Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Final Thoughts About Season One of "The Man in the High Castle" (With Spoilers)

Having concluded the ten-part first season of "The Man in the High Castle," I wanted to jot down a few thoughts with an eye towards how the series wrapped up and may move forward.


Throughout the ten episodes, I found it hard not to keep thinking of the series' fidelity to Dick's original novel, which, in a way, I wish I hadn't read before tuning in.  I kept comparing the Amazon series with the complexities of the original novel instead of just viewing the former on its own terms.  But that’s a familiar occupational hazard for all literature lovers who are protective of their favorite texts.

Anyway, to my thoughts:

I like how the series amplifies some of the novel’s subtler themes.  Dick’s collaborators were all rather genteel (Childan, Wyndam-Matson, especially).  But the Amazon version accentuates the brutality of collaboration with the figure of the marshal/bounty hunter who freelances for the Nazis in the neutral zone by hunting down fugitive Jews (cutting off fingers for proof of “success”). 

Other ways in which the series drives home the brutality of American life under foreign rule are with the gassing of Frank Frink’s relatives and the disclosure of the mass grave containing the body of Juliann’s sister, Trudy.  The aerial shot of multiple graves outside of San Francisco is somewhat unbelievable, knowing the Nazis’ (and maybe the Japanese regime’s?) penchant for covering up their crimes.  But it’s visually striking nonetheless.

It’s interesting how the series asks viewers to empathize with Obergruppenführer Smith, especially when his son is diagnosed with an incurable disease and faces being subjected to what is presumably a national euthanasia policy.  This might be read as an allegory for how people are forced to rethink their ideology when it is confronted with reality.  Conservatives dealing with the challenges of family members "coming out of the closet,” anyone?

I’m curious what the second season is going to do with the hypodiegetic film-within-a-film, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, showing the Allies defeating the Axis.  The producers threw in a curve ball by suggesting, in contrast to the novel, that the film's alternate world is far from being a fantasy (at least from the Allied perspective), insofar as it shows Joe Blake executing a captive Frank Frink.  Lots of ontological mystery still needs to be clarified here.  Frankly (sorry), I’m not sure how Amazon is going to pull it off.  The novel itself is frustratingly opaque about which reality is “real”: the one in which the characters live, or the “fictional” world "invented" by Hawthorne Abendsen.

Speaking of whom….Where was he?  Until a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that a second season of the series is already planned (whoosh! that fact had somehow flown over my head), I figured that Abendensen had become Frank Spotnitz’s version of Peter Jackson’s Tom Bombadil (who, one day, will have to be included in some future film version of The Lord of the Rings – to be filmed for a subsequent generation of filmgoers with the next generation’s technology).  Next season, Abendsen (and his “castle”?) will presumably loom larger.  But it’s hard to imagine how the Amazon series will explain him having “filmed” the Allies winning the war in the same way that Dick’s’ narrative shows him having “written” (or the I Ching having “dictated”) the allohistorical narrative.  

Similarly, will Hitler have a more prominent role in the second season? It’s probably too tempting not to give the audience what it wants in the sense that people always “enjoy” having Hitler up on the screen.  Dick, of course, omitted Hitler as an active presence in the novel.  In the series, we’re shown a cinephilic Hitler being intrigued by The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and wondering “what might have been” in the sense of his reality turning out less well than it did (from his perspective).  I’m not sure how much this narrative thread will be developed, but I hope it remains in the background so that the series stays true to the novel’s original narrative.

Finally, there is the larger question of the series’ overall philosophy of history.  In the tenth episode, Juliana and Joe overtly resist the film’s bleakly deterministic prediction about Joe fulfilling his Nazi “destiny” by asserting that free will can triumph over fate.  Joe declares, “I’m not the guy in the film,” and Juliana exclaims, “I don’t believe the film.  I believe you.”  What are we to make of these competing claims?  The idea that contingency can trump determinism is a familiar one within counterfactual history.  But Dick’s original novel remained agnostic about causality because it hedged on the deeper question of ontology -- by refraining from showing whose reality is actually “real." These thorny questions will have to be ironed out somehow for viewers not to throw up their hands in total confusion by the end of next season. 

I personally can’t see how Amazon will get more than two seasons out of the novel.  But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Oh, and give us more CGI shots of Albert Speer's Germania, please....

Saturday, November 28, 2015

More on "The Man in the High Castle"

Here are some more of my recently published comments on the new Amazon Prime series, “The Man in the High Castle.”  From Yahoo (click HERE) and Thrillist (click HERE).


I hope everyone’s enjoying the binge watching….

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sneak Preview of Stephen King's JFK Alternate History Series, "11.22.63"

When it rains it pours....

Just as Amazon Prime's The Man in the High Castle is set to debut, Hulu is jumping on the wave, releasing its TRAILER for its eight part series based on Stephen King's recent novel, 11/22/63, about the attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.


Given the notion that trends come in threes, where will we find the clincher?

Friday, November 13, 2015

"The Man in the High Castle": An Early Look

Here is my review of the first two episodes of Amazon Prime's "The Man in the High Castle" from this week's Forward.  Click HERE of the link.


If the entire series turns out to be a hit, we can possibly expect more cinematic renderings of alternate history novels in the future.  Anyone have any suggestions as to what they'd like to see filmed?  I wouldn't mind seeing The Two Georges, personally (maybe Richard Dreyfuss could have a leading role -- wouldn't that be meta?).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What's Going On With all the Politicized Nazi Counterfactuals? Steven Colbert Weighs In

The list is a long and growing one.

Politicians Ben Carson, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jeb Bush have all commented on "what ifs" pertaining to the Nazi past in recent weeks.  I commented on Carson's invocation of the Holocaust in explaining his opposition to gun control a few posts ago.  I was interviewed on NPR last week about Netanyahu's implied counterfactual that if Haj Amin Al-Husseini had not met with Hitler in November of 1941 that the Holocaust would not have happened (click HERE).  Meanwhile, Jeb Bush went public on the The New York Times Magazine question from last week: "would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a baby?" saying "hell yeah."  (I was interviewed about this very issue by Mother Jones the other day; click HERE for the interview).

Thank goodness we have Steven Colbert to put together a mashup commentary on all the inanity.
To watch the hilarious clip, click HERE.


As for the deeper meaning of what's going on, I suspect it reflects an ongoing desire to seek moral certainties in a time of ongoing upheaval and political polarization by invoking what still counts as the benchmark of evil: Hitler.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Killing Baby Hitler: The Mother Jones Interview

Somehow I neglected to post the interview I did with Mother Jones last week about The New York Times Magazine poll question: "would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby?"


I try to put the question in historical perspective by discussing the many counterfactual narratives that have explored the consequences of killing Hitler.

Click HERE for the interview.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Jeb Bush, Abraham Lincoln, and Rip Van Winkle Counterfactuals

On the campaign trail today in Florida, Jeb Bush drew attention to a common kind of "what if" scenario that might be termed a “Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual.”  In the same way that the famous Washington Irving character fell asleep and woke up in the future, counterfactuals often relocate a historical figure from the past into the present in order to comment upon it. 


Speaking in Tampa, Florida, Bush remarked: “If Lincoln were alive today, imagine the foolishness he would have to suffer,” Bush said. “Advisers telling him to shave his beard. Cable pundits telling him to lose the top hat. Opposition researchers calling him a five-time loser before the age of 50.”

He said he was speaking from experience. “I have gotten a lot of advice lately myself…more than enough. Some is stylistic. 'Take off the suit coat; ditch the glasses. Get rid of the purple striped tie,'" Bush said. But he has no plans to follow that advice. "Man, I like that tie," he said. "It only cost $20."  To see the full story click HERE.

There are many other examples of Rip van Winkle counterfactuals. 

Just to name two: the successful FOX television series, Sleepy Hollow, imagines the 18th century revolutionary war hero, Ichabod Crane, coming back to life and becoming a police investigator in present day New York state. Similarly, Timur Vermes’s best selling German novel (now a hit film) Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) imagines how a reanimated Adolf Hitler would have viewed contemporary German life.

These and similar counterfactual scenarios obviously lack the plausibility of more sober “what ifs.”  But they are rhetorically powerful tools for providing a new and defamiliarizing perspective on present day reality.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

High Hitler: The Führer's Drug Dependency as a Reverse Causal Counterfactual

Norman Ohler’s new book, The Total High: Drugs in the Third Reich (Der totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich), raises interesting counterfactual questions about Hitler’s reign as the dictator of Nazi Germany. 


I haven’t yet seen a copy of the book, but based on reviews in the German press, it appears that Ohler argues that without a steady intake of illegal stimulants (cocaine, Quadro-Nox, Profundol, Belladonna Obistinol) and the “euphoria” they provided, Hitler “would have been unable to pull himself together for military conferences” and other important governmental meetings.  (This claim can be found in the Tagesanzeiger review).

Or as the Frankfurter Rundschau put it in a separate review: “Without supportive pharmaceutical means, Hitler would not have been able to play his demented Führer role, which cost millions of people worldwide their lives, to the end.”

These counterfactuals seek to underscore the importance of drugs for the Führer’s ability to function on a daily basis in reverse fashion by asserting how their absence would have affected him (rather than how their availability actually affected him). 

The claim can be seen as an example of what might be called a reverse causal counterfactual.  Or as Richard Ned Lebow writes in Forbidden Fruit, “If we hypothesize that ‘x’ caused ‘y,’ we assume that ‘y’ would not have happened…in the absence of ‘x’ (p. 40).” 

Applied to Ohler’s book, this mode of causal reasoning allows us to see that there is a difference between claiming: 1) drugs enabled Hitler to function until the end of the war and 2) without drugs Hitler could not have functioned until the end of the war.

The latter claim assigns more causal weight to drugs than the former, as other things besides drugs (say, food) were presumably necessary to enable Hitler to function during this period.  Claiming those things would have been insufficient in the absence of drugs underlines their causal importance more dramatically.  This kind of counterfactual has also been called a "necessary condition counterfactual," meaning that a given factor 'x' (here, drugs) was a "necessary factor for "y" (Hitler's functioning).  See Gary Goetz and Jack S. Levy (eds.), Explaining War and Peace: Case Studies and Necessary Condition Counterfactuals (2007).

The use of the term, “without,” in the introductory clause of any conditional sentence is probably a good sign that you are dealing with a reverse causal counterfactual, probably the most basic type of formulation of all.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Ben Carson's Counterfactual Canard: Arming Jews Would Have Prevented the Holocaust

Recycling a time-honored counterfactual canard, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson offered CNN's Wolf Blitzer his NRA-style view of how arming Jews with guns would have prevented the Holocaust.


As The Washington Post reported in a story today: Ben Carson said Thursday that Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews “would have been greatly diminished” if German citizens had not been disarmed by the Nazi regime.

His comments about gun control in Nazi Germany are explored in his just-released book, A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties, in which he expands on his political views.

He said Nazi Germany was one of the regimes that he used as a cautionary tale against curbing citizens’ gun rights. 

“But just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would 6 million Jews have been slaughtered?” Blitzer asked.

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said.   Blitzer pushed a bit more: “Because they had a powerful military machine, as you know, the Nazis.”

“I understand that,” Carson said. “I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

As I discussed in a previous blog post, gun control opponents often invoke the case of Nazi Germany to bolster their position.  They do so in two ways: first, they cite the Third Reich as potentially heralding a future nightmare scenario for what might happen in the U. S. should the government ever decide to limit access to firearms.  Second, they invoke a counterfactual fantasy of how Jews’ access to guns could have helped prevent the Holocaust. 

Neither scenario is very plausible, of course, but both remain rhetorically powerful arguments, if for no other reason than the fact that the Nazis retain their symbolic power as the paragons of evil and guns remain one of the most politicized issues in contemporary American life. 


The Nazi gun control counterfactual is plainly a canard, but its rhetorical power makes it too tempting for gun rights supporters to forego.  For this reason, the counterfactual will probably be with us for some time to come.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

From the Archives: Klaus Barbie's Self-Serving Counterfactual

In the course of my ongoing research into the history of the Fourth Reich, I came across a chilling counterfactual uttered by the former SS officer and Lyon Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie, in 1974 (as reported by Michel Goldberg and cited in Brendan Murphy's book, The Butcher of Lyon), p. 291:


In falsely denying having perpetrated any crimes against Jews during World War II, Barbie bragged about his role in arresting the head of the French resistance, Jean Moulin, noting:

"By arresting...Moulin, I changed the course of history.  Jean Moulin, de Gaulle's man in France, was so intelligent that had he lived, it would have been he and not de Gaulle who would have presided over the destiny of France after our departure.  France would probably have become communist."

In fact, Barbie is probably wrong about France going communist after 1945.  If one accepts the inevitability of the cold war, then there is little likelihood that the Americans would have worked any less actively to weaken communist forces in France (the PCF received the largest share of the vote in the first postwar elections in 1945).  There likely would have been no communist regime in France in after 1945.

Barbie's comment is more disturbing for helping him claim that his arrest, torture, and murder of Moulin helped spare the world a more robust communist movement by eliminating one of its hypothetical postwar leaders.  By imagining the course of history turning out "worse" (from his Nazi perspective), Barbie sought validate the world as it came to be.

His comment is a reminder that counterfactuals can serve immoral as well as moral ends.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Jeremy Black's "Other Pasts"

I have a long backlog of posts I've been meaning to add to the CHR blog, one of which is to announce the publication of an important new academic study of counterfactual history, Jeremy Black's Other Pasts.


I will have a review of the book appearing in The European Review of History - Revue européenne d'histoire, but as is so often the case with academic publishing, it will take a while to appear.  In the meantime, I can say that Black's study is an indispensable defense of counterfactual history from its many critics and is particularly strong at exploring 18th century diplomatic history scenarios.  One of the most interesting is whether France could have defeated England in their battle for global domination.  

Black convincingly shows that Britain’s rise was far from inevitable and that France had multiple opportunities to assume the global role of its historical rival.  He asks many excellent counterfactual questions about this topic and offers a good number of plausible answers, among others: “A French dominated transatlantic world would have looked to Catholicism, civil law, French culture and language, and a different notion of representative government and politics from that of Britain, or rather, of Britain as it turned out."  Black explains that France’s failure was rooted in its conflicting geopolitical interests as both a sea and land power (unlike England) and speculates that had France triumphed over England, “the pace and extent of European overseas expansion would probably have been less.”

I have a few problems with Black's genre-blurring, for instance, his discussion of "alternative futures" -- a very problematic concept -- together with alternate pasts.  But my comments will have to wait until the publication of the review.  I'll post it when it appears.

Guy Saville's New Novel: "The Madagaskar Plan"

Summer research and writing have been bogging me down of late, but I have been meaning to mention the appearance of a new novel that I'm really looking forward to reading: Guy Saville's The Madagaskar Plan.


The novel follows on the heels of his debut bestseller, The Afrika Reich, which I discussed in my recent book, Hi Hitler!  The Madagaskar Plan explores the counterfactual scenario of the Holocaust not transpiring as it does in real history.  Instead (as you can glean from the title), the Nazis attempt to solve the "Jewish Question" via mass migration to the island of Madagascar.  If the novel is anything like its predecessor, readers are in for a stimulating journey into a vividly drawn alternate past.

I hope to post a review before too long....

The "Extended Play" Counterfactual: Michael Marrus on Tim Snyder's "Black Earth"


The publication of Tim Snyder's new book, Black Earth, offers a fresh opportunity to see how counterfactual reasoning is being applied to the subject of the Holocaust.  I am still to read the book, which is a sequel of sorts to his previous study, Bloodlands, which I discussed in my own recent study, Hi Hitler!  But I took note of the recent review published by the eminent historian Michael Marrus in The New York Times


Marrus assumes a largely critical stance towards the book, focusing in particular on Snyder's claims about the relative importance of antisemitism and state power in the murder of European Jewry.

Near the end of his review, Marrus writes:

"Having reached the start of the war in 1939, we are still without a survey of German or European Jewry, a sense of the varying potency of ­anti-Semitism or other contextual factors in the events of the time. As a result, Snyder gives us insufficient means to appreciate one of the key elements of the Holocaust — the Nazi determination to hunt down and murder Jews wherever they lived, even in countries like England and Ireland, which Hitler’s legions had not yet had the opportunity to conquer."

"Instead, Snyder highlights the issue of the state. Playing down anti-Semitism as a driving force behind Eastern European involvement in the Holocaust, he introduces a special kind of politics generated by the Germans’ and, to some degree, the Soviets’ destruction of the states in territories they envisioned as part of their respective empires. The destruction of state machinery, he says, first by the Soviets and then by the Germans, stimulated a frenzy of lawlessness and murder, facilitating, in case of the Nazis, genocidal campaigns against imagined enemies. Killing flourished in 'zones of statelessness,' Snyder writes, extending his analysis at this point to Western Europe, and even Germany itself. 'Wherever the state had been destroyed,' he tells us, 'whether by the Germans, by the Soviets, or both, almost all of the Jews were murdered.'"

"A more pertinent observation, I believe, is that in some countries — notably France and the Netherlands — despite the radically different proportions of Jews murdered, the persistence of prewar bureaucracies facilitated the registering of Jews and the carrying out of the Final Solution. A better interpretation would depend less on statelessness than on the degree to which the Germans were able to apply their power. Murder varied according to wartime strategy, geography, the concentrations of the Jewish population and the attitudes of the locals. And the most crucial variable of all may have been time. Had the 1944 D-Day landings failed, and had the war persisted for several more years, killing rates might have approached 100 percent everywhere, rather than the different percentages on which some historians continue to speculate."

This observation echoes claims made by earlier historians, who have used the same counterfactual claim to underscore the Holocaust's uniqueness.  As I pointed out in Hi Hitler!, "The supporters of uniqueness typically advanced their case with sweeping assertions about the totality of the Nazis’ murder plans.  Steven Katz, for example, argued in 1981 that because Hitler’s goal was 'to make the world Judenrein by the elimination of…all Jews as concrete individual human beings,' it stood to reason that if 'Hitler had had his way,…there would have been no ‘Jews’ after the 1940s.” Similarly, Yehuda Bauer stressed that the Holocaust was set apart from other genocides by “its intended totality.  The Nazis were looking for…all Jews.  According to Nazi policy, all persons with three or four Jewish grandparents were sentenced to death for the crime of having been born.  Such a policy…would have undoubtedly been applied universally if Germany had won the war.' Finally, William D. Rubinstein speculated that even if World War II had not actually been won by the Nazis, but merely 'lasted longer,…it seems certain that every Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe would have perished.'"

Rubinstein's point directly anticipates Marrus's in the sense that it asks us to imagine an "extended play" version of history transpiring beyond the point when its course was interrupted in reality.   It represents the opposite of the "clockstopper counterfactual," which asks us to imagine the course of history being interrupted before it did in reality (I've discussed this kind of counterfactual on previous occasions in this blog).  An extended play counterfactual allows us to recognize how history would have continued to unfold without outside intervention and may allow us to appreciate the causal factors that were ultimately driving the course of events.  In this instance, antisemitism may end up emerging as a more important factor than Snyder allows in his study.  It sheds light on the importance of motive, as opposed to means, in the perpetration of the Holocaust.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"What If Hitler Visited Munich's New Documentation Center on the History of National Socialism?"

I've been on break a bit from the blog this summer working on some new projects, but I thought I would post a piece that I recently published in the Forward that has some counterfactual elements to it.


I interviewed Timur Vermes (of Look Who's Back fame) in Munich at the new NS-Dokumentationszentrum and incorporated some of his observations into my article.  I also reflected very briefly on the "what if?" aspects of the new film Elser, about the near assassination of Hitler in 1939.

Click HERE to link up to the full article.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another World War I Counterfactual: David Frum on the Consequences of an Allied Defeat


David Frum’s new essay in The Atlantic is a welcome contribution to the ongoing counterfactual discussion of the origins and consequences of World War I.  Not only is its analysis creative and provocative, its publication in such a prominent journal further confirms the growing popularity of counterfactual speculation.


Frum’s essay seeks to affirm the legitimacy of U. S. involvement in World War I as a means of critiquing of the foreign policy philosophy of isolationism and defending that of interventionism.   He dismisses the many interwar critics of America’s intervention in the First World War, who conspiratorially claimed it was an unnecessary war promoted by the financial interests of arms dealers, by showing how much worse the course of history would have been for the U. S. had the nation not become involved in the conflict. 

In other words, Frum’s essay adopts a classic stance of embracing a nightmare scenario in order to justify history as it really transpired.  Or as he puts it: “Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I contemplate these might-have-beens to gain a better appreciation for what actually happened.”

Frum explains:

“To understand why the U.S. fought in 1917, begin by considering the outcome if the United States had not fought. Minus U.S. reinforcements on land and sea, it’s difficult to imagine how the Allies could have defeated a Germany that had knocked revolutionary Russia out of the war.”

“By the summer of 1917, the Western Allies had exhausted their credit in U.S. financial markets. Without direct U.S. government-to-government aid, they could not have afforded any more offensives in the West. The exhausted Allies would have had to negotiate some kind of settlement with Central Power forces occupying almost all of what is now Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic republics in the east; most of Romania and Yugoslavia in Southern Europe, as well as a bit of Italy; and almost all of Belgium and most of northeast France. Even if the Germans had traded concessions in the West to preserve their gains in the East, the kaiser’s Germany would have emerged from such an outcome as the dominant power on the continent of Europe. The United States would have found itself after such a negotiated peace confronting the same outcome as it faced in 1946: a Europe divided between East and West, with the battered West looking to the United States for protection. As in 1946, the East would have been dominated by an authoritarian regime that looked upon the liberal and democratic Anglo-American West not just as a geopolitical antagonist, but as an ideological threat.”

“But unlike in 1946, when the line was drawn on the Elbe and the West included the wealthiest and most developed regions of Europe, this imaginary 1919 line would have been drawn on the Rhine, if not the Scheldt and the Meuse, with the greatest concentration of European industry on the Eastern side. Unlike in 1946, the newly dominant power in Eastern Europe would not have been Europe’s most backward major nation (Russia), but its most scientifically and technologically advanced nation (Germany). In other words, the United States would have gotten an early start on the Cold War, and maybe a second hot war, supported by fewer and weaker allies against a richer and more dangerous opponent—and one quite likely to have developed the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile first.”

This last section may represent something of a stretch – it violates the minimal rewrite rule of counterfactuals – but the larger point is well taken: a defeat in World War I would have weakened the credibility of democracy and vindicated that of authoritarianism on the world stage.

Frum writes:

“There was one of Wilson’s genuine phrases that did aptly describe what the issue was in 1917, and what it has been ever since. In his April 2 speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany, Wilson insisted that the “world must be made safe for democracy.”

“Not “democratic”—“safe for democracy.” Wilson wasn’t promising to impose democracy on Imperial Germany. He was promising to defend democracy from Imperial Germany. The First World War had not begun as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Great Britain was not a democracy in August 1914. Tsarist Russia certainly was not. Ditto Japan, Italy, and Romania—all fought for the Entente, none had governments elected by more than a small fraction of the population. Even in France, the most democratic of the original Allies, elected leaders did not fully control the government (never mind that the Third Republic ruled over a vast colonial empire and denied the vote to women).”
“By the time Wilson delivered his “safe for democracy” war message, however, the war had taken a new form. Britain would emerge from the war as a country in which all adult men voted, and soon adult women too. Russia was racked by a revolution that would overthrow the tsar. The smaller, neutral nations of Europe—notably Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden—democratized during and after the First World War. The nations that gained independence as a result of the war—the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Poland—were organized as democracies at least at the start. The British dominions—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—already had universal male suffrage; after the war, the dominions gained the full sovereignty that confirmed them as self-ruling governments. Italy and Japan too would experiment—tragically briefly—with liberal democracy in the early 1920s.”

“Meanwhile, the Central Powers receded from democracy during the war. Before 1914, Germany and the Habsburg Empire could display elected national legislatures, but these legislatures exerted little control over the actions of government and during the war years lost what little influence they had. Where the Central Powers organized new governments—notably in Ukraine—they instituted authoritarian or military regimes. Most notoriously, the German authorities subsidized Vladimir Lenin in exile, and then provided him safe conduct to destroy Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the spring and summer of 1917.”
“Had the Western Allies lost the First World War, European democracy would have failed the test that American democracy surmounted in the Civil War: the test of survival in the competition between nations and regimes.”

“The United States too was a very imperfect democracy in 1917. In particular, black Americans lived under a system of caste oppression and routinized violence not very different from that meted out to German Jews in the first four or five years of Hitler’s rule. Racist ideologies held sway not only in the rural and ill-educated South but on the faculties of prestigious universities, in the upper reaches of the federal civil service, in learned societies. Racist ideas were contested, but it was not foreordained that they would be rejected.”
“Human beings admire winners. In the year 1940, when democracy looked a loser, Anne Morrow Lindbergh hailed German fascism as “the wave of the future.” Had Imperial Germany prevailed in 1918, there would have been many to argue that Otto von Bismarck’s vision of the future—“iron and blood”—had decisively triumphed over Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

One need not agree with Frum’s defense of the U. S campaign in Iraq and larger “war on terror” (which he has explored counterfactually in earlier essays) to appreciate his concluding statement underscoring the importance of American involvement in global affairs.

As he correctly and un-moralistically puts it:

“Not always fully consciously, not always perfectly presciently—but consciously and presciently enough—the best American minds of a century ago perceived what was at stake in 1917. They imagined a better world—and the hostile world they would confront if they failed. Their efforts went largely wrong in the years after 1918. The ensuing frustration brought odium on the whole project. But those of us alive today have the advantage of knowing more of how the story developed. We should have more sympathy for the difficulties faced by those who had to start the job without guide or precedent, including the guide or precedent of somebody else’s previous errors.”
“At present, too, many worry whether this world is safe for democratic societies challenged by the aggressive and illiberal. Today, too, American motives are mixed, as human motives usually are. A better understanding of history can at least emancipate Americans from the isolationist polemics that caricatured the why and the how of U.S. entry into the First World War. Such understanding will protect Americans from the dangerous illusions that such polemics inculcated in the 1930s, after Vietnam, and now once more again.”

All in all, Frum’s essay represents a persuasive example of how counterfactual reasoning is indispensable for understanding the role of causality in, and drawing larger interpretive conclusions from, history.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

What If Martin Luther Had Died Earlier? Another Clockstopper Counterfactual

I was recently in Germany and, while there, read an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung weekend magazine with former German CDU party chief from the 1980s, Heiner Geißler.

In the interview, Geißler touched on a wide array of subjects, including his pessimistic stance about the virtues of organized religion.  In one exchange with the interviewer, Geißler offered an interesting counterfactual about the thought of Martin Luther.  (For the record, Geißler is of Catholic background).


To the interviewer's question, "In his pamplets, Luther attacked Jews, knights, and peasants.  Can he serve whatsoever as a role model?" Geißler replied:

"One cannot justify the dark sides of [Luther's thought].  What he said about the Jews is a very dark and immoral story.  At the beginning of the 1520s, he wrote: Jesus is a Jew.  Later he believed that the Jews killed Jesus.  It would have been better if Luther had died a few years earlier.  I believe he had a homoerotic relationship to Jesus.  He concentrated completely on "my Christianity" and the Jews naturally did not reject Christ as the messiah.  Therefore, Luther could not forgive the Jews when they defended themselves from being converted.  He had a love-hate relationship to the Jews."

Geißler makes his counterfactual claim merely in passing, but it is worth reflecting on its implied meaning.  As I read it, Geißler wants us to understand that Luther's reputation would have been much better if he had died before the late phase of his career, which was defined by his siding with German princely authorities against the peasants and his condemnation of the Jews.  An earlier death for Luther would have preserved his reputation as a radical emancipator who challenged authority rather than sided with it against the cause of human freedom.

Stopping the clock in this way, of course, fails the plausibility test of a good counterfactual unless one can pinpoint a moment when Luther might have actually been removed from the historical stage.  I'm not aware, for example, if Luther had any major illnesses that might have done him during this period, but Geißler would have had to provide such an instance to make his counterfactual more vigorous.  This was not his agenda, of course, but his remark reveals how implied meanings are contained in even the most fleeting "what ifs."

In the end, his observation validates the truism that the meaning of an event is wholly determined upon the point at which one interprets it.  Whether it is the administration of a political leader, the conduct of a war, or an experiment in nation building, assessing an event's ultimate meaning is dependent upon the chronological vantage point of analysis.  Premature interpretation (ie. before an event has reached its conclusion) distorts the past.  Raising counterfactual questions about how an event would have been viewed had it ended before it really did does open up interesting interpretive possibilities, but "stopping the clock" of history has to be done plausibly for the insights to carry much interpretive weight.

See, for comparison, my post about Adam Tooze's counterfactual from 2013.


Friday, May 15, 2015

A Counterfactual Corbusier: What If the Famed Modern Architect Had Been Born in Germany?


Now that we’ve just marked the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945, it is probably fitting that press coverage of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death (August 27, 1965) has sought to link the architect to the Third Reich.


Several recent French language studies have directed attention towards Le Corbusier’s well-known fascist tendencies in the 1940s.  A recent article in the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, pointed out that the architect not only made positive comments about Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government but even about Hitler’s desire to remake Europe according to Nazi principles.

Notably, the article sought to amplify the architect’s fascist proclivities by positing  a provocative counterfactual.

The article notes that Le Corbusier refrained from informing the Vichy government that he was Swiss and proceeds to ask the rhetorical question: “what would he have done if – like Albert Speer – he had been born in Germany?  Would he have tried to become the greatest architect of Nazi Germany?  Is it unfair to make claims, such as the one made by the Lausanne architectural historian Pierre Frey, who [polemically] referred to Le Corbusier’s “spatial eugenics” and declared that he would have worked for Hitler without batting an eye.”

The article continues:
“What would have happened if….?”  Despite being viewed with suspicion by historians, this question has value even if it cannot be answered in full.  Not in order to make people responsible for things that they did not do, but in order to sharpen our sense of basic principles that can be harmless in eras of stability but dangerous in certain historical circumstances.  Perhaps Le Corbusier (and not only he) simply had luck that he was not a German under Hitler.”
The function of the counterfactual is clear: namely, to sharpen the moral condemnation of Le Corbusier’s fascist tendencies by extrapolating how far he would have gone had he been at the epicenter of wartime fascism: Nazi Germany.  Of course, the counterfactual is implausible at its core: Le Corbusier would never have been born in Germany.  And if he had, he might not have become Le Corbusier.  
How should the hypothetical scenario be regarded, therefore?  Perhaps it can be seen as an example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one where a historical figure is artificially transplated from his/her natural environment into a foreign one for the sake of imagining how things would have unfolded differently.  It’s related to a “trading places” counterfactual insofar as it involves the act of transfer, only in this version of a single person instead of two people switching settings.
I will keep my eyes open for other such counterfactuals going forward as I continue to develop my taxonomy of “what ifs.”

Re-release of Jerry Yulsman's novel, Elleander Morning!

Sneak preview for alternate history fans!


American writer Jerry Yulsman's engrossing novel, Elleander Morning (1984), is being reissued later this summer.  I was honored to be asked by the publisher to write a short introduction. If you don't know the novel's premise, the politically suspicious drink on the book's cover will give you a hint.  I will post more once the publisher sets up a link closer to its novel's official release.

Monday, May 11, 2015

From the Archives: How the Irish Viewed a German Defeat of Great Britain in WWI


This doesn’t happen very often (read: ever): earlier today, I was interviewed on Irish radio in a short ten minute segment of the Dublin-based Moncrief Show that was devoted to my new book, Hi Hitler!

In preparing for the interview, I decided to read up a bit on Ireland’s stance of neutrality during World War II (the country was neither pro-Nazi nor pro-British).  In doing so, I ran across an interesting counterfactual comment by the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Éamon de Valera from 1940. 


Following Britain’s occupation of neutral Iceland in May of 1940, de Valera declared:

“I would like to put a hypothetical question-it is a question I have put to many Englishmen since the last war. Suppose Germany had won the war, had invaded and occupied England, and that after a long lapse of time and many bitter struggles, she was finally brought to acquiesce in admitting England's right to freedom, and let England go, but not the whole of England, all but, let us say, the six southern counties.

These six southern counties, those, let us suppose, commanding the entrance to the narrow seas, Germany had singled out and insisted on holding herself with a view to weakening England as a whole, and maintaining the securing of her own communications through the Straits of Dover.

Let us suppose further, that after all this had happened, Germany was engaged in a great war in which she could show that she was on the side of freedom of a number of small nations, would Mr. Churchill as an Englishman who believed that his own nation had as good a right to freedom as any other, not freedom for a part merely, but freedom for the whole-would he, whilst Germany still maintained the partition of his country and occupied six counties of it, would he lead this partitioned England to join with Germany in a crusade? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.

Would he think the people of partitioned England an object of shame if they stood neutral in such circumstances? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.”

Whatever one thinks of de Valera’s political stance in the war, his point is well taken.  His declaration is an effective example of a didactic “trading places” type of counterfactual, one that asks readers to imagine how the stronger party in a conflict would behave if they were in the shoes of the weaker party.  Because de Valera’s scenario is set in a counterfactual world in which the Germans won the First World War, it assumes a rhetorical power that it would otherwise lack if he merely offered it in the abstract (ie. if he merely speculated on how England would have acted if it were as weak a political position as Ireland). 

The comment certainly reflects a benevolent view of Germany from the vantage point of 1940 – indeed, it creates a implicit moral equivalence between the Third Reich and the British Empire – yet it is understandable in light of the longstanding antagonism between Great Britiain and Ireland.  It furthermore raises a closely related counterfactual question. Would the Irish have collaborated with the Germans had the Nazis successfully invaded and occupied the British Isles?  Would de Valera have been the Irish Quisling?  I don’t recall any of the numerous novels on the subject addressing this topic, but maybe I’ve overlooked it.