Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, May 19, 2014

What If FDR Had Been Shot? A Classic Counterfactual

Historian Michael Beschloss avails himself of Philip K. Dick’s well-known “what if?” from The Man in the High Castle in his review in yesterday’s New York Times of David Kaiser’s new book, No End Save Victory.

“In February 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was nearly murdered in Miami by a gunman whose errant fatal shot struck Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago. Cermak gallantly told Roosevelt, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Today’s Americans should not disagree. Had Roosevelt been killed, the 32nd president of the United States would have been his running mate, Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, a neophyte in foreign and military affairs, isolationist by instinct and deeply rooted in a Congress determined, notwithstanding the growing threats from Hitler and the imperial Japanese, to keep another president from repeating what a majority of its members considered to be Woodrow Wilson’s catastrophic mistake of needlessly dragging the nation into a distant “foreign war.”
Beschloss’s reason for beginning his review with this famous nightmare counterfactual is to express gratitude that history turned out as it did:
“Photoshopping Roosevelt out of the history of that epoch shows how lucky we are that he indeed survived to be our president, preparing America to fight and help win World War II. So does “No End Save Victory,” David Kaiser’s judicious, detailed and soundly researched history of Roosevelt’s tortuous process of first preparing America psychologically, politically and militarily, and then nudging the country into that apocalyptic struggle….”
At the same time, the counterfactual serves to remind us of how easily things might have been different….
“Americans are not immune to the temptation to see historical events as inevitable, which, by logic, reduces the credit we grant to individual leaders like Roosevelt. But Kaiser crisply reminds us how dangerous and unpredictable the period really was, noting Roosevelt’s not inconsiderable private dread that Hitler might well put himself in a position to dominate the world.”

It is seems notable to me that Beschloss, like other scholars these days, chose to begin his review with a “what if?”  It confirms the fact that counterfactuals serve as rhetorically powerful tools for heightening the evocative power of historical events.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Another Clockstopper Counterfactual: Russians Rehabilitate "Good Hitler"

I’ve written about what I call “clockstopper” counterfactuals before in previous posts.  The term refers to provocative, but ultimately arbitrary, thought experiments in which one imagines how history would be assessed if the clock somehow simply stopped at a certain point in time and historical events did not keep moving forward to their known conclusion. 

The latest example comes from Russia, where scholars and journalists, arguing over the Nazi legacy against the backdrop of the current crisis in Ukraine, now seem to be warming to the idea of a "good Hitler."

The New York Times reported in a recent article that President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law “that mandates up to five years in jail and heavy fines for anyone who tries to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate Russia’s World War II record.” 

As is well known, Putin has been claiming that Russia is fighting the resurgence of fascism in Ukraine.  But as the Times writes, “skeptics argue that the victory itself is too often used to promote what they consider an excessive obsession with fascism abroad — vividly played out over the past two months in lurid coverage on Russian state television of the Ukraine crisis.”

The Times piece goes on to say that “the current debate about fascism erupted with the publication of an article comparing Russia’s incorporation of Crimea to the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of a receptive Austria and other German lands in 1938.”

“Andrei Zubov, a philosophy professor who wrote the opinion piece…also warned that like many Russians right now, Nazi-era Germans were thrilled that the world suddenly feared and respected them anew. For his efforts, he was first admonished, then fired from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a university tied to the Foreign Ministry…..He has since been reinstated, although…he expected that his contract would not be renewed when it expires on June 30.”
“His comparison prompted objections, naturally, but the most contentious response appeared on the pages of the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia. It was written by Andranik Migranyan, who runs the Manhattan office of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a nongovernmental organization inspired by Mr. Putin’s wish to promote Russia in the West.”
“The article attacked Mr. Zubov as “hell-spawn” and suggested that if Hitler had only stopped in 1939, he would be considered a “good Hitler.”
“One should distinguish the difference between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939 and separate chaff from grain,” Mr. Migranyan wrote. If Hitler had stopped after the “bloodless” reunification of German lands, including Austria and the Sudetenland, with the mother country, “he would have gone down in the history of his country as a politician of the highest order.”
Migranyan’s claim is hardly original, as it echoes claims made long ago by scholars such as Joachim Fest and Alexander Demandt.   But its political purpose is quite different.  While German scholars have made the counterfactual point to underscore the depth of ordinary Germans’ support for the Nazis prior to 1939 (and to show how the ensuing military defeat in 1945 was essential for breaking their infatuation with the Führer), the Russian claim is meant to legitimize Putin’s current foreign policy agenda and distance him from any comparisons to the Nazis’ campaign for Lebensraum in the 1930s. 
Of course, the effort fails on numerous grounds.  As the Times reports,“Flabbergasted intellectuals pointed out that by 1939 Hitler had already established Dachau, organized Kristallnacht and promulgated the Nuremberg laws that enshrined the superiority of the Aryan race.” 
But the larger issue is that Hitler’s pre-1939 diplomatic maneuverings were always meant to lead to war – and thus, the very disasters that ended up leading to his well-deserved demonization.  In other words, there was never any possibility of a “good Hitler,” since his behavior before 1939 was destined to lead to the disaster of 1945.  This is why clockstopper counterfactuals are ultimately misleading thought experiments, for they can obscure dynamics that inevitably lead events down the direction they are meant to head.
Putin and his apologists would be wise to remember this lesson, whatever their endgame.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Another Rhetorical Counterfactual: Could India's Partition Have Turned Out Even Worse?

I was interested to see counterfactual reasoning being used for a new purpose this past weekend in The New York Times Book Review.
In his review of John Keay’s new book, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia Since Partition, Isaac Chotiner made a claim about the alleged limits of “what if? thinking.

He wrote:
Some historical events have such utterly catastrophic consequences that no amount of “what if” counterfactuals can yield a more awful result. World War I, for example, resulted in an enormous number of fatalities, largely entrenched the imperialism that initiated it and paved the way for both Nazism and Stalinism. How could a different path have been worse?”
“The 1947 partition of British India, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan as independent countries, was undertaken with nobler motives. But “Midnight’s Descendants,” John Keay’s solid new history of the subcontinent over the past 67 years, leaves the reader with the same depressing thought: No alternative could possibly have been more calamitous.”
“Partition laid the groundwork for the very civil war it was supposed to prevent — as many as one million people may have died — and created a lasting enmity between two states that are now nuclear-armed. If you include the 1971 genocide Pakistan perpetrated against its restive eastern wing (which became independent Bangladesh in December of that year) and the wildly unstable nature of Pakistan today, you are confronted with a disaster of astonishing proportions.”

I am no expert in the history of South Asia and so cannot advance a scenario in which the avoidance of partition in 1947 causes a calamity of such proportions as to make the original partition look like a reasonable solution.

But there is certainly evidence that Chotiner’s premise – however appealing -- is incorrect.  It’s pretty safe to say that the human imagination is quite capable of taking any historical reality and making it even more nightmarish than it already is. 

Stephen Fry’s novel, Making History, is a good example of this.  The novel famously satisfies the urge to prevent Hitler’s birth and thereby prevent the Second World War (by having a graduate student send a birth control pill back to the local water well where Hitler's never-to-be-mother, Klara, fetches her drinking water in Hitler’s not-to-be hometown of Braunau-am-Inn).  But while Hitler is successfully eliminated from history, his role ends up being performed by an even more capable and ruthless figure, Rudolf Gloder, who ends up helping the Nazis develop nuclear weapons, win World War II, and so forth….

Similarly, Richard Ned Lebow’s recent book, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! imagines a world in which the avoidance of World War I ends up leading to a later war in western Europe in the 1970s in which both Germany and England suffer severe nuclear destruction and millions of fatalities. 

These and other examples show that Chotiner’s claim is not borne out by the evidence.

That said, the fact that he raises the point in the first place is significant for showing how counterfactual claims are becoming increasingly salonfähig (ie. acceptable to use in polite company; I don’t often get a chance to use this great German word, so there – I said it). 

Chotiner could have easily written his review of Keay’s book by sticking to the real historical record and underscoring the magnitude of Great Britain’s calamitous decision to partition India in 1947.  But adding a counterfactual angle provides extra rhetorical emphasis.  Chotiner’s point is essentially to argue that the partition plan was so bad that we cannot even imagine a worse possible outcome than what actually happened.

Except, there’s probably always someone who can.  

Had Britain somehow been able to hold on even longer to the Raj, might an eventual policy of partition have been even deadlier?  There are few iron laws of history, but one that is worth considering would hold that “if any event is destined to happen, it is best for it to take place sooner than later.”  Given the fact that the destructiveness of war is increased by advances in technology, it is likely that the later occurrence of any number of real historical wars -- the Civil War, World War I, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 – would have led to even worse death and destruction. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

New Book Review: Richard Ned Lebow's "Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!"

This week's issue of the Forward features my review of Richard Ned Lebow's Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I.

It's an interesting book and relates directly to the recent NPR exploration of counterfactual scenarios relating to the Great War.  

We will probably be wondering "what if?" quite a bit in the months leading up to this summer's commemorative ceremonies.   

(And for the fact hounds out on patrol: yes, I know that FF was Franz Josef's nephew, not son; that error somehow slipped into the text).