Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Implausible Counterfactual of the Day: Creating a Jewish State in the United States instead of Israel. Really?


Strictly speaking, the following example is not a historical counterfactual, but rather, a future history scenario.  Nevertheless, it has many implications for counterfactual history.  As reported in a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, former Dutch minister of economic affairs Herman Heinsbroek, declared in the financial monthly Quote:


“It was an historical error to give the Jews their own country in the middle of Islam….You’ve had nothing but war ever since and you’ve had anti-Semitism resurging, too. My idea: Give the Jews their own state somewhere in the United States and 25 years to move their state over there.”

Heinsbroek is also quoted as saying that if implemented, his solution “will finally create, perhaps, peace in the world.”

The claim is patently ludicrous and nakedly political.  I won’t bother to affix a label to the claim (anyone up for parsing the differences between antizionism and antisemitism?), but it’s been disproved by a variety of other counterfactual assertions.

For example, Josef Joffe’s essay, “A World Without Israel,” (2009) and Amir Tahiri’s essay, “Is Israel the Problem?”, (2007) clearly show that if Israel did not exist, there would hardly be peace in the Middle East, let alone the world.   Friction between different sects and ethnic groups (mostly Arab and Muslim, but not only) would merely intensify without Israel to focus internal and external grievances upon. 

Moreover, counterfactual works of literature – dystopian future histories, mostly – have also identified the irrationality of expecting a mass exodus of Jews to solve anything.  Take, for example, Hugo Bettauer’s chillingly prophetic Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews), written in 1922, which portrays ordinary life in Vienna coming to a grinding halt without its Jewish population. 

Furthermore, non-Jews typically end up regretting the departure of Jews from their lands and wish they would return.   See Bernt Engelmann’s Germany Without Jews (1984), which is a mournful survey of everything German life lost in the Holocaust. 

As for the United States as an ideal destination? Michael Chabon dramatically pointed out that shipping Europe’s Jews to the U. S. – specifically Alaska, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – would hardly be a panacea.  This is further shown by the failure of attempts to create a Jewish state in the United States – specifically the experimental community of Ararat in upper New York State – which essentially went nowhere in the early 19th century.  (For more on Ararat, click HERE).

None of this is to deny that Israel’s presence in the Middle East has been a source of conflict.  But Heinsbroek’s remarks express an entirely unrealistic and naïve (not to mention discriminatory) fantasy.

Counterfactually speaking, I contend that Mr. Heinsbroek’s misguided recommendation could have easily been avoided had he been more of a student of counterfactual history, which helps us grasp the possibilities (and impossibilities) of how historical events come to pass.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Finally! Ridley Scott's The Man in the High Castle is Streaming on Amazon


I just finished watching the first installment of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle, for Amazon video.  (You can watch it without subscribing to Amazon Prime – at least the first episode; I already feel myself being lured into a subscription to see the rest).


I was a bit skeptical in my earlier post over a year ago about adapting Dick’s ontologically complex novel to big/small screen, but I was generally impressed with the results.

The production values are high, with the cinematography being particularly good in depicting a decrepit urban and rural America under enemy occupation in the early 1960s.  Lots of details (street signs, posters, a digitally aged Hitler on television, etc.) are nice touches.  (There’s only one gaffe I could spot: Mr. Baynes in a limo with Mr. Tagomi flashes a German identity card with the grammatically incorrect phrase “Das Grobe Deutsche Reich” – undoubtedly a prop person misread the double s (Esszet) of the original German, which is commonly misread as a capital B).  Oh well….

There a small number of liberties taken with the original novel, which is necessary given the apparent intention to produce a relatively full-length series.  I won’t detail them in this post, so as to avoid spoilers.  But those who know the novel will spot them immediately.  I will say that much more of the episode takes place in the Nazi occupied eastern half of the U. S. than  in the novel, which makes a good deal of sense really. 

The Nazis are depicted with an appropriate degree of moral clarity, while avoiding (as much as is possible these days) trafficking in tired clichés.

My one question is how viewers will perceive the episode (and the entire series) given the current political context of the year 2015.

When Dick wrote the novel in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Germany’s Nazi past was in the process of slowly returning to public consciousness, after having been overshadowed by a decade and a half of anti-communist cold war hysteria.  Dick hailed from the political left and was a fierce anti-Nazi and, by all indications, wished for the regime’s crimes to remain in public awareness.  The fact that his novel appeared after the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann as well as the publication of William Shirer’s bestselling The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich meant that it contributed to the recasting of attention to the Nazi era.  In that sense, it had a clear anti-conservative message (as conservatives had endorsed sweeping Nazi crimes under the rug for the sake of cold war convenience).

What about today, though?

My view is that both conservatives and liberals will be able to interpret the series as an indictment of present-day America as a country verging on fascism.  I don’t need to remind anyone that many conservatives today view Obama’s America as having already descended into a fascist dictatorship.  Meanwhile, liberals have had plenty to say about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s America going the same direction. 

In the series, there are scenes supporting both sides’ views.  
To name two (spoiler alert!):

Late in the first episode, Joe Blake (an altered Joe Cinnadella) gets pulled over by a state trooper after his truck gets a flat tire.  During their conversation, gray flakes start floating through the air and the trooper explains that they are the ashes of the bodies of “cripples” that are being burned “as a drag on the state.”  Echoes of “death panels” anyone?  Supporters of Sarah Palin will surely endorse this reading. 

In another scene, a member of the anti-German resistance is tortured to death in New York City’s Rikers Island prison by members of the Gestapo.  In and of itself, the depiction of torture in a post-9/11 world has inevitable connotations that will resonate with left-leaning critics of the CIA.  All the more so since Riker’s Island has recently come under fire for abuses of prisoners.

Dick’s novel has its heroes.  But so far, it portrays more than its share of American collaborators with the Nazis.  Let’s hope the series gets the go-ahead to be brought to completion.

John Kerry’s “Nose” and the Academic Transcript That Changed the Course of History


More from the “Cleopatra’s Nose” Department of Historical Causation: 

Having recently read Gary Hart opine about how American history could have turned out differently if only he had been less smitten with Donna Rice’s “nose,” I was interested to read Gail Collins in today’s New York Times offering an interesting theory about how recent American history may have been influenced by a “nose” – that is to say, a historically contingent factor -- of a  different sort. 



In discussing the fact that future presidential candidate, Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, never finished his degree at Marquette University, Collins writes:

“Apparently, Walker was a mediocre student. By the way, how much do we care about presidential prospects’ college grades? Not much — these are middle-aged people, for heaven’s sake. Actually, we just need to be sure that if the grades were bad, the candidate has gotten over it.”

“John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 was hobbled by outrageous attacks on his war record, which Kerry might have been able to bury by releasing all his Navy records. He wouldn’t, until long after the race was over. Then reporters discovered that everything about his military career was exactly as Kerry had portrayed it. The only news was in his college transcript, which was included in the file and pretty dismal.”

“I’ve always wondered if the entire course of modern American history would have turned out different if John Kerry had not wanted to conceal the fact that his academic performance at Yale was worse than George W. Bush’s.”

As far as historical lessons go, Collins’s observation certainly underscores the perils of heeding the imperatives of ego maintenance. In obscuring his military record in order to protect his academic record, Kerry clearly got his priorities wrong. 

Indeed, he seems to have bitten off his “nose” to spite his face.

That said, had he opened up his files and revealed his mediocre academic performance, other questions would have been raised about his competence for presidential service.

So perhaps either way, the course of history might have been inevitable -- a Bush reelection.

Then, again, some of us remember the battle of Ohio from that fateful election night.  There’s probably a whole slew of counterfactuals to be found there…..

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Counterfactual Nazi Cows!


I’m pleased to be able report that one of my favorite television shows has joined the counterfactual bandwagon.  I’m sure the Daily Show with Jon Stewart has employed “what if?” scenarios before (I just haven’t bothered to do the research).  But this week, the show’s reliably hilarious host invoked one of the all time classic counterfactuals: the Nazis winning World War II.
In my new book, Hi Hitler!, I point out how in contrast to the much of the postwar period, when the scenario was portrayed as an unalloyed nightmare, in recent years it has been played for laughs.  (See, for instance, the film Jackboots on Whitehall). 
The Daily Show is clearly participating in this normalizating trend.  In a madcap piece on recent media revelations about “Nazi cows” (which is brilliantly spun into an allegory on Islamic radicalism), Stewart opined as follows:


“Look, I don't know if anyone has pointed this out before, but the Nazis obviously were a little cuckoo.  I mean, let's breed a race of super cows is crazy.  It strikes me, people have always wondered,what would have happened if Hitler had won the war.  Well, now we know Channing Tatum would be starring in a very different movie.”


The punch-line is only mediocre (Cowcatcher as a spoof of the recent film Foxcatcher will have very little shelf-life as a joke).
But it still reflects the growing tendency to view the Nazi era as a source of humor instead of horror.
For the full clip, click HERE.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Nuking Nazi Germany? The Counterfactual Consequences of Hitler's Potential Victory in the Ardennes Offensive of 1944-45


Here is more evidence of how counterfactuals boost the resonance of, and stoke our fascination with, history.  A new article published in the German newspaper, Die Welt, discusses the origins and outcome of Hitler’s ill-fated Ardennes offensive on the western front of the Second World War during the winter of 1944-45.    The article features the observations of military historian, Karl-Heinz Frieser. who explains the reckless planning behind the offensive and the reasons for its failure.


By far and away, however,  what is most notable about the essay is its conclusion, which features a chilling counterfactual scenario.  The essay’s author, Sven Kellerhoff, asks Frieser to speculate about what would have happened had the Ardennes offensive succeeded, to which Frieser replied: “the answer requires only a little fantasy and makes the historian shudder: the first atom bomb would not have ended up being dropped on Hiroshima but rather on a German city.” 

Frieser does not elaborate, but the clear message of his conclusion is that the success of the offensive would have prolonged the war into the summer of 1945, precisely the time when the first and second bombs were ready.  Given that the bombs had originally been devised with German (and not Japanese) targets in mind, Frieser’s conclusion is perfectly plausible. 

It also inspires us to think actively about all the possibilities that would have ensued, in ways that only counterfactuals can.  Small wonder, therefore, that the title of the essay profiles what is ultimately a tiny portion of its content.  The title, “Hitler’s Final Victory Would Have Meant the Atom Bomb,” immediately draws in readers.  Even though the essay features comparatively little counterfactual content, the “what if?” scenario serves as an effective marketing tool, proving once again how speculating about the past is a winning strategy for directing attention to history.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Adam Rovner's Counterfactual Zions

I’m very pleased to call attention to my friend and colleague Adam Rovner’s new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel, which has a strong counterfactual subtext to it.  Could there have been other Jewish homelands besides the one eventually established in British-ruled Palestine?  Read Rovner to find out!


Relatedly, Rovner currently has a new blog post up on the website of the Jewish Book Council that lists his “Top Five Alternate Histories of Zion.”

Readers will be very interested to learn that besides Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the list features several relatively unknown novels and short stories that deserve attention.   Click HERE for the full list.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Bait and Switch Counterfactual: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Forthcoming Film, "Elser"

I was interested to see that the marketing for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s forthcoming Film, Elser (due out in 2015) has a clear counterfactual subtext.  The film’s subtitle is “He Could Have Changed the World.”
(See the German language trailer on YouTube here).


As is well-known, the working class German carpenter, Georg Elser, nearly succeeded in assassinating Adolf Hitler on November 8, 1939, when the bomb he hid in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller detonated as scheduled, but missed its target, as the Führer had departed early to catch a train to Berlin.

Whether the counterfactual possibilities of a successful assassination are at all explored in the film is unknown (and doubtful), but their presence will surely help add to the film’s appeal.  In so doing, it will probably resembled Volker Schlödorff's recent film, Diplomacy, about the near-destruction of Paris by the Nazis in 1944.  (I commented on this film in an earlier post).

For a more full-fledged look at what would have happened had Elser’s assassination plan succeeded, I modestly suggest readers look forward to my own essay in the forthcoming volume, “If Only We Had Died in Egypt!”  In it, I explore how Hitler’s death would have affected the Holocaust, which was then in its earliest stage.