In reading a review in Die Welt of German historian Lothar Machtan’s new book, Prinz Max von Baden: Der letzte Kanzler des Kaisers (about the ill-fated career of German Chancellor, Max von Baden, who served at the end of World War I), I was struck by how frequently the review's author, journalist Tilman Krause, employed counterfactual reasoning to underscore the book’s importance.
In interviewing Machtan, Krause first establishes the historical possibility that Max von Baden could have actually averted the left-wing revolutionary turmoil of 1918 in Berlin had he simply assumed the role of Reichsverweser (imperial regent) and, together with Friedrich Ebert, worked to usher Germany from its strong monarchical rule to a more modern form of "parliamentary monarchy." Machtan explains why Baden ultimately shrank back from the opportunity (citing his personal cowardice and fear of being exposed as a homosexual by the Kaiser’s scheming wife, Augusta Victoria), but insists that a revolution from above led by him and Ebert would have limited the protest movement that ended up leading to revolution in November of 1918.
Building upon these insights, Krause asked Machtan, by way of conclusion, whether “the continuation of the monarchy in Germany could have prevented the rise of Hitler?”
Machtan replied: “One can affirm that Hitler profited decisively from the…abortive origins of the democratic Republic….A functioning parliamentary monarchy with a south German Prince Max [von Baden] as Reichsverweser…would have dampened the postwar potential for civil war….The political power vacuum would have not arisen into which rightwing and leftwing extremists were later thrust. Hitler was ultimately able to successfully impose his will to power because the German people were suffering under the phantom pain of the loss of state authority. This dates from November, 1918 when the previous authorities ignominiously departed from the historical stage.”
Krause then asked, “Can we say that a decisive Max von Baden…could have made things much more difficult for the Hitler movement than they ended up being?”
To which Machtan replied, “Yes, we can say that 1933 begins in 1918.”
In short, if we want to appreciate the historical importance of Max von Baden, we have to connect him to the counterfactual possibility of averting the rise of Adolf Hitler. (The opening headline of the review reads: “The world might have been spared Hitler if Max von Baden had not lost his nerve as the decisive moment”).
Could one write a biography of Max von Baden without invoking such “what if?” scenarios? Of course. But it would arguably lack the historical drama enabled by counterfactual speculation. In the end, Max von Baden’s historical significance is clearly that of a road not taken.