Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bret Stephens Counterfactually Channels Hugo Bettauer: America Without Jews

When it rains, it pours….

Right on the heels of Paul Krugman’s counterfactually-minded New York Times op-ed, which asks readers to imagine a Know-Nothing-run America without immigrants and respect for education (see previous post below), Bret Stephens’ essay in today’s Times imagines a Jewish spin-off with the same counterfactual premise.

He writes:

“Here’s a thought experiment: Would the United States have been better off if it had banned Jewish immigration sometime in the late 19th century….The question is worth asking, because so many of the same arguments made against African, Latin-American and Muslim immigrants today might have easily been applied to Jews just over a century ago.”


Jews, he points out, were also attacked as disproportionately responsible for committing crimes and of being undereducated, racially undesirable, and unlikely to assimilate.

He goes on to speculate:

“Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprisegeniusimagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?”
Stephens does not answer his own question, but interested readers could easily find the consequences outlined in Hugo Bettauer’s famous novel, The City Without Jews (1922), which portrays the expulsion of Vienna’s Jews paralyzing the city by removing some of its most productive and creative citizens.
Stephens’ rationale for writing his essay is clear – to provide lessons in the current American immigration debated.
He writes:
“Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.”
Stephens’ essay, like Krugman’s, once again highlights the analytical and rhetorical value of “what ifs.”  His strategy of revealing what we’d lose without immigration, as opposed to what we gain by having it, once again illustrates the value of negative counterfactuals in revealing the value of something by asking us to imagine its absence.



Negative Counterfactuals and Know-Nothings: Paul Krugman Reminds Us That Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Apologies for the long hiatus from posting.  Between grading finals, being out of town, and working on my new book manuscript, I've neglected to comment much on the world of "what if?" lately.

In the spirit of getting back in the swing of things, I thought I'd reflect a bit on a truism that we're all familiar with: "absence makes the heart grow fonder."

Social scientists have verified this theory empirically.

But it’s clear that counterfactuals do so as well.

I was reminded of this by Paul Krugman’s recent op-ed, “Know-Nothings for the 21st Century,” in the New York Times.


It discusses the immigration policies of the Trump administration as a present-day version of the mid-19th century, anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” movement, which exploited American fears about Irish and German immigrants.

He writes:

“Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave — of Italians, Jews and many other peoples — inspired similar prejudice.”

He adds that:

“But today’s Republicans…aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening….Conservatives…have soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.”

In order to alert readers to the danger of this development, Krugman seeks to remind them of the contributions that immigrants and education have made to American life.

But in a telling rhetorical move, he does so not by stressing the direct positive effects that they actually had, but by highlighting the negative effects that their absence would have had.

He writes:

“Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.”

“And that’s what we’ll become if modern know-nothingism prevails.”

Krugman’s claim suggests that imagining the absence of something can get people to appreciate what they would otherwise take for granted.

It confirms that using negative counterfactuals to imagine the un-doing or non-occurrence of key events can be an analytically and rhetorically powerful method of argumentation.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

"No Lenin, No Hitler?" Reflections on Simon Sebag Montefiore's Bolshevik Revolution Counterfactual

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s provocative New York Times essay, “What If the Russian Revolution Had Never Happened?” (see LINK), offers many speculative assertions about how the events of 1917 in Russia might have turned out differently.  Many are plausible, but some can be viewed skeptically.


Montefiore is persuasive in asserting that “there was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik revolution. By 1917, the Romanov monarchy was decaying quickly, but its emperors may have saved themselves had they not missed repeated chances to reform. The other absolute monarchies of Europe — the Ottomans, the Habsburgs — fell because they were defeated in World War I. Would the Romanovs have fallen, too, if they had survived just one more year to share in the victory of November 1918?” 

This represents one missed opportunity to avoid the revolution.

Montefiore adds that Lenin was “lucky that Germany inserted him like a bacillus (via the so-called sealed train) to take Russia out of the war. Back in Petrograd, Lenin, aided by fellow-radicals Trotsky and Stalin, had to overpower erring Bolshevik comrades, who proposed cooperation with the provisional government, and force them to agree to his plan for a coup. The government should have found and killed him but it failed to do so.”

This represents a second missed opportunity to avoid the revolution.

Once the revolution erupted, moreover, there were several missed opportunities to defeat it.  Any coordinated attack by White armies, the other side in the Russian civil war, or any intervention by Western forces would have swept the Bolsheviks away. It all depended on Lenin. He was very nearly overthrown in a coup by rebellious coalition partners but he made his own luck, though, by a combination of ideological passion, ruthless pragmatism, unchecked bloodletting and the will to establish a dictatorship. And sometimes, he just got plain lucky: On Aug. 30, 1918, he was shot while addressing a crowd of workers at a factory in Moscow. He survived by inches.

Montefiore concludes: 

Had any of these events foiled Lenin, our own times would be radically different. Without Lenin there would have been no Hitler. Hitler owed much of his rise to the support of conservative elites who feared a Bolshevik revolution on German soil and who believed that he alone could defeat Marxism. And the rest of his radical program was likewise justified by the threat of Leninist revolution. His anti-Semitism, his anti-Slavic plan for Lebensraum and above all the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 were supported by the elites and the people because of the fear of what the Nazis called “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

Without the Russian Revolution of 1917, Hitler would likely have ended up painting postcards in one of the same flophouses where he started. No Lenin, no Hitler — and the 20th century becomes unimaginable.

There is a lot to mull over in Montefiore’s essay.  First, it is worth questioning whether the revolution, in fact, “all depended on Lenin.”  After all, if Lenin had somehow not been on the scene in the fall of 1917 (whether due to a stalled “sealed train” or a successful assassination), might not Trotsky or another leader have been able to push Bolshevik forces forward in the same way that Lenin did?  This deserves further thought.

I am most interested, however, in reflecting on Montefiore’s claim: “No Lenin, No Hitler.”

Montefiore attributes the rise – and later success – of Hitler to his exploitation of German elites’ fears of a Russian-style revolution on German soil.  Without these fears, he suggests, Hitler would have received little support and may have never emerged in the first place.

Both claims assume the centrality of anti-Bolshevism in the origins of Nazism.  There is considerable literature on the connections between the two movements (from Ernst Nolte on the right to Arno Mayer on the left), but recent scholars, such as Thomas Weber and Brendan Simms, have challenged it, arguing that Nazism’s origins should be sought more in hostility of postwar Germans towards Anglo-American “Jewish” capitalism.

Montefiore’s claim, “No Lenin No Hitler,” does not convince with respect to the origins of Hitler’s political activism.  As Weber’s new book, Becoming Hitler, shows, anti-Bolshevism played a minor role in his political awakening.   He was more fixated on the threat posed by the Entente powers (and Jews) to Germany and their role in imposing the Treaty of Versailles upon the defeated nation.  Assuming that all of these events transpired even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution (as they probably would have), there is reason to believe that Hitler would have pursued a similar path of political radicalization.  This is especially true given the fact that he was mostly responding to events in Germany, not Russia.  And as we know, between November of 1918 and May of 1919, Germany was wracked by left-wing political radicalism – much of which probably would have transpired without a successful Bolshevik revolution.

Montefiore’s claim “No Lenin, No Hitler,” overlooks the possibility that, regardless of what happened in Russia, some form of socialist revolution might have erupted in Germany in November, 1918.  While I cannot explore this possibility in detail in this short post, there is reason to believe that left-wing German forces (the SPD, USPD, and Spartacist League/KPD) would have had plenty of reason to pursue their revolutionary political activities as they did in real history, even if the Bolshevik Revolution had never happened. 

To begin with, the revolutionary actions of Socialist forces in Munich and Berlin (led by Kurt Eisner, Friedrich Ebert, and Philip Scheidemann) were not inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and would presumably have taken place even in its absence.  Moreover, the split between the moderate left and hard left (led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s KPD) probably would have ensued as well, along with the Spartacist League’s abortive revolt in late December early January 1918/19, and the ensuing right-wing response led by the Freikorps.  All of these events were important for generating anti-Socialist fears in Germany, which would have been fearsome in their own right even without a Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  (These fears would have been further reinforced had other communist revolutions – such as Bela Kun’s in Hungary – happened as they did in real history).

The question is whether these fears would have been sufficient in their own right to sustain a Nazi party in the 1920s.  Montefiore’s assumption is that the existence of Lenin’s Soviet Union after 1922 kept the specter of a future communist revolution in the minds of German elites and led them to support the Nazis.  While this is true, in all likelihood, German elites would have remained frightened of a communist revolution even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution.  After all, German elites had feared a communist revolution since the mid-19th century and presumably would have continued to fear such a revolution even had the Bolsheviks failed.  So “no Lenin” does not automatically suggest the lack of support for an anticommunist Hitler. 

Moreover, Montefiore grants too much significance to German elites for supporting the Nazi party.  While the NSDAP emerged in 1919/1920, elite support for the party only emerged after the Great Depression in 1929.  Elite fears of Bolshevism were unrelated to the NSDAP’s emergence.  Elite support certainly helped the Nazis after 1930, but it would probably have existed even In the absence of a Soviet Union.  Elite fears of socialist revolution were heightened by the rise of socialist/communist activism following the Great Depression.  Had this economic trauma happened anyway (as is likely to have been the case), German elites would have feared the possibility of a renewed left-wing bid for power and looked to anti-revolutionary right-wing forces to halt it.

Montefiore and others might claim that the successful communist revolution in the USSR was crucial for keeping socialist/communist fears alive after 1917 and that if Lenin had failed, the wind would have been taken out of the sails of the political left.  But that seems unlikely.  The socialist movement (and fears of the movement) persisted in Europe after the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune.  These fears persisted in Hungary, moreover, despite the failure of Bela Kun’s communist revolution after World War I.  In other words, fears of the left after 1918 would have existed no matter what happened in Russia.

These speculative claims require further development.  But they suggest that
even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution, there would have been some form of Nazism.  Even without Lenin, there would have been Hitler.