Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Cornucopia of Sykes-Picot Counterfactuals

Yesterday's New York Times included an interesting article, "Could Different Borders Have Saved the Middle East?" that contains many "what ifs?" pertaining to the Anglo-French division of the Middle East during World War I. 

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is currently marking its 100th anniversary and has long been derided as having laid the groundwork of much of the contemporary Middle East's political dysfunction.  According to generations of scholars, the Agreement drew arbitrary political boundaries that corresponded only imperfectly with the region's ethnic and sectarian realities.

The implication is that without the Agreement, history would have turned out better.

But would it have?

In a perfect illustration of good counterfactual methodology, the Times articles explores alternate proposals for dividing up the region in order to show how things would have, well, turned out more or less the same.  As the article puts in (in a deterministic counterfactual): “whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.”

To cite one concrete example:

In March 1920, Faisal bin Hussein, who led the Arab armies in their British-supported revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, became the leader of the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, based in Damascus. His ambitious borders stretched across modern-day Syria, Jordan, Israel and parts of Turkey. (But not Iraq.)

Would Faisal’s map have been an authentic alternative to the externally imposed borders that came in the end? We’ll never know. The French, who opposed his plan, defeated his army in July.  But even if they hadn’t, Faisal’s territorial claims would have put him in direct conflict with Maronite Christians pushing for independence in what is today Lebanon, with Jewish settlers who had begun their Zionist project in Palestine, and with Turkish nationalists who sought to unite Anatolia.”

An equally interesting example is an American plan from 1919. In that year, “President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation to devise a better way to divide the region. Henry King, a theologian, and Charles Crane, an industrialist, conducted hundreds of interviews in order to prepare a map in accordance with the ideal of national self-determination.”

“Was this a missed opportunity to draw the region’s “real” borders? Doubtful. After careful study, King and Crane realized how difficult the task was: They split the difference between making Lebanon independent or making it part of Syria with a proposal for “limited autonomy.” They thought the Kurds might be best off incorporated into Iraq or even Turkey. And they were certain that Sunnis and Shiites belonged together in a unified Iraq. In the end, the French and British ignored the recommendations.”

And then my favorite part of the entire article:

“If only they had listened, things might have turned out more or less the same.”

This concluding sentence perfectly illustrates what happens when you cross a “missed opportunity counterfactual” with a “deterministic counterfactual.”

The punch line is not particularly funny, but that does not make it any less true. It epitomizes what happens when an idealist is mugged by a realist.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Case of Gregor Mendel as a "Silver Lining Counterfactual"

I’m still bogged down writing about the Fourth Reich, but I thought I would make a passing reference to the latest instance of a journalist using a counterfactual as a “hook” to grab readers’ attention.

In her recent New York Times review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene: An Intimate History, Jennifer Senior writes:

“Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.”

 “A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Senior’s reference can be seen as a “silver lining counterfactual,” a “what if?” scenario that allows us to see how the seeds of success can lie latently within failure.  I will keep my eye out for other examples of how important historical figures might never have arrived at their subsequent achievements had they not first endured initial setbacks.

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, René 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.