In the context of Donald Trump’s recent presidential victory in the electoral college, counterfactual claims have been proliferating in the mass media. (See some of my posts from last month).
In a new story in The Guardian, in which historians were asked about the parallels between Trump’s election and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Volker Ullrich (who recently published a book on the German dictator) offered a variety of “missed opportunity counterfactuals” that express the familiar fantasy of somehow averting his political ascent.
The article makes clear at the outset that “Hitler’s rise was neither an accident nor inevitable, and could have been prevented very early on.”
It proceeds to quote Ullrich noting:
“There were many situations where he could have been stopped. For example in 1923 after the failed Munich putsch – if he’d served his full prison sentence of several years, he wouldn’t have made a political comeback. Instead, he only spent a few months behind bars, [having been released after political pressure] and could rebuild his movement.”
“The western powers made the same mistake with their appeasement politics, indecision and indulgence. “In the 1930s Hitler strengthened, rather than weakened, his aggressive intentions,” Ullrich says. “So you could learn from this that you have to react faster and much more vigorously than was the case at the time.”
"Ullrich also contends that if Hindenburg, the president of the Reich, had allowed Chancellor Brüning, of the Centre party, to remain chancellor to the end of 1934, rather than responding to pressure from conservatives to dismiss him in 1932, “then the peak of the economic crisis would have passed and it would have been very questionable whether Hitler could still have come to power.”
"At the same time, Hitler’s ascent was no mere fluke. “There were powerful forces in the big industries, but also in the landowning class and the armed forces, which approved of a fascist solution to the crisis.”
While many of these questions cannot be answered with any certainty, what is certain is that Donald Trump ended up beating Hillary Clinton by a total of 80,000 votes in three key states.
As his administration unfolds in the years to come, we can only hope that this tiny number does not end up being retrospectively viewed as a major point of divergence in American history.