Thursday, September 29, 2016
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Give credit where it’s due.
For better or worse, Kim Kardashian has a major platform for airing her views. In publishing a full page advertisement in today’s New York Times directing attention to ongoing Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian genocide (most recently with the publication of the advertisement in the Wall Street Journal by a group called “Turkic Platform”), she is using her pop culture pulpit for good. She might have been somewhat more eloquent in describing her objections (she uses the generic terms “crap” and “crappy” a bit too much for my taste), but the thrust of her argument is clear: it is important to “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.” And yes, “Education Matters.”
That said, I was surprised to see KK employ a questionable counterfactual claim to rhetorically enhance the urgency of her appeal. In the last paragraph, she writes: “Many historians believe that if Turkey had been held responsible for the Armenian genocide, and reprimanded for what they did, the Holocaust may not have happened. In 1939, a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Having written extensively about counterfactual claims on the Holocaust (see my book, Hi Hitler!), I would be interested to learn which scholars KK is thinking of. I don’t know of any historians who have employed this particular “what if” claim. To be sure, many historians have used the famous (albeit highly disputed) Hitler quotation to suggest that the world’s ostensible indifference to the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler to pursue his Final Solution of the Jewish question in radical form. In other words, this claim by historians includes an IMPLIED counterfactual. But to my knowledge, it’s rarely, if ever, been explicitly expressed (certainly not among scholars of German or Jewish history). KK is thus overreaching.
I did a little digging, however, and found some claims in some texts produced by writers of Armenian descent. To cite one example, Marian MacCurdy writes that “If the Armenian genocide had been recognized, it is possible that the Holocaust would not have occurred.” (The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma, p. 164). Amos Elon also quotes an Armenian official in Jerusalem observing, “The Armenian holocaust was forgotten or ignored. If it had not been ignored, perhaps Auschwitz would not have happened.” (Elon, Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, p. 226). Taking a more skeptical stance, Stefan Ihrig’s study, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler declares, “the argument that without the Armenian Genocide there would not have been a Nazi Holocaust is unnecessary and to some extent folly” (Ihrig, p. 357).
Indeed, KK hardly needs to employ her counterfactual to defend her appeal, which remains fundamentally legitimate. Too many Turkish officials, academics, and others have denied the truth of what happened to the Armenians in the First World War. (By the same token, plenty of Turkish academics, journalists, and writers have taken a more critical and honest approach to the highly politicized subject).
The Armenian question aside, what does KK’s claim say about the current state of counterfactuals?
On the one hand, her advertisement reveals and reinforces the appeal of counterfactuals, which retain considerable rhetorical power. Her ad further enhances the value of speculative thinking, as she is employs it in defense of historical truth. This is important for a variety of reasons. In our increasingly “post-fact” and “post-truth” world, it is critical that we do, in fact, “honor the TRUTH IN OUR HISTORY.” For the record, this is the message that stands at the core of the forthcoming film, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz as historian Deborah Lipstadt. (See my forthcoming review in The Jewish Review of Books).
Yet, despite KK’s embrace of counterfactual reasoning to promote the cause of truth, many skeptical observers continue to see the former as antithetical to the latter. Counterfactual history is often accused of contributing to the increasingly blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, between historical truth and outright denial. All of these trends are often blamed on rise of postmodern culture, which has allegedly nurtured them with its relativistic spirit. There is a good deal of validity to this claim. But it would be entirely misguided to throw the counterfactual baby out with the dirty bathwater of historical denialism. Like any historical methodology, counterfactual speculation can be used for a wide range of trivial, mischievous, and also nefarious ends. It can also be used – as this blog has long maintained – to pursue the goal of enlightenment.
I wonder whether we are at a crossroads with respect to counterfactual history. On the one hand, we are clearly in the midst of a new “golden age” for the discipline, as seen in the proliferation of alternate history novels, web series, and television shows (coming soon: a blog post of mine on this theme for the Organization of American Historians). But the growing disaffection with the relativistic reality of western intellectual and cultural life may lead to a backlash.
I have been wondering if we are in store for a paradigm shift within western historical consciousness. Peter Novick’s celebrated study, That Noble Dream, convincingly shows how the American historical profession has vacillated between waves of support for the belief in objective truth and the belief in relativism. If, as I suspect, the free-wheeling relativism of our present-day world (on the World Wide Web, in our political discourse, and beyond) is going to stoke popular demand for a return to standards of objectivity, what will be the consequences for counterfactual thinking? Will it become re-stigmatized all over again as culpable for our excesses of relativism? Will it become the Socrates of historical methodologies, blamed for corrupting the minds of the young and impressionable?
All of these questions deserve more thought than I am able to provide at this juncture. But I hope to revisit them going forward as I continue researching the history of counterfactual history.