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.