Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.