Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Counterfactual Anniversary: “What Ifs?” of World War I


With today marking the 100th anniversary of the event that precipitated the eruption of World War I – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 – it is fitting that today’s New York Times features several reflections on this historically pivotal day’s counterfactual dimensions.



The first, entitled “If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived,” is written by journalist Simon Winder, the author of the fascinating (and hilariously written) book, Germania, and most recently, its sequel, Danubia.

Unfortunately, the essay lacks Winder’s usual narrative punch.  The main problem is its misleading packaging.  Given the relative absence of speculative reasoning in the essay, I suspect that a Times editor decided to provide the snappy title, thereby capitalizing on the recent flurry of attention to the Great War’s counterfactual aspects (seen in Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!, National Public Radio’s recent listener poll about the war’s “what ifs?”, and Jack Beatty’s The Lost World of 1914: How the Great War Was Not Inevitable.

The most Winder offers by way of counterfactuals is to highlight the existence of alternate possibilities for the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose demise Winder bemoans) short of dissolution in war. 

Winder writes:

“There were many possibilities before 1914. One ingenious proposal was for a United States of Austria, which would have carved the empire into a series of federal language-based states, including small urban enclaves to protect (but also isolate) German speakers. This could have been achieved only by the destruction of Magyar imperialism, but Franz Ferdinand at different points seems to have seen this as worth risking.”

Winder goes on to speculate:

“We will never know if such schemes might have worked. But these are ghosts that have haunted Europe ever since — possibilities whose disappearance unleashed evils inconceivable in the stuffy, hypocritical, but relatively decent and orderly world of the Hapsburg empire.”

In other words, the nightmares of real history allow us to fantasize about what might have been.  Had the archduke lived, they might have been realized, which Winder confirms by showing how his death paved the way for Austria-Hungary’s reckless decision to go to war.  He writes that the assassins “could not have known…that Franz Ferdinand was probably the most senior antiwar figure in Central Europe, a man acutely aware of Hapsburg weakness, scathing about the delusions of his generals and a close friend of the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm. The recklessness and stupidity of the Hapsburg response to the assassination — the ultimatum of humiliating demands served on Serbia, a response so crucial to the outbreak of the World War I — would not have occurred in the face of some other provocative outrage that had left Franz Ferdinand alive.”

As far as things go, this is counterfactually true, but not particularly insightful.  And it certainly is not much of an analytical pay-off for readers attracted to the article by its alluring title. 

That said, it may be a good sign for the popularity of counterfactual history if editors are increasingly tempted to exploit its appeal – even in the cause of false advertising.

It is all the more interesting, therefore, that the most insightful counterfactual observation in today’s Times comes from historian Max Hastings, who is quoted in Steven Erlanger’s title page story, “The War to End All Wars,” that “Germany could have dominated Europe in 20 years economically if only it had not gone to war.  “The supreme irony of 1914 is how many of the rulers of Europe grossly overestimated military power and grossly underestimated economic power.” 
This claim is probably true. Had the Kaiser’s government decided not to push for war in 1914 (and used economics as a tool of “war by other means”), it probably would have been more successful in the long run in promoting the Germany’s national interests.  Given the country’s political culture at the time, however -- especially the place of primacy enjoyed by the Prussian army – it was never going to be easy to have the latter stand down in the event of a military crisis.  And so Hastings’ “what if?” remains a wistful one.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Counterfactually Assessing the Impact of Primo Levi’s Death on his Writing


In his recently published review of Berel Lang’s new biography of Primo Levi in the Association of Jewish Studies Review, Alvin H. Rosenfeld (yes, he’s related) employs a counterfactual argument to question Lang’s insistence that readers approach Levi’s work from a perspective that brackets off the circumstances of his death (very likely, although never proven, by suicide). 


Rosenfeld writes:

“Lang subtitles his study “The Matter of a Life,” but the book is not intended as a full-scale biography, and readers already familiar with the biographies of Levi available in English will not come away from reading Lang with any new facts about the author's life. They may, however, feel moved to ponder what they find in these pages about Levi's death.”

“Lang devotes to this a whole chapter, in which he strongly contests the idea that writers' deaths might “retroactively alter their creations” (14). “Why should Levi's suicide…loom so large in thinking and speaking about him…?” he asks. “The words and sentences…of his writings remain exactly as they would have however he had died” (12).”

“In a literal sense, this last sentence is true, but so, too, is it true that a writer's death can, and often does, influence the way we read his or her books, sometimes decisively so. To cite but one prominent example: Anne Frank's famous diary almost certainly would never have achieved the canonical status it has today had the book's youthful author survived the war. As Philip Roth put it in The Ghost Writer, were the diary “known to be the work of a living writer, it would never be more than it was: a young teenager's diary of her trying years in hiding during the German occupation of Holland.”

“Inasmuch as readers commonly bring some knowledge of Anne Frank's premature and tragic death to their reading of her book, their encounters with the diary become a more troubled, but also a more moving and meaningful, experience. The same may be true of those who read Levi's writings about the Nazi death camps in the shadow of his death. They are not wrong to do so.”

Both Rosenfeld and Lang have valid points to make.

Lang legitimately takes issue with possibility that readers may strain to “see” the signs of Levi’s death (again, probably by suicide) prefigured in his writings.  This certainly represents a violation of his literary output’s integrity. 

His discomfort with this practice is reminiscent of Michael Andre Bernstein’s concept of “backshadowing” – which he defines as a practice that “works by a kind of retroactive foreshadowing in which the shared knowledge of the outcome of a series of events by narrator and listener is used to judge the participants in those events as though they too should have known what was to come.” (Bernstein offers the specific example of the Holocaust, noting that “our knowledge of the Shoah is used to condemn the "blindness" and "self-deception" of all those who did not actively strive to save themselves from a doom that was supposedly both clearly visible and inevitable.”).  (These quotes are taken from “Victims-in-Waiting: Backshadowing and the Representation of European Jewry,” New Literary History, Vol. 29, Nr. 4, 1998, pp. 625-651).

Lang is not exactly warning against backshadowing in discussing Levi (it’s not as if Levi himself should have known of the circumstances of his fate) but the tendency to see his end as predictable or inevitable is something Lang clearly wants us to be alert to.  And it is a reasonable request.

Rosenfeld convincingly argues, however, that our knowledge of the “end” of the story of the author’s life bears heavily on how we might read its earlier phases. His counterfactual employing of Anne Frank (which itself relies on Philip’s Roth own counterfactual) makes this point very well.  We would be missing much of the point of her diary if we remained unaware of her ultimate fate.

It’s a similar point that I’ve made with reference to “clockstopper counterfactuals.” Lang is effectively asking readers to stop the clock of Levi’s life before his tragic death and evaluate his work without knowing the end of the story.  This can be likened to film critics who resist telling readers the ending of a whodunnit by claiming a desire to resist “spoilers.”  (Conversely, the phrase “spoiler alert” is now commonly appended to reviews that give readers a heads-up of what’s coming).  Lang’s point is well-taken, but ultimately artificial.  We cannot roll back the clock of Levi’s life, imagine that his fate were otherwise, and still plausibly interpret his work with the same sensitivity as if we retain an awareness of what is to come.  

The fact remains that where we end a story determines how we view it.  This is equally true of history and counterfactual history.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What If FDR Had Been Shot? A Classic Counterfactual


Historian Michael Beschloss avails himself of Philip K. Dick’s well-known “what if?” from The Man in the High Castle in his review in yesterday’s New York Times of David Kaiser’s new book, No End Save Victory.

“In February 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was nearly murdered in Miami by a gunman whose errant fatal shot struck Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago. Cermak gallantly told Roosevelt, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Today’s Americans should not disagree. Had Roosevelt been killed, the 32nd president of the United States would have been his running mate, Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, a neophyte in foreign and military affairs, isolationist by instinct and deeply rooted in a Congress determined, notwithstanding the growing threats from Hitler and the imperial Japanese, to keep another president from repeating what a majority of its members considered to be Woodrow Wilson’s catastrophic mistake of needlessly dragging the nation into a distant “foreign war.”
Beschloss’s reason for beginning his review with this famous nightmare counterfactual is to express gratitude that history turned out as it did:
“Photoshopping Roosevelt out of the history of that epoch shows how lucky we are that he indeed survived to be our president, preparing America to fight and help win World War II. So does “No End Save Victory,” David Kaiser’s judicious, detailed and soundly researched history of Roosevelt’s tortuous process of first preparing America psychologically, politically and militarily, and then nudging the country into that apocalyptic struggle….”
At the same time, the counterfactual serves to remind us of how easily things might have been different….
“Americans are not immune to the temptation to see historical events as inevitable, which, by logic, reduces the credit we grant to individual leaders like Roosevelt. But Kaiser crisply reminds us how dangerous and unpredictable the period really was, noting Roosevelt’s not inconsiderable private dread that Hitler might well put himself in a position to dominate the world.”

It is seems notable to me that Beschloss, like other scholars these days, chose to begin his review with a “what if?”  It confirms the fact that counterfactuals serve as rhetorically powerful tools for heightening the evocative power of historical events.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Another Clockstopper Counterfactual: Russians Rehabilitate "Good Hitler"


I’ve written about what I call “clockstopper” counterfactuals before in previous posts.  The term refers to provocative, but ultimately arbitrary, thought experiments in which one imagines how history would be assessed if the clock somehow simply stopped at a certain point in time and historical events did not keep moving forward to their known conclusion. 

The latest example comes from Russia, where scholars and journalists, arguing over the Nazi legacy against the backdrop of the current crisis in Ukraine, now seem to be warming to the idea of a "good Hitler."



The New York Times reported in a recent article that President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law “that mandates up to five years in jail and heavy fines for anyone who tries to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate Russia’s World War II record.” 

As is well known, Putin has been claiming that Russia is fighting the resurgence of fascism in Ukraine.  But as the Times writes, “skeptics argue that the victory itself is too often used to promote what they consider an excessive obsession with fascism abroad — vividly played out over the past two months in lurid coverage on Russian state television of the Ukraine crisis.”

The Times piece goes on to say that “the current debate about fascism erupted with the publication of an article comparing Russia’s incorporation of Crimea to the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of a receptive Austria and other German lands in 1938.”

“Andrei Zubov, a philosophy professor who wrote the opinion piece…also warned that like many Russians right now, Nazi-era Germans were thrilled that the world suddenly feared and respected them anew. For his efforts, he was first admonished, then fired from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a university tied to the Foreign Ministry…..He has since been reinstated, although…he expected that his contract would not be renewed when it expires on June 30.”
“His comparison prompted objections, naturally, but the most contentious response appeared on the pages of the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia. It was written by Andranik Migranyan, who runs the Manhattan office of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a nongovernmental organization inspired by Mr. Putin’s wish to promote Russia in the West.”
“The article attacked Mr. Zubov as “hell-spawn” and suggested that if Hitler had only stopped in 1939, he would be considered a “good Hitler.”
“One should distinguish the difference between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939 and separate chaff from grain,” Mr. Migranyan wrote. If Hitler had stopped after the “bloodless” reunification of German lands, including Austria and the Sudetenland, with the mother country, “he would have gone down in the history of his country as a politician of the highest order.”
Migranyan’s claim is hardly original, as it echoes claims made long ago by scholars such as Joachim Fest and Alexander Demandt.   But its political purpose is quite different.  While German scholars have made the counterfactual point to underscore the depth of ordinary Germans’ support for the Nazis prior to 1939 (and to show how the ensuing military defeat in 1945 was essential for breaking their infatuation with the Führer), the Russian claim is meant to legitimize Putin’s current foreign policy agenda and distance him from any comparisons to the Nazis’ campaign for Lebensraum in the 1930s. 
Of course, the effort fails on numerous grounds.  As the Times reports,“Flabbergasted intellectuals pointed out that by 1939 Hitler had already established Dachau, organized Kristallnacht and promulgated the Nuremberg laws that enshrined the superiority of the Aryan race.” 
But the larger issue is that Hitler’s pre-1939 diplomatic maneuverings were always meant to lead to war – and thus, the very disasters that ended up leading to his well-deserved demonization.  In other words, there was never any possibility of a “good Hitler,” since his behavior before 1939 was destined to lead to the disaster of 1945.  This is why clockstopper counterfactuals are ultimately misleading thought experiments, for they can obscure dynamics that inevitably lead events down the direction they are meant to head.
Putin and his apologists would be wise to remember this lesson, whatever their endgame.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Another Rhetorical Counterfactual: Could India's Partition Have Turned Out Even Worse?


I was interested to see counterfactual reasoning being used for a new purpose this past weekend in The New York Times Book Review.
In his review of John Keay’s new book, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia Since Partition, Isaac Chotiner made a claim about the alleged limits of “what if? thinking.

He wrote:
Some historical events have such utterly catastrophic consequences that no amount of “what if” counterfactuals can yield a more awful result. World War I, for example, resulted in an enormous number of fatalities, largely entrenched the imperialism that initiated it and paved the way for both Nazism and Stalinism. How could a different path have been worse?”
“The 1947 partition of British India, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan as independent countries, was undertaken with nobler motives. But “Midnight’s Descendants,” John Keay’s solid new history of the subcontinent over the past 67 years, leaves the reader with the same depressing thought: No alternative could possibly have been more calamitous.”
“Partition laid the groundwork for the very civil war it was supposed to prevent — as many as one million people may have died — and created a lasting enmity between two states that are now nuclear-armed. If you include the 1971 genocide Pakistan perpetrated against its restive eastern wing (which became independent Bangladesh in December of that year) and the wildly unstable nature of Pakistan today, you are confronted with a disaster of astonishing proportions.”

I am no expert in the history of South Asia and so cannot advance a scenario in which the avoidance of partition in 1947 causes a calamity of such proportions as to make the original partition look like a reasonable solution.

But there is certainly evidence that Chotiner’s premise – however appealing -- is incorrect.  It’s pretty safe to say that the human imagination is quite capable of taking any historical reality and making it even more nightmarish than it already is. 

Stephen Fry’s novel, Making History, is a good example of this.  The novel famously satisfies the urge to prevent Hitler’s birth and thereby prevent the Second World War (by having a graduate student send a birth control pill back to the local water well where Hitler's never-to-be-mother, Klara, fetches her drinking water in Hitler’s not-to-be hometown of Braunau-am-Inn).  But while Hitler is successfully eliminated from history, his role ends up being performed by an even more capable and ruthless figure, Rudolf Gloder, who ends up helping the Nazis develop nuclear weapons, win World War II, and so forth….

Similarly, Richard Ned Lebow’s recent book, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! imagines a world in which the avoidance of World War I ends up leading to a later war in western Europe in the 1970s in which both Germany and England suffer severe nuclear destruction and millions of fatalities. 

These and other examples show that Chotiner’s claim is not borne out by the evidence.

That said, the fact that he raises the point in the first place is significant for showing how counterfactual claims are becoming increasingly salonfähig (ie. acceptable to use in polite company; I don’t often get a chance to use this great German word, so there – I said it). 

Chotiner could have easily written his review of Keay’s book by sticking to the real historical record and underscoring the magnitude of Great Britain’s calamitous decision to partition India in 1947.  But adding a counterfactual angle provides extra rhetorical emphasis.  Chotiner’s point is essentially to argue that the partition plan was so bad that we cannot even imagine a worse possible outcome than what actually happened.

Except, there’s probably always someone who can.  

Had Britain somehow been able to hold on even longer to the Raj, might an eventual policy of partition have been even deadlier?  There are few iron laws of history, but one that is worth considering would hold that “if any event is destined to happen, it is best for it to take place sooner than later.”  Given the fact that the destructiveness of war is increased by advances in technology, it is likely that the later occurrence of any number of real historical wars -- the Civil War, World War I, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 – would have led to even worse death and destruction. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

New Book Review: Richard Ned Lebow's "Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!"

This week's issue of the Forward features my review of Richard Ned Lebow's Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I.



It's an interesting book and relates directly to the recent NPR exploration of counterfactual scenarios relating to the Great War.  

We will probably be wondering "what if?" quite a bit in the months leading up to this summer's commemorative ceremonies.   

(And for the fact hounds out on patrol: yes, I know that FF was Franz Josef's nephew, not son; that error somehow slipped into the text).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Counterfactual Reasoning and the Korean Ferry Disaster


Counterfactuals have long been used to answer questions of historical causality.  They have especially been employed to weigh the importance of chance, accident, and contingency (as opposed to structural or general causes) in historical events.

A good example of the advantages and disadvantages of counterfactuals appeared in Sunday’s New York Times article about the recent capsizing of the South Korean ferry near Jindo Island.
The Times reported that questions had emerged about “the qualifications of the third mate, Park Han-gyeol…after investigators revealed that the ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, was in his quarters on a break, leaving Ms. Park in charge of the bridge, giving instructions to a helmsman at the wheel, when the ferry was negotiating the waterway 11 miles from Jindo Island.”
“For ages, the 3.7-mile-long, 2.8-mile-wide Maenggol Waterway has provided a shortcut for ships that try to save fuel or time navigating waters dotted with islets off the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula. But the channel also has a reputation for having one of the most rapid and unpredictable currents around the peninsula.”
“It was her first time commanding the steering of the ship through the Maenggol Waterway,” said Yang Joong-jin, a senior prosecutor who is part of the government’s investigation. “There is nothing legally wrong with that. But it does give us important data on how well qualified she was.”
“Ms. Park ended up in command of the ship by chance.”
“The three regular mates on the 6,825-ton car ferry, the Sewol, worked on a fixed rotation of four-hour shifts, with Ms. Park on duty at the bridge from 8 a.m. to noon. The ship had been scheduled to leave Incheon at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday with 476 people on board, including 325 second-year high school students headed for a field trip on Jeju. Ms. Park had been working aboard the ferry on the Incheon-Jeju route for six months.”
“But the ship’s departure was delayed by two and a half hours because of heavy fog. Had it left on time, the ship would have passed the spot where it foundered and sank one and a half hours before Ms. Park’s shift was to have started.”
“Ms. Park was unavailable for comment. She was arrested Saturday, along with the captain and the helmsman. They face criminal charges of abandoning their ship and passengers during a crisis, accidental homicide, or both.”

The question emerges: would the ship have capsized had there been no fog and departed on time?   With a more experienced captain at the helm, who was used to navigating difficult currents? 

This factor of chance needs to be weighed against other factors that another Times article cited in the accident, “including pilot error; an unexpected current; failure in the ship’s ballast; loose or unbalanced cargo; a recent addition of more cabins on the upper deck of the 20-year-old ferry that may have impaired its ability to recover balance; and loosely abided safety regulations.”

Would any of these factors have caused the accident if a different captain had been at the helm?  Probably not.   This likelihood underscores the value of counterfactual reasoning in assessing causality.

This is not to say, however, that the dense fog caused the accident, as it was merely the beginning of a larger causal chain.

(The same can be said, for the record, about historian David McCullough’s counterfactual essay some years ago, “What the Fog Wrought,” which argued that poor weather conditions (thick fog) enabled George Washington’s troops to escape an otherwise sure defeat at the hands of the British in the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 and enabled the American Revolution to continue. 

The key point is to recall E. H. Carr’s argument about the relationship between chance and generalizable causes.  In What is History?, Carr wrote about a cigarette smoker who gets hit by a car while walking to buy cigarettes and concluded that the man’s smoking habit did not cause his death (even if it was involved), as smoking is not a generalizable cause of hit and run accidents.  This seems to be a sensible point, even if it remains persuasive that had he not been a smoker, he would not have been in a position to get killed.  By the same token, if the fog off the coast of South Korea had not been so thick, the ferry would have departed on time with its scheduled captain and its other liabilities might not have become activated as they were.