Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, July 20, 2015

"What If Hitler Saw Munich's New Museum to 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.


Friday, May 15, 2015

A Counterfactual Corbusier: What If the Famed Modern Architect Had Been Born in Germany?


Now that we’ve just marked the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945, it is probably fitting that press coverage of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death (August 27, 1965) has sought to link the architect to the Third Reich.


Several recent French language studies have directed attention towards Le Corbusier’s well-known fascist tendencies in the 1940s.  A recent article in the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, pointed out that the architect not only made positive comments about Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government but even about Hitler’s desire to remake Europe according to Nazi principles.

Notably, the article sought to amplify the architect’s fascist proclivities by positing  a provocative counterfactual.

The article notes that Le Corbusier refrained from informing the Vichy government that he was Swiss and proceeds to ask the rhetorical question: “what would he have done if – like Albert Speer – he had been born in Germany?  Would he have tried to become the greatest architect of Nazi Germany?  Is it unfair to make claims, such as the one made by the Lausanne architectural historian Pierre Frey, who [polemically] referred to Le Corbusier’s “spatial eugenics” and declared that he would have worked for Hitler without batting an eye.”

The article continues:
“What would have happened if….?”  Despite being viewed with suspicion by historians, this question has value even if it cannot be answered in full.  Not in order to make people responsible for things that they did not do, but in order to sharpen our sense of basic principles that can be harmless in eras of stability but dangerous in certain historical circumstances.  Perhaps Le Corbusier (and not only he) simply had luck that he was not a German under Hitler.”
The function of the counterfactual is clear: namely, to sharpen the moral condemnation of Le Corbusier’s fascist tendencies by extrapolating how far he would have gone had he been at the epicenter of wartime fascism: Nazi Germany.  Of course, the counterfactual is implausible at its core: Le Corbusier would never have been born in Germany.  And if he had, he might not have become Le Corbusier.  
How should the hypothetical scenario be regarded, therefore?  Perhaps it can be seen as an example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one where a historical figure is artificially transplated from his/her natural environment into a foreign one for the sake of imagining how things would have unfolded differently.  It’s related to a “trading places” counterfactual insofar as it involves the act of transfer, only in this version of a single person instead of two people switching settings.
I will keep my eyes open for other such counterfactuals going forward as I continue to develop my taxonomy of “what ifs.”

Re-release of Jerry Yulsman's novel, Elleander Morning!

Sneak preview for alternate history fans!


American writer Jerry Yulsman's engrossing novel, Elleander Morning (1984), is being reissued later this summer.  I was honored to be asked by the publisher to write a short introduction. If you don't know the novel's premise, the politically suspicious drink on the book's cover will give you a hint.  I will post more once the publisher sets up a link closer to its novel's official release.

Monday, May 11, 2015

From the Archives: How the Irish Viewed a German Defeat of Great Britain in WWI


This doesn’t happen very often (read: ever): earlier today, I was interviewed on Irish radio in a short ten minute segment of the Dublin-based Moncrief Show that was devoted to my new book, Hi Hitler!

In preparing for the interview, I decided to read up a bit on Ireland’s stance of neutrality during World War II (the country was neither pro-Nazi nor pro-British).  In doing so, I ran across an interesting counterfactual comment by the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Éamon de Valera from 1940. 


Following Britain’s occupation of neutral Iceland in May of 1940, de Valera declared:

“I would like to put a hypothetical question-it is a question I have put to many Englishmen since the last war. Suppose Germany had won the war, had invaded and occupied England, and that after a long lapse of time and many bitter struggles, she was finally brought to acquiesce in admitting England's right to freedom, and let England go, but not the whole of England, all but, let us say, the six southern counties.

These six southern counties, those, let us suppose, commanding the entrance to the narrow seas, Germany had singled out and insisted on holding herself with a view to weakening England as a whole, and maintaining the securing of her own communications through the Straits of Dover.

Let us suppose further, that after all this had happened, Germany was engaged in a great war in which she could show that she was on the side of freedom of a number of small nations, would Mr. Churchill as an Englishman who believed that his own nation had as good a right to freedom as any other, not freedom for a part merely, but freedom for the whole-would he, whilst Germany still maintained the partition of his country and occupied six counties of it, would he lead this partitioned England to join with Germany in a crusade? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.

Would he think the people of partitioned England an object of shame if they stood neutral in such circumstances? I do not think Mr. Churchill would.”

Whatever one thinks of de Valera’s political stance in the war, his point is well taken.  His declaration is an effective example of a didactic “trading places” type of counterfactual, one that asks readers to imagine how the stronger party in a conflict would behave if they were in the shoes of the weaker party.  Because de Valera’s scenario is set in a counterfactual world in which the Germans won the First World War, it assumes a rhetorical power that it would otherwise lack if he merely offered it in the abstract (ie. if he merely speculated on how England would have acted if it were as weak a political position as Ireland). 

The comment certainly reflects a benevolent view of Germany from the vantage point of 1940 – indeed, it creates a implicit moral equivalence between the Third Reich and the British Empire – yet it is understandable in light of the longstanding antagonism between Great Britiain and Ireland.  It furthermore raises a closely related counterfactual question. Would the Irish have collaborated with the Germans had the Nazis successfully invaded and occupied the British Isles?  Would de Valera have been the Irish Quisling?  I don’t recall any of the numerous novels on the subject addressing this topic, but maybe I’ve overlooked it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Richard Evans on "Hi Hitler!"

In today's Guardian, Richard Evans engages with some of the arguments (both counterfactual and factual) that I advance in Hi Hitler!  For the review click HERE.




I appreciate Evans's close reading of my argument and would respond to his more critical points as follows:


1) As I pointed out in my review of his recent book, Altered Pasts, I disagree with Evans's claim that "'normalisation” itself is an empty concept.'"  In fact, it is widely accepted among historians and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.  I would prefer to see him engage with it more directly, in the way that other scholars, such as Bill Niven, have done.  None of us who employ the concept would deny that normalization has problematic aspects (mostly in the realm of teleology), but it would be preferable to contend with them more actively and thereby advance the discussion, which is so vital for memory studies, than to sidestep it.  

2) I would not disagree with Evans's claim that some "of the historians and writers Rosenfeld discusses are in truth marginal figures..., from Patrick Buchanan to Nicholson Baker, James Bacque to Michael Bess."  However, I do point out in chapter 1 that these writers' strident critiques of the "good war" have been echoed in semi-watered-down fashion by plenty of more established historians.  I am essentially pointing out a worrisome trend migrating from the margins to the mainstream.

3) I also disagree with Evans's claim, made in reference to my discussion of Holocaust historians' use of counterfactuals, that "the examples Rosenfeld cites are merely throwaway remarks, peripheral and ultimately irrelevant to the historian’s principal task of explaining what actually did happen."  First, it is hardly "peripheral" to wonder "what if?" As plenty of historians have convincingly argued, it is impossible to truly understand what happened in the past without being aware of what did not (or might have).  Second, the examples I cite are not "throwaway" lines.  In my chapter on Holocaust historiography in Hi Hitler!, I show empirically that dozens of historians have employed counterfactual arguments and, more importantly, that they are all of central importance to their larger conclusions.   Moreover, I am presently researching a larger study on the history of counterfactual history and hope eventually to document how the western historical profession -- typified by major historians (again, not marginal figures) -- has evolved in its thinking on historical speculation.  My recent post on A. J. P. Taylor (who famously spoke out on the pointlessness of counterfactuals) reveals that scholars are often inconsistent (and indeed hypocritical) in simultaneously condemning and yet employing "what if" scenarios in their work.  In other words, we all need to own up to the truth of how it is we write about history.

4. Evans is right to argue that "mainstream history...moved away from the cool objectivity of the first scholarly studies of Nazism in the 1960s and 70s by historians such as Martin Broszat towards the morally driven works of writers such as Saul Friedländer [in the 1980s and 1990s], as the Nazi extermination of the Jews has been subsumed under the label of the 'Holocaust.'" Needless to say, that shift towards a morally informed historiography was animated by concerns about normalizing tendencies in the first place, and it has never gone unchallenged since then.  Critiques of moralism persist.  There is no guarantee that the moralistic turn will last.  Evans strikes me as somewhat complacent in arguing that "it is no longer possible to approach the Third Reich as if it were 16th-century Italy or ancient Greece, as it was for historians decades ago; in the 21st century, moral judgment is de rigueur."  Normalizing tendencies abound. And even if they generate moralistic responses (Evans is right to point this out, as I myself do), it is anything but clear whether the relative influence of these competing impulses towards morality and normality will remain in their current configuration.  Morally informed history needs to be vigorously defended.  (On this account, Evans and I agree -- and his new book, The Third Reich in History and Memory certainly testifies to his own admirable commitments).

5. Finally, Evans is probably correct in arguing that "It is only because it is impossible for our culture, despite the efforts of a tiny and disregarded band of Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, to express any admiration for Hitler, that he has become the butt of humour and trivialisation: they gain their effect precisely because we all know that in the end Hitler was evil."  However, I am not so sure that we can predict what the cumulative effect of all the satirical representations of Hitler and the Nazis will be.  Evans seems to be more confident that the inherent evil of Nazism will always be recognized.   I am less sure.