Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More History Without Hitler: Timothy Ryback's Counterfactual Reflections on Hitler's Near-Death in World War I

Timothy Ryback’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “History Without Hitler?” raises a question that has been posed many times before, but he approaches it from a new angle by asking what it might tell us about the future.

Ryback describes how the Bavarian Infantry Reserve soldier Adolf Hitler survived several near-death experiences during the First World War before asking:

“what if Hitler had fallen on that Thursday morning a century ago this week, or on any other day during those next four years of frontline fighting? How different might the 20th century have looked? How different might the course of German history have been? What utility is there in such “counterfactual history,” which the eminent British historian Richard Evans recently decried as misguided and futile?”

“Given the perilous political circumstances in some regions of our world today, understanding what could have been, may in fact help us better understand what might be.”

Specifically, Ryback seeks to find parallels between early 20th century Germany and the contemporary Middle East. 

As he puts it: “In 1919, Hitler found himself in a country transitioning from an oppressive but stable monarchy to a fledgling constitutional democracy, a dynamic not unfamiliar to our post-Arab Spring world where countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have edged toward Western-style democracy with dramatically uneven experiences and occasionally horrifying results.”

So far so good, but Ryback never really develops the analogy, offering little more than the truism that the rise of Nazism “underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies.”

More interesting, to my mind, is Ryback’s highlighting of an older counterfactual observation – one that I was unaware of -- by one of Hitler’s henchmen, the jurist Hans Frank.  On death row at Nuremberg in 1945, Frank reflected on the relationship between historical necessity and contingency, declaring: 

“The F├╝hrer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment. Had he come, let us say, 10 years later, when the republic was firmly established, it would have been impossible for him. And if he had come 10 years previously, or at any time when there was still the monarchy, he would have gotten nowhere. He came at exactly this terrible transitory period when the monarchy had gone and the republic was not yet secure.”

Frank’s comment suggests the belief that Hitler – or someone like him -- was more or less inevitable in Germany after its military defeat of 1918.  That the times produced the man (as opposed to the reverse).

Ryback essentially agrees.  Although he concedes that while “We can never know how different history may have looked had Hitler been felled by bullets that early morning a hundred years,” he notes that some Germans were already speaking of a “second world war” within a year of the armistice that was to have ended “the war to end all wars.” 

In other words, Hitler was predictable.

Ryback then goes on to endorse the counterfactual claim:     “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” concluding “We can say with certainty that no other political leader of the era would have harnessed national passions or driven an anti-Semitic, pure-race agenda with such ferocity or tragic consequence, resulting in the deaths of millions of European Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the weak and disabled.”

No surprise here, as this belief has lately become the orthodox one.

Ryback’s ultimate conclusion also conforms to what is surely the consensus of most historians – namely, that change takes time:

“So what is the lesson of this particular counterfactual moment for us today? Beyond the fact that the Weimar Republic might well be celebrating the 95th anniversary of its Constitution this autumn, a history without Hitler underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies. It shows us that these processes require time, sometimes generations, and how different German history may have been had Hitler fallen with his regiment in Flanders fields 100 years ago this week.”

Do we need a counterfactual line of argumentation to reach this point?  Probably not.  But it is notable that historical “what ifs” continue to employed to arrive at historical understanding.   It is a sure sign of their increasingly mainstream status.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Collectivization Counterfactual: Stephen Kotkin's New Stalin Biography

In yet another sign of the relevance of counterfactuals, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (November 6th) profiles Stephen Kotkin’s forthcoming biography of Joseph Stalin by featuring the speculative title, “If Stalin Had Died...” 

Presumably most of Kotkin's book is written as a traditional history (and has few counterfactual lines of argumentation), but by choosing the highlight the seductive premise of one of the 20th century’s worst criminals being removed from history, Kotkin and the NYRB have chosen to capitalize on the vogue for “what if?” thinking.

The gist of Kotkin’s claim in his article is simple: if Stalin had died in 1921 (either of appendicitis or tuberculosis – both of which he suffered from) or if he had been assassinated in 1928 (plans to this effect seem to have been afoot among certain Bolsheviks), the Soviet Union would have been spared the horrors of collectivization.

Kotkin writes, “the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization – the only kind -- would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high.”

In short, a real historical nightmare would have been averted, thus making the counterfactual claim a clear fantasy.

Kotkin then goes on to refute E. H. Carr’s famous assertion that “Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances,” declaring the assertion to be “utterly, eternally wrong.”  Stalin, for Kotkin, validates the great man theory of history (T. Carlyle), writing that he “made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth.”  He concludes: “History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up.”

Kotkin does not say how the Soviet Union would have evolved without Stalin.  But he hints that the system could have survived under a different leader.  He dismisses the possible ascension of Trotsky, whose leadership skills were not up to snuff, but he writes that “even within the encumbering Leninist frame, a Soviet leader could have gone out of his way to reduce the paranoia built into the regime’s relations with the outside world....A Soviet leader could have paid the price of partial accommodation, grasping that capitalism was not, in fact, dying out globally....”

Kotkin adds that the Soviet Union could have modernized without Stalin’s crash program of collectivization, noting that it could have pursued a more market based approach; collectivization, he adds, was not “necessary to sustain a dictatorship,” as “private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible” – as shown by the example of Italian Fascism.

Further questions, unasked by Kotkin, could be posed:

Would the Soviet Union have been able to withstand Hitler’s assault of June 22, 1941 and ultimately defeat the Nazis had Stalin not forcibly industrialized the country through the two Five Year plans?  (This is the theodicy that is often invoked to justify Stalin’s dictatorial rule)

For that matter, if Stalin had died in 1921, would the Soviet Union have industrialized as rapidly in the years that followed?  (Kotkin seems to imply the answer to be yes).

It is also worth asking how Russia would have fared had the Whites won the Civil War over the Reds and reimposed some kind of authoritarian or even fascist order in the 1920s. 

Indeed, would Hitler have even invaded Russia in this alternate world?  Hitler’s commitment to Lebensraum in the east suggests the answer to be yes, even if Russia was not ruled by the Bolsheviks.  But can we imagine Nazism without Bolshevism? 

So much speculating to do – but so little time!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Today's Most Depressing Counterfactual: Sam Harris on Saddam Hussein

Following his dust-up with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show the other night, Sam Harris posted an impassioned blog about liberals' confusion with Islam.  In it, he concluded as follows:

"As I tried to make clear on Maher’s show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim “extremists” believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe—just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world."

The fact that the original scenario that prompted the 2003 war vs. Iraq was a nightmare -- ie. the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq motivated to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction -- makes it tragically ironic that we are now flirting with the fantasy about having kept him in power all along.

There really is no better confirmation of the fact that we cannot judge history while we're still in the middle of it.  Only knowing the ending allows us arrive at a judicious conclusion.  And we are clearly very far from any ending in the current war against radical Islam in the Middle East.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Review of Richard J. Evans's "Altered Pasts"

I can't yet post my full (7800 word) review of Richard Evans's provocative new book, Altered Pasts, which appears in the current issue of History & Theory, but I thought interested readers might want to see the abstract below.  (I'm new to the legalities of posting one's own work on one's own blog, but apparently the PDF can only be posted a year after it appears in print).  Alas....

Here's the abstract:


Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures). By Richard Evans. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, 2014. Pp. 176.

Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts, offers a perceptive but flawed critique of the field of counterfactual history. The author provides a useful historical survey of the field’s recent rise to prominence and intelligently analyzes its respective strengths and weaknesses. His overall assessment of the field is quite skeptical, however. Evans cites many reasons for his skepticism, but his overall critique can be summarized in three words: plausibility, politicization, and popularity. Evans faults works of counterfactual history for their frequently implausible narratives, their promotion of political agendas, and their distressing degree of popularity. In advancing his critique, Evans makes many valid observations that call attention to important deficiencies in the field. But his view is a partial one that neglects countervailing evidence and never penetrates to the heart of why the field has left the margins for the mainstream. Evans’s study provides a useful introduction to an understudied topic, but further research—ideally of a less partisan nature—is required for us to better understand counterfactual history’s increasing appeal.