Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, May 24, 2013

Counterfactual Architecture (From the Archives)

After a few musings about counterfactualism in art, why not in architecture as well?

The cartoon pasted below is from the May, 1991 issue of Spy Magazine (click on image for larger view).

The piece essentially asks the counterfactual question: "what if Philip Johnson had been able to use his considerable influence to award the commission for the Empire State Building to one of his colleagues?"

The cartoon pokes fun at a variety of contemporary architects, imagining how they would have designed the Empire State Building according to their own architectural predilections: Richard Meier pursues his trademark modernist purism; Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, express their de-stabilized deconstructivist sensibility; and Robert Stern (the best of all) simply copies the original Empire State Building's design, in accordance with his nostalgic, revivalist bent.

Yet, it is Johnson, who was often critiqued in the pages of Spy (most famously by Michael Sorkin who discussed his fascist past in the October, 1988 issue), who is mocked most directly for adhering to no firm principles whatsoever.

Architectural history is full of buildings that never were never realized.  Some architects are just as famous for their unrealized designs as those that were actually built (take, for instance, Louis I. Kahn and his unbuilt design for the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem).

How history (architectural history in particular) would have been different had these buildings seen the light of day is a question I will return to in future posts.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Anselm Kiefer's Counterfactual Art

It’s rare to be able to comment about counterfactual thinking in the visual arts.  For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to visually portray historical events transpiring differently in a single image.  (This is why book covers for works of alternate history are often so predictable, the default move being to alter obvious symbols, like postage stamps, flags, or national monuments, to signify a historical change of some kind – see for instance, the cover image on Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America).

A new exhibition of paintings by Anselm Kiefer at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City, however, offers an opportunity to see how “what if?” thinking can influence art.  Kiefer’s exhibition is entitled “Morgenthau Plan” and invokes the infamous never-enacted plan, conceived by US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1944, to punish Germany after the end of World War II by pastoralizing and de-industrializing its economy.  As is well known, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never approved the plan and U. S. Military Government officials quickly embraced a more reconstructionist occupation policy already by 1946.

Nevertheless, the question has always hovered over postwar German history: what if the Morgenthau Plan had been implemented?  More than a few German writers have explored the premise in fictional form, most notably Thomas Ziegeler, in his novel Die Stimmen der Nacht (1984), and Christoph Ransmayr, in his novel, Morbus Kitahara (1995).   Their texts portray Germany never being able to emerge from its wartime devastation and becoming a seething hotbed of rightwing resentment against Allied “vengeance.”  In so doing, the texts expressed doubts about the virtues of memory by showing how the desire to hold the German people accountable for the Nazis’ crimes backfires by leading to a nightmarish outcome for the Allies and Germans alike.

It is hard to say whether Kiefer’s artworks offer the same conservative message. Most of the paintings are bleakly decorative works featuring flowers against cold gray (and occasionally blue) backgrounds of postwar devastation.  Without the titles to aid the viewer’s understanding of the painter’s intentions, the works would have no counterfactual meaning whatsoever.  With them, they invoke  -- but add little depth to -- the familiar idea that the Morgenthau Plan would have transformed Germany into a premodern agricultural society.   

Whether or not Kiefer believes this would have been a good or a bad thing is unclear.  The most the artist has said about the Morgenthau Plan is that it was a “flawed” idea that “ignored the complexity of things" (quoted from the exhibition's press release).  Most probably, Kiefer meant to suggest that while the moral impulse behind the plan – punishing perpetrators – was intuitively sound, the actual punishment would have been counterproductive.  

That said,  the title of one painting, “Morgenthau Plan: Laßt tausend Blumen Blühen, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom,” suggests that Kiefer may empathize with the plan’s spirit.   By combining an allusion to Mao’s famous phrase about letting a hundred flowers bloom (theoretically denoting a stance of tolerance) with the historically-burdened number 1,000 (from the Thousand Year Reich), Kiefer might be implying that the flowers of Germany's postwar Morgenthauian landscape would have been the inevitable – and perhaps just? -- byproducts of the Nazi experience.   

Whether or not this is the intended message, Kiefer's paintings are clearly provocative.  By inverting the traditional symbolism of flowers and associating them with the ugliness of war rather than the beauty of nature, he forces us to rethink our preconceived notions about the world.   Still, it remains somewhat frustrating that Kiefer gives us few signs about how he ultimately views the Morgenthau Plan.  Especially because the plan has been exploited by right wing Germans eager to relativize their country's Nazi past (by implying that the Allied plan would have brought profound suffering to the German people) -- and especially since Kiefer long ago was questioned about the political wisdom of flirting with Nazi iconography in his photographs and paintings -- were are left to speculate.

Speculating about the painter's intentions is surely appropriate given the speculative theme of the exhibition.  But the difficulty in arriving at any clear answers about Kiefer's views of the Morgenthau Plan highlights the limits of painting compared to literature as a medium for exploring alternate pasts.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Golan Crisis That Never Was

Hillel Halkin's new opinion piece in this week's Forward explores a counterfactual scenario that was sure to be contemplated eventually, given the ongoing civil war in Syria.

He writes:

Here’s the beginning of one newspaper article about Syria that you didn’t read this week: “Israel Weighs Golan Invasion.” “U.S. Warns It Not To Act.”

Israeli troops exchanged fire with Syrian rebels on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and Syrian army artillery fire killed two vacationing Israelis on a nearby beach, Israel’s Cabinet met in a lengthy session. Now that jihadist forces linked to Al Qaeda are in control of the hills running down to Israel’s largest lake and main water source, Israel is considering retaking the heights returned to Syria as part of the 1995 Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. Iran’s warnings that it will not stand by if Israel acts have alarmed officials in Washington.”

Halkin's point, of course, is that if Israel had returned the Golan Heights to Syria in the mid-1990s, when PM Yitzhak Rabin and many other Israelis were urging him to do so, Israel would now, in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, be in a more precarious security position.   

On the face of it, he seems to be correct.  

Possessing the high ground overlooking one's enemies is certainly preferable to being beneath it.  

Moreover, Israel's decision to hold on to the Golan since the mid-1990s did not turn out to be a liability for Israeli-Syrian relations, which remained calm.  

It's doubtful, finally, that returning the Golan would have averted any of the current Syrian crisis.  It would not have stabilized the Assad regime (beyond a fleeting propaganda victory) or prevented it from falling victim to the Arab Spring, which would have happened anyway, in all likelihood.

That said, Halkin's corollary, that withdrawing from the West Bank may be equally misguided (since any peace partner may one day be overthrown) is less convincing.  The vast difference in population between the Golan and the West Bank weakens any comparisons between them and casts doubt on the wisdom of inaction on the Palestinian question.

Still, Halkin's scenario nicely illustrates how counterfactual nightmares about the past reflect satisfaction with the present.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Paul Berman's "The Ambiguous Revolt"

I'd like to highlight another way in which current events can prompt (and also reveal the utility of) counterfactual observations.

In his New Republic article, "The Ambiguous Revolt" (February 17, 2011), Paul Berman offered several observations about the overthrow of the dictatorship of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.   Writing from Paris, Berman commented on the French media's criticism of the French government for initially supporting Ben Ali, noting that it contrasted starkly with the media's  admiration of the tougher line taken by the Obama administration.

Berman was unconvinced by this admiring assessment, however, and sought to challenge it by pointing out that American policy in the Middle East has long contributed to the region's many problems.

Interestingly, however, Berman did not merely recount the many misguided decisions that American presidents have made in the region, but instead adopted a counterfactual line of reasoning and highlighted how things could have been better had the U. S. pursued a different set of policies.

As he put it:

"What might have happened if, over the course of these 70 years, the United States had followed a slightly different, more nuanced policy? What if, during World War II, the U.S. effort to secure Arab support against the European fascists had also included a campaign to promote liberal and democratic ideas among our Arab allies? What if, in supporting the dismantling of the French and British empires, the United States had made a sustained point, not just a desultory one, of continuing to promote a liberal outlook on world events? What if, in supporting the Tunisian government’s campaign against the Islamists these last 20 years, the United States had found a way, not just sotto voce, to advocate liberal ideas as well? To imagine sophisticated policies of this sort—to think in terms of long-term possibilities, and not just short-term goals—ought not to be so difficult."

Why did Berman make his point in counterfactual fashion?  The "what if" questions he asked were meant to be substantive, but they were also meant to be provocative.  They were marked by a certain rhetorical power that is typical of counterfactual thinking.  By hypothetically showing how the Middle East's unhappy postwar history could have been averted -- by showing, in other words, how history might have turned out better -- Berman appealed to certain emotions -- regret, guilt, shame -- that many western observers have no doubt felt over the course of the postwar period.  By showing how certain opportunities had been missed in the past, he implicitly urged that they not be missed in the future.  

As he concluded:

"Can anyone seriously dispute that, if the United States had spent the last 70 years earnestly promoting North African movements for liberal democracy, the odds would now be greater of seeing a Velvet-influenced revolution in Tunisia rather than something worse and all too easily imaginable?"

Thinking counterfactually about the past, in short, often has a forward-looking dimension to it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Book Reviews

I thought I would post some links to several new alternate history novels that I recently reviewed for The Forward:

The first is Timo Vermes' satirical novel, Er ist wieder da (about Hitler coming back to life and becoming a television talk show host in present-day Berlin).

The second is Guy Saville's thriller, The Afrika Reich (about the Nazis winning World War II and colonizing Africa).

Both are worth checking out!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Thoughts on the Upcoming Syfy Miniseries, "The Man in the High Castle"

When I first learned a few weeks ago about plans to film Philip K. Dick's classic 1962 alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle (about the Nazis and Japanese winning World War II and dividing the U. S. between them), I was initially very excited.  Especially with director Ridley Scott and X-Files writer/producer Scott Podnitz being involved.

But now I'm also having some second thoughts.

Why couldn't the novel be brought to the big screen instead of cable TV? Dick's fiction has been turned into plenty of Hollywood films (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, etc.) -- some more successful than others.  But I would have thought The Man in the High Castle would have been perfect as a cinematic epic.  Apparently no such luck.  It's the same feeling I had when I saw Fatherland as an HBO film (1994) -- good enough, but could have been better with a larger budget.

One reason there hasn't yet been a film version of  The Man in the High Castle is undoubtedly related to its challenging counterfactual elements.  How Syfy plans on portraying them remains to be seen.  It's one thing to show Japanese and German troops patrolling the streets of American cities.  That's the easy part (though it will be hard not to have such scenes descend into clichés, if not outright camp, if not done carefully). It's something else, however, to film Dick's ontological ruminations about the nature of reality. How do you film reality becoming fiction and fiction becoming reality, after all?  (Tagomi's famous hallucination of San Francisco's Embarcadero freeway intruding into his world of rickshaws will be challenging to portray).  Hopefully the Syfy budget will be generous enough so that the producers don't take the cheap and easy way out by turning the book into a conventional (rather than allohistorical) drama.

I'm wondering, finally, whether most of the miniseries will follow the novel and take place in California, or whether there will be expanded attention (barely hinted at in the text) about the course of events on the Nazi-occupied east coast.   It will be tempting for the producers to indulge the American viewing public's fascination with all-things-Nazi by filming scenes of stormtroopers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and the like.  But it would violate the integrity of the novel to do so.  Still, I'm betting some of these scenes get smuggled into the series.

It may be quite a while before this production hits the little screen, but I look forward to reviewing it once it does.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The “Clockstopper” Counterfactual and the Holocaust

Recent historical writing on the Holocaust has been filled with different kinds of counterfactual observations.  (I discuss them at length in a forthcoming book on the memory of Nazism).  Let me offer a preview by profiling one interesting type: the “clockstopper” counterfactual.

In his recent award-winning book, The Wages of Destruction (2007), historian Adam Tooze devotes several pages to discussing the Nazis’ brutal policies against the Slavs during World War II, especially the regime’s decision to allow over 3.3 million Soviet POWs to die of starvation.  In this context, Tooze makes the counterfactual claim that “if the clock had been stopped in early 1942, this programme of mass murder would have stood as the greatest single crime committed by Hitler’s regime,” exceeding that of the Holocaust (p. 483).

Interestingly, Tooze’s claim echoes an older one made by historian Christopher Browning in his book, The Path to Genocide (1992).  In his preface (p. ix), Browning wrote: “If the regime had disappeared in the spring of 1942, its historical infamy would have rested on the ‘war of destruction’ against the Soviet Union. The mass death of some two million prisoners of war in the first nine months of that conflict would have stood out even more prominently than the killing of approximately one- half million Jews in that same period.” 

Both Tooze’s and Browning’s observations initially appear convincing, but they are ultimately weakened by the arbitrary quality of their counterfactual premise.  In order to be convincing, a counterfactual turn of events must have a certain degree of plausibility.  By failing to explain how World War II would have suddenly stopped -- or how the Nazi regime might have disappeared -- in 1942, Tooze’s and Browning’s points have a decidedly artificial and unconvincing feel to them. 

It hardly merits noting that if one “stops the clock” on any process, historical or otherwise, its outcome and ultimate significance are altered.  (To be glib, if we take the soufflé out of the oven halfway through its cooking time, it fails to become a soufflé).

There is no denying that our understanding of the Nazis’ crimes will be determined by the point at which we measure them.  Browning, indeed, illustrated this fact earlier on the same page of The Path to Genocide when he turned the clock back even further in time and observed, If the Nazi regime had suddenly ceased to exist in the first half of 1941, its most notorious achievements in human destruction would have been the so-called euthanasia killing of seventy to eighty thousand German mentally ill and the systematic murder of the Polish intelligentsia.”  In other words, we would not view the murder of Soviet POWs as a horrific crime because it would not yet have taken place.

But this point is obvious.  The question is not whether an event’s significance will be shaped by the point at which one stops the clock and measures it.  The question is whether any such clockstopping was likely to take place to begin with.  If not, then the counterfactual has a tendentious quality to it.

Significantly, Tooze’s counterfactual is but one of many recently employed by historians to challenge the idea of the Holocaust’s uniqueness by showing how its magnitude would have been reduced had the war somehow unfolded differently.

Justin Bieber's Careless Counterfactual

I thought it might be fun to launch the CHR by commenting on a recent story from the world of pop culture:  Last month, Justin Bieber made headlines with a careless counterfactual comment.

As CNN reported in April:

"If Anne Frank had not died a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, Justin Bieber hopes she would have been his devoted fan. That's what Bieber, 19, wrote in the guestbook at the Anne Frank House when he visited there Friday, according to the Amsterdam site.  'Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.'"

While most critics have condemned Bieber’s comment for its inherent narcissism, it is equally significant for its sloppy counterfactual premise.  Read literally, his observation makes little sense, as it seems to be arguing that if Anne Frank had survived World War II, she would be a fan of his music.  Needless to say, if she had survived, she would be 84 years old today, not exactly the core demographic of Bieber’s fan base.  Perhaps Bieber meant to say that if Anne Frank were a teenager today, she -- like so many other 14 year old girls -- would have been a fan of Bieber’s music.  He did not say, this however.  And so, his observation reminds us to make our counterfactual comments as rigorous as possible. 

Unrelated questions: what would the German-speaking Anne Frank have made of the English-German neologism, "belieber?"  Of the fact that the popular entertainer's last name translates to “beaver?” Or the long shot possibility that he might be related to the Nazi-era architect, Oswald Bieber, the designer of the Haus des Deutschen Rechts and the barracks of the SS Regiment "Deutschland" in Munich?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Welcome to the Counterfactual History Review

In recent years, counterfactual reasoning has increasingly been applied to the study of history.   Whether in academic scholarship, mainstream journalism, or popular culture, “what if?” observations about the past have become commonplace in our present-day world.

This blog collects and comments on new speculative observations as they appear in books, journal articles, reviews, and online texts.  It also features reviews of counterfactual fiction (alternate history) and links to articles about the merits and drawbacks of speculative historical thinking. 

Why bother doing this?   

There are already many important websites dedicated to the subject of counterfactual history.  Most, however, focus narrowly on the realm of fiction. Some, such as Uchronia, are primarily bibliographical, being devoted to archiving literary works of alternate history.  Other sites, such as AlternateHistory, are open forums featuring user-generated discussion threads about alternate paths of historical development.  Still others, such as Alternate History Weekly Update, serve as venues for new works of counterfactual fiction.  All of these sites are valuable, but they marginalize counterfactual reasoning somewhat by relegating it to a literary subgenre. 

This blog seeks to bring counterfactual history more into the mainstream by collecting and commenting on examples of “what if?” thinking as they appear in contemporary cultural and intellectual life.

In doing so, I hope to shed light on two fundamental questions:  

1) Why do we ask “what if?”

2) Why are we increasingly asking “what if?” today?

There is little doubt that speculating about the past is rooted in basic human impulses.  Whether at the personal or societal level, we often wonder how the course of history might have been different if we had acted differently at pivotal moments in time. 

Yet, when we speculate about the past in this way, what are we really trying to achieve?   When we imagine historical events turning out better or worse -- when we contemplate fantasies or nightmares – what are we saying about the past?  More importantly, what are we saying about the present?

One way of answering these questions is by examining how counterfactuals are used in contemporary discourse.  In collecting and commenting on examples of speculative historical reasoning, the reasons why writers employ them – and the functions they serve – should hopefully become clear.  

So, too, should the value of studying historical counterfactuals.   This blog proposes that studying counterfactuals

1) allows us to better understand the forces of historical causality.   

2) helps us make moral judgments in interpreting historical events.  

3) sheds light on how history is remembered.   

4) reveals the rhetorical dimensions of historical argumentation

Finally, in collecting and interpreting diverse counterfactual observations, this blog seeks to understand why people in the contemporary world are increasingly prone to wonder "what if?" when thinking about the past. 

In the last generation, contemporary culture has been shaped by various forces – the end of the cold war, the geopolitical upheavals of the post-9/11 world, the emergence of postmodernism, the information revolution, the entertainment revolution, among others – that have encouraged a climate of uncertainty and contingency conducive for counterfactual thinking. 

I hope this blog helps us better understand why we are increasingly wondering “what if?”

Gavriel Rosenfeld