Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sneak Preview: "Hi Hitler!"

I am happy to announce that Cambridge University Press will be publishing my latest book, Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture this coming December/January.

Readers of this blog will hopefully be interested to know that counterfactual observations run throughout the book, especially in two key chapters: "Probing the Limits of Speculation: Counterfactualism and the Holocaust" and "Nazis That Never Were: New Alternate Histories of Nazism."

I will be posting further information about the book as it goes up online.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Counterfactuals in "The Goldfinch"

I recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, and was struck by an important exchange about counterfactuals between the two main characters, Boris and Theo.  (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet read the novel!)

Near the narrative’s conclusion, the two men are discussing the circumstances surrounding the theft and recovery of the famous painting by Carel Fabritius (1654) when Boris contrasts his philosophy of life from that of Theo.

Boris explains his philosophy with the help of a reference to Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Idiot (1869), in which the main character, Myshkin, does many good deeds but only ends up producing disaster. 

Boris observes: “I used to worry about this a lot.  Lie awake at night and worry.  Because – why? How could this be?....Myshkin was kind, loved everyone, he was tender, always, forgave, he never did a wrong thing, but he…hurt everyone around him.  Very dark message to this book.  ‘Why be good.’  But…what if [the story] is more complicated than that?   What if maybe opposite is true as well?  Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions--?  where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions?  Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way?  You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?....Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?

Theo replies: “I’m not sure I see your point.”

Boris continues: “Well I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you….You -- wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if, ‘what if,” Life is cruel.  I wish I had died instead of….” 

(Throughout the novel, Theo revisits the circumstances that led to his mother’s death and his survival in the museum explosion and constantly second guesses his actions, wondering if a different set of decisions could have led to a different outcome).

Boris continues:

“Well-think about this.  What if all your actions and choices, good and bad, make no difference to God?  What if the pattern is pre-set? …What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?  What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”

“Get where?”

“Understand, by saying ‘God,’ I am merely using ‘God’ as reference to long-term pattern we can’t decipher….

“The point is maybe that the point is too big to see or work around to on our own.  Because…well, if you didn't take picture from museum, and Sascha didn’t steal it back, and I didn’t think of claiming reward – well, wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings remain missing too?  Forever maybe?  Wrapped in brown paper?  Still shut in that apartment?  No one to look at them?  Lonely and lost to the world?  Maybe the one had to be lost for the others to be found? “

Theo replies: “I think this goes more to the idea of relentless irony than divine providence.”

Boris concludes: “Yes – but why give it a name?  Can’t they both be the same thing?”


The interesting thing about the exchange is the inherent contradiction between Boris’s use of counterfactuals. 

He initially attacks Theo for his counterfactual mindset, criticizing his tendency to pursue wishful thinking and Monday morning quarterbacking.  He implies that maybe all things happen for a reason, as part of a divine plan.  In other words, he highlights the dominance of fate, which is the antithesis of a counterfactual sensibility. 

But then, at the same time, he employs counterfactual reasoning to justify his own criminal activity. He declares that all of his mistakes, errors, and misdeeds have had the fortunate consequence of producing a happy outcome (the opposite of the plot in The Idiot).  In other words, despite the many bumps in the road, everything worked out for the best.  This assertion exhibits all the classic features of a nightmare counterfactual, whereby a happy ending redeems anything negative that happened before hand.  It resembles the Panglossian mindset lampooned by Voltaire in Candide.

Boris brings to mind the many critics of counterfactual reasoning who nevertheless utilize it in their daily lives without being aware they are doing so.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Obama's and Hillary's Competing Syrian Counterfactuals

Two recent interviews with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are notable for their inclusion of competing counterfactual claims.

In his recent interview with President Obama in The New York Times, Tom Friedman elicited several counterfactual observations from the President on Syria.

To Friedman’s question “wouldn’t things be better had we armed the secular Syrian rebels early or kept U.S. troops in Iraq? “ Obama declared:

“The fact is…in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not “squandered an opportunity” to share power with Sunnis and Kurds. “Had the Shia majority seized the opportunity to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds in a more effective way, [and not] passed legislation like de-Baathification,” no outside troops would have been necessary. Absent their will to do that, our troops sooner or later would have been caught in the crossfire….”

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

In short, Obama uses his “what if?” scenario to argue that history would not have turned out any better.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton seems to believe otherwise

In her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Clinton was asked about US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s criticism of Obama’s failure to do “enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have.”
She replied with a series of counterfactuals:
The first was hesitant: “I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.”
But then she added:  I did believe…that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition. 
So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them….
Goldberg then replied: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?”
Clinton replied: “Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
In contrast to Obama’s counterfactual, Clinton used her “what if?” scenario to imply how history might have been better.  
Clinton’s counterfactual is much more hesitant than Obama’s.  Political calculation explains this, as she cannot go on record criticizing her previous boss too overtly heading in to the 2016 election cycle.  
But it will bear watching whether the intensifying crisis in the Middle East leads to many more Monday morning quarterbacking counterfactuals.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ron Rosenbaum on Whether the Holocaust Would Have Happened Without Hitler

In a recent podcast of The Gist in Slate Magazine, Mike Pesca interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum about the publication of the second edition of his book, Explaining Hitler. 

Notably, the title of the interview featured an eye-catching counterfactual premise: “The Gist asks whether the Holocaust would have happened if Adolf Hitler were never born.” 

In fact, little of the interview was devoted to the premise, which was essentially used to garner attention.  Moreover, Pesca erred when he began pursuing his counterfactual line of questioning by declaring (erroneously) that “no one has really taken this tack before: What if you kill Hitler, will the Holocaust still happen, will the war still happen? It’s the biggest hypothetical in time travel, without Hitler is there a Holocaust?”

(In fact, plenty of authors have pursued this line of reasoning; but we can leave that aside for the time being). 

The main point is that Rosenbaum responded by noting:

“I studied Hitler’s inner circle and there were vicious antisemites like Goebbels and Heydrich.  It’s possible that certain fanatic Nazis might have done this [ie. ordered the Holocaust’ but my feeling is that a lot of them wanted to express  their fanatic Jew-hatred to earn points with Hitler as much as from personal conviction….”

“Certainly we know Hitler’s central drive was for extermination….I would be hard pressed to think of a scenario in which lacking Hitler’s all-encompassing drive it would have happened.”

In short, Rosenbaum ratified the prevailing scholarly consensus, epitomized by Milton Himmelfarb’s claim from 1984: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.”

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.