Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, December 12, 2014

Adam Rovner's Counterfactual Zions

I’m very pleased to call attention to my friend and colleague Adam Rovner’s new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel, which has a strong counterfactual subtext to it.  Could there have been other Jewish homelands besides the one eventually established in British-ruled Palestine?  Read Rovner to find out!


Relatedly, Rovner currently has a new blog post up on the website of the Jewish Book Council that lists his “Top Five Alternate Histories of Zion.”

Readers will be very interested to learn that besides Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the list features several relatively unknown novels and short stories that deserve attention.   Click HERE for the full list.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Bait and Switch Counterfactual: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Forthcoming Film, "Elser"

I was interested to see that the marketing for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s forthcoming Film, Elser (due out in 2015) has a clear counterfactual subtext.  The film’s subtitle is “He Could Have Changed the World.”
(See the German language trailer on YouTube here).


As is well-known, the working class German carpenter, Georg Elser, nearly succeeded in assassinating Adolf Hitler on November 8, 1939, when the bomb he hid in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller detonated as scheduled, but missed its target, as the Führer had departed early to catch a train to Berlin.

Whether the counterfactual possibilities of a successful assassination are at all explored in the film is unknown (and doubtful), but their presence will surely help add to the film’s appeal.  In so doing, it will probably resembled Volker Schlödorff's recent film, Diplomacy, about the near-destruction of Paris by the Nazis in 1944.  (I commented on this film in an earlier post).

For a more full-fledged look at what would have happened had Elser’s assassination plan succeeded, I modestly suggest readers look forward to my own essay in the forthcoming volume, “If Only We Had Died in Egypt!”  In it, I explore how Hitler’s death would have affected the Holocaust, which was then in its earliest stage.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nigel Farage's Counterfactual Conclusion to World War I

I’m not inclined to agree with Ukip leader Nigel Farage on many policy issues, but he may be correct in his recent speculative comments about the conclusion of World War I.

As The Guardian recently reported, Farage argued that “Britain and its allies should have continued the First World War for another six weeks in order to achieve an unconditional German surrender, even at the cost of another 100,000 casualties.”
“I believe we should have continued with the advance,” Farage said as he delivering the annual Tom Olsen Lecture at London’s St Bride’s Church on Monday night, hours before Armistice Day was due to be marked across Britain, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth.”
“We should have pursued the war for a further six weeks, and gone for an unconditional surrender. Yes, the last six weeks of the war cost us 100,000 casualties, and I’m prepared to accept that a further six weeks of war might have cost us another 100,000.”
The failure to do pursue this approach ended up being catastrophic, Farage argued.  Indeed, “the armistice was the biggest mistake of the entire 20th century.”  
To bolster this point, Farage argued counterfactually:
“Had we driven the German army completely out of France and Belgium [and] forced them into unconditional surrender, Herr Hitler would never have got his political army off the ground. He couldn’t have claimed Germany had been stabbed in the back by the politicians in Berlin, or that Germany had never been beaten in the field.”
“The Ukip leader said that the reason why Hitler had been able to get his party off the ground in Germany – drawing on “the myth of the stab in the back” at the treaty of Versailles – was because one of those marching through the streets in support of him in 1923 was Erich Ludendorff, a commander of the German army during the first world war.”
“He added: “It was Ludendorff who gave Hitler credibility. Yet none of this would happened if someone had made Ludendorff surrender unconditionally.”
“The Ukip leader said: “The consensus is that the treaty of Versailles was too punitive. It led directly to German hyperinflation, which in turn led to seven million unemployed, and which in turn led to National Socialism.
“But I don’t actually think Versailles was the mistake. I believe the real mistake, the anniversary of which we remember today, was the armistice.”

What should we make of this claim?

Farage is wrong that the Treaty of Versailles was not a mistake (its punitive character did, in fact, lead to a right-wing backlash against the Weimar government that signed the treaty).  But he is right that an unconditional surrender would have certainly prevented Germans from disbelieving the fact that their army had actually lost the war in the field (instead of being stabbed in the back by civilian traitors).

That said, it is entirely possible that the Allies would have followed up an unconditional surrender with an equally punitive peace treaty like Versailles – one that would have led to some kind of German backlash.  Farage’s claim may thus be overly optimistic.

It is interesting to contemplate whether the Germans would have pursued some kind of insurgency against Allied occupying forces.  After World War II, the country was so destroyed and the population so exhausted from six years of fighting that the Werewolf insurgency of 1945-47 was weak and ineffectual. 

After World War I, by contrast, Germany would have been much less destroyed (even if Entente forces had laid northern areas of the country waste on the way to Berlin).  Perhaps South Germans (whose territory might have been spared) would have risen up to expel the invaders with the aid of a rightwing revanchist movement. 

The scenario is a provocative one that is certainly worth mulling over.  Farage may not deserve credit for much else, but he certainly earns points in the area of provocative counterfactual proposals.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Friedman's Counterfactual Comparison of ISIS and Vietnam


In his recent New York Times column, Tom Friedman draws parallels between the United States’ developing campaign against ISIS and its ill-fated battle against communist forces in Vietnam.


In the attempt to provide a boost to the former, he highlights the shortcomings of the latter, writing:

“It’s a long, complicated story…but a big part of it was failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule — not the embrace of global communism, the interpretation we imposed on it.

The North Vietnamese were both communists and nationalists — and still are. But the key reason we failed in Vietnam was that the communists managed to harness the Vietnamese nationalist narrative much more effectively than our South Vietnamese allies, who were too often seen as corrupt or illegitimate. The North Vietnamese managed to win (with the help of brutal coercion) more Vietnamese support not because most Vietnamese bought into Marx and Lenin, but because Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades were perceived to be the more authentic nationalists. 

I believe something loosely akin to this is afoot in Iraq. The Islamic State, or ISIS, with its small core of jihadists, was able to seize so much non-jihadist Sunni territory in Syria and Iraq almost overnight — not because most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis suddenly bought into the Islamist narrative of ISIS’s self-appointed caliph….They have embraced or resigned themselves to ISIS because they were systematically abused by the pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq — and because they see ISIS as a vehicle to revive Sunni nationalism and end Shiite oppression.”

At this point, Friedman lays the framework for an interesting counterfactual:

“Obsessed with communism, America intervened in Vietnam’s civil war and took the place of the French colonialists. Obsessed with jihadism and 9/11, are we now doing the bidding of Iran and Syria in Iraq? Is jihadism to Sunni nationalism what communism was to Vietnamese nationalism: a fearsome ideological movement that triggers emotional reactions in the West — deliberately reinforced with videotaped beheadings — but that masks a deeper underlying nationalist movement that is to some degree legitimate and popular in its context?

I wonder what would have happened had ISIS not engaged in barbarism and declared: “We are the Islamic State. We represent the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have been brutalized by Persian-directed regimes of Damascus and Baghdad. If you think we’re murderous, then just Google ‘Bashar al-Assad and barrel bombs’ or ‘Iraqi Shiite militias and the use of power drills to kill Sunnis.’ You’ll see what we faced after you Americans left. Our goal is to secure the interests of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. We want an autonomous ‘Sunnistan’ in Iraq just like the Kurds have a Kurdistan — with our own cut of Iraq’s oil wealth.”

That probably would have garnered huge support from Sunnis everywhere….”

Friedman goes to explain why, then, ISIS has been so ideological extreme, concluding that it reflects the leadership’s recognition that its jihadi-nationalist alliance may, in fact, be quite tenuous.  In answer to the question “why did ISIS behead two American journalists?”, Friedman writes: “Because ISIS is a coalition of foreign jihadists, local Sunni tribes and former Iraqi Baath Party military officers. I suspect the jihadists in charge want to draw the U.S. into another “crusade” against Muslims — just like Osama bin Laden — to energize and attract Muslims from across the world and to overcome their main weakness, namely that most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are attracted to ISIS simply as a vehicle of their sectarian resurgence, not because they want puritanical/jihadist Islam. There is no better way to get secular Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis to fuse with ISIS than have America bomb them all.”

Friedman’s counterfactual works relatively well in isolating and identifying one of the causal forces underpinning ISIS’s rise to prominence: secular Sunni nationalism.

At the same time, the counterfactual is implausible on the face of it, insofar as there is little likelihood that ISIS would have ever been able to make a non-ideologically radical appeal of the kind Friedman proposes.  What defines ISIS is precisely its ideological fanaticism, which cannot be seen merely in utilitarian terms.

There is a clear precedent in Nazi Germany.  Although many adherents of the NSDAP supported the party for diverse reasons, we should not lose sight that Hitler and Nazi core leadership was fanatically committed to an ideological agenda. 

As long as the leaders of tyrannical groups behave in accordance with strict ideological principles – and as long as they remain in charge -- we cannot expect their “moderate” allies to exert much of a modulating effect.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More History Without Hitler: Timothy Ryback's Counterfactual Reflections on Hitler's Near-Death in World War I


Timothy Ryback’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “History Without Hitler?” raises a question that has been posed many times before, but he approaches it from a new angle by asking what it might tell us about the future.



Ryback describes how the Bavarian Infantry Reserve soldier Adolf Hitler survived several near-death experiences during the First World War before asking:

“what if Hitler had fallen on that Thursday morning a century ago this week, or on any other day during those next four years of frontline fighting? How different might the 20th century have looked? How different might the course of German history have been? What utility is there in such “counterfactual history,” which the eminent British historian Richard Evans recently decried as misguided and futile?”

“Given the perilous political circumstances in some regions of our world today, understanding what could have been, may in fact help us better understand what might be.”

Specifically, Ryback seeks to find parallels between early 20th century Germany and the contemporary Middle East. 

As he puts it: “In 1919, Hitler found himself in a country transitioning from an oppressive but stable monarchy to a fledgling constitutional democracy, a dynamic not unfamiliar to our post-Arab Spring world where countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have edged toward Western-style democracy with dramatically uneven experiences and occasionally horrifying results.”

So far so good, but Ryback never really develops the analogy, offering little more than the truism that the rise of Nazism “underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies.”

More interesting, to my mind, is Ryback’s highlighting of an older counterfactual observation – one that I was unaware of -- by one of Hitler’s henchmen, the jurist Hans Frank.  On death row at Nuremberg in 1945, Frank reflected on the relationship between historical necessity and contingency, declaring: 

“The Führer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment. Had he come, let us say, 10 years later, when the republic was firmly established, it would have been impossible for him. And if he had come 10 years previously, or at any time when there was still the monarchy, he would have gotten nowhere. He came at exactly this terrible transitory period when the monarchy had gone and the republic was not yet secure.”

Frank’s comment suggests the belief that Hitler – or someone like him -- was more or less inevitable in Germany after its military defeat of 1918.  That the times produced the man (as opposed to the reverse).

Ryback essentially agrees.  Although he concedes that while “We can never know how different history may have looked had Hitler been felled by bullets that early morning a hundred years,” he notes that some Germans were already speaking of a “second world war” within a year of the armistice that was to have ended “the war to end all wars.” 

In other words, Hitler was predictable.

Ryback then goes on to endorse the counterfactual claim:     “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” concluding “We can say with certainty that no other political leader of the era would have harnessed national passions or driven an anti-Semitic, pure-race agenda with such ferocity or tragic consequence, resulting in the deaths of millions of European Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the weak and disabled.”

No surprise here, as this belief has lately become the orthodox one.

Ryback’s ultimate conclusion also conforms to what is surely the consensus of most historians – namely, that change takes time:

“So what is the lesson of this particular counterfactual moment for us today? Beyond the fact that the Weimar Republic might well be celebrating the 95th anniversary of its Constitution this autumn, a history without Hitler underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies. It shows us that these processes require time, sometimes generations, and how different German history may have been had Hitler fallen with his regiment in Flanders fields 100 years ago this week.”

Do we need a counterfactual line of argumentation to reach this point?  Probably not.  But it is notable that historical “what ifs” continue to employed to arrive at historical understanding.   It is a sure sign of their increasingly mainstream status.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Collectivization Counterfactual: Stephen Kotkin's New Stalin Biography


In yet another sign of the relevance of counterfactuals, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (November 6th) profiles Stephen Kotkin’s forthcoming biography of Joseph Stalin by featuring the speculative title, “If Stalin Had Died...” 


Presumably most of Kotkin's book is written as a traditional history (and has few counterfactual lines of argumentation), but by choosing the highlight the seductive premise of one of the 20th century’s worst criminals being removed from history, Kotkin and the NYRB have chosen to capitalize on the vogue for “what if?” thinking.

The gist of Kotkin’s claim in his article is simple: if Stalin had died in 1921 (either of appendicitis or tuberculosis – both of which he suffered from) or if he had been assassinated in 1928 (plans to this effect seem to have been afoot among certain Bolsheviks), the Soviet Union would have been spared the horrors of collectivization.

Kotkin writes, “the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization – the only kind -- would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high.”

In short, a real historical nightmare would have been averted, thus making the counterfactual claim a clear fantasy.

Kotkin then goes on to refute E. H. Carr’s famous assertion that “Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances,” declaring the assertion to be “utterly, eternally wrong.”  Stalin, for Kotkin, validates the great man theory of history (T. Carlyle), writing that he “made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth.”  He concludes: “History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up.”

Kotkin does not say how the Soviet Union would have evolved without Stalin.  But he hints that the system could have survived under a different leader.  He dismisses the possible ascension of Trotsky, whose leadership skills were not up to snuff, but he writes that “even within the encumbering Leninist frame, a Soviet leader could have gone out of his way to reduce the paranoia built into the regime’s relations with the outside world....A Soviet leader could have paid the price of partial accommodation, grasping that capitalism was not, in fact, dying out globally....”

Kotkin adds that the Soviet Union could have modernized without Stalin’s crash program of collectivization, noting that it could have pursued a more market based approach; collectivization, he adds, was not “necessary to sustain a dictatorship,” as “private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible” – as shown by the example of Italian Fascism.

Further questions, unasked by Kotkin, could be posed:

Would the Soviet Union have been able to withstand Hitler’s assault of June 22, 1941 and ultimately defeat the Nazis had Stalin not forcibly industrialized the country through the two Five Year plans?  (This is the theodicy that is often invoked to justify Stalin’s dictatorial rule)

For that matter, if Stalin had died in 1921, would the Soviet Union have industrialized as rapidly in the years that followed?  (Kotkin seems to imply the answer to be yes).

It is also worth asking how Russia would have fared had the Whites won the Civil War over the Reds and reimposed some kind of authoritarian or even fascist order in the 1920s. 

Indeed, would Hitler have even invaded Russia in this alternate world?  Hitler’s commitment to Lebensraum in the east suggests the answer to be yes, even if Russia was not ruled by the Bolsheviks.  But can we imagine Nazism without Bolshevism? 

So much speculating to do – but so little time!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Today's Most Depressing Counterfactual: Sam Harris on Saddam Hussein

Following his dust-up with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show the other night, Sam Harris posted an impassioned blog about liberals' confusion with Islam.  In it, he concluded as follows:

"As I tried to make clear on Maher’s show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim “extremists” believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe—just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world."

The fact that the original scenario that prompted the 2003 war vs. Iraq was a nightmare -- ie. the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq motivated to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction -- makes it tragically ironic that we are now flirting with the fantasy about having kept him in power all along.

There really is no better confirmation of the fact that we cannot judge history while we're still in the middle of it.  Only knowing the ending allows us arrive at a judicious conclusion.  And we are clearly very far from any ending in the current war against radical Islam in the Middle East.