Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Alternate History Lite: Thoughts on David Means’s "Hystopia"

David Means’s new novel, Hystopia, has been on my must-read list for some time now, so I was eager to plunge into it while out of town last week.   I’m happy to report that it met many – thought not all -- of my expectations.  I particularly liked its metafictional elements (it’s a novel within a novel, replete with fake introductory author’s and editor’s notes, as well as other lit crit marginalia).  The novel also features powerfully drawn characters (mostly traumatized Vietnam Veterans who struggle with various forms of PTSD). That said, the novel was less interesting from a counterfactual perspective.


In a sense, Hystopia can be seen as a quasi-alternate history.  To be sure, its premise is firmly rooted in a key point of divergence: President John F. Kennedy escaping assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald in November of 1963.  Means furthermore adds other counterfactual events pertaining to the President’s life, imagining him avoiding death five more times until finally succumbing to a seventh successful assassination attempt during his third term in the fall of 1970.

Means does not exploit the full potential of this point of divergence, however.  JFK’s survival hovers mostly in the background of the novel, whose plot is mostly taken up with the psychological struggles of its central characters.  Ostensibly, Kennedy’s policy decisions worsen the characters’ difficulties coping with their war experiences.   The novel imagines JFK continuing the U. S.’s involvement in Vietnam, despite its many obvious costs to the nation; in the process, his policies worsen domestic social tensions, especially among ex-soldiers, white blue-collar workers, and urban African Americans.  Worse still, JFK’s poor leadership contributes to the eruption of violent race riots in the late 1960s and the early 1970s -- in metropolises like New York, L. A., and Detroit, as well as in smaller cities like Flint, Michigan.  Indeed, entire parts of the state of Michigan (from which Means hails) seem to be cordoned off into Mad-Max-like wastelands. 

Means never really explains the causal links between Kennedy’s continuation of the war and America’s dystopian turn, however.  He does not show, for instance, why the continuation of the war in alternate history ends up having worse consequences than President Lyndon Johnson’s continuation of the war in real history.  We also don’t really learn much concrete about why Oswald’s assassination failed and why so many subsequent murder attempts failed as well.  We also don’t really find out why the last one succeeds. 

Literary works of alternate history, to be sure, can present their points of divergence in subtle, allusive form and do not have to spell every detail out for readers.  In fact, the primary flaw of most alternate history novels is clunky and excessive exposition.  On this count, Means avoids a major mistake made by other novelists.  At the same time, however, he fails to connect his novel’s allohistorical context to its broader plot.  He thus misses an opportunity to create a more integrated work of counterfactual fiction.

On this count, I thought of a few literary “what ifs.” Couldn’t Means have arguably set his story in the real historical context of LBJ’s America and explored the psychological turmoil of his novel’s characters in the same way as he did?   Alternatively, couldn’t he have set the tale in a dystopian future (switching the Vietnam war for some other conflict) and pretty much kept his plot as is (at least in terms of his character’s dysfunctional relationships)?  I would hazard to say the answer to both questions is yes.  The fact that Means sets his story in a counterfactual historical context but fails to extract more from its dramatic possibilities ends up being something of a let-down – at least to this reader.      


These quibbles notwithstanding, Means’s embrace of alternate history – however faint -- can nevertheless be welcomed as another sign of the genre’s increasing popularity and legitimacy.    

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Respectable" or Not? The Ongoing War Over Counterfactual History

As I continue to work on my new book on the history of the Fourth Reich (a project that, incidentally, employs abundant counterfactual reasoning), I’ve tried to stay up to date about the latest goings-on in the world of “what if?” 

Two recent essays struck me as simultaneously discouraging and heartening with regard to the future of counterfactual history.

On the one hand, a recent short essay in The Guardian by Nicholas Lezard entitled, “Altered Pasts Review: Counterfactual Histories Should Be Fun,” gets no objection from me in declaring that “We love a good counterfactual, don’t we? They are a bit of fun, in which we tweak history’s nose by imagining what might have been.”  However, Lezard then proceeds to lose me entirely by endorsing many of Richard Evans’s ill-grounded objections to “what if” thinking and by ultimately concluding – in overly sweeping fashion – that “counterfactuality is not a respectable historical tool, so don’t treat it like one.”

I don’t know what Lezard’s definition of “respectable” is, but I would think that we were past the point where such baseless accusations continue to be recycled.  I would like to think that we’ve arrived at a point where we don’t need to rehash all the reasons why counterfactual reasoning is not only essential to historical analysis, but has always been a tool (however unacknowledged) used by the leading figures in the western historical profession.  (For what it’s worth, I plan on meticulously documenting this fact in a future study of the field).


On the more positive side of the ledger:  Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison have recently received a decent bit of attention for their Applied History manifesto, “Establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers Now,” which was recently published in abridged form in The Atlantic.

Anyone interested in counterfactual history will be thrilled to see it endorsed by Ferguson and Allison as one of the key ways in which historians can contribute to policy making decisions.

They write as follows:

“A fifth type of assignment where applied historians could be helpful in the current policymaking process: by posing and answering “What if?” questions designed to analyze past decision-making. Addressing such questions requires disciplined counterfactual reasoning. While many mainstream historians have voiced reservations about counterfactual analysis, this method lies at the heart of every historical account. As one of us argued in Virtual History, “it is a logical necessity when asking questions about causation to pose ‘but for’ questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if our supposed cause had been absent.”

“When assessing the relative importance of various possible causes of WWI, historians make judgments about what would have happened in the absence of these factors. Methods developed for doing this systematically can be employed by applied historians in considering current policy choices. Thus, President Obama’s successor could ask his Council of Historical Advisers to replay 2013. What if Obama had opted to enforce the “red line” in Syria against the Assad regime, rather than delegating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria to the Russian government? And what if, in January 2014, the EU had not offered Ukraine an economic association agreement that was clearly designed to pull Kiev westwards? Would President Putin have intervened militarily in Ukraine?”

People may differ on the value of historians diving into political work, as Jeremy Adelman has recently written in a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  But whatever one’s views on the subject, it is significant that the manifesto elevates historical “what ifs?” to such prominence. 


At the very least, it refutes Lezard’s erroneous claim that they are anything but “respectable.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Counterfactual Jewish State After the Holocaust: Simone Zelitch's New Novel, "Judenstaat"

It's the summer doldrums and I'm taking a bit of a break from blogging about historical counterfactuals.

But I thought I'd post a link to a new review that I just published in The Forward on Simone Zelitch's novel, Judenstaat, about a Jewish state being established in Saxony after World War II.



The novel was briefly profiled in this past weekend's New York Times, along with Underground Airlines.  I'd like to think I engage with the book's absorbing narrative in greater depth.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A New Alternate History Novel About Slavery: Ben Winters' "Underground Airlines"

My summer alternate history readings list just got longer.

While I still have to crack open David Means’s Hystopia, I just saw today’s New York Times article about the publication of yet another prominent alternate history novel, Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines.



Not surprisingly, the two novels deal with “what if?” scenarios involving two of America’s enduring traumas: the Vietnam War and slavery.  I look forward to posting my thoughts on them later this summer.

But several things struck me in reading the Times piece on Underground Airlines.  

First, I was disappointed by the failure to mention the fact that the novel is a work of alternate history.  Regardless of whether Winters conceived the novel self-consciously as belonging to the genre (and he is quoted as having read Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth’s classic works, so he probably did), the failure of the reviewer, Alexandra Alter, to even mention the genre’s existence, to my mind, speaks to alternate history’s ongoing struggle for acceptance and legitimacy in the mainstream press and reading public.

One would think that after all the prominent contributions that have appeared in recent years, it would be de rigueur to note that any novel based on a historical counterfactual belongs to an established literary tradition.  Apparently, we’re not yet there…

Second, and this is a point having less to do with “what ifs?” than identity politics, I was struck by the multiple comments involving the “controversial” dimensions of Winters (a white male Jewish author) writing about a black protagonist.

Winters is quoted in the article saying: “No one tried to talk me out of it, but my wife at one point said, ‘Boy, it would be better if you were black.”…. “My agent might have said something similar, that the reception of the book would go down easier if it was an African-American author.”

The article goes on to add: 

“At least one publisher passed on the book, arguing that it might be too controversial in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Winters said.”

The article further notes: 

“The African American writer, Attica Locke, a mystery novelist and a writer for the television show “Empire,” said she was taken aback at first when she picked up the book and saw the author photo. “The premise was just like, ‘Wait, what now?’” Ms. Locke said. “For me, as a black writer, I have to be like, ‘What’s Ben trying to do here?’” Then she got sucked into the story and was “blown away,” she said. “There’s always this chatter about who gets to tell which stories, and I’m so grateful that he did not let his choice to have a black protagonist scare him away from the project, because this is everybody’s history,” she said."

All the above quotations obviously speak to the ongoing difficulty speaking about race in the U. S.  And there are plenty of reasons why this should be so.

The very idea, however, that – especially in fiction, the art of the imagination – some people may be un- or under- or dis-qualified from speaking about subjects because of their identity is woefully ill-considered. 

Was (white writer) Terry Bisson wrong for featuring black protagonists in his alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain?  Was the non-Jewish writer Martin Amis ill-equipped for writing about the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow?  The list goes on and on and on…. 

Works of fiction (like film, music, theater, etc.) can be judged on all kinds of aesthetic and ethical criteria, but to prejudge works of fiction based on superficial assumptions about the identity of the author strikes me as, well, superficial. 

Human beings have the capacity to show empathy for other human beings.  This is the job of literature at its core.  And it’s our obligation to one another as members of the human species. As Winters himself notes:

“The whole art form is about empathy,” Mr. Winters said. “No, I will never know what it’s really like to be black, but I can, through as much imagination as I can bring to it, create this individual. That’s my job.”

Thankfully, everyone who touched on the issue in today’s Times article ultimately came off as reasonable, but I’m afraid this trend will lead to some less praiseworthy episodes in the future if it continues.



Monday, July 4, 2016

A July 4th Counterfactual: Jefferson's Deleted Condemnation of Slavery from the Declaration of Independence

Today’s New York Times contains a sobering op-ed that counterfactually reminds us of the missed opportunities associated with our otherwise celebratory July 4th holiday.


According to historian Robert Parkinson,

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.”

“In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.”

To understand the profound regret that characteristically informs this “missed opportunity counterfactual,” it helps to re-read the original draft of the Declaration penned by Jefferson.

As is made clear on the Library of Congress website, Jefferson originally included among King George III’s “long train of abuses & usurpations” the following complaint:

“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

The reason why this anti-slavery passage was deleted was later explained by Jefferson in his Autobiography, where he wrote:

"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."

Predictably, many observers have wondered how American history would have unfolded if the paragraph had been included.

The British Library has opined: “Now, we're not going to enter here into the debate about Thomas Jefferson's attitude to slavery. He expressed opposition to the slave trade throughout his career and in 1807 he signed a bill that prohibited slave importation into the United States; that said, Jefferson was also the owner of hundreds of slaves. However, it does strike us that this passage, with its forthright language ('this piratical warfare', 'this execrable commerce'), could easily have changed the course of history if adopted in America as early as 1776.”

Henry Jaffa has argued in A New Birth of Freedom (p. 478): “It remains a matter of profound regret that [Jefferson’s original words…did not remain in the text.  They would have made impossible the perversity of [Supreme Court justice, Roger B. Taney, who handed down the Dred Scott decision in 1857] and [Stephen] Douglas’s misrepresentation of the Declaration of Independence.  (Douglas had agreed with Taney that the signers of the Declaration had not meant to include Negroes in their equalitarian pronouncement).


It would be interesting to see how other scholars have wrestled with the counterfactual implications of Jefferson’s deleted words.  Reflecting on the deeper questions involving the origins of American independence lends deeper meaning to a holiday otherwise devoted to consuming mass quantities of charred meat.

Friday, June 24, 2016

With Friends Like These...: Vladimir Putin Endorses Counterfactual History


As if counterfactual history did not have enough critics, Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent endorsement of the field will surely discredit further by associating it with the stigma of authoritarianism.


In a new article published in the Russian News Agency, Tass, Putin was quoted at a meeting of the All-Russia Historical Assembly on Wednesday saying some positive things about historical “what ifs.”

After stressing the importance of history for the nation’s identity he observed:

"Some say history admits of no ‘what-ifs’. This is very true. The same applies to politics. But there is a place for such speculations in science, and this may be of great importance and interest."

The article goes on to note that Putin “shared some impressions of a recent meeting with a German friend of his,” noting: "You’ve just said it is crucial to know the atrocities the Nazis committed on our soil. That German friend of mine has read quite a few historical documents and he paid attention to what Hitler had planned to do, in case of victory, to the Russian people, and where the Russian people would’ve found themselves then - far away in Siberia, where they would’ve been doomed to extinction."

Putin went on to observe that such facts "should be known to everybody, including those who have been trying to re-evaluate what happened in the past and to make conclusions nobody is in the position to make today to condemn somebody."

"It’s worth taking a look at what would’ve been in store for us, had we suffered a defeat. This is very important," Putin said. In his opinion from the standpoint of science "all aspects are of interest - what really happened and what could have happened."

Counterfactual history as a mode of analysis is politically neutral.  But its embrace by Putin may solidify the suspicion of left-liberal critics like Richard Evans that it inherently expresses a right-wing sensibility.

While it may be true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, there’s no denying that counterfactual history now has another hurdle to surmount in its bid for mainstream acceptance.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thomas Weber's Hitler Counterfactuals: Part II

It’s always a pleasure to engage in counterfactual discussion, and so I’m happy to post Professor Thomas Weber’s emailed response to my blog post from yesterday:


"Your blog post is most interesting and intriguing.  As to your point that one would think that a left-leaning Hitler would have opposed a right-wing Russia that had triumphed over the Bolsheviks in the civil war, my response would be that a) Hitler had never had any sympathy towards the kind of internationalism of the Bolsheviks, but for different kind of leftwing ideas, and b) that by the time Hitler started to take an interest in Russia and in the possibility of a Tsarist restoration, he had already moved to the right.”

“As to your second point, my response would be to say that Hitler, as well as Tsarist émigrés in Germany, argued that Germany and Russia never had been ‘natural’ enemies (but that only circumstances had turned the two countries into enemies during WWI, which according to their logic had been to the detriment of both countries). Furthermore, Hitler would have argued that he was not responsible for the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk, and, more importantly, that in his mind the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk had not been intended as a punitive peace and that it had kept Russia proper intact. In fact, Hitler repeatedly gave talks making that very point.”

“Furthermore, Hitler believed Germany to be weak in the early 1920s and thus believed that Germany on its own would face an uphill struggle to turn into the kind of empire that could survive in a new world of empires. It was in this context that National Socialists and some Russian émigrés started to see common ground and to argue that a sustainable and permanent alliance between the two countries would solve their respective strategic challenges.”

“You also ask “if Hitler and the Nazis become powerful, as in real history, but the Whites had won the Civil War (which never happened), might not Hitler have ended up invading Russia in a different kind of World War II regardless.” My response would be to say that Hitler would have seen an alliance with Russia as a path towards becoming successful and thus would, in all likelihood, have pursued a different strategy to becoming powerful. Of course, one may argue that a successful Hitler or successful Russian royalists may have been considerably less likely to compromise and enter into an alliance than Tsarist émigrés and Hitler intended to be in a situation of desperation.”

“It is difficult to give a brief answer to your question as to whether Hitler “might not also have pursued the Final Solution of the Jewish question” anyway. The answer to that question depends on the extent to which the Final Solution had already been predetermined by, say, 1919, or even 1933. I would argue that he certainly would have pursued a final solution, yet that it is open to debate as to what form that final solution would have taken, if the historical context of the implementation of that final solution had been different from the history that really was."

My response to Weber’s comments is as follows:

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments.

I suppose the underlying question that I am interested in is the degree to which Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 (along with the intensification of the genocidal assault against Europe’s Jews) was fueled by anti-Bolshevism.  While many historians have argued that it was central (and that Hitler’s antisemitism was a function of his anti-Bolshevism), I remain skeptical and see the latter as subordinated to the former. 

I am intrigued by the possibility of testing this proposition counterfactually by imagining the scenario of Nazi Germany facing a right-wing monarchistic regime in Russia in 1939-41.  If the Whites had won the Civil War and defeated the Bolsheviks, would the Nazis have developed a different foreign policy? 

This begs the question, of course, of whether the Nazis even would have been able to seize power in 1933 without the threat of a Soviet communist regime that could be exploited for domestic political purposes in Germany.  Some scholars, such as Tim Snyder, would probably say no.  I would argue that it partly depends on the timing of the White victory.  If it occurred only after years of fighting and bloodshed, say in the mid-1920s, it would have left lasting scars and fears of a possible Bolshevik comeback that the Nazis could have exploited for their own purposes in the same way that the existence of an actual Bolshevik regime could have been exploited.  Also, even had the Whites won a quick victory in Russia, Germany still would have been rocked by the socialist and communist revolutions of 1918-20 and by continued communist agitation in the Weimar era.  So anticommunist sentiment in Germany would have remained high, thereby benefiting Hitler.  Moreover, the Great Depression arguably would have happened as it did in real history, and so the Nazis’ rise to power does not seem like it would have been affected by a White victory in Russia.

But how would this victory have shaped the Nazi regime’s foreign policy?  Would Hitler still have developed his Lebensraum ambitions in the East?  I am inclined to think so.  First, Hitler’s view of the “food crisis” facing Germany (and the necessity of finding new farmland somewhere) would have directed his attention away from western expansion (ie. towards France and the Benelux nations) and instead towards the east (where Ukraine’s grain was located); so, too, would his awareness of the fact that the east was where Germany’s ethnic German minorities actually lived, who needed to be incorporated for racial/Social Darwinistic reasons into a Greater Germany. 

If these practical questions are viewed as potentially decisive, then the question becomes how the Nazis would have justified an invasion of Russia ideologically.  In real history, of course, Barbarossa was justified as a global crusade against Bolshevism and international Jewry.  Without a Bolshevik regime, what would Hitler have invoked as a rationale for invasion?  Could antisemitic ideas, which still would have been powerful in Nazi Germany, been exploited to justify a crusade against a right-wing, nationalistic, monarchistic Russia?  I suppose some of this depends on what would have happened to Russia’s Jews following a White victory in the civil war.  Given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred by White forces and other nationalist groups in the years 1917-23, they might have fared terribly in White-ruled Russia.  Many might have fled elsewhere (though most might have stayed if monarchist forces had eventually been able to restore order).  A miserable, oppressed Russian Jewish community, however, does not lend itself so easily to being exploited by the Nazis in the same way that, in real history, they portrayed Soviet Jewry as the string-pullers behind the Bolshevik regime. 

Of course, If Bolshevik forces had remained a threat within Russian society – that is to say, if a Bolshevik insurgency had continued to simmer underground, with periodic attacks, and the like, against the restored Tsarist state – then Hitler could have made the case that the Jewish/communist threat remained severe and needed to be eradicated.  As in the pre-1914 Tsarist world, which produced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, antisemitic tropes could have been mobilized to justify an invasion of a right-wing nationalist Russia.  

(Left undetermined in this scenario, by the way, is the question of whether a neo-Tsarist regime would have actually been able to retake power in a post-civil war Russia, or whether it would have been some kind of right-wing fascist style regime, ruled by a strong man, without any monarchical connection.  Obviously, nationalist regimes can go to war with one another, though a fascist Russian government may have been ideologically inclined to ally with Nazi Germany).


Needless to say, I still need to give these ideas a good deal more thought – and, indeed, plan on doing so in my very-much-in-the-planning-stages book project on “What If?” scenarios pertaining to the Holocaust.  But I am convinced that part of the analytical problem involves assessing the relative weight of antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism as variables in the Final Solution.  In order to prove the centrality of Nazi antisemitism, one would need to show Hitler to be just as committed to invading a non-communist Soviet Union in alternate history as he was committed to invading a Communist USSR in real history.