From the Archives: A. J. P. Taylor’s Myriad German History Counterfactuals

I’ve discovered my new favorite counterfactualist -- at least for this week.  It’s A. J. P. Taylor, whose 1945 book, The Course of German History, I’ve been reading with great interest.

It’s one of those grand narratives that covers a thousand years in a couple hundred pages.  As a result, it’s full of sweeping generalizations that lend themselves to what Hugo, the discontented communist revolutionary in Jean Paul Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands, calls “iffing.”

Taylor’s counterfactuals come in a variety of forms, which can be typologized as follows:

1) The deterministic counterfactual:  Near the outset of his narrative, Taylor describes how Germany’s existence was determined by its geographical location between Roman/French civilization to the west and the Slavic world to the east, battling both at different junctures.  He goes on to speculate that “if a natural cataclysm had placed a broad sea between the Germans and the French, the German character would not have been dominated by militarism.  If – a more conceivable possibility – the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbors as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation.  Constant surroundings shaped…[the] German national character….”

It is ironic, of course, that Taylor uses counterfactual thinking to bolster an argument supporting geographical determinism.  (After all, counterfactuals are usually seen as antithetical to deterministic thinking).  Yet, Taylor makes a valid point by showing how different geographical circumstances would have made the German character different.  On the other hand, it is jarring to see how Taylor subversively critiques American history, while (dubiously) implying that the Germans’ national character would have benefitted from the completion of the Holocaust.  (Really?  If the Nazis had been more like the Americans and eradicated their own “enemy population” of Slavs and Jews, they would have become champions of human rights?  This seems highly unlikely).

2) The secondary source counterfactual: Taylor quotes Napoleon Bonaparte (without citing the source) as having once said that “if the Emperor Charles V had put himself at the head of German Protestantism in 1520 he would have created a united German nation and solved the German question.”  Taylor adds, “This was the decisive moment of Germany history,” a moment when it could have zigged but zagged.  Taylor thereupon proceeds to further criticize Martin Luther, his bête noir, in the form of another counterfactual, which we can call

3) The sarcastic counterfactual: Taylor lambasts Luther for having abandoned the German peasants during their uprising in 1525 and rejecting the Catholic church’s Renaissance-era construction project of St. Peters’ Basilica in Rome for its opulence.  Taylor writes that Luther “hated art, culture, intellect” and “turned with repugnance from all the values of Western civilization” proceeding to “set himself up against Michael Angelo and Raphael.  Even the technical occasion of his breach with Rome was symbolic: he objected to the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s – if it had been for the purpose of massacring German peasants, Luther might have never become a Protestant.” 

This snarky comment shows how counterfactuals are often employed for purely rhetorical purposes.  It’s nonsensical, of course, indeed it's an instance of anachronistic speculation, to imagine Johannes Tetzel selling indulgences to massacre Protestants in 1517 (there weren't any yet in existence).  Taylor merely includes the remark as a jibe – as an instance of twisting the knife once it’s already been inserted.  It is somewhat amusing, however....

Finally, Taylor further embraces conventional nightmare and fantasy counterfactuals.

He validates the Peace of Westphalia by writing that without it, Germany would have been worse of than it already was in the Thirty Years’ War, writing: “Westphalia was imposed on Germany by foreign powers; but without the intervention of these foreign powers the state of Germany would have been still worse.  Habsburg strength could never have maintained the position of 1629.  New rivals would have arisen, and the wars between the princes would have continued until Germany was utterly destroyed.”

He subsequently discusses Emperor Joseph II’s attempt to acquire Bavaria as part of the Habsburg effort to unify Germany in the 18th century, noting: “To be really German Emperor, Joseph needed a larger nucleus of German subjects.  This was the motive for his long-pursued plan of acquiring Bavaria in exchange for the distant and non-German Austrian Netherlands.  Had this plan succeeded, the whole future of Germany would have been different: the majority of Habsburg subjects would have been Germans, and the majority of Germans would have been Habsburg subjects.  Habsburg power would speedily have extended to the Main, and Prussia would have been fortunate to survive even in north Germany.”

For the record, all of these counterfactuals appear merely the first chapter of his book!

Whether or not Taylor should be seen as a pioneer of counterfactual thinking among 20th century historians remains to be seen.  But further research into the great works of modern western historiography may eventually allow us to draw larger conclusions.