Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Really? Richard Evans Thinks Counterfactual History Is a "Waste of Time?"


Maybe it was Richard Evans’s editor at The Guardian who gave his latest op-ed its strident title (presumably in order attract attention and boost readership), but it’s hard for me to believe that the esteemed historian really thinks that counterfactual history is a “waste of time.”


After all, he just devoted a decent chunk of the last few years to researching and writing a new book on the subject, Altered Pasts, which has just been published by Brandeis University Press.

I hope to post some comments on the book in the next few weeks, once I’ve read it.  But in the meantime, I’d like to go on record as saying that his new Guardian piece does not convince. 

Evans is  apparently fed up with the recent spate of counterfactual musings in the British media about the origins and consequences of World War I, pointing to comments by other rival historians, such as Niall Ferguson, whom he has long viewed with suspicion for his counterfactual (and conservative political) tendencies.  (I commented on the Evans/Ferguson rivalry and offered my own riposte to the Cambridge historian some years ago in a forum published in Historically Speaking.  For my response, click here).

In expressing his critical, present-day position, Evans argues that “this kind of fantasising is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.”  In fact, it is doubtful that this is true, given that the lion’s share of books already (and still to be) published on World War I will be straightforward works of narrative history. Books entirely devoted to counterfactuals, such as Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! represent a very small niche in the market and can hardly be described as “pushing aside” attempts to explain the past.

Evans goes on to argue that “the problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by…larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way.”  Yes, maybe bad counterfactual history does this, but any decent version of it balances structure and agency.

It is equally off-base for Evans to describe counterfactual history as “a form of intellectual atavism in…[the] sense [that] "what-ifs" are almost invariably applied to political, military and diplomatic history: they represent a "kings-and-battles" view of the past.”  The rich field of counterfactual history boasts narratives on plenty of topics outside of this narrow range.  Just to cite one specific example, my own edited volume on Jewish alternate histories (due out with Cambridge University Press within the next year) contains sixteen essays, none of which mentions a king, few of which mention battles, and most of which deal with non-diplomatic history.  They explore questions like: What if the Exodus had never happened?  What if Herod’s Temple had never been destroyed?  What if early modern ghettos had not been established?  What if the Jews of Spain had not been expelled in 1492?  These and many other fascinating questions clearly show the existence of a broad range of topics that beckon for counterfactual analysis.

This is why Evans’s fatalistic conclusion is so disheartening: “It’s time to be sceptical about this trend. We need, in this year especially, to start to try to understand why the first world war happened, not to wish that it hadn't, or argue about whether it was "right" or "wrong". In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren't any real use at all.”

This just goes too far.  It’s a straw man argument to say that counterfactual history is currently threatening to overwhelm real history and thus should be viewed skeptically and, ideally, ignored altogether.  In fact, there is just no understanding what happened without understanding what didn’t.  (This is Derridean supplementarity 101, if I dare invoke a representative of postmodern thought). 

Moreover, while Evans claims that counterfactual history became popular in the 1990s (a development that still needs to be fully explained), he certainly knows that the counterfactual impulse has been part of the historical profession since the ancient Greeks and can hardly be wished away.  I agree with him that the present day mass media may be inclined to raise counterfactual questions above real historical questions.  Given the media’s penchant for ratings and eyeballs, it may in fact tend to play the entertainment card over the education card.  That said, I am not afraid that counterfactual history will degenerate into a sideshow of freakish, flippant, or otherwise distracting hypotheses.  Counterfactual history can devolve into silly sound bites (witness the recent NPR listing of listener generated comments about World War I), but it will always remain tethered to real history, without which it makes zero sense.

We need to remember that counterfactual questions are what make many of us interested in history in the first place.  I know this is true of many of my students.  Moreover, the frequency with which academic historians employ counterfactuals in their mainstream historical writing shows that it is true of professionals as well.  I dare say, Professor Evans probably appreciates counterfactuals as well (although I will refrain from any definitive speculation until I read his new book).

In the end, I would argue that counterfactual history, at its best, enhances our interest in real history.  It does so by raising evocative questions about how things might have turned out otherwise.  These can be rhetorically and emotionally charged.  But they bolster our commitment to being engaged with the past.  

Perhaps counterfactual history’s relationship to history should be likened to the relationship of spices to food.   We can live well enough with the latter alone, but adding a dash of the former makes it much more interesting.   

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Latest Hitler Counterfactual: What If Hindenburg’s Last Will and Testament Had Come to Light?


As reported by the British media, newly declassified MI5 documents reveal that German Reich President Paul von Hindenburg made clear in his will that he was committed to posthumously preventing Hitler from consolidating power and destroying German democracy.


Information about the will was found in the papers of the German diplomat, Baron Fritz Günther von Tschirschky und Boegendorff, who helped Hindenburg write the will (and who later fled to England, where he was kept in a detention camp for the war’s duration).  Unfortunately, the will never came to the attention of the German public, raising a major “what if?”

As The Daily Mail explains:

“Within hours of Hindenburg's death on August 2 1934, Hitler announced the offices of Chancellor and President would merge under his rule as supreme Fuhrer.

A vote was called to let the German people express their view of Hitler's unprecedented move to become head of government and head of state.

But as soon as he heard about the will, Hitler reportedly ordered his henchmen 'to ensure that this document comes into my possession as soon as possible'.
Colonel Oskar von Hindenburg, son of the late President but a loyal Nazi, duly handed it over. It was never seen again.

Instead, just before the vote, the Nazis published Hindenburg's 'political testament' - a glowing endorsement of Hitler and his political goals. Many historians believe it was a forgery.

Four days later, 38 million voters supported Hitlars coup. Five million people rejected it.

Baron Tschirschky insisted: 'Hitler would never have come into power, and there would have been no war, if the wishes of Hindenburg had been known to the German people.'”

This story makes for a great “what if?”, but it is probably wishful thinking.  Already in late June 1934, two months prior to Hindenburg’s death in August, Hitler had consolidated his power by launching what historian Norbert Frei called a "double coup."  He purged the SA, thereby neutralizing the threat of a revolution from below by radical "beefsteak" Nazis; and he averted a monarchist coup from above, led by ex-Chancellor, Franz von Papen, and disgruntled German elites in the army.  

Hindenburg's death was merely the last formal barrier between Hitler and total power, which he proceeded to consolidate by merging the positions of Reich Chancellor and President in accordance with the Führerprinzip.  

Perhaps the will really existed (all the known copies are destroyed), but it certainly raises suspicions of being part of an apologetic Hindenburg rehabilitation campaign.  If Hindenburg had really been so committed to opposing Hitler, he should have acted while he was alive instead of throwing a “Hail Mary” pass from the grave that was destined to fall incomplete. 



Crowdsourcing Counterfactuals (II): The Results

The results are in.  

And they validate the popularity of counterfactual history.

Some 1,500 contributions were submitted by NPR listeners to “All Things Considered’s” request for speculative answers to the question: “What if World War Had Never Happened?



Many of the responses are thoughtful and serious, but a large percentage are on the silly side.  It may be that the latter category is overrepresented on the NPR website, as their punch lines make for good sound bites  (cue the bass drum/high hat).  But it may simply be that most of the submissions fall into this category. 

If so, it underscores the fact that counterfactual history’s current popularity may reflect a desire to laugh as much as to learn.

Here is a sampling: (for the whole list click here).

“Benito Mussolini eschews teaching and politics, choosing instead to open up a small coffee/pastry shop in Switzerland called "Bene, Bene!" He goes on to write several dessert cookbooks, which become very popular in Spain and Italy. While on a book signing tour he is given the nickname "Il dolce" by his fans.”
— Charles Foerster

“Josef Stalin would never have been more than a hairy, disaffected Georgian coffee shop habitue. He might have owned a shop in Tbilisi, and helped to care for his aging parents. He would have married a village girl and possibly become a drunken lout. At best, he would have become a town alderman.”
— Marcy Troy

“Gavrilo Princip gets hooked on sandwiches, loses 50 pounds, and lands a lucrative endorsement deal advertising Subway sandwiches. Gavrilo becomes immortalized as a weight loss icon, forever relegating Jared to the dustbin of history.”
— Robert Tobey

“Downton Abbey wouldn't have existed and I would have hours of my life back. Damn you Princip!”
— Beth Simpson

On the more serious side of things:

“Without World War I and hence, II, Britain would still have a strong military presence in India and have continued its colonial rule in the subcontinent for more years. There would not have been a partition of India in 1947, and Mahatma Gandhi would have lived longer.”
— Kalyani Chaganti

“Without WWI, USA doesn't ramp up its production capacity which brings women into the workplace and sets into motion the sweeping changes career and employment opportunities for women. Contraception is not promoted as a liberating option for women, and birthrates of American women continue to rise.”
— Lauren

And then, intriguingly enough, two of my favorite childhood authors might never have produced some of their best-known books:

“J.R.R. Tolkien does not fight in the trenches in France, and is not exposed to the horrors of war. Drawing on his linguistic studies at Oxford, he writes a stunning reimagination of the folktales of northern Europe, producing a new synthesis, drawing on diverse, obscure, and often startling tales of magic, heroism, and suffering. The thread combining his narratives is an earthy, rootless man, somewhat short and given to epicurean delights, who journeys throughout Europe, writing down his experiences just for the pleasure of doing so.” — Steve Shea

“Agatha Christie might not become a world-famous detective novelist and playwright. Christie worked in a hospital dispensary during the First World War. It was here that she began to plan her first detective novel, in response to her sister's earlier challenge to write a mystery that the reader could not unravel before the end of the book. The ample time the dispensary job gave her to ponder her sister's challenge and plan the story, alone with the knowledge of drugs and poisons she had gained on the job, lent themselves to the writing of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the novel that launched her career as a mystery writer and introduced the world to Hercule Poirot.”
— Michael J. Haas

Since there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the NPR series should be welcomed.  It remains to be seen, however, whether counterfactual history continues to expand its influence or becomes pigeonholed as oriented towards cheap laughs and shallow insights.



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Crowdsourcing Counterfactuals: NPR Asks: What If World War I Had Never Happened?

A sign of the increasingly mainstream status of counterfactual history is the readiness of major media outlets to embrace it.  This week, NPR’s popular show "All Things Considered" has asked listeners to essentially write part of its segment for it. 



As the website reports

“All Things Considered wants you to help us imagine a counterfactual history of the last 100 years.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand propelled the world into a war that left millions dead, shattered empires and rearranged power throughout the world. 

But what if the assassin in Sarajevo had missed? What if, like his small band of amateur co-conspirators, he didn't hit his target?

That's hardly unthinkable. Moments before the murder, Franz Ferdinand's car made a wrong turn. The vehicle was pushed backwards to turn around and came to a stop right in front of the gunman.

So, what if Franz Ferdinand had lived?

EXAMPLE: Without World War I, Russia remains prosperous and the Bolshevik Party's October Revolution fails. As a result, Vladimir Lenin moves to the United States where he becomes a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. Having maintained his left-wing connections, he comes in contact with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and helps write the pro-union musical, "Pins and Needles."

These ruminations come from Richard Ned Lebow’s new book, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! (which I’m currently reading and will report on it down the line). 

They are plausible enough (if a bit fanciful), but the main thing that interests me is how the counterfactual impulse now seems to be experiencing a populist “fan fiction” kind of moment.  Is it that anyone can produce a plausible what if scenario?  We shall see when NPR presents some of the entries later this week.

One bad omen, however, is the title of NPR's own recent story "How Bad Directions (and a Sandwich) Started World War I."

While the title alludes to the fact that assassin Gavrilo Princip would not have been in a position to shoot the Archduke and his wife had their driver not made a wrong turn in the streets of Sarajevo and appeared right in front of Princip as he was coming out of a cafe having just ordered a sandwich, it risks trivializing counterfactual reasoning and reinforcing its reputation for flippancy.

As Edward Hallett Carr noted in his curmudgeonly critique of counterfactual thinking in his famous book What Is History? (1961), it is impermissible for historians to focus on the causal role of accidents in the unfolding of other events -- especially if they cannot be generalized into larger covering laws (in the spirit of Crane Brinton).

As Carr wrote, "accidental causes cannot be generalized; and since they are in the fullest sense of the word unique, they teach no lessons and lead to no conclusions."

"The shape of Cleopatra's nose, Bajazet's attack of gout, the monkey-bite that killed Alexander, the death of Lenin -- these were accidents which modified the course of history…But in so far as they were accidental, they do not enter into any rational interpretation of history, or into the historian's hierarchy of significant causes."


In other words, because sandwiches do not cause wars (except maybe between Subway and McDonald's), they are useless to point to as a cause of World War I -- unless one wants to perpetuate counterfactual history's reputation for superficiality.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sitcom Counterfactuals: Episodes from "The Big Bang Theory" and "Community"


The rise of counterfactual reasoning has shaped not only contemporary historical scholarship, journalism, and fiction, but also television comedy.   

Two recent episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community” show how counterfactuals can be played for laughs while shedding light on important issues of causality.  

(Warning: the following plot summaries are lengthy and will mostly appeal to the show’s fans who already know the episodes.  They are also partly  -- and shamelessly -- reprinted from Wikipedia).  My own comments, of course, are my own.

The episode of the Big Bang Theory aired a few weeks ago and was titled “The Cooper Extraction.”  It shows how the lives of the show’s main characters would have been different if they had never met Sheldon.


As the Wikipedia summary of the episode notes:

“Penny notes that Leonard would be too afraid to have asked her out, Bernadette envisions that she would not have gone out with Howard because of his strange friendship with Raj, and Leonard speculates that Penny would be living with Zack. Amy suggests that Penny would have tried to seduce Sheldon, while Howard notes that he would be caring for his mother even after she was dead, and Raj and Leonard suggest that as roommates, they would have become obese, due to Raj's cooking and Leonard's loneliness. Amy thinks she would have been sad and alone.

The actual episode is naturally full of nuances and comic touches (for a full summary see the link here), but the main point is that the absence of one character, Sheldon, leads the other characters to interact with one another differently based on their existing behavioral tendencies which, without Sheldon’s mediating influence, lead to different outcomes).  Through Sheldon’s absence on the episode, the other character realize that, while they often complain about him, there lives would be diminished had they never become friends with him.  Counterfactual reasoning, in other words, help them realize that a theoretical fantasy can actually become inverted into a counterfactual nightmare.  It confirms the truism that absence can, indeed, make the heart grow fonder.

A similar insight emerges from an older episode of "Community," entitled “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It originally aired in October of 2011 and explored seven different “what if?” scenarios that were premised on the banal question of which of the seven friends attending Troy and Abed’s housewarming party should go downstairs and pay the pizza delivery man when he arrives at their apartment.  They all agree to Jeff’s idea to roll a die to determine who has to go collect the food. 

As the Wikipedia summary of the episode then makes clear, different die rolls lead to very different outcomes (or timelines of alternate events).  


The seven timelines are as follows:

“In the first timeline, Jeff rolls a 2 and Annie (who is sitting second on his left around the table) goes to get the pizza. Troy is too distracted by finding a gun in Annie's bag to open Pierce's present [a Norwegian troll wrapped in a box]. Abed confronts Britta about the smell of marijuana in the bathroom, which offends her.
In the second timeline, Jeff rolls a 4 and Shirley has to go. She reminds the group not to let her pies burn before leaving. Troy opens Pierce's present and freaks out. When Shirley returns, she finds that nobody bothered to take out the pies from the oven; the pies come out incinerated. She berates the group and leaves.
In the third timeline, the die lands on 3 and Pierce has to go. Jeff belittles Troy, which causes him to leave the table and join Britta in the bathroom. She consoles Troy by mocking Jeff's guarded personality. Annie demonstrates her first aid skills when tending to Jeff. When Pierce returns with the pizza, everyone is happy.
In the fourth timeline, Jeff rolls a 6 and Britta has to go. Annie tends to Jeff in the bathroom since Britta isn't using it. Jeff expresses his concern for Annie; just as they are about to kiss, they are interrupted by Troy screaming. Pierce is terrorizing him with the troll, and reveals that he is upset that Troy has moved out from his mansion. Britta returns with the pizza man, Toby, and announces they are now engaged.
In the fifth timeline, Jeff rolls a 1 and Troy has to go. He leaves in a hurry, so as not to miss anything interesting, and slams the door, which causes [Abed’s Indiana Jones] diorama boulder to slip and roll onto the floor. Britta and Abed leave for the bathroom, not noticing the boulder. When Annie stands up, she trips over it and falls on the coffee table, in turn displacing Pierce's bottle of rum, which shatters on the floor. Pierce abruptly rises from the table in reaction to the fall, knocking Annie's purse to the floor. The gun inside discharges and hits Pierce in the thigh. Abed rushes to help Annie with Pierce, while Britta comes out of the bathroom and goes slack-jawed upon seeing Pierce on the floor; her lit joint drops from her mouth and ignites the spilled rum. Jeff attempts to smother the fire with his shirt, only for it to catch fire itself and get wrapped around Jeff's right arm. Britta attempts to put out the fire by dropping glasses of water onto it. Troy returns to a scene of chaos with the troll doll, having been knocked from the table during the kerfuffle, staring directly at him from amidst the flames.
In the sixth timeline, Jeff rolls a 5, meaning Abed has to go. Britta inadvertently reveals to Shirley that she smoked marijuana, much to Shirley's dismay, and the two confront each other about their respective "habits". Troy has a few kind words for Pierce, which causes Pierce to attempt to rescind the gift. In the ensuing struggle, the troll is flung out of the box. Jeff and Annie kiss at the kitchen counter, but Jeff gets turned off when Annie admits that Jeff reminds her of her father and belittles Annie for the remark and for using too much lip gloss. Abed returns to an awkward situation but acts obliviously ("I hope this is the real [timeline] because I just found a nickel in the hallway").
In the final, prime timeline, Abed stops the die from rolling, and urges the group to stay united regardless of whatever happens to them. The group then realizes that Jeff manipulated the die roll such that he would never be selected. In the end, Jeff has to get the pizza. After he leaves, the group sings and dances to "Roxanne"; Pierce decides not to give Troy his gift and throws away the troll. Abed invites Annie to move in with him and Troy.
The end tag shows the universe in which Troy got the pizza. Pierce is dead, Annie is in a mental ward due to guilt, Shirley is an alcoholic, Troy injured himself trying to destroy the flaming troll (he tried to eat it) and can only speak with the assistance of an artificial voice box, Jeff is missing an arm and Britta has a blue streak in her hair. Abed suggests that they must become "the evil study group" and kill their good versions in the prime timeline, taking control of that timeline. He proceeds to hand out black felt goatees, à la Star Trek: The Original Series’ "Mirror, Mirror". Depressed, Britta, Jeff and Shirley all depart, but Troy stays behind and the two of them decide to team up and don the goatees, singing "Evil Troy and Evil Abed," a variation on the running gag of "Troy and Abed in the Morning." Suddenly, the scene changes via the reverse of the dice roll animation used throughout the episode (the camera zooms out from the 1 timeline to the prime timeline at the center this time) to the "prime" Abed and Troy watching TV, where Abed mentions that something felt strange for a moment, then decides it was nothing.”

That’s it for the summary….As for the analysis….

Besides being intricately structured and well written, the episode reveals how counterfactual reasoning helps explain causality.  By removing characters from the apartment, the episode shows how altering variables determines the course of events. 

The Wikipedia entry actually does a good job explaining this point, noting:

 “The episode's structure depicted how the characters relate to each other in different situations. How the situation changes each time a character leaves suggests the character's role within the group. Some characters always get along easily, some of them do not, and ultimately the group dynamic requires everyone to work. When Jeff is not around, the group lets loose and has fun. Jeff cannot bring himself to do the same because he enjoys being cool and detached.  Annie wishes that everyone would be less worried about her and view her as an adult. Troy prevents chaos; when he is gone, the situation dissolves into madness.  He also wishes that Jeff would view him as an adult.  Shirley feels left out because she is the only one happily married.  She plays a maternal role, quick to anger with everyone as she simultaneously tries to guide and nurture them. However, the other group members often refuse to take responsibility and mock her judgment even though they secretly like her mini-pies. Meanwhile, Pierce is upset that Troy moved out even though he seems so happy and he constantly attempts to impress Jeff by trying to prove his own masculinity. Abed dispels tension: without him, the study group is uncomfortable with each other.”

In other words, by showing how things might have unfolded different in an alternate reality, we can better appreciate their actual reality.

These two episodes offer small scale examples of the kinds of causal connections that historians explore at the more macroscopic level in works of counterfactual and alternate history.  It is probably too much to hope that these latter works will find the same amount of small screen air time as the more interpersonal examples have recent received.  Yet, the forthcoming television series Thirteen and the Syfy miniseries The Man in the High Castle hold out hope.....


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of a Counterfactual (Part II)? What if Leningrad Had Surrendered to the Nazis in World War II?


There is little doubt that wondering “what if?” about the past can be controversial, but a new flap in Russia shows the extent to which some will go to silence counterfactual speculation.

One of the country’s last independent television channels, Dozhd (which has been critical of Vladimir Putin’s government) recent posted a poll on its website asking its viewing audience if they thought whether the city of Leningrad should had surrendered to the Nazis during World War II in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  As is well known, the Nazis besieged the city for some 900 days from 1941-1944 and contributed to the death of around one million people from starvation.


Shortly after posting the question (to which 54% of respondents apparently answered in the affirmative), Dozhd was besieged with public protests and quickly withdrew the poll. However, the incident led to the channel being pulled from a number of leading cable providers.  Certain Russian politicians vowed to see if the channel violated any laws, leading to suspicions that opponents of the anti-government channel are looking for any excuse to pull it from the airwaves.

The flap highlights the ways in which “what ifs?” shed light on historical memory.  Raising the question of Leningrad’s surrender clearly violated a taboo in Russia’s memory of the Great Patriotic War.  Ever since the war itself, as Marita Sturken’s book, The Cult of World War II, has shown, Russians have glorified the war into a major patriotic struggle in which Stalin’s leadership helped triumph over Nazi evil.

Counterfactually questioning whether Leningrad should have held out or surrendered, by questioning Stalin’s insistence that the city persevere (and calling to attention to the many instances where flawed decisions by political officials worsened the situation), challenges his wartime leadership and raises the possibility that a different strategy might have spared some of the country 27 million wartime casualties. This revisionist fantasy clearly has a political agenda insofar as challenging Stalin implicitly challenges his present-day apologist, Putin. 

Yet the fantasy that history might have turned out better – while it aptly highlights discontent with the present – may be historically naive. For it it assumes that the Nazis would have spared any Russians who actually surrendered.

According to a Russian media report, the “President of the Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareyev noted that the creators of the poll showed their ignorance of history, as the described choice never existed – Hitler ordered his troops to completely destroy Moscow and Leningrad and eliminate the populations of these cities.” 
He argued counterfactually that “If Leningrad was handed over everyone would have been killed. In reality at least some of the residents survived.”  In other words, surrender would have brought about a nightmare scenario of history turning out worse than it did in reality.

Some politicians went further.

As another Russian media report noted, “MP Irina Yarovaya of centrist conservative parliamentary majority United Russia said the poll was in fact an attempt to rehabilitate Nazism,” noting: ‘These things all look equally disgusting – the parades of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, the demolition of monuments to war heroes and the sly, fake and counterfeit polls,” Yarovaya told Itar-Tass. “And every time the same thing is behind these actions – the justification of Nazi crimes and the desecration of the historical memory.”
As Tim Snyder notes in his latest New York Review of Books article on the current violence in Ukraine, the slur “Nazi” is currently being utilized by Russian nationalists and Yanukovych supporters to defame the anti-government protesters in Kiev, while, if anything, it is they themselves who, by virtue of their dictatorial behavior, are displaying fascist traits. 
Clearly, the controversial counterfactual involving Leningrad’s surrender highlights how wondering what if can re-open unhealed wounds of memory.