Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, October 24, 2016

Counterfactuals and Architectural History

I continue to be amazed by the range of academic disciplines that have shown themselves open to exploring counterfactual thinking.

I’m particularly thrilled to see the Royal Academy of Arts in London sponsoring a mini-conference at the end of November entitled, “What If?...Counterfactual Architectural History.”



In the past few years, I’ve posted a variety of comments on this blog on the relationship between counterfactual thinking and the built environment.  But this is the first time I’ve seen a methodical effort to explore the fascinating connections between the two.




The description of the conference is as follows (click the LINK for the full description):

“A panel of architectural historians explores a range of ‘what if’ scenarios in the history of architecture, posing alternative narratives that lead us to re-think how existing accounts are written and perpetuated.”

“What if? It’s a question that historians have increasingly been asking. How might the course of history have unfolded if particular events had turned out differently, or alternative decisions had been made? The often-noted risk of such an approach is to go too far and enter the realms of fantasy. But when applied properly, counterfactual history can help us reassess whether apparently pivotal events or decisions actually were as important as existing historical accounts might have us believe.”

“Counterfactuals are most often applied to political or military history, where human agency has to be weighed against broader political, social, economic or technological forces. In this event, we apply counterfactuals to architectural history, where a similar balance has to be made.”

“Speakers will each focus on a particular ‘what if’ scenario and explore what other possibilities might have existed at this particular historical moment. The following discussion will look at the roles of narrative and causality in architectural history, and explore whether counterfactuals do in fact offer the potential of shedding new light on the architectural past.”

There is no reason why “what if” questions should not inform architectural history.  And in fact, I expect to find in my ongoing research into the history of counterfactual history that they have been present all along.

Imagine how the reputation of certain architects would have been shaped had some of their unrealized designs actually been built.  Louis I. Kahn is acknowledged as a 20th century master, but he is known just as much for what was never built as what was.


Imagine if the Hurva synagogue (see images above) had been completed in Jerusalem?  Kent Larson’s digital reconstructions provide a sense of missed opportunities that failed to be realized..

By the same token, there are countless architectural atrocities that we'd have been better off without (New Brutalism is in currently in vogue, but I never much liked it -- Boston City Hall anyone?  Maybe we'd have a more beautiful world without it....)

The list is certainly endless.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Official Release of "What Ifs of Jewish History"

I am happy to announce that I recently received the first copies of my new edited volume, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism.


Cambridge University Press has done a beautiful job with the volume, which includes 16 essays by well-known Jewish Studies scholars on an array of topics spanning, well, Abraham to Zionism.

The volume's official U. S. publication date is October 31.
It appeared in the UK last month.

I am pasting some links below to early reviews
and other web materials related to the volume:

Cambridge University Press site for What Ifs of Jewish History

"Jewish Scholars Explore 'What Ifs?'"

"Alternative Jewish Histories: Fun, Instructive" (San Diego Jewish World)

Review of What Ifs of Jewish History, in: Amazing Stories.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Valdai Discussion Group Examines: “What If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed?”

I’d like to thank Rui Santos, a follower of this blog, for alerting me to a fascinating discussion forum scheduled for later this month in Russia.  I was not familiar with the Valdai Discussion Club (founded in 2004 as an academic think tank discussion group), but the club has seized upon an important counterfactual for this year’s topic:  

“What if the USSR hadn’t collapsed?”  


The full text of the conference can be found HERE.

But I’ve excerpted the following paragraphs:

“The towering question related to these “bifurcations of history” is, “What if there were no Gorbachev?” This question breaks up into several components. First, “What if Andropov had lived longer?” During his slightly more than a year in power, he managed to tighten workplace discipline on a national scale, achieve some results in fighting corruption and take a hard line in foreign policy. It was in 1983, when Andropov was at the helm, that the reciprocal deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe reached its apex. It was then that Ronald Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire” and a Korean airliner was shot down. Add to this the cheap vodka Andropovka (symbolizing the union of the authorities and the people), and the “tightening of the screws” against the dissidents (although, as is evident from memoirs on both sides of the divide, this issue was not as simple as it might seem). But it is still unclear whether he would have wanted (and would have been able, even if he had wished) to launch full-scale economic modernization (we shall not call it “reform”), and thus become a Soviet Deng Xiaoping.”

“Finally, some published sources indicate that Andropov was favorably inclined toward Gorbachev and would have made him his successor – an unofficial “second secretary” of the CPSU Central Committee instead of Konstantin Chernenko – had he lived longer. But another conspiracy theory has it that in this case, Andropov would have soon discovered Gorbachev’s “rotten gut” and would have promoted someone else from the “young team” of politicians, who later held high posts in the Central Committee’s Politburo and Secretariat and in the Council of Ministers (Heydar Aliyev, Yegor Ligachev, Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Vitaly Vorotnikov and others).”

“The second question is more paradoxical: “What if Chernenko had lived longer?” It would seem that this mortally ill man, who could not breathe without an oxygen mask, made the years 1984 and 1985 the most shameful and ridiculed period in Soviet history. Chernenko had a reputation as a perfect political staffer, who managed the Central Committee’s internal life with great efficiency during Brezhnev’s last years. Chernenko would have been accepted as Brezhnev-2, along with his conservative, but efficient and stable, rule. Gorbachev, on the contrary, would have failed to acquire as much power in the Central Committee Secretariat as he had under the sick Chernenko. But even being ill, Chernenko was not evading reforms (it was under him that the large-scale secondary school reform was launched). He also refused to rehabilitate Brezhnev’s Interior Minister Nikolai Shchelokov, whom Andropov had dismissed for corruption. Tellingly, Shchelokov shot himself during Chernenko’s (not Andropov’s) tenure. Another telling fact is that it was Chernenko who readmitted Stalin’s closest ally, Vyacheslav Molotov, to the CPSU after his expulsion by Khrushchev. In any event, Chernenko’s aides vie, in their memoirs, with Andropov’s aides, both groups claiming that history would have taken a turn for the better had their chief lived longer.”

“Finally, the question emerges of what would have happened if Chernenko had been succeeded by someone other than Gorbachev. Open sources mention a number of alternative candidates, including Grigory Romanov, Viktor Grishin, Andrei Gromyko and Vladimir Shcherbitsky. I think each of them would have persisted with a conservative course as Brezhnev 2.0. But the Ukrainian leader, Shcherbitsky, merits an individual historical reconstruction, if only because some memoir writers claim that Brezhnev himself had named him his successor. This reconstruction would be particularly interesting against the backdrop of the current Ukrainian crisis. Eventually, however, the alternatives failed to materialize, while Andrei Gromyko, who had thrown his weight behind Gorbachev, subsequently told his family, “What a mistake I’ve made!”

“Another group of “historical bifurcations” concerns whether the USSR could have avoided a collapse under Gorbachev. This question logically invites another one: Could anyone have stopped Gorbachev? At this point it should be noted with regret that the “staff culture” in the CPSU Central Committee often turned “collective leadership” into fiction, with the prevailing maxim, “your superior is always right.” Therefore, it is impossible to answer in the affirmative the key question about acceleration being possible without perestroika, as it was in China, where Deng Xiaoping conducted economic reforms by politically conservative methods and was not afraid to crush a student rebellion on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Obviously, Gorbachev’s enthusiasm and the activities of his closest allies (Yakovlev, Shakhnazarov, and others), who prodded him into launching a political reform, made political perestroika inevitable. Gorbachev is often reproached for focusing on foreign policy at the expense of domestic affairs (unlike Deng Xiaoping, who avoided involvement in international affairs and concentrated on internal reforms). But there was hardly any alternative: Gorbachev’s pivot from foreign to home policy was highly unlikely in light of several factors, including his visit to London in 1984, when he was charmed by Margaret Thatcher and developed a taste for the effects of international PR, his infatuation with new foreign policy ideological constructs (eagerly supplied by his aides, many of whom were international experts) and finally the controversial figure of Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister.”

“There were also a number of external factors that eroded the stability of the Soviet system. One was Chernobyl, the 30th anniversary of which was marked not so long ago. The event encouraged the publication of numerous media articles and even a feature film, all implying that the USSR would have remained united and powerful were it not for Chernobyl. A separate topic is the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s and the decline in budget revenues occasioned by Gorbachev’s anti-drinking campaign (in contrast to Andropov). Yet another topic is Gorbachev’s wife’s influence on his political decision-making (all memoir writers mention Raisa Gorbachev in highly negative terms in this context).”

“Finally, the last question is about whether it was possible to save the Soviet Union as it reached a historical bifurcation in 1990-91. Could Shatalin and Yavlinsky’s 500 Days economic program have started working? What would have happened if the Committee for the State of Emergency had not attempted its coup? Would a new union with Nursultan Nazarbayev as prime minister have been viable? Was Gorbachev himself behind the attempted coup as some memoir writers claim? What would the USSR’s foreign and home policies have been, had the coup succeeded? Alas, history knows no “ifs” and we will never get direct answers to these questions. But an analysis of the entire set of sources suggests that some inescapable evil fate was leading Gorbachev and his country to perdition and this could not be stopped. In any event, it has become a textbook example illustrating the role of the individual in history.”


Depending on the answers that the participants provide to the important question of the USSR’s survival, the proceedings of the Valdai Discusison Club may foretell future developments in Russian politics.  We in the U. S. would do well to pay attention.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mainstreaming "What If" History: CNN's "Counterfactual Files"

In yet another example of how counterfactual history is gaining mainstream status, CNN.Politics has launched a new series of short web articles and videos, entitled “Counterfactual Files.”


There are currently six videos in the “Counterfactual Files.”

  • What we can learn from Counterfactual History
  • What if FDR had lived through his fourth term?
  • What if Lincoln had lived?
  • What if Alexander Hamilton had lived?
  • What if the Cuban Missile Crisis led to war?
  • What if Richard Nixon never resigned?

All the videos feature “expert historians” (in the main, journalists and established scholars) opining about how history might have been different.  They include Carl Bernstein, Harold Holzer, Beverly Gage, Thomas Fleming, and Timothy Naftali.

The videos’ brevity (they average around two minutes in length) prevents them from delving very deeply into substantive matters.  But then again, the series seems intended to introduce the genre of counterfactual history to a general audience.  Indeed, the series is sponsored by Amazon.Prime, which is clearly eager to increase viewership for its hit series, The Man in the High Castle, the second season of which begins in January.  This is made clear by the fact that each video is preceded by a short trailer for The Man in the High Castle). 

Even if Counterfactual Files proves to be merely a short-lived marketing ploy (we’ll see whether the number of videos goes beyond the present half-dozen), it is notable that a major news organization is lending such credibility to “what if” thinking.