Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Victor Davis Hanson’s Anachronistic Counterfactual About Obama Appeasing Hitler

Victor Davis Hanson often uses counterfactual reasoning in his work, but his recent post entitled “President Franklin Delano Obama Addresses the Threat of 1930s Violent Extremism,” fails to fulfill the criteria of a being a genuine counterfactual. 

Subtitled “Imagine Obama as an American President in 1939,” the premise is automatically disqualified from counterfactual status as it is based upon the physical impossibility of Obama being president before he was born.  Rather than functioning as a legitimate counterfactual, it can be viewed as an “anachronistic counterfactual” that sacrifices plausibility for the sake of polemic.

Of course, there is a genuine counterfactual implied in Hanson’s essay.  It could be worded as follows: “What If the United States under FDR had responded to the Nazis in the same way that the United states under Obama has been responding to ISIS?”

Hanson could have drawn many of the same provocative conclusions that he offers up in his essay, while maintaining the integrity of his counterfactual.

Indeed, many of the claims are worth pondering.  Hanson provokes us to think hard about whether the Obama administration’s efforts to separate ISIS from Islam is truly convincing by exporting the present-day administration's reasoning back into the 1930s.

For instance, he has (fictional President) Obama exclaiming:

“So make no mistake about it: National Socialism has nothing to do with Germany or the German people but is rather a violent extremist organization that has perverted the culture of Germany. It is an extremist ideology that thrives on the joblessness of Germany and can be best opposed by the international community going to the root of German unemployment and economic hard times…”

Hanson is right to remind us that Nazism was partly rooted in German political culture and that it would be shortsighted for us to ignore ISIS’s links to Islam.

Hanson is equally provocative in using his anachronistic “what if” to cast doubt on the idea that western/liberal actions can be blamed for Islamic extremism by showing how an analogous claim would irresponsibly let the Nazis off the hook for their aggressive behavior in the 1930s.

This becomes clear when he has the 1930s Obama proclaim:

“More broadly, groups like those headed by Herr Hitler and the National Socialists exploit the anger that festers when people in Germany feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better. Here I would remind ourselves of our past behavior in waging wars near the homeland of Germany. I opposed the Great War, and further opposed the Versailles Treaty that disturbed the region and stirred up violent passions and extremism.”

Hanson, to be sure, is wrong to entirely dismiss the contention believed by his fictional President Obama (as well as real one today) that American actions had/have a role in leading to the rise of the Nazis and ISIS.  (Western decisions after World War I vis a vis Germany did help foster a climate where the Nazis thrived).  Moreover, he is wrong to dismiss circumstantial factors beyond German culture in leading to the rise of Nazism (After all, Nazism only thrived in Germany when the country descended back into internal domestic crisis).  

But Hanson is right to raise these issues for discussion.  

I only wish he had done so in the guise of a different historical narrative that enjoyed higher plausibility.

For instance, he could have followed the example of P. J. O’Rourke who produced a well-known National Lampoon illustrated essay in 1980 entitled “If World War II Had Been Fought Like the War in Vietnam.”  It condemned the “soft” US military campaign in Vietnam by showing how if the US had fought the Second World War in the same way, it would have led to disaster.    Like Hanson, in short, O’Rourke imagined a counterfactual nightmare in order to criticize the present.

Hanson’s counterfactual resembles the anachronistic quality of Justin Bieber’s (admittedly much lazier) remark several years ago about the high likelihood of Anne Frank becoming one of his fans if she were alive today. 

I will keep an eye out for more anachronistic counterfactuals to see if they constitute a noticeable trend.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Would Hitler Have Become Hitler If He Had a Different Name?

In this week's issue of The Forward, I review Matt Ogens' brilliant and endearing new documentary film, Meet the Hitlers.  

The review ends with some counterfactual speculation about the ramifications of Hitler's father NOT having changed his surname back in 1876.

Click HERE for the link.

(Meet the Hitlers is currently showing at film festivals and has a wonderful trailer that can be seen on the film's website).

Monday, February 2, 2015

Nuking Berlin (Again): Steven Shapin on Churchill and the British Atom Bomb

One of the benefits of my long deferred decision to subscribe to the London Review of Books is that I recently came across an extended counterfactual reflection from a few years back on the nuclear destruction of Berlin by historian of science Steven Shapin.  Actually, it’s more of a meditation of what would have happened had Great Britain under the leadership of Winston Churchill decided to invest more resources in the developing of the atom bomb during World War II. 

Shapin’s reflections appeared in his review of Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics.  What I found most interesting – and indeed significant – was that Shapin begins his review of the book with a counterfactual history of the world as it might have been – had England developed the bomb – as method of appreciating the significance of Farmelo’s book.
The review begins as follows:
“Winston Churchill’s decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Berlin on 1 July 1947 wasn’t a difficult one. The war hadn’t been going well since the landings in the Pas de Calais in May 1946 were thrown back with terrible losses – a failure that had much to do with the amount of treasure and materiel that had been diverted to Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. The Americans remained preoccupied in the Pacific, still wary of the slaughter that would surely attend an invasion of the Japanese home islands, and it wasn’t likely that another landing on the Atlantic coast of Europe could be mounted for several years. British and Canadian carpet-bombing of German cities continued, but ever since the Russians had been dealt an almost fatal blow by the capture of Moscow in September 1941, the Nazis had been able to shift military production out of range of Allied bombers and harden the Atlantic defences. The alternative to using the Bomb on Berlin would be more V-3 rockets falling on London and stalemate in the west, a thought too dreadful to contemplate. As Churchill foresaw, the Bomb instantly decapitated the Nazi leadership, and General von Kleist, the commander of the remaining German forces in the west, offered unconditional surrender. Britain’s Bomb won the war.”
“Producing the Bomb had cost Britain dear, ever since Churchill decided early in 1942 to go ahead with the massive project on the basis of the reports of the MAUD Committee and secured the vital collaboration of the Canadians in uranium isotope separation using the gaseous diffusion method. He had directed British scientists not to tell the Americans about calculations done in Birmingham early in 1940 by the émigré physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, which established that no more than a kilogram of fissionable U-235 was required for a bomb. American scientists, like the Germans, who also believed that tons might be needed, had not gone ahead with their proposed Cambridge Project, named after the Harvard and MIT affiliations of its leading figures. The Americans had concluded that it would be impossible to produce so much U-235 in time for a weapon to be used in this war, so in June 1947 Britain emerged as the world’s only nuclear power, and the gun-method uranium Bomb – nicknamed Fat Man (after the prime minister) – was successfully tested in Newfoundland. The British Bomb had seriously strained the alliance with the Americans, but there was no more a ‘special relationship’ with the US than there was with France. Britain had entered the war as a great imperial power, and Churchill was determined that it should emerge from it at least as great, a benign world policeman.”
“As it turned out, however, Britain’s use of the Bomb on Germany had the opposite effect. Like Aesop’s fable of the frog trying to become an ox, Britain puffed itself up until it burst. It could neither preserve its empire nor command the resources to sustain a superpower role, and historians now write fanciful ‘what if?’ stories envisaging a world in which the Americans were the first to develop the Bomb. They imagine what might have happened had Britain not implemented an open-arms policy towards émigré Jewish scientists and had Enrico Fermi gone to the US instead of Britain, where he so effectively joined his theoretical and experimental talents to those of Frisch, Peierls and dozens of other escapees in the massive and spectacularly successful Edgbaston Project. If all those things really had happened, the fantasists suggest, the Americans might have built the Bomb even sooner than the British did, given their vast industrial capabilities. They might have pursued a wide range of ways of producing U-235 and plutonium, even the electromagnetic separation techniques that the British-Canadian project had set aside because of their enormous expense. What if the US had become the world’s first nuclear power as early as the summer of 1946, then used its first two bombs on Kobe and Nagasaki, and its next two on Vladivostok and Moscow, since the Soviets had repulsed the Germans at Moscow and were threatening to dominate half of Europe? What, then, would Britain’s fate have been in the following decades? What if, unencumbered by the impossible demands of remaining a great power, Britain had not so disastrously attempted to retain its empire and had instead enthusiastically embraced a resurgent federal Europe? What if Britain had devoted huge resources to help reconstruct a still radioactive Soviet Union and formed a peaceful Atlantic-to-the-Urals ‘Eurovision’ partnership ranged against the rampant and dangerous American superpower? What if America, as the world’s sole nuclear state, was itself about to be destroyed by its own vaulting ambition?”
“Things didn’t happen that way, but they could have. Counterfactual history seems so implausible because our minds tend to drift from knowing the way things turned out to the assumption that that’s the way they had to turn out, but it prompts us nevertheless to think about the fragile interconnections of events, structures and personalities. Imagining a world in which Britain produced its own nuclear weapons during the war makes you consider the opportunity costs of things that didn’t happen because certain other things did: for example, the resources unavailable for assembling a Continental invasion force because they were devoted to a nuclear programme, and the political implications of things that might have happened if Britain had made its own Bomb, not least the effect on postwar relations with the United States.”

What a wonderfully provocative way to begin a book review!  Shapin’s attention to detail is impressive and his understanding of the utility of counterfactuals is spot-on.

That said, there are a few glitches.  First, he violates the “minimal rewrite rule” (to wit: change as little as possible to the historical record after your initial point of divergence) by adding a second counterfactual with the Germans’ capture of Moscow in September 1941.  (How this transpires is left unexplained).  Presumably, British panic at the USSR’s near-defeat is what sparks their move to develop the atom bomb. 

But in reality, a near Soviet defeat might very well have led the UK to throw in the towel against the Nazis; with the USSR essentially out of the fight and the US not yet in it, England’s will to fight would have flagged.  This was Hitler’s strategy all along, of course, and one can imagine the separate peace camp in England pushing for an end to hostilities.

This is why Shapin’s conclusion that the British would have ultimately nuked Berlin (though not til 1947) does not convince as much as the hypothetical scenario of a German army victory in the Battle of the Bulge leading to this apocalyptic outcome.  (Click HERE, for a recent post on this topic).

Two and a half cheers, though, for Steven Shapin for adding further legitimacy to allohistorical speculation in academic writing.