Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What If the Jews Really Defeated Hitler?

For readers interested in the counterfactual aspects of World War II, I've just published a review of Benjamin Ginsberg's new book, How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism in The Forward.  

One counterfactual claim made by Ginsberg I didn't have a chance to comment on in the piece, but I thought it was worth highlighting, was this one:

Writing about the atomic bomb, he notes

"It is always dangerous to speculate about what might have been, but...it seems that if the Germans had not been so blinded by Nazism that they felt compelled to drive their best scientists into exile, Germany might have come into the possession of the atom bomb and changed the war's outcome.  Of course...if the Germans had not been blinded by Nazism they might not have launched the war in the first place.

A second bit of speculation, though, seems to leave us on firmer footing.  Hitler declared many times that the war...would be a war of annihilation, or Vernichtung.  He presumably meant to imply that Germany would exterminate the Jews and Hitler's other enemies.  Yet...if Germany had managed to fight a few months longer, or the Jewish scientists of the Manhattan Project had completed their work a few months sooner, World War II could well have led to Vernichtung -- for the Germans."

Ginsberg's second point is well worth noting, for we all too often forget that the bomb was originally developed in order to be used in the European theater.  Had it, in fact, been used there and not in the Pacific, we might remember the war very differently today.  When one considers how right-wing Germans attempt to counterbalance the killing of Jews at Auschwitz with the Allies' killing of German civilians in Dresden, imagine what propaganda they would have made out of the nuclear destruction of Berlin?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Counterfactual Advertising: Mercedes Kills Hitler!

Lots of attention is being given a mock advertisement made by a German film student for the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class's "smart" safety system.  Why?  The ad packs a powerful wallop of a counterfactual ending into its otherwise straightforward marketing pitch. 

As the ad begins, a silver Mercedes sedan is shown rolling through the Austrian countryside.  As it approaches two farm girls standing in the road outside of a village, its sensors prevent the vehicle from hitting them.  

As it rolls on, however, it comes upon a young boy -- shown in a flash-forward scene and in his mother's anguished cry "Adolf!" -- to be the future Nazi dictator.  The car then runs him over, with the punch line (in German) reading:

"Detects dangers before they come up." 

Tobias Haase, Jan Mettler, Lydia Lohse and Gun Adyemir, the creators of the mock ad (which has been repudiated by Mercedes), explained the rationale in hypothetical (but not counterfactual) terms: "We wanted to pose the question of what might happen if technology had a soul."

Of course, the ad's resonance comes from its tapping into the time-honored fantasy of killing Hitler before he could foment mayhem the world over.  There's no need to survey all the famous works of alternate history that have explored this scenario.  (If you're interested, see my book, The World Hitler Never Made, chapter 6).  

But to my knowledge, the scenario's appeal has never before been used (so cleverly) for the purpose of marketing a commodity.  It's worth speculating whether the ad will be perceived as humorous (after, all the premise has almost been played out into a cliché) or serious in its message.  But either way, it represents an innovative application of "what if?" thinking.

For the record, the image of young Hitler's corpse contorted into the shape of a human swastika is particularly imaginative.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another One From the Archives: Heinrich Class's Pan-German Fantasy

In reading Shelley Baranowski's recent book, Nazi Empire (Cambridge, 2011), I was intrigued to run across a remark that Heinrich Class, the leader of the Pan-German League, made prior to World War I.

Baranowski writes, "In pondering the loss of millions of German settlers to the United States, who contributed to America's rise as a world power, but sacrificed their language and culture in the process, Class posed a counterfactual question: 'What would have happened if those millions had remained attached to their homeland and then [were] used in a wonderful, well-planned settlement of the ancient German soil in Eastern Europe?  Without question the dominant position of Germandom would have been assured for all time."

Class's fantasy expressed more than just a garden variety wistfulness about a past that might have been.  As anyone cognizant of subsequent German history knows, it fueled a program of conquest that destabilized much of the world in the decades to come.

Class's counterfactual makes clear that wondering "what if?" can fuel political agendas.  Indeed, their imaginative power can lead them to more than just rhetorical excesses.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

L. A. Counterfactual: How the City's Architectural Development Might Have Been Different

I was recently in Los Angeles and stopped by the fascinating new exhibit, “Never Built Los Angeles,” at the Architecture and Design Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

The exhibit profiles dozens of architectural and city planning projects that came close to being realized but ultimately failed.

Gazing at the drawings and models of the proposals, one cannot help but feel many of the feelings that underpin all counterfactual speculation: regret that about opportunities missed and gratitude about disasters avoided. 

Some of the tantalizing proposals that might have made the city more architecturally grand appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, including a City Beautiful plan along Wilshire Boulevard featuring arches and fountains and a massive Art Deco civic center complex designed by Lloyd Wright. 

At the same time, we can be grateful that many ill-considered proposals came to naught.  These include Richard Neutra’s mega housing development for 30,000 people in Chavez Ravine, a 1965 plan for an offshore freeway, called the Causeway, running through Santa Monica Bay, and a bland assemblage of generic skyscrapers on Grand Avenue in Downtown.

Like all good counterfactual history, the exhibit also sheds light on the forces of historical causality, making clear that Los Angeles’s missed architectural opportunities have usually stemmed from the greater power of private interests (developers, mostly) compared to city political officials. 
As LA Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, put it in a recent review: “The city…has both inherited and refined over many decades a political system that makes it far easier to say no, to protect the status quo and pockets of wary and litigious privilege, than to advance an agenda for positive change.”
As a result, the city has shown great timidity in the realm of civic minded public architecture at the same time that it has displayed bold innovation in the realm of private building (mostly residential architecture).
In the end, the exhibit prompts us to wonder what might have been.  To quote Hawthorne, "[had some of the visionary public projects] been completed, the character of Los Angeles would be strikingly different. It would be a more public-minded, greener and perhaps a more equitable city than it is now.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What if Hitler Had Been Dealt With Like Morsi?

The German newspaper, Die Welt, recently thematized an interesting counterfactual analogy in a short article by Lord Weidenfeld:

What if Germany's Reichswehr had launched a putsch against Adolf Hitler on par with the Egyptian Army's recent overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi?

Highlighting the unenviable choice today for most western governments between accepting a fundamentalist Islamist regime or a military dictatorship, Weidenfeld wrote:

Let us imagine that in the summer of 1934, one year after Adolf Hitler's rise to power through free democratic elections, after which he brutally and deliberately established his Third Reich (think of the Reichstag Fire, concentration camp terrorism, the persecution of the Jews, and the Night of the Long Knives), the Reichswehr generals had declared war against him, placed him on trial for treason, and had used deadly force to sweep him and his militant supporters from the streets?

How would the Germans -- and the world -- have reacted?

Weidenfeld's response:

The world would find out ten years later.

In other words, on July 20, 1944, the Wehrmacht failed in its effort to overthrow Hitler in the ill-fated Stauffenberg Valkyrie plot.  

The lesson?  Dictators are better overthrown sooner than later.  

Chalk up another triumph for counterfactual reasoning.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Speeches That Were Never Delivered

The Daily Mail has a great article today about historically significant speeches that were never delivered.

As part of Britain's latest National Archive declassification, documentary evidence of speeches that were prepared in the event of certain foreseeable (but avoided) calamities have come to light that make for fascinating, indeed chilling, reading.

For example:

William Safire's draft for a speech "In Event of Moon Disaster" (1969):

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

"In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood."

Or Dwight D. Eisenhower's speech on D-Day's failure (1944):

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."

The article's author, Archie Bland, is absolutely correct in concluding: 

"Such artefacts are a powerful warning never to get too comfortable. They show us how perilously close this world is to not existing as we know it, how radically it can change, and how suddenly."

That said, he may too skeptical about counterfactual history.  

He articulates often-heard complaints in saying that counterfactual history is "too flimsy; it has no purchase on reality. No one can say meaningfully that world war would have been averted if Hitler had got into art school....Once you have taken more than a single step away from what really happened, the variables make all speculation pointless."

He is also on firm ground in declaring that actual documents, such as the ones above, are different from fictional narratives, in the sense that with the former, "the imaginary hardens into something tangible, something that was so nearly the case that it has left its shadow in reality. And so to read them is to feel the thrill of the uncanny, as if you have just received a postcard from an adjacent universe."

Nevertheless, both real historical documents and fictional narratives are ultimately informed by the same imaginative impulse -- the desire to wonder "what if?"  Understanding its appeal in both genres, to my mind, is equally important.