Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Sneak Preview of "The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present"

As I noted in a recent post, I took something of a break from the CHR over the summer to finish up the edits for my book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, which will be published by Cambridge University Press.

It won't be appearing until February of 2019, but I'm happy to report that the cover design has now been finalized, complete with blurbs and, yes, even a bar code.

See the full design below (click for large format):

The Fourth Reich represents my latest and most sustained effort to incorporate counterfactual analysis into the writing of history.

I will be curious to see whether readers will accept my speculative hypothesis that postwar Germany was closer than we might like to think to succumbing to efforts by postwar Nazis to return to power.

I will also be curious to see how the book will be received in our current climate of right-wing political activism.

Now that the book is done, I look forward to posting more actively on the CHR!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thoughts On Newt Gingrich's Facebook Series, "What If: History That Could’ve Been.”

As a lifelong liberal democrat, I share zero political views with Newt Gingrich.

But I have to be fair and credit him with offering a reasonable, non-partisan endorsement of alternate history.

Last year, Gingirch debuted his Facebook video series, “What If: History That Could’ve Been,” which features short video-clips on various topics suggested by Facebook users.

I’ll hold off on assessing the plausibility (and objectivity) of specific episodes, such as  “What if Hillary Clinton had defeated President Trump in 2016?” (touted by Gingrich as the site’s most popular premise).  Instead, I’d like to simply comment on Gingrich’s reasons for recommending the use of “what ifs.”

In a promotional text for the show, Gingrich begins by writing:

While it is creative and fun to describe alternative histories, it also serves a useful purpose. It moves us from simply memorizing facts to really thinking about them. It is a way to study history dynamically, rather than statically.

I’m not sure what studying history “statically” means, but anything that is done “dynamically” sounds appealing, so I guess we’re on solid ground so far.

He continues:

Many people grow to dislike studying history because they are taught a dry, boring, fact memorization system that feels dead and sterile – and provides no meaning or context for our lives.

Static writing aside (“grow to dislike” – ugh), the idea that history is about memorizing facts is certainly a classic complaint.  So how does counterfactual history address that problem?

Gingrich doesn’t really answer the question, but continues by noting:

Yet, when history is studied actively, it is dynamic, alive, and teaches a lot about our decisions, our own lives, and today’s challenges.

He then cites the possibility that Napoleon Bonaparte might have won the Battle of Waterloo and concludes that the process “of actively exploring alternative outcomes leads to a much deeper understanding of the moving parts in history. It leads to a better sense of what we should be thinking about when we make decisions. It teaches us to look for the linkage points between different patterns.

I don’t want to speculate on what Gingrich means exactly by “the moving parts of history,” but I think he is trying to say that exploring counterfactual outcomes helps us understand the forces of historical causality. 

No objection there.

He goes on to discuss his upbringing as “an Army brat and living in then-war-torn places like OrlĂ©ans, France and Stuttgart, Germany” and marveling at the histories of figures such as Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle.  He makes the unobjectionable – and actually refreshing -- point (in an era where the commander-in-chief does not appear to know any history at all) that “My years in Europe where my father was serving in the Army convinced me that history has an impact on all of us.”

He goes on to add that “It also convinced me that strong, determined people can have a remarkable impact on history.”  This point will strike some as inherently conservative, as it endorses Thomas Carlyle’s famous “great man” theory of history.  But it need not necessarily be conservative.  Simply watch any episode of the Amazon Prime alternate history series, The Man in the High Castle, to recognize the radical potential of individual resistance against tyranny).

Gingrich concludes with what is probably his clearest and most valid point: I believe in the power of asking “What If?” If you start exploring what could have been, you will find yourself much more deeply engaged in studying and learning from history. Your own imagination will be enriched and your ability to solve problems will be expanded.

Finally, it is hard to disagree with his claim (though not to wince at his stilted prose) that “understanding our history is critical to creating a strong, successful future.”

Where we part ways is in determining what “understanding our history” actually means in practice.  If “understanding” is merely a fig leaf for a politicized, partisan interpretation of the past, then Gingrich ignores the time-honored (if imperfect) ideal of historical objectivity and undermines his own project.  

Needless to say, politicized interpretations of the past are just as common in conventional historiography as they are in counterfactual history. 

That said, it’s no surprise that Gingrich’s “What if” videos reflect his arch- conservative views.  I fundamentally disagree with his apocalyptic conclusions about what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had defeated Donald Trump for the presidency (among other things, according to Gingrich, she moves the Supreme Court “decisively to the left,” encourages it to promote “social engineering,” and busily works to establish the “most corrupt” administration in American history).

This video leads me to conclude that I needn’t waste too much time watching the dozens of other clips on the site. While there may be some exceptions, I trust that most of them are cut from the same political cloth.  (Hmmmm....I wonder where “What If [Barry] Goldwater Had Won” is heading?)

Among the few others I watched, however, I noted one other problem: some of the episodes’ underlying premises are implausible from the get-go.  For example, in “What If America Wasn’t a Republic?” Gingrich explores the possibility of George Washington becoming an authoritarian leader of the United States in the “Cromwellian tradition.”  This is what we could easily call a “straw man counterfactual,” one that doesn’t merit much contemplation because of its basic implausibility.  It looks appealing at first glance, but then quickly is exposed as unrealistic.  I suppose that when you crowd-source your questions, you’ll get some chaff with your wheat.

In light of these shortcomings, Gingrich’s series probably won’t appeal to anyone but hardcore alternate history fans.  His conclusions will be rejected by most Democrats.

That said, I welcome his promotion of counterfactual history.  While it will be hard for many people to overlook the identity of the messenger, the message – that counterfactual history is a worthy enterprise (when done well) – is worth hearing.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Guilt by Association: John Heilemann Dings Alternate History by Linking it to Newt Gingrich

During this morning’s episode of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, John Heilemann dinged counterfactual history by pejoratively associating it with the conservative politician and alternate history author, Newt Gingrich. 

The occasion was Lesley Stahl’s Sunday night interview with Donald Trump on Sixty Minutes.  In the interview, Trump revealed himself, yet again, to be woefully uninformed about basic historical facts, as was revealed by the following exchange:

Lesley Stahl: You have also slapped some tariffs on our allies.

President Donald Trump: I mean, what's an ally? We have wonderful relationships with a lot of people. But nobody treats us much worse than the European Union. The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that's what they've done.

Lesley Stahl: Are you willing to get rid of that Western alliance?

President Donald Trump: Now, I like NATO, NATO's fine. But you know what? We shouldn't be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe. And then on top of that, they take advantage of us on trade. They're not going to do it anymore. They understand that.

Lesley Stahl:...are you willing to disrupt the Western Alliance? It's been going for 70 years. It's kept the peace for 70 years.

President Donald Trump: You don't know that. You don't know that.
Lesley Stahl: I don't know what?

President Donald Trump: You don't know that.

Lesley Stahl: Is it true General Mattis said to you, "The reason for NATO and the reason for all these alliances is to prevent World War III?"

President Donald Trump: No, it's not true.

In response to this exchange, Heilemann erupted by saying that Trump was basically embracing “Newt Gingrich’s version of alternate history” and implying that if he had been president “for the last fifty years,” he could have done a much better job than what America’s actual presidents had done.  Especially if he had avoided a moralistic kind of foreign policy, he could have achieved amazing results – even, as Heilman speculated, by “making deals with Hitler.”

In making his remarks, Heilemann continued a journalistic tradition of associating counterfactual history with the liberal bete noir, Gingrich, thereby discrediting it. 

Heilemann probably has no inherent animus against counterfactual thinking, but it’s an easy and tempting strategy to dismiss a silly argument – which Trump’s claim certain was – by linking it to a politician widely-hated on the left. 

I’ve noted in recent posts that counterfactual history risks being discredited by virtue of its links to many anti-liberal figures: Trump, Gingrich, Putin, among others.

Such links appear to lend credence to the claim of scholars like Richard Evans that “what ifs” are inherently conservative and tainted by our “post-truth” world’s worrisome tendency to embrace “alternative facts.”

I’ve been committed to fighting this perspective and highlighting the politically ecumenical nature of counterfactual history.

In a forthcoming post, I plan on commenting on a few episodes of Newt Gingrich’s web-based series, “What If?” on Facebook, which I only recently learned about, to examine the links – if any -- between his conservative principles and his use of counterfactual reasoning.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Another Architectural Counterfactual: What If the Chicago Fire of 1871 Had Never Happened?"

It’s great to see that architectural counterfactuals continue to proliferate.

Coming on the heels of exhibitions of architectural designs that were never completed in Los Angeles and New York, a fascinating new project has just been unveiled about Chicago. 

Entitled, “What If the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Never Happened?” the web-based project is produced by the Chicago—based radio station, WBEZ 91.5’s program, “Curious City.”

How do the authors answer their own question?

For one thing, they emphasize the obvious point that major works of architecture would have survived the destruction (which claimed 18,000 mostly wooden structures) -- for example:

John Van Osdel’s Cook County Court House and City Hall, a domed structure with a cupola, built in 1853 where City Hall stands now, along with the Tremont House at the southeast corner of Lake and Dearborn streets,…and gems like the Grand Pacific Hotel, Crosby’s Opera House, the Academy of Design and the original Chicago Historical Society.”

Some observers expressed “missed opportunity counterfactuals” and noted that, without the fire, the city’s growth would have unfolded differently:

Richard Bales argued that “Chicago’s central business district might have been forced to expand toward the west if the fire hadn’t cleared so much land. Imagine a skyline with more skyscrapers west of the Loop.

Garrard Lowe noted that “The Loop would not have become a series of skyscraper canyons. There may have been more green spaces in downtown Chicago. … The square in which the courthouse sat had trees, and the old houses had gardens and lawns with shrubbery and trees. Indeed, in some ways, we might have had a more humane metropolis. … How nice it would have been to have green oases in the heart of the Loop.”

Neal Samors added that: “Chicago would probably have been a much smaller metropolis and not the second-largest city in the United States,” says Neal Samors, author of several books on the city’s history. He argues that the fire’s clearing effect allowed a building boom that wouldn’t have been possible without the fire.”

By contrast, other commentators provided “deterministic counterfactuals,” noting that:

“most of the changes that occurred in Chicago after the 1871 fire would have happened anyway — only at a slower pace and with subtle differences.”

Tim Samuelson said “a tall, dense downtown was inevitable. “Downtown would have still been hemmed in by immovable natural, physical and commercial barriers, so the need to build tall buildings very likely would have become a necessity as the city continued to grow.”

Moreover, Joseph Schwieterman argued that “many of the buildings destroyed by the 1871 fire would have lasted for a while — possibly until the early 1900s. Then they would’ve been torn down to make way for buildings in 20th-century styles. “We would not have the rich collection of building dating back to the 1875-1903 period that we have today,” he says. “Instead, we would have a larger stock of buildings of more recent vintage.”

Finally, there is perhaps the most important question of all:

“What about the styles of architecture that burst out of Chicago in the late 19th century? How would they be different in a world without the Great Fire?

“One common myth is that right after the fire — poof! — we rebuilt our small brick/wood city with big steel skyscrapers,” Jennifer Masengarb says. “But that wasn’t the case at all. For the most part, right after the fire we rebuilt things quickly and in methods of construction or styles that we already knew — two- to five-story load-bearing buildings.”

But architects from other places — including Louis Sullivan and John Root — flocked to Chicago.

Daniel Burnham was already in Chicago before 1871, but he emerged as an architect in the years after the fire. Sullivan arrived in 1873, just as economic depression hit, halting Chicago’s rebuilding. According to Miller’s book, this idle time gave young architects a chance to develop their thoughtful styles.

So, in an alternate universe without the 1871 fire, would the Chicago School of Architecture even exist?

 “What is considered modern architecture — stripped down, bold in mass and form — had its origins in a reimagining of the fire by a new group of architects lured to the city by the unprecedented opportunities to build,” Miller writes. “They stayed on through the difficult days with little to do but paper architecture and study of what others before them had done.”

They began turning their ideas into actual buildings when the economy recovered in the 1880s. Many structures from the first wave of post-fire construction were torn down — just 10 or 15 years after they were erected — to make way for taller ones. Chicago became the birthplace of the skyscraper.

So, in an alternate universe without the 1871 fire, would the Chicago School of Architecture even exist?

“Creative dreamer architects like Sullivan and Root likely would have never had the incentive to come here,” Samuelson says.

In other words, no Chicago School as we know it.

So what is the takeaway?

In the end, it is a “silver lining counterfactual”:  without the fire, Chicago would not have evolved into the unique metropolis it became.

I imagine that Joseph Schumpeter must be content knowing that the fire provides further confirmation of his idea of “creative destruction.”

The vitality of cities is proved time and time again by their recovery from catastrophe: London in 1666.  Berlin after 1945.  Rome since forever.

Let’s hope the world’s major cities can keep this streak going by responding creatively to the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

With Friends Like These....Donald Trump's New Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual About George Washington

Donald Trump's continuing (if unintentional -- or maybe he's trying to, who knows?) success in giving counterfactual reasoning a bad reputation continued last week, when he flirted with resurrecting and spatially transporting George Washington back to Washington D. C. to make the point that if he, and not Brett Kavanaugh, were being considered for the Supreme Court, the Democrats would unanimously oppose him.

(See the tweet in question):

It's a truism that counterfactuals serve rhetorical purposes, but Trump's remark was not only sloppily conceived (he made no imaginative effort to explain how Democrats might actually bring George Washington back -- a la Rip Van Winkle -- into the present), but no effort to lend the claim any plausibility either.  As if George Washington and Trump's current SCOTUS nominee have anything in common.

Of course, GW might have been known to like beer....

Monday, July 2, 2018

Dapim Scholars Forum on Tom Weber's "Becoming Hitler"

As I've noted in recent posts, Tom Weber's recent book, Becoming Hitler, features a good number of fascinating counterfactuals involving Adolf Hitler's journey from demobilized war veteran to NSDAP demagogue.

In my introduction to the scholars' forum on Weber's book in the latest issue of Dapim, I highlight some of the "what ifs" that are worth contemplating.

Interested readers should check out the book for more!

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:


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.