Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Man Who Could Have Shot Hitler


I was interested to learn of David Johnson’s new book, The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler (The Story of Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler, 1918), which has received a lot of attention in the British media.  The book’s implicitly counterfactual title alone makes it intriguing. 

The title refers to the alleged encounter (“alleged” because it remains unverified) between Tandey and Hitler at the Battle of Marcoing in France on September 28, 1918. 

As The Daily Mirror reported in a recent article:

“In the dying moments of the First World War 22 years earlier, [Tandey] had pointed his rifle at a wounded German soldier trying to flee a French battlefield. Their eyes met and Henry lowered his gun. The German nodded in thanks then disappeared.


In that moment of compassion for a fellow human being, Henry, then 27, let 29-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler walk free.
Free to become the most reviled dictator and mass murderer of all time.
‘I didn’t like to shoot at a wounded man,” he said in 1940. “But if I’d only known who he would turn out to be... I’d give 10 years now to have five minutes of clairvoyance then.’
It was the biggest “what if?” in history and, until his death in 1977 at the age of 86, Henry had to live with the stigma of being “The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler.”

The intrinsic interest in Tandey’s life revolves around the question of how history would have been different if he had shot Hitler.  Needless to say, the premise requires that Tandey actually had the opportunity to kill the future dictator.  It is anything but clear whether or not this was the case, however.

A recent NPR story casts doubt on the likelihood that the two soldiers encountered one another as legend would have it.  Moreover, as the Mirror explained, the source for the story of Tandey’s historic act of omission was none other than Hitler himself.

“For 20 years Henry had no idea he had missed the chance to kill Hitler. But in 1938 he received a shocking phone call from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had just returned from a fruitless meeting with Hitler to try to talk him out of war.
Chamberlain had been invited to Hitler’s hilltop retreat in Bavaria and shown a reproduction of a famous painting called The Menin Crossroads.



An Italian war artist had captured soldiers of the Green Howards evacuating the wounded at the Battle of Ypres in 1914 – with Henry Tandey in the foreground carrying a comrade on his back.
Incredibly, Hitler recognised him as the man who spared him four years later on September 28, 1918.
He told Chamberlain: “That man came so near to killing me I thought I should never see Germany again. Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”
Needless to say, Hitler was far from being a reliable source about his own biography.
But we can assume that he had his reasons for making his claim about Handey.
It seems clear that Hitler saw it in his interest to claim that Handey (then Britain’s most decorated WWI hero and thus an appealing person for Hitler to claim a historic connection to) spared his life.  This enabled Hitler to validate his longstanding belief that Providence was committed to ensuring he fulfill his world historical mission.
This being the case, it would seem as if Tandey’s current, counterfactually inflated reputation as the man who “could have changed history, but didn’t” is itself dependent upon Hitler’s own counterfactual effort to inflate his own post-World War I significance. 
The ongoing fantasy about Tandey rests on Hitler’s own counterfactual nightmare. 
Both highlight the ongoing psychological appeal of counterfactual speculation.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Zionist "What Ifs" in Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land"


I just finished reading Ari Shavit’s poignant book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel and was struck by how many counterfactual observations it contains.  Most of them, significantly enough, are employed to arrive at moral judgments about the past – or to avoid making moral judgments altogether.


Many of his observations serve the purpose of both understanding and critiquing the tragic origins of the Jewish State.  Shavit, for example, states his admiration for the “fire in the belly” of the utopian kibbutzniks that settled the land, “without which…the state of the Jews could not have been founded.”  At the same time, he recognizes that “the fire will blaze out of control…[and] will burn the…Palestinians.”  (47) Later on, he criticizes some of the fighters who killed Palestinian civilians during the conquest of Lydda during the 1948 War of Independence, but adds “I will not damn the bridge commander and the military governor and the training group boys….If need be, I’ll stand by the damned.  Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born.  If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born.   They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people…to live.”  (131)

These observations are an important part of Shavit’s larger argument that Israel was established on a foundation of denial (“of the Palestinian past, the denial of the Palestinian disaster, the denial of the [diaspora and Mizrahi] Jewish past, and the denial of the Jewish catastrophe [the Holocaust].”  Shavit is committed to dismantling this foundation and exposing the reality of denial, but he is honest enough to admit that it was probably necessary for Israel’s creation.

Notably enough, he asserts this point counterfactually, arguing that “without this multilevel denial, “it would have been impossible [for Jews in Israel] to function, to build, to live….If Israel had acknowledged what had happened it would not have survived.  If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed.  Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the…nation into which I was born.” (162)

(Interestingly, this claim mirrors Hermann Lübbe’s argument about postwar West Germany, which also had to deny the recent past – related to the crimes of the Nazi era – in order to create a functioning postwar state.  The chief example of this was the re-integration of ex-Nazis into the poswar state -- the “great peace with the perpetrators.”_The implication of Lübbe's argument has always been that if postwar Germans had sought to bring ex-Nazis to justice, they would have driven them into active resistance against the state and possibly torpedoed its viability; that is to say, to paraphrase Shavit, "if Germany had faced the truth, it would not have survived").

Shavit makes the same point about Mizrahi Jews who emigrated to Israel.  The European Zionist establishment disrespected their cultural traditions and forced them into an alien living environment that left them ashamed of their heritage.  At the same time, though, “Israel did a favor to those it extracted from the Orient.  The Jews there had no real future in the new Baghdad, the new Beirut, the new Cairo….Had they stayed, they would have been annihilated….To this day, many Oriental Israelis are not aware of what Israel saved them from: a life of misery…in an Arab Middle East that turned ugly.” (290)

All of these points reflect the familiar fact that counterfactual nightmares – imagining history turning out worse -- allow one to assign redemptive meaning to the present. 

This leads Shavit to his very personal counterfactual conclusion about whether his British great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, made the right decision in migrating to Palestine in 1897.  Shavit wonders aloud, “what would have become of me had my great-grandfather not uprooted us from the green shores of Britain and settled us on that desolate shore of Palestine?....I would like to think that I would have been a literature don at Oxford or a producer at the BBC.  I would have a nice house in Hampstead and a thatched-roof cottage in West Dorset.  My life would be much more relaxed and far safer than my Israeli life.  I would have more leisure time for poetry and music.   But would I have had a richer inner life?  Would my life’s experience have been more meaningful?"

Shavit then goes on cite statistics attesting to the declining numbers of the British Jewish community today in asserting: “I know that if my great-grandfather had not removed me from this coast, I myself would probably have been today only half-Jewish.  [My children] Tamara, Michael, and Daniel might not consider themselves Jewish at all….[The] collective we belonged to would be vanishing all around us....That is why Herbert Bentwich’s insane journey from the shores of Kent to the shores of Jaffa was necessary…For we are a people on the move and on the edge….We had to save ourselves by building a Jewish national home.”

Shavit thus arrives at a clearly Zionist conclusion, validating Israel’s creation as an event that, while hardly without problems, represents the best of all possible outcomes. 

Yet even here he ultimately hedges, pointing out that it may still be too early to tell whether the Jews’ arrival in Palestine was good or bad.  “Only the end will properly put the beginning into perspective.  Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcome the tragic decree or were overcome by it.” (418)

In so doing, Shavit highlights the fact that we always interpret history’s significance backwards, evaluating the story from the perspective of the conclusion.  Because it is too early to know how Israel’s fate in the Middle East will play out (when has it ever been clear?), Shavit’s counterfactuals may be viewed as provisional in their import.  

From the perspective of today, history could have easily been worse for many Jews, and so Israel’s creation, while tragic, can be validated counterfactually.  Today’s turmoil in the Middle East makes definitive conclusions impossible, however, and so future assessments will depend on the course of future events.  

(This point is confirmed in an earlier post about the Boston Red Sox from this past fall)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Counterfactual Canines: How Would History Have Been Different Without Dogs?

Not being a dog owner, I may not fully appreciate the insights contained in Stanley Coren’s book, The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events (2002), but I was pleased to see that it frequently employs counterfactuals in its narrative.



Coren notably begins his first chapter by musing counterfactually:

“How many times has the fate of a man, or even a nation, hung from the collar of a dog?  Had it not been for dogs, the last imperial house of China might not have fallen; Columbus’s first attempts at colonization the Americas not have been so successful; some of Wagner’s operas might never have been written; the American Revolution might not have been fought; the freeing of the American slaves might have been delayed for decades; the way that we educate deaf children might be different; and great and well-loved books like Ivanhoe might never have been written.”

After whetting readers’ appetites with this evocative list of “what if” scenarios, he develops them in brief in the book’s core chapters before consolidating his findings in his final chapter, which is notably entitled “The Counter-Factual History of Dogs.”

Most of the examples fall under the category of “a single dog can save the life of an individual and thus alter history.”  Alexander the Great’s life was saved by his dog, Peritas, who saved him from a rampaging Persian elephant at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE.  Had he been killed, Coren argues, the world would have been denied Hellenism and, ultimately, Christianity.  Similarly, Lewis and Clark’s dog, Seaman, saved them from certain death from a stampeding buffalo on the western frontier.  Had the dog not distracted the beast, the opening of the United States might not have taken place.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s life was also saved by a dog, a Newfoundland named Boatswain, who rescued him from drowning after his escape from Elba.  Had this not happened, he would not have been able to launch his attack that culminated in the battle of Waterloo. 

Other examples fall into a more idiosyncratic category, one in which random actions by dogs may well have shaped the course of historical events.  To list just one example, Coren argues that the English Reformation might not have happened had Henry VIII’s emissary, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s dog not willfully bitten the foot of Pope Clement VII, thereby angering the Pontiff, who proceeded to reject the English King’s appeal to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon.

Coren may be barking up the wrong tree in seeking to attribute so much influence to the actions of dogs in shaping historical events.  Most of his examples admittedly fall into the “Cleopatra’s Nose” school of thought, according to which the alteration of even small factors can bring about major historical changes.  As a result, they sometimes strain the boundaries of plausibility.  Needless to say, the rise of Christianity and England’s turn to Protestantism would probably have happened even without the intervention of certain canines.  But Curon’s claims are useful insofar as they prompt us to distinguish between the hierarchy of causal forces that are responsible for historical events. 

From now on, we should not hesitate to wonder “woof if?”

Monday, January 6, 2014

Could Max von Baden Have Prevented the Rise of Adolf Hitler?


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.