Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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 europĂ©enne 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.