Holocaust, and the dreams that could not be followed because of it."

The premise is not new.  Philip Roth explored it in his novel, The Ghost Writer (1979).

But it is worthy highlighting the fact that the premise is an instance an "extended play" counterfactual -- a "what if?" scenario, in which a historical figure whose life was cut short in reality gets to live out his or her life as it would have unfolded without a premature death.  There are countless people who have been profiled in this fashion: Vladimir Lenin, JFK, Martin Luther King, among others.  The traditional conclusion for the admirers of such figures is that their premature demise preempted subsequent accomplishments, thereby burnishing their tragic/heroic qualities .  At the same time, more sanguine observers often contend that an early death may have actually spared these figures subsequent failures, which would have compromised their reputations had they actually lived.

As is so often the case, wondering "what if" in this fashion reflects our own subjective wishes and fears about how history might have been different.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What If We Viewed Goethe Like Shakespeare? Adam Kirsch's Transplant Counterfactual

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch offers a nice example of a “transplant counterfactual,” in discussing the significance of the famed German poet and writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  

This kind of counterfactual typically transplants a particular figure from his or her own time into an earlier one in order to determine how he or she would responded to different conditions.  In this instance, Kirsch shifts the counterfactual’s purpose somewhat to shed light on how the individual would be viewed by posterity.

Kirsch seeks to get his English speaking readers to appreciate the greatness of Goethe – a writer seldom actually read in the Anglophone world – by comparing him counterfactually with the Anglophone world’s acknowledged genius, William Shakespeare.

Kirsch writes:

“To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.”

“Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name.

In making this observation, Kirsch alludes to the paucity of information about Shakespeare and the “persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates.”

Would we be equally skeptical about Goethe’s genius today had he lived several centuries earlier, before the dawn of the “age of print?” 


Kirsch’s brief counterfactual reminds us that transplant counterfactuals provide useful shifts in perspective that allow us to reassess and reevaluate established truths.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cashing in With Counterfactuals: McGraw Hill’s New “What If?” Marketing Push

As a college professor, I get sales pitches from publishers on a regular basis.  Most of them I ignore.  But a recent email from McGraw Hill caught my attention because of its snappy subject heading: “Would World War II Have Ended Differently?”

After clicking on the link, I was brought to the publisher’s webpage, which featuers a whole series of “what if?” propositions meant to excite readers about history. 

They are introduced with the a hashtag, #historychangeseverything, and a preamble that reads:
“At McGraw-Hill Education, we apply the science of learning to creating innovative solutions that can improve education outcomes around the world. Why? Because learning changes everything.™ In History, moments of significance have occurred when learning has taken place, often with the help of current technology. Why is this important? Because we believe that the course of history changes everything too.”
They include:

It is notable, I believe, that publishing companies are marketing their historical texts with counterfactual headlines.  This mirrors recent trends in journalism (both print and broadcast), both of which have increasingly sought to capture readers’ attention with provocative framing devices. 

Since counterfactual statements are highly rhetorical and capture our imagination, this is eminently understandable.  I wonder how much the trend will catch on with other publishers and help further normalize and legitimize the larger “what if?” enterprise.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Another Krugman Counterfactual: Why the Dems and the GOP are NOT Interchangeable

Paul Krugman often uses counterfactual reasoning in his New York Times opinion pieces and today's column is no exception.

It nicely shows how President Obama's tax reforms have benefited the country by highlighting the effects of their absence under a GOP presidency.

Krugman writes:

"One of the important consequences of the 2012 election was that Mr. Obama was able to go through with a significant rise in taxes on high incomes. Partly this was achieved by allowing the upper end of the Bush tax cuts to expire; there were also new taxes on high incomes passed along with the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare."

"If Mitt Romney had won, we can be sure that Republicans would have found a way to prevent these tax hikes. And we can now see what happened because he didn’t. According to the new tables, the average income tax rate for 99 percent of Americans barely changed from 2012 to 2013, but the tax rate for the top 1 percent rose by more than four percentage points. The tax rise was even bigger for very high incomes: 6.5 percentage points for the top 0.01 percent."

"[In forcing through these changes]  Mr. Obama has effectively rolled back not just the Bush tax cuts but Ronald Reagan’s as well."

"The point, of course, was not to punish the rich but to raise money for progressive priorities, and while the 2013 tax hike wasn’t gigantic, it was significant. Those higher rates on the 1 percent correspond to about $70 billion a year in revenue. This happens to be in the same ballpark as both food stamps and budget office estimates of this year’s net outlays on Obamacare. So we’re not talking about something trivial."

"Speaking of Obamacare, that’s another thing Republicans would surely have killed if 2012 had gone the other way. Instead, the program went into effect at the beginning of 2014. And the effect on health care has been huge: according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of uninsured Americans fell 17 million between 2012 and the first half of 2015, with further declines most likely ahead."

"So the 2012 election had major consequences. America would look very different today if it had gone the other way."

Krugman's intent in presenting his counterfactual argument is to convince skeptical Democrats that they should actually be grateful that Obama has accomplished what he has, rather than be disappointed that he has not done more by showing how much worse things could have been.

As he puts it:

"On the left, in particular, there are some people who, disappointed by the limits of what President Obama has accomplished, minimize the differences between the parties. Whoever the next president is, they assert — or at least, whoever it is if it’s not Bernie Sanders — things will remain pretty much the same, with the wealthy continuing to dominate the scene. And it’s true that if you were expecting Mr. Obama to preside over a complete transformation of America’s political and economic scene, what he’s actually achieved can seem like a big letdown."

"But the truth is that Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 had...real, quantifiable consequences"

The lesson for the 2016 election is thus clear:

"Whoever the Republicans nominate will be committed to destroying Obamacare and slashing taxes on the wealthy — in fact, the current G.O.P. tax-cut plans make the Bush cuts look puny. Whoever the Democrats nominate will, first and foremost, be committed to defending the achievements of the past seven years."

"The bottom line is that presidential elections matter, a lot, even if the people on the ballot aren’t as fiery as you might like. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise."

Otherwise, we might be confronting an analogous future counterfactual a la Ralph Nader in 2000.   And who wants a repeat of that?