Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life"

I hesitate to say anything negative about Kate Atkinson's recent novel, Life After Life, in light of its enthusiastic reception.  (Taking issue with a work of literature that's been described as "one of the best novels...this century" is a bit daunting).

That said, I have to say I found the book a bit of a slog.  I'm probably being unfair, insofar as I read the novel more for its counterfactual elements than for its character development (though even on that latter count, I found the book to be oddly un-engaging). 

As far as the "what if?" dimensions of the novel are concerned, they come in two forms: the personal and the political.  Atkinson nicely shows how the multiple lives of the novel's protagonist, Ursula Todd, end up subtly altering the lives of people she is connected to.  Family members and friends either live or die depending on her actions (the most haunting being Nancy, a family acquaintance and love-interest of her brother Teddy, who is alternately murdered by a pedophile or spared, depending on how Ursula's own life progresses).  

But at the historical level, the novel is something of a bait and switch.  Life After Life opens with a scene of Ursula shooting a German man (who discerning readers will recognize as Adolf Hitler) in a Munich cafe in 1930.  We are led to believe that the novel will explore the consequences of this classic counterfactual premise in some depth.  In fact, hundreds of pages pass before the premise is explored at all.

When Atkinson finally does so, she essentially punts, arguing that Hitler's death would not have changed the course of history in any major way.  This becomes clear when Ursula (who herself is shot and killed immediately after shooting Hitler) is reincarnated yet again and is shown greeting her brother Teddy (who in a previous life is an RAF pilot killed in combat in 1943) in a London pub in 1945, having just returned from a German POW camp in the east, accompanied by his girlfriend Nancy (who has avoided being murdered).  World War II, in other words, has still taken place even in Hitler's absence.  But Ursula's personal life is much happier by virtue of the survival of her brother and love-interest.

In principle, by arguing that Hitler's removal from history would not have changed its course very much, Atkinson accepts the prevailing view of many Anglo-American writers over the years (for example, Stephen Fry, in his novel Making History, plus many more, as noted in my book, The World Hitler Never Made, chapter 6), who have insisted that the forces of German nationalism would have led to political upheaval and war in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s even without the Führer's existence.

Atkinson alludes to this notion on page 474, where Ursula, after wildly fantasizing about the many ways that history might be improved with the removal of Hitler, catches herself and remarks: "But perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in.  And everything would have happened in the same way." 

Atkinson has noted on her publisher's website that "We are all intrigued by ‘What if?’ scenarios, and one of the most potent and familiar is ‘What would have happened if Hitler had been prevented from coming to power?’ I’ve long harboured a desire to write something around the topic, worried too, that it would simply turn into a cliché, as the over-familiar usually does."

This all well and good.  Yet in striving to avoid clichés, Atkinson never really probes the possibilities of her novel's core counterfactual premise.  Although she avoids doing so for a noble goal (avoiding triteness), it represents an abnegation of authorial responsibility if one is going to embrace a "what if?" foundation for the whole novel.

On top of everything else, it is quite doubtful whether Hitler's death in 1930 would have really had such a minimal impact on the course of history.  One look at the conclusion of Henry Turner's book, Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, makes this abundantly clear.  Killing off Hitler in 1944, perhaps.  But not 1930.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

An Unusual "What if?" About the Battle of Tours from 1939

While reading Ephraim Karsh's recent book, Palestine Betrayed (Yale, 2010), I came across a surprising counterfactual observation that Khalid Hud, personal envoy to Saudi King Ibn Saud, made to Adolf Hitler in Berlin in June of 1939.

Trying to find common cause with Hitler in their mutual hatred of the Jews, Hud speculated to the Nazi dictator, "[Imagine] what would have become of Europe if Charles Martel had not beaten back the Saracens  [in 732], but if the latter, imbued with the Germanic spirit and borne along by German dynamism, had transformed Islam in their own fashion?"

What is interesting about this "what if?" scenario is how it completely reverses the significance of the traditional counterfactual interpretation of the event embraced by western scholars since Gibbon and Ranke.  While they perceived a defeat as a nightmare (one that would have extinguished Christianity from Europe) Hud framed it as a fantasy -- one that, at least from the Muslim perspective, would have created a common religious heritage for Arabs and Europeans and obviated the need for the house of Saud to be pleading for an alliance with the Nazis to promote their interests in the Middle East during World War II.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Glenn Beck's Counterfactual Inanity

I know it's shooting fish in a barrel to subject the comments of Glenn Beck to critical scrutiny, but his latest remark invoking Hitler prompted me to comment due to its countefactual slant.

On his radio show the other day, Beck attacked the recent news of the Obama administration's surveillance program by arguing:

“There wouldn’t be a Jew alive on the planet today if Hitler had this technology.”

Beck's comment is misleading in several ways.  

First, it presumes that the Third Reich represents the pinnacle of the modern totalitarian surveillance state.  But as historians such as Robert Gellately pointed out some time ago, Nazi Germany did not have anything like the extensive network of Gestapo agents that was assumed at the time (or since).  For example, the Nazis employed roughly 7,000 Gestapo agents to police a population of roughly 80 million people.  By comparison, the East German Stasi employed 200,000 agents to police around 17 million people in the decades after the end of World War II.  The Nazi regime was much more brutal than the SED regime, of course, but it had less to do with modern, technologically-enabled surveillance techniques than old-fashioned repression and murder.

Second, Beck's comment suffers from his usual hyperbole, suggesting that no Jews would be "left on the planet" if Hitler somehow had access to the modern computer technology.  This comment is not only hyperbolic but analytically lazy.  As with Justin Bieber's recent invocation of Anne Frank, it is entirely ahistorical.  It represents a misuse of counterfactual reasoning, as it lacks any plausibility and remains content to employ theoretically nightmarish possibilities to buttress purely rhetorical points.  Given the nightmare's utterly unrealistic premise (how would Hitler have access to modern day technology?), it merely serves to reinforce the belief that counterfactual reasoning deserves its bad reputation.

Update (6/14): It appears that in addition to the Gestapo, the Nazi regime employed 6,000 agents in a secret "Forschungsamt (FA) des Reichsluftfahrtministeriums" to eavesdrop on German telephone calls and intercept telegrams (see the recent German language article, "The Führer is Listening").  The Nazi surveillance state was thus a formidable enterprise. But it hardly validates Beck's claim, which overlooks the fact that, in its day, the Nazis not only had cutting edge technology AND murderous intentions towards the Jews -- and yet did not succeed in killing every Jew on the planet.  To imply that cutting edge technology in the hands of a less murderous government could achieve even WORSE things than the Nazis accomplished is a gross exaggeration.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Counterfactualism in Monuments

Here is a great example of how "what if?" thinking can find physical expression in the form of public monuments.

Several years ago in 2009, an intriguing monument was erected in Munich in memory of the Georg Elser's failed assassination attempt against Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, on November 8, 1939.

On that evening, Hitler was speaking at the Bürgerbräukeller in front of thousands of Nazi leaders and Alte Kämpfer as part of the annual ceremonies commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch events of November 8/9, 1923. Unbeknownst to the Nazi leadership, Elser had placed a bomb inside the pillar that stood behind Hitler's podium.  Elser timed it to detonate at 9:20, at which point Hitler should have still been speaking.

However, bad weather led the Nazi dictator to leave the venue early (heavy fog had led him to cancel his planned plane trip back to Berlin and instead take the train, which required an earlier departure).

What if the fog had lifted?

Had Hitler died in the resulting explosion (which, in fact, killed eight people and wounded dozens more), the course of history would undeniably have turned out differently.

In order to prompt people to think about this possibility today, the city of Munich commissioned Frankfurt artist Silke Wagner to design a monument, which in 2009 was erected on the side of the Türkenschule in Schwabing.

The memorial is composed of an abstract text, reading "8. November 1939," whose letters are arrayed in the form of an explosion.  Every evening the letters (which are ringed in neon) light up at exactly 9:20 to mark the time of the blast.

As one newspaper review opined: "the memorial directs attention to that minute when the history of the 20th century could have taken a different turn, if Elser had succeeded in his long-planned assassination."

Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Rhetorical Power of Counterfactuals

Here is more evidence of rhetorical power of counterfactuals:

The website, Listverse, recently submitted a list of "Ten Forgotten Events That Shaped The Modern World," which derives much of its evocative power from its "what if?" reasoning. 

The introduction reads:

History is full of twists and turns that ultimately shaped the world we live in today. Sheer coincidences, forgotten heroics, and unforeseen consequences have—for better or for worse—created the modern world as we know it. Below are ten instances of “forgotten” events that would have altered our current society—and possibly our very existence—had they not occurred.

The list goes on evoke provocative "what ifs" in several key events:

#10: Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage (1944)

"When developing nuclear weapons, one must acquire a large quantity of “heavy water,” or Deuterium Oxide.  It is used to produce isotopes for nuclear weapons, namely Plutonium-239.  A fertilizer production plant in Norway had been producing heavy water since 1934, at the rate of twelve tons per year.  Recognizing that German scientists were trying to create a nuclear weapon, Allied special forces alerted Norwegian resistance groups in 1940, encouraging them to destroy the facilities.

Despite a number of failures, saboteurs managed to destroy the German supply of heavy water in 1943.  In 1944, a single Norwegian commando managed to sneak onto a ferry carrying heavy water and sink it, finally undermining Germany’s plan to acquire nuclear weapons.  Germany had the scientific ability to generate a nuclear weapon; they simply lacked the materials.  Had it not been for the Norwegian resistance, Germany may well have been able to create an atomic bomb—altering the war, and changing world history."

#8 Expulsion of Christians from Japan (1639)

"In the early 1600s, Catholic Missionaries in Japan were successful in converting a number of powerful feudal lords to Catholicism—thereby garnering a surprising number of followers in the largely Confucian nation.  In 1639, Shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu expelled all Christians from the island, in fear of the growing Catholic population and the rebellions that these groups were causing.  Had Tokugawa not expelled the Christians, it is likely that, with time, a Catholic Shogun would have risen to power.

An allegiance to the Pope may also have fostered an alliance with France and Spain; and had Japan been on the side of France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War against England, it is likely that the British would have been defeated.  Such a defeat would have made the colonization of America by the British unlikely—reshaping the world as we know it."

#1 The Death of Ogedei Khan (1241)

"In 1241, Ogedei Khan—the Emperor of the Mongol Empire and son of Genghis Khan—passed away.  Shortly before his passing, he had approved of a plan to invade Western Europe, aiming initially for Vienna, Austria, and continuing towards Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. This operation was to be carried out by Batu Khan.

Upon Ogadei’s death, a number of Mongol princes held an election, and chose Guyuk Khan to lead the Empire—but not before five years had passed.  By the time Guyuk was in power, Batu felt too old and weak to invade Western Europe, and the Mongol Empire would never again come close to conquering the region. At around the same time, the basic ideas of “modern” banking and the concepts of capitalism were being developed in Austria.  A Mongol invasion at such a time could very well have ended these early forays into what is currently the most prominent economic system in the world."

It is certainly questionable whether any of these events is “forgotten.”  What is undeniable, however, is that the list emphasizes the events’ historical significance in counterfactual fashion – in terms what they prevented from happening, rather than what they caused.  

Each of these scenarios plays on our nightmares about events that were “near misses” or “close calls.”   In appealing to our emotions, counterfactuals rhetorically heighten the significance of historical events that would be more difficult to appreciate in conventional historical terms.