Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Counterfactuals and the Role of Assassinations in History


With the recent publication of  T.J. Turner’s new alternate history about President Abraham Lincoln’s (non)assassination, Lincoln's Bodyguard: In A Heroic Act Of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President! John Wilkes Booth Killed In Act Of Treason, it is fortuitous that today’s New York Times features an opinion piece on the role of assassinations in changing the course of history.


Written by academic scholars Benjamin F. Jones And Benjamin A. Olken, the essay, entitled “Do Assassins Really Change History?” does not feature much explicit “what if?” reflection, but nevertheless has many counterfactual implications.

Predictably the authors at the outset weigh in on a standard question of historical causality, comparing the relationship between great individuals and structural determinants in the perpetration of assassinations.
They write: “One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.
They then go on to note:
“Prominent examples of assassinations raise intriguing questions, but do not settle the matter. Would the Vietnam War have escalated if John F. Kennedy had not been killed? Would the Middle East peace process have proceeded more successfully if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had not been assassinated?”
The authors then cite statistics to provide answers: 

“To better understand the role of assassinations in history, we collected data on all assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004, both those that killed the leader and those that failed.”

“Assassins are often inaccurate, and their victims are usually bystanders. Even if the gun is fired or the bomb actually explodes, the intended target is killed less than 25 percent of the time….”

“A leader’s survival can depend on remarkable twists of fate. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, reportedly survived an assassination attempt in which a live grenade bounced off his chest and killed or wounded several people in a crowd nearby. Kennedy did not escape the bullet that killed him, even though it was fired from 265 feet away and he was in a moving car. But President Ronald Reagan survived being shot at close range, as John Hinckley Jr.’s bullet punctured his lung but stopped just short of his heart.”

Thus far, the essay tells us little that we don’t already know: chance plays a major role in assassinations.

More interesting is the authors’ effort to chart the consequences of failed or successful assassination attempts:

They write: “We compared the 59 assassination attempts in our data that happened to succeed with 192 close calls that happened to fail.”

“We found that assassinations do have an effect on political systems, but with caveats. For one, the effects are largely limited to autocracies. On average, the deaths of autocrats have prompted moves toward democracy, which appear 13 percentage points more likely than when following failed attempts. Democracies, in contrast, appear robust: The deaths of democratic leaders do not lead to a slide into autocracy.”

“Assassinations can also change the path of war. For countries in moderate conflicts, with fewer than 1,000 battle deaths, assassinations feed the flames, as these conflicts are more likely to intensify. On the other hand, for countries already in intense conflicts, assassinations of leaders appear more likely than failed attempts to bring the war to a close.”
“Failed attempts themselves may change outcomes; an autocrat who survives an assassination attempt may crack down on opposition groups, leading a country further from democracy. Our data are consistent with this “intensifying autocracy” effect. Assassination attempts on autocrats thus bring considerable risk: They appear to increase the chance of democratization if the attempt succeeds, but lessen it in the far more likely event that the attempt fails.”
The chief takeaway: “The historical evidence is that assassinations do matter when targeting autocrats, but they primarily bring risk.”
These findings suggest some possible parameters for gauging the plausibility of counterfactual scenarios involving regime change.  They would suggest, for instance, that narratives featuring FDR being assassinated in 1933 (see Alan Glenn’s Amerikan Eagle, or even Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) are unrealistic in proposing a subsequent American turn to fascism.
But the findings may have to be qualified in light of important exceptions.  If Joseph Stalin was, as many scholars believe, actually poisoned in 1953, his death had little effect on the authoritarian Soviet system.  Many medieval kings in England were assassinated (usually by relatives) without jeopardizing the institution of monarchy. 
Most importantly, the essay cannot account for more subtle, but no less important, counterfactual questions involving assassinations in democracies.  Even if the institution of democracy survives the killing of its leaders, the actual policies that would have been adopted had they survived might have been quite different.  A surviving Lincoln or Kennedy probably would have governed quite differently from their successors.
Still, the finds are suggestive and should be kept in mind by anyone spinning out future counterfactuals.


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jeffrey Gurock's New Book, "The Holocaust Averted"

I'm happy to promote fellow-historian Jeffrey Gurock's new book of counterfactual Jewish history, The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967.


I just heard him discuss the volume last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan (the talk was broadcast live on the Jewish Broadcast Service) and was impressed with how eloquently he explained the book's origins and how persuasively he hypothesized how Jewish history might have been different if the western Allies had stood up to Hitler in 1938 and the Holocaust had never happened.

Gurock's answer will surprise many readers.  But suffice it to say that the putative fantasy of a world without the Holocaust comes to resemble more of a nightmare.

Rutgers University Press deserves credit for lending further academic credibility to the genre of counterfactual history as it breaks into the field of Jewish Studies.  Moreover, the press should be congratulated for producing a brilliant cover for the book.

Finally, it is with no small amount of pride and gratitude that I can point out that Gurock contributed a chapter length version of his book to my own forthcoming edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History, which should be appearing before the end of the year.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

From the Archives: A. J. P. Taylor’s Myriad German History Counterfactuals


I’ve discovered my new favorite counterfactualist -- at least for this week.  It’s A. J. P. Taylor, whose 1945 book, The Course of German History, I’ve been reading with great interest.


It’s one of those grand narratives that covers a thousand years in a couple hundred pages.  As a result, it’s full of sweeping generalizations that lend themselves to what Hugo, the discontented communist revolutionary in Jean Paul Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands, calls “iffing.”

Taylor’s counterfactuals come in a variety of forms, which can be typologized as follows:

1) The deterministic counterfactual:  Near the outset of his narrative, Taylor describes how Germany’s existence was determined by its geographical location between Roman/French civilization to the west and the Slavic world to the east, battling both at different junctures.  He goes on to speculate that “if a natural cataclysm had placed a broad sea between the Germans and the French, the German character would not have been dominated by militarism.  If – a more conceivable possibility – the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbors as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation.  Constant surroundings shaped…[the] German national character….”

It is ironic, of course, that Taylor uses counterfactual thinking to bolster an argument supporting geographical determinism.  (After all, counterfactuals are usually seen as antithetical to deterministic thinking).  Yet, Taylor makes a valid point by showing how different geographical circumstances would have made the German character different.  On the other hand, it is jarring to see how Taylor subversively critiques American history, while (dubiously) implying that the Germans’ national character would have benefitted from the completion of the Holocaust.  (Really?  If the Nazis had been more like the Americans and eradicated their own “enemy population” of Slavs and Jews, they would have become champions of human rights?  This seems highly unlikely).

2) The secondary source counterfactual: Taylor quotes Napoleon Bonaparte (without citing the source) as having once said that “if the Emperor Charles V had put himself at the head of German Protestantism in 1520 he would have created a united German nation and solved the German question.”  Taylor adds, “This was the decisive moment of Germany history,” a moment when it could have zigged but zagged.  Taylor thereupon proceeds to further criticize Martin Luther, his bête noir, in the form of another counterfactual, which we can call

3) The sarcastic counterfactual: Taylor lambasts Luther for having abandoned the German peasants during their uprising in 1525 and rejecting the Catholic church’s Renaissance-era construction project of St. Peters’ Basilica in Rome for its opulence.  Taylor writes that Luther “hated art, culture, intellect” and “turned with repugnance from all the values of Western civilization” proceeding to “set himself up against Michael Angelo and Raphael.  Even the technical occasion of his breach with Rome was symbolic: he objected to the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s – if it had been for the purpose of massacring German peasants, Luther might have never become a Protestant.” 

This snarky comment shows how counterfactuals are often employed for purely rhetorical purposes.  It’s nonsensical, of course, indeed it's an instance of anachronistic speculation, to imagine Johannes Tetzel selling indulgences to massacre Protestants in 1517 (there weren't any yet in existence).  Taylor merely includes the remark as a jibe – as an instance of twisting the knife once it’s already been inserted.  It is somewhat amusing, however....

Finally, Taylor further embraces conventional nightmare and fantasy counterfactuals.

He validates the Peace of Westphalia by writing that without it, Germany would have been worse of than it already was in the Thirty Years’ War, writing: “Westphalia was imposed on Germany by foreign powers; but without the intervention of these foreign powers the state of Germany would have been still worse.  Habsburg strength could never have maintained the position of 1629.  New rivals would have arisen, and the wars between the princes would have continued until Germany was utterly destroyed.”

He subsequently discusses Emperor Joseph II’s attempt to acquire Bavaria as part of the Habsburg effort to unify Germany in the 18th century, noting: “To be really German Emperor, Joseph needed a larger nucleus of German subjects.  This was the motive for his long-pursued plan of acquiring Bavaria in exchange for the distant and non-German Austrian Netherlands.  Had this plan succeeded, the whole future of Germany would have been different: the majority of Habsburg subjects would have been Germans, and the majority of Germans would have been Habsburg subjects.  Habsburg power would speedily have extended to the Main, and Prussia would have been fortunate to survive even in north Germany.”

For the record, all of these counterfactuals appear merely the first chapter of his book!

Whether or not Taylor should be seen as a pioneer of counterfactual thinking among 20th century historians remains to be seen.  But further research into the great works of modern western historiography may eventually allow us to draw larger conclusions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

From the Archives: Speculating About a Post-Hitler National Socialism Under Otto Strasser

I just finished reading British journalist (and vicious anti-Semite) Douglas Reed's 1940 book, Nemesis?  The Story of Otto Strasser and the Black Front, and was struck by his use of counterfactuals.


Reed was eager to position Otto Strasser as a likely successor to Hitler following what the journalist believed would be the Führer’s imminent demise.  Reed hoped that Strasser would inaugurate a Fourth Reich rooted in a much more genuine form of National Socialism (as opposed to the faux version peddled by Hitler, who diluted its radical thrust by jumping into bed with the Junkers and capitalists).

Reed wistfully imagined how Strasser (and not Hitler) might have risen to power and speculated about several scenarios.

Referring to the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, in which Otto’s brother, the leading NSDAP official, Gregor Strasser was murdered, along with more than 100 other “enemies” of the Nazi party, Reed wrote:  “But for the intrigues and stiletto-work that outdid the medieval Italian courts and the gang-wars of Chicago, the Strassers, and not Hitler, might have become the leaders of Germany.  Germany would then never have known the orgasms of hysterical, mock-patriotic self-pity and self-applause which she knew under Hitler; but she and Europe would probably have been spared war.”

This passage serves the rhetorical purpose of paving the way for Reed’s ensuing programmatic declaration:

"The time may be coming soon for Otto Strasser to take up his brother’s work.”

Elsewhere, Reed speculated:

“Gregor [Strasser] had an easy-going streak in his pugnacious nature which always led him, in the decisive moment, to give way to Hitler, and this affected the course of European history. For if he had broken away from Hitler with his brother, the National Socialist Party would have certainly split, and Germany and Europe would have been spared the militarist nightmare in which they now live; or even if the party had not split, the claim-to-the-succession of the two Strassers, to-day, would be irresistible.”

Finally, Reed critizied Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher for falling to the political intrigue that led to Hitler’s rise to power, noting that Schleicher should "have obtained from President Hindenburg power to dissolve the Reichstag, and then he should have arrested the chief intriguers, Papen, Hitler, Oskar von Hindenburg, the leading Junkers, Göring, and a few others, and have rallied the masses of Georg Strasser’s National Socialists…behind him by a manifesto explaining…his action….By such means, he might have saved Germany and Europe.”

All of these passages confirm how discontent with the present can prompt people to fantasize about alternate pasts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

From the Archives: What If Hitler Had Been Assassinated in 1939?


So what if Philip K. Dick was right?

In his 1978 essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later,” Dick wrote that “professional fiction writer[s]...do not know how much of their content is true....Speaking for myself, I do not know how much of my writing is true, or which parts (if any) are true....It is an eerie experience to write something into a novel, believing it is pure fiction, and to learn later on—perhaps years later—that it is true.”
Today, I experienced something similar.
A year ago, as part of my editorial work on my forthcoming volume of Jewish alternate histories, “If Only We Had Died In Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History from Abraham to Zionism, I wrote a counterfactual essay on the consequences of Georg Elser succeeding in his assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller on November 8th, 1939. 



As readers will see in more detail when the book is published later this year, I posit that Hermann Goering replaces Hitler as leader of Nazi Germany and swiftly takes Germany out of the Second World War, thereby interrupting the Holocaust.  My reasoning was informed by my knowledge of the Nazi period, but it was admittedly speculative.
I was struck, therefore, by a newspaper article that I found today while conducting research on a new book project.  It appeared in the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald on November 15, 1939 (a week after the failed assassination attempt) and posited a counterfactual that was eerily similar to what I had imagined a year ago.
The article quoted a French journalist, M. Jean Thouvenin, who speculated that “if the Munich attempt on Herr Hitler’s life had succeeded, Field Marshal Goering, as Herr Hitler’s successor, would have formed a temporary government and then asked the Allies to stop the war in order to facilitate the task of reorganizing the fourth Reich.”
“Field Marshal Goering’s proposals, he added, would have included a plebiscite in Austria and the liberation of Czechoslovakia and Poland.  Field Marshal Goering would have asked Russia to give up the territory which she has occupied in Poland.”
Perhaps this was the common belief of people at the time.  Perhaps many similar counterfactuals were imagined in 1939.  (Perhaps I need to pursue this question further). 
In the meantime, I can confirm that it is, indeed, eerie to read something that confirms the likelihood of a hypothetical scenario one has imagined one’s self.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Victor Davis Hanson’s Anachronistic Counterfactual About Obama Appeasing Hitler

Victor Davis Hanson often uses counterfactual reasoning in his work, but his recent post entitled “President Franklin Delano Obama Addresses the Threat of 1930s Violent Extremism,” fails to fulfill the criteria of a being a genuine counterfactual. 


Subtitled “Imagine Obama as an American President in 1939,” the premise is automatically disqualified from counterfactual status as it is based upon the physical impossibility of Obama being president before he was born.  Rather than functioning as a legitimate counterfactual, it can be viewed as an “anachronistic counterfactual” that sacrifices plausibility for the sake of polemic.

Of course, there is a genuine counterfactual implied in Hanson’s essay.  It could be worded as follows: “What If the United States under FDR had responded to the Nazis in the same way that the United states under Obama has been responding to ISIS?”

Hanson could have drawn many of the same provocative conclusions that he offers up in his essay, while maintaining the integrity of his counterfactual.

Indeed, many of the claims are worth pondering.  Hanson provokes us to think hard about whether the Obama administration’s efforts to separate ISIS from Islam is truly convincing by exporting the present-day administration's reasoning back into the 1930s.

For instance, he has (fictional President) Obama exclaiming:

“So make no mistake about it: National Socialism has nothing to do with Germany or the German people but is rather a violent extremist organization that has perverted the culture of Germany. It is an extremist ideology that thrives on the joblessness of Germany and can be best opposed by the international community going to the root of German unemployment and economic hard times…”

Hanson is right to remind us that Nazism was partly rooted in German political culture and that it would be shortsighted for us to ignore ISIS’s links to Islam.

Hanson is equally provocative in using his anachronistic “what if” to cast doubt on the idea that western/liberal actions can be blamed for Islamic extremism by showing how an analogous claim would irresponsibly let the Nazis off the hook for their aggressive behavior in the 1930s.

This becomes clear when he has the 1930s Obama proclaim:

“More broadly, groups like those headed by Herr Hitler and the National Socialists exploit the anger that festers when people in Germany feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better. Here I would remind ourselves of our past behavior in waging wars near the homeland of Germany. I opposed the Great War, and further opposed the Versailles Treaty that disturbed the region and stirred up violent passions and extremism.”

Hanson, to be sure, is wrong to entirely dismiss the contention believed by his fictional President Obama (as well as real one today) that American actions had/have a role in leading to the rise of the Nazis and ISIS.  (Western decisions after World War I vis a vis Germany did help foster a climate where the Nazis thrived).  Moreover, he is wrong to dismiss circumstantial factors beyond German culture in leading to the rise of Nazism (After all, Nazism only thrived in Germany when the country descended back into internal domestic crisis).  

But Hanson is right to raise these issues for discussion.  

I only wish he had done so in the guise of a different historical narrative that enjoyed higher plausibility.

For instance, he could have followed the example of P. J. O’Rourke who produced a well-known National Lampoon illustrated essay in 1980 entitled “If World War II Had Been Fought Like the War in Vietnam.”  It condemned the “soft” US military campaign in Vietnam by showing how if the US had fought the Second World War in the same way, it would have led to disaster.    Like Hanson, in short, O’Rourke imagined a counterfactual nightmare in order to criticize the present.

Hanson’s counterfactual resembles the anachronistic quality of Justin Bieber’s (admittedly much lazier) remark several years ago about the high likelihood of Anne Frank becoming one of his fans if she were alive today. 

I will keep an eye out for more anachronistic counterfactuals to see if they constitute a noticeable trend.



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Would Hitler Have Become Hitler If He Had a Different Name?

In this week's issue of The Forward, I review Matt Ogens' brilliant and endearing new documentary film, Meet the Hitlers.  




The review ends with some counterfactual speculation about the ramifications of Hitler's father NOT having changed his surname back in 1876.

Click HERE for the link.

(Meet the Hitlers is currently showing at film festivals and has a wonderful trailer that can be seen on the film's website).