More History Without Hitler: Timothy Ryback's Counterfactual Reflections on Hitler's Near-Death in World War I

Timothy Ryback’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “History Without Hitler?” raises a question that has been posed many times before, but he approaches it from a new angle by asking what it might tell us about the future.

Ryback describes how the Bavarian Infantry Reserve soldier Adolf Hitler survived several near-death experiences during the First World War before asking:

“what if Hitler had fallen on that Thursday morning a century ago this week, or on any other day during those next four years of frontline fighting? How different might the 20th century have looked? How different might the course of German history have been? What utility is there in such “counterfactual history,” which the eminent British historian Richard Evans recently decried as misguided and futile?”

“Given the perilous political circumstances in some regions of our world today, understanding what could have been, may in fact help us better understand what might be.”

Specifically, Ryback seeks to find parallels between early 20th century Germany and the contemporary Middle East. 

As he puts it: “In 1919, Hitler found himself in a country transitioning from an oppressive but stable monarchy to a fledgling constitutional democracy, a dynamic not unfamiliar to our post-Arab Spring world where countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have edged toward Western-style democracy with dramatically uneven experiences and occasionally horrifying results.”

So far so good, but Ryback never really develops the analogy, offering little more than the truism that the rise of Nazism “underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies.”

More interesting, to my mind, is Ryback’s highlighting of an older counterfactual observation – one that I was unaware of -- by one of Hitler’s henchmen, the jurist Hans Frank.  On death row at Nuremberg in 1945, Frank reflected on the relationship between historical necessity and contingency, declaring: 

“The Führer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment. Had he come, let us say, 10 years later, when the republic was firmly established, it would have been impossible for him. And if he had come 10 years previously, or at any time when there was still the monarchy, he would have gotten nowhere. He came at exactly this terrible transitory period when the monarchy had gone and the republic was not yet secure.”

Frank’s comment suggests the belief that Hitler – or someone like him -- was more or less inevitable in Germany after its military defeat of 1918.  That the times produced the man (as opposed to the reverse).

Ryback essentially agrees.  Although he concedes that while “We can never know how different history may have looked had Hitler been felled by bullets that early morning a hundred years,” he notes that some Germans were already speaking of a “second world war” within a year of the armistice that was to have ended “the war to end all wars.” 

In other words, Hitler was predictable.

Ryback then goes on to endorse the counterfactual claim:     “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” concluding “We can say with certainty that no other political leader of the era would have harnessed national passions or driven an anti-Semitic, pure-race agenda with such ferocity or tragic consequence, resulting in the deaths of millions of European Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the weak and disabled.”

No surprise here, as this belief has lately become the orthodox one.

Ryback’s ultimate conclusion also conforms to what is surely the consensus of most historians – namely, that change takes time:

“So what is the lesson of this particular counterfactual moment for us today? Beyond the fact that the Weimar Republic might well be celebrating the 95th anniversary of its Constitution this autumn, a history without Hitler underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies. It shows us that these processes require time, sometimes generations, and how different German history may have been had Hitler fallen with his regiment in Flanders fields 100 years ago this week.”

Do we need a counterfactual line of argumentation to reach this point?  Probably not.  But it is notable that historical “what ifs” continue to employed to arrive at historical understanding.   It is a sure sign of their increasingly mainstream status.


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