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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Now the claims of academics like Goldzweig (a professor of
communications) threaten to reinforce the notion that counterfactuals may lean
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
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
But not all claims that are contrary to fact have ulterior
As is well known, counterfactual history contemplates
alternatives to real history in order to understand it better, not in order to
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
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.
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,
“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 book’s appearance is one more sign that counterfactual
history is alive and well.
In my book, Hi Hitler!, I made the case for the
existence a new internet law: according to which the more popular a meme, the
more likely it is to “Hitlerized” in ironic fashion. (Simply google "Hitler" plus Pikachu, My Little Pony, the Teletubbies, and Hello Kitty to get a sense of the tip of the iceberg).
Today’s Onion proves that the law is alive and well.In a new piece
entitled, “New Alternate-History Drama Examines What Would Have Happened if
Nazis Won 1991 NBA Finals,” the satirical website deftly combines Hitler and
counterfactual sports history to produce an absurdist romp through an NBA that
might have been.
The piece is a medium form, "transplant counterfactual" that places the Nazis of the 1930s and 40s into the
NBA of the 1990s.There a few
funny scenarios: Josef Goebbels talking “smack” to Scottie Pippen after a “powerful
dunk” and by telling the Bulls they are “of inferior breeding" andHitler becoming the NBA’s ambassador
instead of Michael Jordan and debuting “Air Führer sneakers.”
But overall, the laughs are
Not because the piece is
reference to Coach Heinrich Himmler’s “Final Solution” response to Bulls’ coach
Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense skirts the boundaries of good taste – but, then
again, it’s The Onion.
It’s more that the
references are dated.Unless you
were an NBA fan in the 1990s, there’s little chance you care about references
to Hakeem Olajuwon or the “prospect of an alternate version of Space Jam in which Hitler helps the
aliens to enslave and eventually exterminate Bugs Bunny and his friends.”
So what’s the significance
of the piece?
In all likelihood, it was
inspired by (and implicitly satirizes the growing number of counterfactual
Nazis that have been proliferating in popular culture, whether Quentin
Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds,
Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle,
or Jordan Peele’s recently announced Amazon show, “The Hunt” (see yesterday’s
Counterfactual History Review for a comment).
The question remains: does
being satirized mean that the counterfactual Nazi bubble has burst?That the wave has crested?That the topic will fade from this
If past is prologue, it’s
unlikely.Comic and tragic
depictions of the Nazis have coexisted in popular culture since the 1960s.Probably, they will continue to coexist
with one another going forward in a “dialectic of normalization,” in which
humorous and serious narratives reciprocally inspire (and generate) one another
in an endless cycle of thesis and antithesis.
One final thought come to
The piece might have been a
bit more subversive if it had delved deeper into the significance of an NBA
franchise called “The Nazis.” After all, it could have made the point that “Nazi-like” team
mascots exist today.
We’re familiar, of course,
with the fact that Native American history has been appropriated by the American
descendants of Europeans who conquered and killed them.Consider theWashington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and so forth.
But those team names refer
to the victims of colonial depredations.By contrast, The Onion piece’s
invocation of the NBA franchise, “The Nazis,” refers to the perpetrators.
It strikes me there are
analogies to be found: Minnesota “Vikings” anyone?Oakland “Raiders?”Tampa Bay “Buccaneers?”It
seems that the thieving, raping, and killing perpetrated by these (now
Bowdlerized) groups is routinely ignored by sports fans.
Might the same thing have
been conceivable in a world where the Nazis won World War II?
Those of you who follow this
blog know that I’ve been posting very little of late.
In my own defense, I’ve been
wrapping up the final editorial changes to my forthcoming book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from
World War II to the Present, which will be published by Cambridge
University Press in the spring of 2019.
As I’ve mentioned in
previous posts, the book includes many counterfactual elements.It explores various “what if” scenarios
involving ways in which ex-Nazis (in Germany, Latin America, and beyond) could have been more successful in
pursuing a political comeback after 1945.In
tackling this speculative question, the book seeks to determine whether or not postwar
fears of a Fourth Reich were exaggerated or grounded in reality. (in so doing, it implicitly speaks to contemporary fears about whether we are facing a new "fascist" threat today).
I’ll be posting more on the
subject as the book’s publication date gets closer.
In the meantime, I was
struck the other day by a bit of karmic news that underscores the Fourth Reich’s
topicality: namely, the news release that Amazon.Prime will be following up the
success of The Man in the High Castle
with a new 10 part series (release date still unknown) called “The Hunt.”
As Varietyreported: “The
Hunt follows a diverse band of Nazi Hunters
living in 1977 New York City. The Hunters, as they’re known, have discovered
that hundreds of high ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring
to create a Fourth Reich in the U.S. The eclectic team of Hunters will set out
on a bloody quest to bring the Nazis to justice and thwart their new genocidal
The series will be produced executive producer,
Jordan Peele (known for the recent hit film, Get Out, among other productions).
I’m interested to see how Peele and his writers will
tackle the premise of Nazi hunters in the 1970s.Shows set in the bleak 1970s (especially the gritty New York
City of that decade) have enjoyed a good run of late; think of Life on Mars, The Deuce, The Get Down, and
The 1970s is the right decade to explore the
fascination with fugitive and unrepentant Nazis, as it was the era of the
“Hitler Wave” and a whole host of books, films, and television shows exploring
the subject of the Third (and, as my book shows, Fourth) Reich.Think The Odessa File, The Boys from Brazil, The Holcroft Covenant, etc.
What I’m not sure about is whether “The Hunt,”
will go down the road of alternate history (and portray ex-Nazis actually
moving to alter history’s real course) or whether everything will be taking
place behind the scenes in “near-miss” fashion.
The ways that the producers ultimately decide to
pursue the show’s narrative arc, will determine what genre the show ultimately
I have no idea whether the series or my book will
appear first, but if the timing works out, I’d like to think that both will
facilitate a larger conversation about the enduring danger of Nazi – and more
broadly, fascist – ideas.
mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Martin
Luther King in 1968, I thought it would be worth reflecting on how he has been
portrayed in works of alternate history.
often than not, commentators have employed “fast forward” counterfactuals. This
kind of counterfactual advances the tape of history and imagines how the later occurrence of historical events
would have affected their significance. This method has commonly been applied to
the lives of key historic individuals, usually by pushing back the date of
would King be viewed today if he had lived a longer life?
hypothesis is that he would have moved in a more radical political direction In his book, The Radical King, Cornel West has written:
Had he lived longer, he would have been able to devote more time to fighting
issues relating to both class and race. This would have made him more controversial and his legacy might be less hallowed. He might never have had a holiday named for him.
In his essay,
“Afterword: Interview with Dr. King on his 80th Birthday,” published
in April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (New York, 2009), Michael Eric Dyson declared:
Bill Shipp, in his essay, “What Would
Dr. King Think of His Dream Now?” in: The
Ape-slayer and Other Snapshots: A Collection of Random Writings, remarked:
is hard to imagine viewing King as anything but a martyred hero, but fast
forward counterfactuals make clear that an individual’s significance depends
profoundly on the temporal vantage point from which it is assessed.A longer life usually means more
opportunities for failure; a life cut short, by contrast, evokes missed
opportunities and chances never taken advantage of.
method of portraying MLK in alternate history was visible in Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s
novel, The Two Georges (1996).
It depicts King serving as the governor
general of the North American Union (NAU) from its capital city of Victoria (present
day Washington D. C.).In this alternate
world, the NAU is a product of the 1760s,
when the American colonies are able to reconcile with the British monarchy and
avoid seceding from England.George
Washington and George III cemented a longstanding relationship and the former
agrees to the latter’s request for the NAU to remain part of the British
In this world,
the British abolish slavery in the 1830s, thereby allowing African Americans
like King to enjoy upward mobility into the ranks of the NAU elite. As I have
written elsewhere, the novel is a fantasy scenario that portrays the failure of
the American Revolution having positive
consequences for American history – certainly in the realm of race relations. The novel was written against the bleak
backdrop of (and was an allegorical commentary on) the LA riots of 1992 and the
rise of the racist militia movement.
whether any commentators today will mark the anniversary of King’s death by reflecting
counterfactually on the topic from a present-day perspective informed by Black Lives Matter,
the Alt-Right, and the Trump administration.