Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The PR War Continues: More Bad Press For Counterfactuals

Readers of this blog are well aware that counterfactual history has had a difficult time gaining acceptance and acquiring legitimacy among professional historians. 

By contrast, the general public has been more receptive, with counterfactual novels, films, and television programs appearing with greater frequency.

This may change, however, the more that pundits publish well intentioned, but misleading, articles, such as Steven Goldzweig’s recent post, “When Words Lose their Meaning: Counterfactual Advocacy, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Despotic Populism.”

I’ve posted here before on how counterfactuals do not exactly benefit when they are used by, and come to be associated with, authoritarian minded political leaders, such as President Trump or Vladimir Putin.

Now the claims of academics like Goldzweig (a professor of communications) threaten to reinforce the notion that counterfactuals may lean right.

I agree with the bulk of Goldzweig’s critique of Trump’s public discourse, which he defines as “designed to deny, evade or misdirect its audiences from facts, inferences, or descriptions of events that might provide the kind of transparency we need in a democratic society.”

However, I bristle at his decision to label this discourse “counterfactual advocacy.”

In the field of history, the term counterfactual has long been employed to add academic respectability to the process of speculating about how the past might have been different.

Here the term is also used to lend a kind of social science aura of analytical rigor to Trum’s good-‘ol-fashioned habit of lying through his teeth whenever possible.

The problem is that the phrase “counterfactual advocacy” blurs crucial distinctions and muddies water that is already pretty opaque.

Counterfactual literally means “counter to fact.” And in the present political context, that is a negative designation.  The wanton distortion and negation of facts has too often been used by authoritarian regimes to mislead and confuse the public.

But not all claims that are contrary to fact have ulterior motives. 

As is well known, counterfactual history contemplates alternatives to real history in order to understand it better, not in order to distort it.

The use of counterfactuals is merely one method among many for historians to seek the elusive ideal of “truth.”

We stigmatize the term “counterfactual” at our peril.

But it’s an uphill battle these days.

Consider how stigmatized the term “alternative” is becoming -- what, with “alternative facts,” “alternative reality,” the “alt-right” (alt being a shorthand version for alternative), and so forth all having negative associations, at least among the moderate, center-left wing of the political spectrum.

It’s hard enough battling centuries of bias against counterfactual history without having to contend with the burgeoning backlash against the term “counterfactual” being encouraged by present-day politics.

I humbly suggest finding an alternative term to describe Trump’s preference for alternative facts.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

And Now....Sports Counterfactuals! Mike Pesca's New Volume, "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs in Sports History"

So to start with a silver lining counterfactual….

I’m driving to work late this morning on I-95 and there’s horrible traffic, so I’m cursing my bad luck.  But then, thanks to the miracle of radio, I found that my delay allowed me to catch a story on NPR New York affiliate, WNYC, that I otherwise would have missed....

Brian Lehrer interviewing journalist Mike Pesca on his new edited anthology of sports counterfactuals, Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs in Sports History.

I hadn’t yet heard of this new volume, so I’m glad today’s traffic jam allowed me to hear more about it.

Sports counterfactuals are ubiquitous.  In fact, the concept of “Monday morning quarterbacking” epitomizes a core counterfactual reflex -- of regret leading people to pose “what ifs?”

So I’m not surprised that sports counterfactuals have finally gotten their own anthology

I’m quite impressed, however, with the prominent, if eclectic, list of contributors that Pesca has assembled to speculate on how sports history might have been different. 

There are historians (Julian Zelizer), journalists (Robert Siegel, Steve Kornacki), and even Hollywood actors (Jesse Eisenberg).  (A special shout-out goes to my old Bloomington, Indiana pal, Sports Illustrated writer, L. Jon Wertheim, who is among the contributors).

I don't yet have a copy of the book, but from the NPR discussion earlier today, it seems that they skew towards exuberant, long range counterfactuals.  They may strain plausibility frequently, but they promise to be creative.

The list of topics is wide-ranging and includes questions, such as:

“What If the U. S. Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?”
“What If Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991?”
“What If Title IX Never Was?”
“What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?”

And one that I’m especially looking forward to reading:

“What If the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?”

(No, it’s not a typo, but rather a “nesting doll” counterfactual, in which a world that never was imagines our actual world).

For the record, the cover features great, digitally altered photographs of pivotal events that never happened.

The takeaway?

The book’s appearance is one more sign that counterfactual history is alive and well.