Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.