Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Interested in Discussing Counterfactuals and Nazis? Check Out Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" this Thursday Afternoon.


This coming Thursday afternoon, from 2:00 -- 4:00 pm, I will be fielding questions about counterfactuals, Nazis, counterfactual Nazis, and other topics of relevance on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” subreddit, "Ask Historians."


Click HERE for the link.


Once there, you will see this welcome message:

“Hello,

My name is Gavriel Rosenfeld and I’m a Professor of History at Fairfield University.  I specialize in the history and memory of Nazism and the Holocaust.   I also write widely about counterfactual history and edit the blog, The Counterfactual History Review.

I have written six books about the history and memory of Nazism in postwar western culture.  My most recent books, The World Hitler Never Made and Hi Hitler! examine how the Nazi past is being normalized in present day culture, especially through the medium of counterfactual history and internet culture.

I have commented widely on recent web programs, such as Amazon.Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, the rise of Nazi-related internet memes, and the changing image of Hitler in popular culture.  I will soon be publishing a new book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, that surveys western society’s postwar fear of a Nazi return to power in the form of a “Fourth Reich.”  I am also writing a comprehensive history of counterfactual history, from Antiquity to the Present.

Today, from 2 to 4, I'll be answering your questions about the evolving cultural memory of Nazism in contemporary life, the reasons for the surging interest in counterfactual history, and the appropriateness of employing analogies to Hitler and the Third Reich to make sense of current political trends.”

I have no idea what kind of questions will be posed or where any discussion might head, but I’m certainly interested in what people have to say.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The PR War Continues: More Bad Press For Counterfactuals

Readers of this blog are well aware that counterfactual history has had a difficult time gaining acceptance and acquiring legitimacy among professional historians. 

By contrast, the general public has been more receptive, with counterfactual novels, films, and television programs appearing with greater frequency.

This may change, however, the more that pundits publish well intentioned, but misleading, articles, such as Steven Goldzweig’s recent post, “When Words Lose their Meaning: Counterfactual Advocacy, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Despotic Populism.”


I’ve posted here before on how counterfactuals do not exactly benefit when they are used by, and come to be associated with, authoritarian minded political leaders, such as President Trump or Vladimir Putin.

Now the claims of academics like Goldzweig (a professor of communications) threaten to reinforce the notion that counterfactuals may lean right.

I agree with the bulk of Goldzweig’s critique of Trump’s public discourse, which he defines as “designed to deny, evade or misdirect its audiences from facts, inferences, or descriptions of events that might provide the kind of transparency we need in a democratic society.”

However, I bristle at his decision to label this discourse “counterfactual advocacy.”

In the field of history, the term counterfactual has long been employed to add academic respectability to the process of speculating about how the past might have been different.

Here the term is also used to lend a kind of social science aura of analytical rigor to Trum’s good-‘ol-fashioned habit of lying through his teeth whenever possible.

The problem is that the phrase “counterfactual advocacy” blurs crucial distinctions and muddies water that is already pretty opaque.

Counterfactual literally means “counter to fact.” And in the present political context, that is a negative designation.  The wanton distortion and negation of facts has too often been used by authoritarian regimes to mislead and confuse the public.

But not all claims that are contrary to fact have ulterior motives. 

As is well known, counterfactual history contemplates alternatives to real history in order to understand it better, not in order to distort it.

The use of counterfactuals is merely one method among many for historians to seek the elusive ideal of “truth.”

We stigmatize the term “counterfactual” at our peril.

But it’s an uphill battle these days.

Consider how stigmatized the term “alternative” is becoming -- what, with “alternative facts,” “alternative reality,” the “alt-right” (alt being a shorthand version for alternative), and so forth all having negative associations, at least among the moderate, center-left wing of the political spectrum.

It’s hard enough battling centuries of bias against counterfactual history without having to contend with the burgeoning backlash against the term “counterfactual” being encouraged by present-day politics.

I humbly suggest finding an alternative term to describe Trump’s preference for alternative facts.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

And Now....Sports Counterfactuals! Mike Pesca's New Volume, "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs in Sports History"


So to start with a silver lining counterfactual….

I’m driving to work late this morning on I-95 and there’s horrible traffic, so I’m cursing my bad luck.  But then, thanks to the miracle of radio, I found that my delay allowed me to catch a story on NPR New York affiliate, WNYC, that I otherwise would have missed....

Brian Lehrer interviewing journalist Mike Pesca on his new edited anthology of sports counterfactuals, Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs in Sports History.


I hadn’t yet heard of this new volume, so I’m glad today’s traffic jam allowed me to hear more about it.

Sports counterfactuals are ubiquitous.  In fact, the concept of “Monday morning quarterbacking” epitomizes a core counterfactual reflex -- of regret leading people to pose “what ifs?”

So I’m not surprised that sports counterfactuals have finally gotten their own anthology

I’m quite impressed, however, with the prominent, if eclectic, list of contributors that Pesca has assembled to speculate on how sports history might have been different. 

There are historians (Julian Zelizer), journalists (Robert Siegel, Steve Kornacki), and even Hollywood actors (Jesse Eisenberg).  (A special shout-out goes to my old Bloomington, Indiana pal, Sports Illustrated writer, L. Jon Wertheim, who is among the contributors).

I don't yet have a copy of the book, but from the NPR discussion earlier today, it seems that they skew towards exuberant, long range counterfactuals.  They may strain plausibility frequently, but they promise to be creative.

The list of topics is wide-ranging and includes questions, such as:

“What If the U. S. Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?”
“What If Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991?”
“What If Title IX Never Was?”
“What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?”

And one that I’m especially looking forward to reading:

“What If the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?”

(No, it’s not a typo, but rather a “nesting doll” counterfactual, in which a world that never was imagines our actual world).

For the record, the cover features great, digitally altered photographs of pivotal events that never happened.

The takeaway?

The book’s appearance is one more sign that counterfactual history is alive and well.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hitler as NBA All-Star: A Transplant Counterfactual Courtesy of "The Onion"


The Law of Ironic Hitlerization Lives! 

In my book, Hi Hitler!, I made the case for the existence a new internet law: according to which the more popular a meme, the more likely it is to “Hitlerized” in ironic fashion.  (Simply google "Hitler" plus Pikachu, My Little Pony, the Teletubbies, and Hello Kitty to get a sense of the tip of the iceberg).

Today’s Onion proves that the law is alive and well.  In a new piece entitled, “New Alternate-History Drama Examines What Would Have Happened if Nazis Won 1991 NBA Finals,” the satirical website deftly combines Hitler and counterfactual sports history to produce an absurdist romp through an NBA that might have been.


The piece is a medium form, "transplant counterfactual" that places the Nazis of the 1930s and 40s into the NBA of the 1990s.  There a few funny scenarios: Josef Goebbels talking “smack” to Scottie Pippen after a “powerful dunk” and by telling the Bulls they are “of inferior breeding" and Hitler becoming the NBA’s ambassador instead of Michael Jordan and debuting “Air F├╝hrer sneakers.” 

But overall, the laughs are scarce. 

Not because the piece is particularly offensive.  A reference to Coach Heinrich Himmler’s “Final Solution” response to Bulls’ coach Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense skirts the boundaries of good taste – but, then again, it’s The Onion. 

It’s more that the references are dated.  Unless you were an NBA fan in the 1990s, there’s little chance you care about references to Hakeem Olajuwon or the “prospect of an alternate version of Space Jam in which Hitler helps the aliens to enslave and eventually exterminate Bugs Bunny and his friends.”

So what’s the significance of the piece?

In all likelihood, it was inspired by (and implicitly satirizes the growing number of counterfactual Nazis that have been proliferating in popular culture, whether Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, or Jordan Peele’s recently announced Amazon show, “The Hunt” (see yesterday’s Counterfactual History Review for a comment).

The question remains: does being satirized mean that the counterfactual Nazi bubble has burst?  That the wave has crested?  That the topic will fade from this point on? 

If past is prologue, it’s unlikely.  Comic and tragic depictions of the Nazis have coexisted in popular culture since the 1960s.  Probably, they will continue to coexist with one another going forward in a “dialectic of normalization,” in which humorous and serious narratives reciprocally inspire (and generate) one another in an endless cycle of thesis and antithesis.

One final thought come to mind:

The piece might have been a bit more subversive if it had delved deeper into the significance of an NBA franchise called “The Nazis.”  After all, it could have made the point that “Nazi-like” team mascots exist today.

We’re familiar, of course, with the fact that Native American history has been appropriated by the American descendants of Europeans who conquered and killed them.  Consider the  Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and so forth. 

But those team names refer to the victims of colonial depredations.  By contrast, The Onion piece’s invocation of the NBA franchise, “The Nazis,” refers to the perpetrators. 

It strikes me there are analogies to be found: Minnesota “Vikings” anyone?  Oakland “Raiders?”  Tampa Bay “Buccaneers?”  It seems that the thieving, raping, and killing perpetrated by these (now Bowdlerized) groups is routinely ignored by sports fans.

Might the same thing have been conceivable in a world where the Nazis won World War II?    

Something to think about….

Monday, May 21, 2018

“The Hunt” and the American Fourth Reich: Alternate History or Secret History?

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve been posting very little of late. 

In my own defense, I’ve been wrapping up the final editorial changes to my forthcoming book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in the spring of 2019.  

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the book includes many counterfactual elements.  It explores various “what if” scenarios involving ways in which ex-Nazis (in Germany, Latin America, and beyond) could have been more successful in pursuing a political comeback after 1945.  In tackling this speculative question, the book seeks to determine whether or not postwar fears of a Fourth Reich were exaggerated or grounded in reality.  (in so doing, it implicitly speaks to contemporary fears about whether we are facing a new "fascist" threat today).

I’ll be posting more on the subject as the book’s publication date gets closer.

In the meantime, I was struck the other day by a bit of karmic news that underscores the Fourth Reich’s topicality: namely, the news release that Amazon.Prime will be following up the success of The Man in the High Castle with a new 10 part series (release date still unknown) called “The Hunt.”


As Variety reported: “The Hunt follows a diverse band of Nazi Hunters living in 1977 New York City. The Hunters, as they’re known, have discovered that hundreds of high ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the U.S. The eclectic team of Hunters will set out on a bloody quest to bring the Nazis to justice and thwart their new genocidal plans.”

The series will be produced executive producer, Jordan Peele (known for the recent hit film, Get Out, among other productions).

I’m interested to see how Peele and his writers will tackle the premise of Nazi hunters in the 1970s.  Shows set in the bleak 1970s (especially the gritty New York City of that decade) have enjoyed a good run of late; think of Life on Mars, The Deuce, The Get Down, and so forth. 

The 1970s is the right decade to explore the fascination with fugitive and unrepentant Nazis, as it was the era of the “Hitler Wave” and a whole host of books, films, and television shows exploring the subject of the Third (and, as my book shows, Fourth) Reich.  Think The Odessa File, The Boys from Brazil, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.

What I’m not sure about is whether “The Hunt,” will go down the road of alternate history (and portray ex-Nazis actually moving to alter history’s real course) or whether everything will be taking place behind the scenes in “near-miss” fashion.

The ways that the producers ultimately decide to pursue the show’s narrative arc, will determine what genre the show ultimately belongs to.

I have no idea whether the series or my book will appear first, but if the timing works out, I’d like to think that both will facilitate a larger conversation about the enduring danger of Nazi – and more broadly, fascist – ideas.

It’s certainly a – gulp -- timely topic.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Later: Martin Luther King in Alternate History


To mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, I thought it would be worth reflecting on how he has been portrayed in works of alternate history. 

More often than not, commentators have employed “fast forward” counterfactuals. This kind of counterfactual advances the tape of history and imagines how the later occurrence of historical events would have affected their significance. This method has commonly been applied to the lives of key historic individuals, usually by pushing back the date of their death.   


How would King be viewed today if he had lived a longer life?

One hypothesis is that he would have moved in a more radical political direction  
In his book, The Radical King, Cornel West has written:



Had he lived longer, he would have been able to devote more time to fighting issues relating to both class and race.  This would have made him more controversial and his legacy might be less hallowed.   He might never have had a holiday named for him.

In his essay, “Afterword: Interview with Dr. King on his 80th Birthday,” published in April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (New York, 2009), Michael Eric Dyson declared:


Similarly, Bill Shipp, in his essay, “What Would Dr. King Think of His Dream Now?” in: The Ape-slayer and Other Snapshots: A Collection of Random Writings, remarked:


It is hard to imagine viewing King as anything but a martyred hero, but fast forward counterfactuals make clear that an individual’s significance depends profoundly on the temporal vantage point from which it is assessed.  A longer life usually means more opportunities for failure; a life cut short, by contrast, evokes missed opportunities and chances never taken advantage of.

Another method of portraying MLK in alternate history was visible in Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s novel, The Two Georges (1996).  


It depicts King serving as the governor general of the North American Union (NAU) from its capital city of Victoria (present day Washington D. C.).  In this alternate world, the NAU is a product of the 1760s, when the American colonies are able to reconcile with the British monarchy and avoid seceding from England.  George Washington and George III cemented a longstanding relationship and the former agrees to the latter’s request for the NAU to remain part of the British empire. 

In this world, the British abolish slavery in the 1830s, thereby allowing African Americans like King to enjoy upward mobility into the ranks of the NAU elite. As I have written elsewhere, the novel is a fantasy scenario that portrays the failure of the American Revolution having positive consequences for American history – certainly in the realm of race relations.  

The novel was written against the bleak backdrop of (and was an allegorical commentary on) the LA riots of 1992 and the rise of the racist militia movement. 

I’m curious whether any commentators today will mark the anniversary of King’s death by reflecting counterfactually on the topic from a present-day perspective informed by Black Lives Matter, the Alt-Right, and the Trump administration.