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.