Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jeffrey Gurock's New Book, "The Holocaust Averted"

I'm happy to promote fellow-historian Jeffrey Gurock's new book of counterfactual Jewish history, The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967.

I just heard him discuss the volume last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan (the talk was broadcast live on the Jewish Broadcast Service) and was impressed with how eloquently he explained the book's origins and how persuasively he hypothesized how Jewish history might have been different if the western Allies had stood up to Hitler in 1938 and the Holocaust had never happened.

Gurock's answer will surprise many readers.  But suffice it to say that the putative fantasy of a world without the Holocaust comes to resemble more of a nightmare.

Rutgers University Press deserves credit for lending further academic credibility to the genre of counterfactual history as it breaks into the field of Jewish Studies.  Moreover, the press should be congratulated for producing a brilliant cover for the book.

Finally, it is with no small amount of pride and gratitude that I can point out that Gurock contributed a chapter length version of his book to my own forthcoming edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History, which should be appearing before the end of the year.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

From the Archives: A. J. P. Taylor’s Myriad German History Counterfactuals

I’ve discovered my new favorite counterfactualist -- at least for this week.  It’s A. J. P. Taylor, whose 1945 book, The Course of German History, I’ve been reading with great interest.

It’s one of those grand narratives that covers a thousand years in a couple hundred pages.  As a result, it’s full of sweeping generalizations that lend themselves to what Hugo, the discontented communist revolutionary in Jean Paul Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands, calls “iffing.”

Taylor’s counterfactuals come in a variety of forms, which can be typologized as follows:

1) The deterministic counterfactual:  Near the outset of his narrative, Taylor describes how Germany’s existence was determined by its geographical location between Roman/French civilization to the west and the Slavic world to the east, battling both at different junctures.  He goes on to speculate that “if a natural cataclysm had placed a broad sea between the Germans and the French, the German character would not have been dominated by militarism.  If – a more conceivable possibility – the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbors as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation.  Constant surroundings shaped…[the] German national character….”

It is ironic, of course, that Taylor uses counterfactual thinking to bolster an argument supporting geographical determinism.  (After all, counterfactuals are usually seen as antithetical to deterministic thinking).  Yet, Taylor makes a valid point by showing how different geographical circumstances would have made the German character different.  On the other hand, it is jarring to see how Taylor subversively critiques American history, while (dubiously) implying that the Germans’ national character would have benefitted from the completion of the Holocaust.  (Really?  If the Nazis had been more like the Americans and eradicated their own “enemy population” of Slavs and Jews, they would have become champions of human rights?  This seems highly unlikely).

2) The secondary source counterfactual: Taylor quotes Napoleon Bonaparte (without citing the source) as having once said that “if the Emperor Charles V had put himself at the head of German Protestantism in 1520 he would have created a united German nation and solved the German question.”  Taylor adds, “This was the decisive moment of Germany history,” a moment when it could have zigged but zagged.  Taylor thereupon proceeds to further criticize Martin Luther, his bête noir, in the form of another counterfactual, which we can call

3) The sarcastic counterfactual: Taylor lambasts Luther for having abandoned the German peasants during their uprising in 1525 and rejecting the Catholic church’s Renaissance-era construction project of St. Peters’ Basilica in Rome for its opulence.  Taylor writes that Luther “hated art, culture, intellect” and “turned with repugnance from all the values of Western civilization” proceeding to “set himself up against Michael Angelo and Raphael.  Even the technical occasion of his breach with Rome was symbolic: he objected to the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s – if it had been for the purpose of massacring German peasants, Luther might have never become a Protestant.” 

This snarky comment shows how counterfactuals are often employed for purely rhetorical purposes.  It’s nonsensical, of course, indeed it's an instance of anachronistic speculation, to imagine Johannes Tetzel selling indulgences to massacre Protestants in 1517 (there weren't any yet in existence).  Taylor merely includes the remark as a jibe – as an instance of twisting the knife once it’s already been inserted.  It is somewhat amusing, however....

Finally, Taylor further embraces conventional nightmare and fantasy counterfactuals.

He validates the Peace of Westphalia by writing that without it, Germany would have been worse of than it already was in the Thirty Years’ War, writing: “Westphalia was imposed on Germany by foreign powers; but without the intervention of these foreign powers the state of Germany would have been still worse.  Habsburg strength could never have maintained the position of 1629.  New rivals would have arisen, and the wars between the princes would have continued until Germany was utterly destroyed.”

He subsequently discusses Emperor Joseph II’s attempt to acquire Bavaria as part of the Habsburg effort to unify Germany in the 18th century, noting: “To be really German Emperor, Joseph needed a larger nucleus of German subjects.  This was the motive for his long-pursued plan of acquiring Bavaria in exchange for the distant and non-German Austrian Netherlands.  Had this plan succeeded, the whole future of Germany would have been different: the majority of Habsburg subjects would have been Germans, and the majority of Germans would have been Habsburg subjects.  Habsburg power would speedily have extended to the Main, and Prussia would have been fortunate to survive even in north Germany.”

For the record, all of these counterfactuals appear merely the first chapter of his book!

Whether or not Taylor should be seen as a pioneer of counterfactual thinking among 20th century historians remains to be seen.  But further research into the great works of modern western historiography may eventually allow us to draw larger conclusions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

From the Archives: Speculating About a Post-Hitler National Socialism Under Otto Strasser

I just finished reading British journalist (and vicious anti-Semite) Douglas Reed's 1940 book, Nemesis?  The Story of Otto Strasser and the Black Front, and was struck by his use of counterfactuals.

Reed was eager to position Otto Strasser as a likely successor to Hitler following what the journalist believed would be the Führer’s imminent demise.  Reed hoped that Strasser would inaugurate a Fourth Reich rooted in a much more genuine form of National Socialism (as opposed to the faux version peddled by Hitler, who diluted its radical thrust by jumping into bed with the Junkers and capitalists).

Reed wistfully imagined how Strasser (and not Hitler) might have risen to power and speculated about several scenarios.

Referring to the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, in which Otto’s brother, the leading NSDAP official, Gregor Strasser was murdered, along with more than 100 other “enemies” of the Nazi party, Reed wrote:  “But for the intrigues and stiletto-work that outdid the medieval Italian courts and the gang-wars of Chicago, the Strassers, and not Hitler, might have become the leaders of Germany.  Germany would then never have known the orgasms of hysterical, mock-patriotic self-pity and self-applause which she knew under Hitler; but she and Europe would probably have been spared war.”

This passage serves the rhetorical purpose of paving the way for Reed’s ensuing programmatic declaration:

"The time may be coming soon for Otto Strasser to take up his brother’s work.”

Elsewhere, Reed speculated:

“Gregor [Strasser] had an easy-going streak in his pugnacious nature which always led him, in the decisive moment, to give way to Hitler, and this affected the course of European history. For if he had broken away from Hitler with his brother, the National Socialist Party would have certainly split, and Germany and Europe would have been spared the militarist nightmare in which they now live; or even if the party had not split, the claim-to-the-succession of the two Strassers, to-day, would be irresistible.”

Finally, Reed critizied Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher for falling to the political intrigue that led to Hitler’s rise to power, noting that Schleicher should "have obtained from President Hindenburg power to dissolve the Reichstag, and then he should have arrested the chief intriguers, Papen, Hitler, Oskar von Hindenburg, the leading Junkers, Göring, and a few others, and have rallied the masses of Georg Strasser’s National Socialists…behind him by a manifesto explaining…his action….By such means, he might have saved Germany and Europe.”

All of these passages confirm how discontent with the present can prompt people to fantasize about alternate pasts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

From the Archives: What If Hitler Had Been Assassinated in 1939?

So what if Philip K. Dick was right?

In his 1978 essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later,” Dick wrote that “professional fiction writer[s]...do not know how much of their content is true....Speaking for myself, I do not know how much of my writing is true, or which parts (if any) are true....It is an eerie experience to write something into a novel, believing it is pure fiction, and to learn later on—perhaps years later—that it is true.”
Today, I experienced something similar.
A year ago, as part of my editorial work on my forthcoming volume of Jewish alternate histories, “If Only We Had Died In Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History from Abraham to Zionism, I wrote a counterfactual essay on the consequences of Georg Elser succeeding in his assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller on November 8th, 1939. 

As readers will see in more detail when the book is published later this year, I posit that Hermann Goering replaces Hitler as leader of Nazi Germany and swiftly takes Germany out of the Second World War, thereby interrupting the Holocaust.  My reasoning was informed by my knowledge of the Nazi period, but it was admittedly speculative.
I was struck, therefore, by a newspaper article that I found today while conducting research on a new book project.  It appeared in the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald on November 15, 1939 (a week after the failed assassination attempt) and posited a counterfactual that was eerily similar to what I had imagined a year ago.
The article quoted a French journalist, M. Jean Thouvenin, who speculated that “if the Munich attempt on Herr Hitler’s life had succeeded, Field Marshal Goering, as Herr Hitler’s successor, would have formed a temporary government and then asked the Allies to stop the war in order to facilitate the task of reorganizing the fourth Reich.”
“Field Marshal Goering’s proposals, he added, would have included a plebiscite in Austria and the liberation of Czechoslovakia and Poland.  Field Marshal Goering would have asked Russia to give up the territory which she has occupied in Poland.”
Perhaps this was the common belief of people at the time.  Perhaps many similar counterfactuals were imagined in 1939.  (Perhaps I need to pursue this question further). 
In the meantime, I can confirm that it is, indeed, eerie to read something that confirms the likelihood of a hypothetical scenario one has imagined one’s self.