Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

From the Archives: Klaus Barbie's Self-Serving Counterfactual

In the course of my ongoing research into the history of the Fourth Reich, I came across a chilling counterfactual uttered by the former SS officer and Lyon Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie, in 1974 (as reported by Michel Goldberg and cited in Brendan Murphy's book, The Butcher of Lyon), p. 291:

In falsely denying having perpetrated any crimes against Jews during World War II, Barbie bragged about his role in arresting the head of the French resistance, Jean Moulin, noting:

"By arresting...Moulin, I changed the course of history.  Jean Moulin, de Gaulle's man in France, was so intelligent that had he lived, it would have been he and not de Gaulle who would have presided over the destiny of France after our departure.  France would probably have become communist."

In fact, Barbie is probably wrong about France going communist after 1945.  If one accepts the inevitability of the cold war, then there is little likelihood that the Americans would have worked any less actively to weaken communist forces in France (the PCF received the largest share of the vote in the first postwar elections in 1945).  There likely would have been no communist regime in France in after 1945.

Barbie's comment is more disturbing for helping him claim that his arrest, torture, and murder of Moulin helped spare the world a more robust communist movement by eliminating one of its hypothetical postwar leaders.  By imagining the course of history turning out "worse" (from his Nazi perspective), Barbie sought validate the world as it came to be.

His comment is a reminder that counterfactuals can serve immoral as well as moral ends.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Jeremy Black's "Other Pasts"

I have a long backlog of posts I've been meaning to add to the CHR blog, one of which is to announce the publication of an important new academic study of counterfactual history, Jeremy Black's Other Pasts.

I will have a review of the book appearing in The European Review of History - Revue européenne d'histoire, but as is so often the case with academic publishing, it will take a while to appear.  In the meantime, I can say that Black's study is an indispensable defense of counterfactual history from its many critics and is particularly strong at exploring 18th century diplomatic history scenarios.  One of the most interesting is whether France could have defeated England in their battle for global domination.  

Black convincingly shows that Britain’s rise was far from inevitable and that France had multiple opportunities to assume the global role of its historical rival.  He asks many excellent counterfactual questions about this topic and offers a good number of plausible answers, among others: “A French dominated transatlantic world would have looked to Catholicism, civil law, French culture and language, and a different notion of representative government and politics from that of Britain, or rather, of Britain as it turned out."  Black explains that France’s failure was rooted in its conflicting geopolitical interests as both a sea and land power (unlike England) and speculates that had France triumphed over England, “the pace and extent of European overseas expansion would probably have been less.”

I have a few problems with Black's genre-blurring, for instance, his discussion of "alternative futures" -- a very problematic concept -- together with alternate pasts.  But my comments will have to wait until the publication of the review.  I'll post it when it appears.

Guy Saville's New Novel: "The Madagaskar Plan"

Summer research and writing have been bogging me down of late, but I have been meaning to mention the appearance of a new novel that I'm really looking forward to reading: Guy Saville's The Madagaskar Plan.

The novel follows on the heels of his debut bestseller, The Afrika Reich, which I discussed in my recent book, Hi Hitler!  The Madagaskar Plan explores the counterfactual scenario of the Holocaust not transpiring as it does in real history.  Instead (as you can glean from the title), the Nazis attempt to solve the "Jewish Question" via mass migration to the island of Madagascar.  If the novel is anything like its predecessor, readers are in for a stimulating journey into a vividly drawn alternate past.

I hope to post a review before too long....

The "Extended Play" Counterfactual: Michael Marrus on Tim Snyder's "Black Earth"

The publication of Tim Snyder's new book, Black Earth, offers a fresh opportunity to see how counterfactual reasoning is being applied to the subject of the Holocaust.  I am still to read the book, which is a sequel of sorts to his previous study, Bloodlands, which I discussed in my own recent study, Hi Hitler!  But I took note of the recent review published by the eminent historian Michael Marrus in The New York Times

Marrus assumes a largely critical stance towards the book, focusing in particular on Snyder's claims about the relative importance of antisemitism and state power in the murder of European Jewry.

Near the end of his review, Marrus writes:

"Having reached the start of the war in 1939, we are still without a survey of German or European Jewry, a sense of the varying potency of ­anti-Semitism or other contextual factors in the events of the time. As a result, Snyder gives us insufficient means to appreciate one of the key elements of the Holocaust — the Nazi determination to hunt down and murder Jews wherever they lived, even in countries like England and Ireland, which Hitler’s legions had not yet had the opportunity to conquer."

"Instead, Snyder highlights the issue of the state. Playing down anti-Semitism as a driving force behind Eastern European involvement in the Holocaust, he introduces a special kind of politics generated by the Germans’ and, to some degree, the Soviets’ destruction of the states in territories they envisioned as part of their respective empires. The destruction of state machinery, he says, first by the Soviets and then by the Germans, stimulated a frenzy of lawlessness and murder, facilitating, in case of the Nazis, genocidal campaigns against imagined enemies. Killing flourished in 'zones of statelessness,' Snyder writes, extending his analysis at this point to Western Europe, and even Germany itself. 'Wherever the state had been destroyed,' he tells us, 'whether by the Germans, by the Soviets, or both, almost all of the Jews were murdered.'"

"A more pertinent observation, I believe, is that in some countries — notably France and the Netherlands — despite the radically different proportions of Jews murdered, the persistence of prewar bureaucracies facilitated the registering of Jews and the carrying out of the Final Solution. A better interpretation would depend less on statelessness than on the degree to which the Germans were able to apply their power. Murder varied according to wartime strategy, geography, the concentrations of the Jewish population and the attitudes of the locals. And the most crucial variable of all may have been time. Had the 1944 D-Day landings failed, and had the war persisted for several more years, killing rates might have approached 100 percent everywhere, rather than the different percentages on which some historians continue to speculate."

This observation echoes claims made by earlier historians, who have used the same counterfactual claim to underscore the Holocaust's uniqueness.  As I pointed out in Hi Hitler!, "The supporters of uniqueness typically advanced their case with sweeping assertions about the totality of the Nazis’ murder plans.  Steven Katz, for example, argued in 1981 that because Hitler’s goal was 'to make the world Judenrein by the elimination of…all Jews as concrete individual human beings,' it stood to reason that if 'Hitler had had his way,…there would have been no ‘Jews’ after the 1940s.” Similarly, Yehuda Bauer stressed that the Holocaust was set apart from other genocides by “its intended totality.  The Nazis were looking for…all Jews.  According to Nazi policy, all persons with three or four Jewish grandparents were sentenced to death for the crime of having been born.  Such a policy…would have undoubtedly been applied universally if Germany had won the war.' Finally, William D. Rubinstein speculated that even if World War II had not actually been won by the Nazis, but merely 'lasted longer,…it seems certain that every Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe would have perished.'"

Rubinstein's point directly anticipates Marrus's in the sense that it asks us to imagine an "extended play" version of history transpiring beyond the point when its course was interrupted in reality.   It represents the opposite of the "clockstopper counterfactual," which asks us to imagine the course of history being interrupted before it did in reality (I've discussed this kind of counterfactual on previous occasions in this blog).  An extended play counterfactual allows us to recognize how history would have continued to unfold without outside intervention and may allow us to appreciate the causal factors that were ultimately driving the course of events.  In this instance, antisemitism may end up emerging as a more important factor than Snyder allows in his study.  It sheds light on the importance of motive, as opposed to means, in the perpetration of the Holocaust.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"What If Hitler Visited Munich's New Documentation Center on the History of National Socialism?"

I've been on break a bit from the blog this summer working on some new projects, but I thought I would post a piece that I recently published in the Forward that has some counterfactual elements to it.

I interviewed Timur Vermes (of Look Who's Back fame) in Munich at the new NS-Dokumentationszentrum and incorporated some of his observations into my article.  I also reflected very briefly on the "what if?" aspects of the new film Elser, about the near assassination of Hitler in 1939.

Click HERE to link up to the full article.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another World War I Counterfactual: David Frum on the Consequences of an Allied Defeat

David Frum’s new essay in The Atlantic is a welcome contribution to the ongoing counterfactual discussion of the origins and consequences of World War I.  Not only is its analysis creative and provocative, its publication in such a prominent journal further confirms the growing popularity of counterfactual speculation.

Frum’s essay seeks to affirm the legitimacy of U. S. involvement in World War I as a means of critiquing of the foreign policy philosophy of isolationism and defending that of interventionism.   He dismisses the many interwar critics of America’s intervention in the First World War, who conspiratorially claimed it was an unnecessary war promoted by the financial interests of arms dealers, by showing how much worse the course of history would have been for the U. S. had the nation not become involved in the conflict. 

In other words, Frum’s essay adopts a classic stance of embracing a nightmare scenario in order to justify history as it really transpired.  Or as he puts it: “Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I contemplate these might-have-beens to gain a better appreciation for what actually happened.”

Frum explains:

“To understand why the U.S. fought in 1917, begin by considering the outcome if the United States had not fought. Minus U.S. reinforcements on land and sea, it’s difficult to imagine how the Allies could have defeated a Germany that had knocked revolutionary Russia out of the war.”

“By the summer of 1917, the Western Allies had exhausted their credit in U.S. financial markets. Without direct U.S. government-to-government aid, they could not have afforded any more offensives in the West. The exhausted Allies would have had to negotiate some kind of settlement with Central Power forces occupying almost all of what is now Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic republics in the east; most of Romania and Yugoslavia in Southern Europe, as well as a bit of Italy; and almost all of Belgium and most of northeast France. Even if the Germans had traded concessions in the West to preserve their gains in the East, the kaiser’s Germany would have emerged from such an outcome as the dominant power on the continent of Europe. The United States would have found itself after such a negotiated peace confronting the same outcome as it faced in 1946: a Europe divided between East and West, with the battered West looking to the United States for protection. As in 1946, the East would have been dominated by an authoritarian regime that looked upon the liberal and democratic Anglo-American West not just as a geopolitical antagonist, but as an ideological threat.”

“But unlike in 1946, when the line was drawn on the Elbe and the West included the wealthiest and most developed regions of Europe, this imaginary 1919 line would have been drawn on the Rhine, if not the Scheldt and the Meuse, with the greatest concentration of European industry on the Eastern side. Unlike in 1946, the newly dominant power in Eastern Europe would not have been Europe’s most backward major nation (Russia), but its most scientifically and technologically advanced nation (Germany). In other words, the United States would have gotten an early start on the Cold War, and maybe a second hot war, supported by fewer and weaker allies against a richer and more dangerous opponent—and one quite likely to have developed the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile first.”

This last section may represent something of a stretch – it violates the minimal rewrite rule of counterfactuals – but the larger point is well taken: a defeat in World War I would have weakened the credibility of democracy and vindicated that of authoritarianism on the world stage.

Frum writes:

“There was one of Wilson’s genuine phrases that did aptly describe what the issue was in 1917, and what it has been ever since. In his April 2 speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany, Wilson insisted that the “world must be made safe for democracy.”

“Not “democratic”—“safe for democracy.” Wilson wasn’t promising to impose democracy on Imperial Germany. He was promising to defend democracy from Imperial Germany. The First World War had not begun as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Great Britain was not a democracy in August 1914. Tsarist Russia certainly was not. Ditto Japan, Italy, and Romania—all fought for the Entente, none had governments elected by more than a small fraction of the population. Even in France, the most democratic of the original Allies, elected leaders did not fully control the government (never mind that the Third Republic ruled over a vast colonial empire and denied the vote to women).”
“By the time Wilson delivered his “safe for democracy” war message, however, the war had taken a new form. Britain would emerge from the war as a country in which all adult men voted, and soon adult women too. Russia was racked by a revolution that would overthrow the tsar. The smaller, neutral nations of Europe—notably Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden—democratized during and after the First World War. The nations that gained independence as a result of the war—the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Poland—were organized as democracies at least at the start. The British dominions—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—already had universal male suffrage; after the war, the dominions gained the full sovereignty that confirmed them as self-ruling governments. Italy and Japan too would experiment—tragically briefly—with liberal democracy in the early 1920s.”

“Meanwhile, the Central Powers receded from democracy during the war. Before 1914, Germany and the Habsburg Empire could display elected national legislatures, but these legislatures exerted little control over the actions of government and during the war years lost what little influence they had. Where the Central Powers organized new governments—notably in Ukraine—they instituted authoritarian or military regimes. Most notoriously, the German authorities subsidized Vladimir Lenin in exile, and then provided him safe conduct to destroy Russia’s brief experiment with democracy in the spring and summer of 1917.”
“Had the Western Allies lost the First World War, European democracy would have failed the test that American democracy surmounted in the Civil War: the test of survival in the competition between nations and regimes.”

“The United States too was a very imperfect democracy in 1917. In particular, black Americans lived under a system of caste oppression and routinized violence not very different from that meted out to German Jews in the first four or five years of Hitler’s rule. Racist ideologies held sway not only in the rural and ill-educated South but on the faculties of prestigious universities, in the upper reaches of the federal civil service, in learned societies. Racist ideas were contested, but it was not foreordained that they would be rejected.”
“Human beings admire winners. In the year 1940, when democracy looked a loser, Anne Morrow Lindbergh hailed German fascism as “the wave of the future.” Had Imperial Germany prevailed in 1918, there would have been many to argue that Otto von Bismarck’s vision of the future—“iron and blood”—had decisively triumphed over Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

One need not agree with Frum’s defense of the U. S campaign in Iraq and larger “war on terror” (which he has explored counterfactually in earlier essays) to appreciate his concluding statement underscoring the importance of American involvement in global affairs.

As he correctly and un-moralistically puts it:

“Not always fully consciously, not always perfectly presciently—but consciously and presciently enough—the best American minds of a century ago perceived what was at stake in 1917. They imagined a better world—and the hostile world they would confront if they failed. Their efforts went largely wrong in the years after 1918. The ensuing frustration brought odium on the whole project. But those of us alive today have the advantage of knowing more of how the story developed. We should have more sympathy for the difficulties faced by those who had to start the job without guide or precedent, including the guide or precedent of somebody else’s previous errors.”
“At present, too, many worry whether this world is safe for democratic societies challenged by the aggressive and illiberal. Today, too, American motives are mixed, as human motives usually are. A better understanding of history can at least emancipate Americans from the isolationist polemics that caricatured the why and the how of U.S. entry into the First World War. Such understanding will protect Americans from the dangerous illusions that such polemics inculcated in the 1930s, after Vietnam, and now once more again.”

All in all, Frum’s essay represents a persuasive example of how counterfactual reasoning is indispensable for understanding the role of causality in, and drawing larger interpretive conclusions from, history.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

What If Martin Luther Had Died Earlier? Another Clockstopper Counterfactual

I was recently in Germany and, while there, read an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung weekend magazine with former German CDU party chief from the 1980s, Heiner Geißler.

In the interview, Geißler touched on a wide array of subjects, including his pessimistic stance about the virtues of organized religion.  In one exchange with the interviewer, Geißler offered an interesting counterfactual about the thought of Martin Luther.  (For the record, Geißler is of Catholic background).

To the interviewer's question, "In his pamplets, Luther attacked Jews, knights, and peasants.  Can he serve whatsoever as a role model?" Geißler replied:

"One cannot justify the dark sides of [Luther's thought].  What he said about the Jews is a very dark and immoral story.  At the beginning of the 1520s, he wrote: Jesus is a Jew.  Later he believed that the Jews killed Jesus.  It would have been better if Luther had died a few years earlier.  I believe he had a homoerotic relationship to Jesus.  He concentrated completely on "my Christianity" and the Jews naturally did not reject Christ as the messiah.  Therefore, Luther could not forgive the Jews when they defended themselves from being converted.  He had a love-hate relationship to the Jews."

Geißler makes his counterfactual claim merely in passing, but it is worth reflecting on its implied meaning.  As I read it, Geißler wants us to understand that Luther's reputation would have been much better if he had died before the late phase of his career, which was defined by his siding with German princely authorities against the peasants and his condemnation of the Jews.  An earlier death for Luther would have preserved his reputation as a radical emancipator who challenged authority rather than sided with it against the cause of human freedom.

Stopping the clock in this way, of course, fails the plausibility test of a good counterfactual unless one can pinpoint a moment when Luther might have actually been removed from the historical stage.  I'm not aware, for example, if Luther had any major illnesses that might have done him during this period, but Geißler would have had to provide such an instance to make his counterfactual more vigorous.  This was not his agenda, of course, but his remark reveals how implied meanings are contained in even the most fleeting "what ifs."

In the end, his observation validates the truism that the meaning of an event is wholly determined upon the point at which one interprets it.  Whether it is the administration of a political leader, the conduct of a war, or an experiment in nation building, assessing an event's ultimate meaning is dependent upon the chronological vantage point of analysis.  Premature interpretation (ie. before an event has reached its conclusion) distorts the past.  Raising counterfactual questions about how an event would have been viewed had it ended before it really did does open up interesting interpretive possibilities, but "stopping the clock" of history has to be done plausibly for the insights to carry much interpretive weight.

See, for comparison, my post about Adam Tooze's counterfactual from 2013.