From the Archives: Bismarck's Prophecy and a "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet Counterfactual" by Charles Downer Hazen
I've finally made it to the 20th century in my ongoing work on the history of counterfactualism in western thought and I keep coming across interesting "what ifs" proffered by historians of early eras.
In his standard work, Europe since 1815 (New York, 1910), the eminent American historian of Europe, Charles Downer Hazen (1863-1941) reported that Otto von Bismarck once said: "Twenty years after my death...I mean to rise from my coffin, to see whether Germany has stood in honor before the world."
This comment is already slightly ghoulish, but it pales in comparison to the aura of dread that unavoidably surrounds Hazen's subsequent commentary:
"Bismarck died in 1898. Had he returned to life in 1918 his rage would have been Homeric at the reckless incompetence of his successors, wasting, in a wild, insensate gamble, the goodly patrimony he had left them, and leaving Germany pilloried before the conscience of mankind. Long before his death, indeed, he had a presentiment of what might be."
Well....to be more than a little glib -- Bismarck hadn't seen nothin' yet. He could not have imagined how the Nazis would vastly exceed the Second Empire in destroying Germany's international reputation.
Hazen could not have known any of this, of course. But his comment simply shows that counterfactuals don't always age very well.
Perhaps if he had lived to hear Rudolf Höss's comment about 1,000 years not sufficing to erase Germany's Nazi-era guilt....