Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of a Counterfactual (Part II)? What if Leningrad Had Surrendered to the Nazis in World War II?

There is little doubt that wondering “what if?” about the past can be controversial, but a new flap in Russia shows the extent to which some will go to silence counterfactual speculation.

One of the country’s last independent television channels, Dozhd (which has been critical of Vladimir Putin’s government) recent posted a poll on its website asking its viewing audience if they thought whether the city of Leningrad should had surrendered to the Nazis during World War II in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  As is well known, the Nazis besieged the city for some 900 days from 1941-1944 and contributed to the death of around one million people from starvation.

Shortly after posting the question (to which 54% of respondents apparently answered in the affirmative), Dozhd was besieged with public protests and quickly withdrew the poll. However, the incident led to the channel being pulled from a number of leading cable providers.  Certain Russian politicians vowed to see if the channel violated any laws, leading to suspicions that opponents of the anti-government channel are looking for any excuse to pull it from the airwaves.

The flap highlights the ways in which “what ifs?” shed light on historical memory.  Raising the question of Leningrad’s surrender clearly violated a taboo in Russia’s memory of the Great Patriotic War.  Ever since the war itself, as Marita Sturken’s book, The Cult of World War II, has shown, Russians have glorified the war into a major patriotic struggle in which Stalin’s leadership helped triumph over Nazi evil.

Counterfactually questioning whether Leningrad should have held out or surrendered, by questioning Stalin’s insistence that the city persevere (and calling to attention to the many instances where flawed decisions by political officials worsened the situation), challenges his wartime leadership and raises the possibility that a different strategy might have spared some of the country 27 million wartime casualties. This revisionist fantasy clearly has a political agenda insofar as challenging Stalin implicitly challenges his present-day apologist, Putin. 

Yet the fantasy that history might have turned out better – while it aptly highlights discontent with the present – may be historically naive. For it it assumes that the Nazis would have spared any Russians who actually surrendered.

According to a Russian media report, the “President of the Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareyev noted that the creators of the poll showed their ignorance of history, as the described choice never existed – Hitler ordered his troops to completely destroy Moscow and Leningrad and eliminate the populations of these cities.” 
He argued counterfactually that “If Leningrad was handed over everyone would have been killed. In reality at least some of the residents survived.”  In other words, surrender would have brought about a nightmare scenario of history turning out worse than it did in reality.

Some politicians went further.

As another Russian media report noted, “MP Irina Yarovaya of centrist conservative parliamentary majority United Russia said the poll was in fact an attempt to rehabilitate Nazism,” noting: ‘These things all look equally disgusting – the parades of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, the demolition of monuments to war heroes and the sly, fake and counterfeit polls,” Yarovaya told Itar-Tass. “And every time the same thing is behind these actions – the justification of Nazi crimes and the desecration of the historical memory.”
As Tim Snyder notes in his latest New York Review of Books article on the current violence in Ukraine, the slur “Nazi” is currently being utilized by Russian nationalists and Yanukovych supporters to defame the anti-government protesters in Kiev, while, if anything, it is they themselves who, by virtue of their dictatorial behavior, are displaying fascist traits. 
Clearly, the controversial counterfactual involving Leningrad’s surrender highlights how wondering what if can re-open unhealed wounds of memory.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What if the Nazis Had Destroyed Paris? Volker Schlöndorff's New Film, "Diplomacy"

In a short story in today’s New York Times, there was news of a new Volker Schlöndorff film, entitled Diplomacy, which is debuting at the Berlin Fesitval as we speak. The Times story reports that the film is “set in 1944,...[and] explores how the Swedish consul general in Paris, Raoul Nordling, helped persuade the Nazi military governor of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, not to obey Hitler’s orders to destroy the historic city should it fall into enemy hands.

"Mr. Schlöndorff said that today was a perfect time for Europe to re-examine the power of diplomacy: 'At a moment when Europe is questioning a lot of anti-Europe sentiment and demagogy, just imagine if we Germans had blown up Paris and destroyed it in the same way as Warsaw, if there ever would have been the possibility of a reconciliation within Europe,” he said. “Certainly not with a French-German tandem.'”
It remains to be seen how much the film plays up the hypothetical scenario of what would have happened had the Nazis actually gone through with their plans.  (In all likelihood, it will be a looming shadow that hovers over the film's entire narrative).
But regardless, one point is clear: Schlöndorff’s counterfactual shows how nightmare scenarios, in which the past turned out worse than in reality, express our gratitude for how history’s course ended up unfolding.  By implying that Germany and France's postwar rapprochement would have been much more difficult with the wanton destruction of Paris, the film highlights the value and necessity of diplomacy in the present-day world. 

This is not to say that the destruction of Paris would have poisoned relations eternally between Germany and France.  The Germans’ destruction of Warsaw did not entirely prevent the reestablishment of cordial relations between the two countries, which do in fact exist today.  But the level of mistrust between the two countries (certainly their inhabitants) is still deeper than between Germany and France; moreover the reduction of mistrust between Germans and Poles has taken much longer than between the Germans and French.    

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Medieval Counterfactual: The Black Death and the Jews

I’m struck by how often I run across counterfactuals in primary sources that I’ve taught for years without noticing their presence.   A notable example that I recently found appears in the description of an infamous episode of medieval anti-Semitism,  The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine's Day, from February 14, 1349.  As documented in the Middle High German chronicle of the Strasbourg historian, Jacob von Königshofen (1346-1420), the description contains the following passage.

“On Saturday - that was St. Valentine's Day-they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.”

The passage offers a simple example of how counterfactual reasoning can shed light on basic issues of historical causality.  By eliminating the factor of wealth from the attack against the Jews, Königshofen argues that their religion was incidental to their persecution.   It was not only the desire to scapegoat a vulnerable religious minority, but the covetous desire of local Christians for their wealth, that sealed the Jews’ fate.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who’s Afraid of a Counterfactual? Cancelling the film "CSA" (The Conferederate States of America)

I regularly teach a seminar on alternate history in which I screen Kevin Wilmott’s brilliantly satirical film, CSA, about the South winning the Civil War and continuing to run a slave-centered society up through the present-day.

Anyone who has seen the film knows that it is a hard-hitting, left-leaning critique of American history, especially on the subjects of race and slavery.  Anyone who bothers to look up the fact that the director, Willmott, is an African American film professor at the University of Kansas, would be disabused of any suspicions that the film is an offensive, let alone right-wing apology for slavery.

And yet, none of this apparently stopped a group of students (and, egads, parents as well) from lodging complaints at the elite Dalton School in New York City, following a screening of the film in a history class.  See the New York Times report detailing the grievance.

I have no problem with students complaining (I have plenty of students and regularly see them struggle to interpret multi-layered texts of all kinds, some of which can be unsettling and produce discomfort).  I also understand parents wanting to defend their children from alleged threats.  But for the teachers and administration to kowtow to the complaints and provide an apology is disheartening. 

The basis of the apology was grounded in the thinnest of rationales:

“We believe in the highest levels of respect and sensitivity for the diverse nature of our student body and community…. Monday’s screening should not have taken place and we sincerely regret that the film was shown.”

In other words, sensitivity to students feelings is elevated above challenging them to think rationally about difficult issues. 

Rather than defend a perfectly justified academic exercise, this surrender takes the idea that "the customer is king" way too far.  (Is this a private school/”we’re paying all this tuition and so we expect perfection” issue, I wonder?)

I recently screened portions of the film at my daughter’s AP U. S. History course and found the students understood the film’s agenda without any problems. 

Are their discomforting scenes in the film?  Of course.  But for us to understand history, we need to confront its ugly sides (and also be able to put ourselves in different narrative positions in order to grasp them). 

I remember in college when student groups protested the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation because of its racism.  Well yes, the film was racist, as are plenty of Nazi propaganda films that I show in my own German history courses.  But their “offensiveness” is hardly a reason not to see them. 

All of this confirms that alternate histories – because of their unconventional treatment of the past’s facticity – can easily and often be misinterpreted.

In Germany, novels portraying the Nazis winning World War II have often been misinterpreted by neo-Nazis as glorifying, rather than satirizing, the scenario.  (This was true of Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland and also, apparently, of Norman Spinrad’s novel, The Iron Dream, whose premise of Hitler as a science fiction writer apparently went over big with the skinhead crowd back in the day).

To my mind, the ability of counterfactual history to elicit strong reactions underscores its value.  Anyone who believes otherwise is entirely missing the point and falling victim to intellectual laziness, if not obtuseness.