Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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).


Monday, February 2, 2015

Nuking Berlin (Again): Steven Shapin on Churchill and the British Atom Bomb


One of the benefits of my long deferred decision to subscribe to the London Review of Books is that I recently came across an extended counterfactual reflection from a few years back on the nuclear destruction of Berlin by historian of science Steven Shapin.  Actually, it’s more of a meditation of what would have happened had Great Britain under the leadership of Winston Churchill decided to invest more resources in the developing of the atom bomb during World War II. 

Shapin’s reflections appeared in his review of Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics.  What I found most interesting – and indeed significant – was that Shapin begins his review of the book with a counterfactual history of the world as it might have been – had England developed the bomb – as method of appreciating the significance of Farmelo’s book.
The review begins as follows:
“Winston Churchill’s decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Berlin on 1 July 1947 wasn’t a difficult one. The war hadn’t been going well since the landings in the Pas de Calais in May 1946 were thrown back with terrible losses – a failure that had much to do with the amount of treasure and materiel that had been diverted to Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. The Americans remained preoccupied in the Pacific, still wary of the slaughter that would surely attend an invasion of the Japanese home islands, and it wasn’t likely that another landing on the Atlantic coast of Europe could be mounted for several years. British and Canadian carpet-bombing of German cities continued, but ever since the Russians had been dealt an almost fatal blow by the capture of Moscow in September 1941, the Nazis had been able to shift military production out of range of Allied bombers and harden the Atlantic defences. The alternative to using the Bomb on Berlin would be more V-3 rockets falling on London and stalemate in the west, a thought too dreadful to contemplate. As Churchill foresaw, the Bomb instantly decapitated the Nazi leadership, and General von Kleist, the commander of the remaining German forces in the west, offered unconditional surrender. Britain’s Bomb won the war.”
“Producing the Bomb had cost Britain dear, ever since Churchill decided early in 1942 to go ahead with the massive project on the basis of the reports of the MAUD Committee and secured the vital collaboration of the Canadians in uranium isotope separation using the gaseous diffusion method. He had directed British scientists not to tell the Americans about calculations done in Birmingham early in 1940 by the émigré physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, which established that no more than a kilogram of fissionable U-235 was required for a bomb. American scientists, like the Germans, who also believed that tons might be needed, had not gone ahead with their proposed Cambridge Project, named after the Harvard and MIT affiliations of its leading figures. The Americans had concluded that it would be impossible to produce so much U-235 in time for a weapon to be used in this war, so in June 1947 Britain emerged as the world’s only nuclear power, and the gun-method uranium Bomb – nicknamed Fat Man (after the prime minister) – was successfully tested in Newfoundland. The British Bomb had seriously strained the alliance with the Americans, but there was no more a ‘special relationship’ with the US than there was with France. Britain had entered the war as a great imperial power, and Churchill was determined that it should emerge from it at least as great, a benign world policeman.”
“As it turned out, however, Britain’s use of the Bomb on Germany had the opposite effect. Like Aesop’s fable of the frog trying to become an ox, Britain puffed itself up until it burst. It could neither preserve its empire nor command the resources to sustain a superpower role, and historians now write fanciful ‘what if?’ stories envisaging a world in which the Americans were the first to develop the Bomb. They imagine what might have happened had Britain not implemented an open-arms policy towards émigré Jewish scientists and had Enrico Fermi gone to the US instead of Britain, where he so effectively joined his theoretical and experimental talents to those of Frisch, Peierls and dozens of other escapees in the massive and spectacularly successful Edgbaston Project. If all those things really had happened, the fantasists suggest, the Americans might have built the Bomb even sooner than the British did, given their vast industrial capabilities. They might have pursued a wide range of ways of producing U-235 and plutonium, even the electromagnetic separation techniques that the British-Canadian project had set aside because of their enormous expense. What if the US had become the world’s first nuclear power as early as the summer of 1946, then used its first two bombs on Kobe and Nagasaki, and its next two on Vladivostok and Moscow, since the Soviets had repulsed the Germans at Moscow and were threatening to dominate half of Europe? What, then, would Britain’s fate have been in the following decades? What if, unencumbered by the impossible demands of remaining a great power, Britain had not so disastrously attempted to retain its empire and had instead enthusiastically embraced a resurgent federal Europe? What if Britain had devoted huge resources to help reconstruct a still radioactive Soviet Union and formed a peaceful Atlantic-to-the-Urals ‘Eurovision’ partnership ranged against the rampant and dangerous American superpower? What if America, as the world’s sole nuclear state, was itself about to be destroyed by its own vaulting ambition?”
“Things didn’t happen that way, but they could have. Counterfactual history seems so implausible because our minds tend to drift from knowing the way things turned out to the assumption that that’s the way they had to turn out, but it prompts us nevertheless to think about the fragile interconnections of events, structures and personalities. Imagining a world in which Britain produced its own nuclear weapons during the war makes you consider the opportunity costs of things that didn’t happen because certain other things did: for example, the resources unavailable for assembling a Continental invasion force because they were devoted to a nuclear programme, and the political implications of things that might have happened if Britain had made its own Bomb, not least the effect on postwar relations with the United States.”

What a wonderfully provocative way to begin a book review!  Shapin’s attention to detail is impressive and his understanding of the utility of counterfactuals is spot-on.

That said, there are a few glitches.  First, he violates the “minimal rewrite rule” (to wit: change as little as possible to the historical record after your initial point of divergence) by adding a second counterfactual with the Germans’ capture of Moscow in September 1941.  (How this transpires is left unexplained).  Presumably, British panic at the USSR’s near-defeat is what sparks their move to develop the atom bomb. 

But in reality, a near Soviet defeat might very well have led the UK to throw in the towel against the Nazis; with the USSR essentially out of the fight and the US not yet in it, England’s will to fight would have flagged.  This was Hitler’s strategy all along, of course, and one can imagine the separate peace camp in England pushing for an end to hostilities.

This is why Shapin’s conclusion that the British would have ultimately nuked Berlin (though not til 1947) does not convince as much as the hypothetical scenario of a German army victory in the Battle of the Bulge leading to this apocalyptic outcome.  (Click HERE, for a recent post on this topic).

Two and a half cheers, though, for Steven Shapin for adding further legitimacy to allohistorical speculation in academic writing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Implausible Counterfactual of the Day: Creating a Jewish State in the United States instead of Israel. Really?


Strictly speaking, the following example is not a historical counterfactual, but rather, a future history scenario.  Nevertheless, it has many implications for counterfactual history.  As reported in a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, former Dutch minister of economic affairs Herman Heinsbroek, declared in the financial monthly Quote:


“It was an historical error to give the Jews their own country in the middle of Islam….You’ve had nothing but war ever since and you’ve had anti-Semitism resurging, too. My idea: Give the Jews their own state somewhere in the United States and 25 years to move their state over there.”

Heinsbroek is also quoted as saying that if implemented, his solution “will finally create, perhaps, peace in the world.”

The claim is patently ludicrous and nakedly political.  I won’t bother to affix a label to the claim (anyone up for parsing the differences between antizionism and antisemitism?), but it’s been disproved by a variety of other counterfactual assertions.

For example, Josef Joffe’s essay, “A World Without Israel,” (2009) and Amir Tahiri’s essay, “Is Israel the Problem?”, (2007) clearly show that if Israel did not exist, there would hardly be peace in the Middle East, let alone the world.   Friction between different sects and ethnic groups (mostly Arab and Muslim, but not only) would merely intensify without Israel to focus internal and external grievances upon. 

Moreover, counterfactual works of literature – dystopian future histories, mostly – have also identified the irrationality of expecting a mass exodus of Jews to solve anything.  Take, for example, Hugo Bettauer’s chillingly prophetic Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews), written in 1922, which portrays ordinary life in Vienna coming to a grinding halt without its Jewish population. 

Furthermore, non-Jews typically end up regretting the departure of Jews from their lands and wish they would return.   See Bernt Engelmann’s Germany Without Jews (1984), which is a mournful survey of everything German life lost in the Holocaust. 

As for the United States as an ideal destination? Michael Chabon dramatically pointed out that shipping Europe’s Jews to the U. S. – specifically Alaska, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – would hardly be a panacea.  This is further shown by the failure of attempts to create a Jewish state in the United States – specifically the experimental community of Ararat in upper New York State – which essentially went nowhere in the early 19th century.  (For more on Ararat, click HERE).

None of this is to deny that Israel’s presence in the Middle East has been a source of conflict.  But Heinsbroek’s remarks express an entirely unrealistic and naïve (not to mention discriminatory) fantasy.

Counterfactually speaking, I contend that Mr. Heinsbroek’s misguided recommendation could have easily been avoided had he been more of a student of counterfactual history, which helps us grasp the possibilities (and impossibilities) of how historical events come to pass.