Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More History Without Hitler: Timothy Ryback's Counterfactual Reflections on Hitler's Near-Death in World War I


Timothy Ryback’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “History Without Hitler?” raises a question that has been posed many times before, but he approaches it from a new angle by asking what it might tell us about the future.



Ryback describes how the Bavarian Infantry Reserve soldier Adolf Hitler survived several near-death experiences during the First World War before asking:

“what if Hitler had fallen on that Thursday morning a century ago this week, or on any other day during those next four years of frontline fighting? How different might the 20th century have looked? How different might the course of German history have been? What utility is there in such “counterfactual history,” which the eminent British historian Richard Evans recently decried as misguided and futile?”

“Given the perilous political circumstances in some regions of our world today, understanding what could have been, may in fact help us better understand what might be.”

Specifically, Ryback seeks to find parallels between early 20th century Germany and the contemporary Middle East. 

As he puts it: “In 1919, Hitler found himself in a country transitioning from an oppressive but stable monarchy to a fledgling constitutional democracy, a dynamic not unfamiliar to our post-Arab Spring world where countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have edged toward Western-style democracy with dramatically uneven experiences and occasionally horrifying results.”

So far so good, but Ryback never really develops the analogy, offering little more than the truism that the rise of Nazism “underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies.”

More interesting, to my mind, is Ryback’s highlighting of an older counterfactual observation – one that I was unaware of -- by one of Hitler’s henchmen, the jurist Hans Frank.  On death row at Nuremberg in 1945, Frank reflected on the relationship between historical necessity and contingency, declaring: 

“The Führer was a man who was possible in Germany only at that very moment. Had he come, let us say, 10 years later, when the republic was firmly established, it would have been impossible for him. And if he had come 10 years previously, or at any time when there was still the monarchy, he would have gotten nowhere. He came at exactly this terrible transitory period when the monarchy had gone and the republic was not yet secure.”

Frank’s comment suggests the belief that Hitler – or someone like him -- was more or less inevitable in Germany after its military defeat of 1918.  That the times produced the man (as opposed to the reverse).

Ryback essentially agrees.  Although he concedes that while “We can never know how different history may have looked had Hitler been felled by bullets that early morning a hundred years,” he notes that some Germans were already speaking of a “second world war” within a year of the armistice that was to have ended “the war to end all wars.” 

In other words, Hitler was predictable.

Ryback then goes on to endorse the counterfactual claim:     “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” concluding “We can say with certainty that no other political leader of the era would have harnessed national passions or driven an anti-Semitic, pure-race agenda with such ferocity or tragic consequence, resulting in the deaths of millions of European Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the weak and disabled.”

No surprise here, as this belief has lately become the orthodox one.

Ryback’s ultimate conclusion also conforms to what is surely the consensus of most historians – namely, that change takes time:

“So what is the lesson of this particular counterfactual moment for us today? Beyond the fact that the Weimar Republic might well be celebrating the 95th anniversary of its Constitution this autumn, a history without Hitler underscores both the potential and pitfalls of transitioning societies. It shows us that these processes require time, sometimes generations, and how different German history may have been had Hitler fallen with his regiment in Flanders fields 100 years ago this week.”

Do we need a counterfactual line of argumentation to reach this point?  Probably not.  But it is notable that historical “what ifs” continue to employed to arrive at historical understanding.   It is a sure sign of their increasingly mainstream status.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Collectivization Counterfactual: Stephen Kotkin's New Stalin Biography


In yet another sign of the relevance of counterfactuals, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (November 6th) profiles Stephen Kotkin’s forthcoming biography of Joseph Stalin by featuring the speculative title, “If Stalin Had Died...” 


Presumably most of Kotkin's book is written as a traditional history (and has few counterfactual lines of argumentation), but by choosing the highlight the seductive premise of one of the 20th century’s worst criminals being removed from history, Kotkin and the NYRB have chosen to capitalize on the vogue for “what if?” thinking.

The gist of Kotkin’s claim in his article is simple: if Stalin had died in 1921 (either of appendicitis or tuberculosis – both of which he suffered from) or if he had been assassinated in 1928 (plans to this effect seem to have been afoot among certain Bolsheviks), the Soviet Union would have been spared the horrors of collectivization.

Kotkin writes, “the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization – the only kind -- would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high.”

In short, a real historical nightmare would have been averted, thus making the counterfactual claim a clear fantasy.

Kotkin then goes on to refute E. H. Carr’s famous assertion that “Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances,” declaring the assertion to be “utterly, eternally wrong.”  Stalin, for Kotkin, validates the great man theory of history (T. Carlyle), writing that he “made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth.”  He concludes: “History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up.”

Kotkin does not say how the Soviet Union would have evolved without Stalin.  But he hints that the system could have survived under a different leader.  He dismisses the possible ascension of Trotsky, whose leadership skills were not up to snuff, but he writes that “even within the encumbering Leninist frame, a Soviet leader could have gone out of his way to reduce the paranoia built into the regime’s relations with the outside world....A Soviet leader could have paid the price of partial accommodation, grasping that capitalism was not, in fact, dying out globally....”

Kotkin adds that the Soviet Union could have modernized without Stalin’s crash program of collectivization, noting that it could have pursued a more market based approach; collectivization, he adds, was not “necessary to sustain a dictatorship,” as “private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible” – as shown by the example of Italian Fascism.

Further questions, unasked by Kotkin, could be posed:

Would the Soviet Union have been able to withstand Hitler’s assault of June 22, 1941 and ultimately defeat the Nazis had Stalin not forcibly industrialized the country through the two Five Year plans?  (This is the theodicy that is often invoked to justify Stalin’s dictatorial rule)

For that matter, if Stalin had died in 1921, would the Soviet Union have industrialized as rapidly in the years that followed?  (Kotkin seems to imply the answer to be yes).

It is also worth asking how Russia would have fared had the Whites won the Civil War over the Reds and reimposed some kind of authoritarian or even fascist order in the 1920s. 

Indeed, would Hitler have even invaded Russia in this alternate world?  Hitler’s commitment to Lebensraum in the east suggests the answer to be yes, even if Russia was not ruled by the Bolsheviks.  But can we imagine Nazism without Bolshevism? 

So much speculating to do – but so little time!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Today's Most Depressing Counterfactual: Sam Harris on Saddam Hussein

Following his dust-up with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show the other night, Sam Harris posted an impassioned blog about liberals' confusion with Islam.  In it, he concluded as follows:

"As I tried to make clear on Maher’s show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim “extremists” believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe—just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world."

The fact that the original scenario that prompted the 2003 war vs. Iraq was a nightmare -- ie. the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq motivated to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction -- makes it tragically ironic that we are now flirting with the fantasy about having kept him in power all along.

There really is no better confirmation of the fact that we cannot judge history while we're still in the middle of it.  Only knowing the ending allows us arrive at a judicious conclusion.  And we are clearly very far from any ending in the current war against radical Islam in the Middle East.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Review of Richard J. Evans's "Altered Pasts"

I can't yet post my full (7800 word) review of Richard Evans's provocative new book, Altered Pasts, which appears in the current issue of History & Theory, but I thought interested readers might want to see the abstract below.  (I'm new to the legalities of posting one's own work on one's own blog, but apparently the PDF can only be posted a year after it appears in print).  Alas....



Here's the abstract:

WHITHER “WHAT IF” HISTORY?

Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures). By Richard Evans. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, 2014. Pp. 176.

Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts, offers a perceptive but flawed critique of the field of counterfactual history. The author provides a useful historical survey of the field’s recent rise to prominence and intelligently analyzes its respective strengths and weaknesses. His overall assessment of the field is quite skeptical, however. Evans cites many reasons for his skepticism, but his overall critique can be summarized in three words: plausibility, politicization, and popularity. Evans faults works of counterfactual history for their frequently implausible narratives, their promotion of political agendas, and their distressing degree of popularity. In advancing his critique, Evans makes many valid observations that call attention to important deficiencies in the field. But his view is a partial one that neglects countervailing evidence and never penetrates to the heart of why the field has left the margins for the mainstream. Evans’s study provides a useful introduction to an understudied topic, but further research—ideally of a less partisan nature—is required for us to better understand counterfactual history’s increasing appeal.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gary Hart and Donna Rice's "Nose"

Matt Bai’s essay, “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics,” from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, offers a gripping account of Gary Hart’s rise and fall in the year 1987.  What I found most interesting, though, was (predictably enough) the story’s counterfactual ending. 

At the end of the essay, Lee and Gary Hart mull over the “what if” dimension of the scandal.  It was not just the fact that Hart’s withdrawal from the race represented a rupture in American political culture; it also may have affected the course of American history.
Lee Hart, in reflecting on her husband’s wistful sense of what might have been, remarked:
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee said.
And Gary Hart himself concluded:
Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully. 
Bai continues: "This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.”
(As the article spells out earlier: “In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.”)
Hart went on to speculate:
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”

It is overly simplistic to evoke Pascal’s famous notion of “Cleopatra’s nose” and claim that Donna Rice’s sex appeal led to the war in Iraq.  But the entire story underscores the ways in which chance events can have unforeseeable consequences. 

More than anything else, though, Hart’s emotional reflections reinforce the notion that people construct counterfactuals in order to led meaning to their lives.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Counterfactual Chatter in "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki"

Perhaps because I was able to read a decent bit of mainstream fiction this summer, some of my recent postings have focused on the presence of counterfactuals in contemporary literature.


In addition to spotting some contradictory "what if" reasoning in Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, last month, I found some interesting passages in Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

The novel features a group of five childhood friends in the Japanese city of Nagoya who part ways as they enter adulthood and display multiple regrets about the circumstances of their parting.

Late in the novel, two of the main characters, Eri and Tsukuru have an extended counterfactual exchange about their mutual mentally unbalanced friend, Yuzu.  Eri expresses regret to Tsukuru about having become distanced Yuzu, who tragically ends up getting murdered.  She compares Yuzu to "a pretty bird, [with] the kind of neck that could snap so easily" and she declares: "If I'd been in Japan that probably never would have happened to her.  I would never have let her go off to some town she didn't know, all by herself."

She then confesses her teenage crush on Tsukuru and apologizes for having cut off ties with him, noting, "If I had only had a little more confidence and courage, and no stupid pride," I never would have abandoned you like that, no matter what the circumstances."

Tsukuru replies, "You don't have to worry....I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then,...we might have still ended up pretty much where we are."

Eri replies "Will you tell me one thing?...If I had come right out then and told you I loved you, would you have gone out with me?

Tsukuru: "Of course I would have....I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend.  And I think we would have been happy together."

The narrative then continues:

"The two of them would likely have been a close couple, with a fulfilling love life, Tsukuru decided.  There would have been so much they could have shared....Tsukuru had the feeling, though, that this closeness would have been short-lived.  An unavoidable fissure would have grown between what he and Eri wanted from their lives...and eventually...they would have gone off in separate directions."

The exchange illustrates several things.  First it confirms the finding of social science research that regret is a common emotion associated with wondering "what if?" (usually in the vein of "if only...", otherwise known as "wishful thinking.")  Predictably enough, the exchange appears to be full of fantasy scenarios (upward counterfactuals) that imagine history turning out better.  And yet, the exchange ultimately settles into a "reversionary counterfactual," in which an apparently alternate course of events eventually ends up conforming to the real historical record.   Tsukuru concludes that he and Eri never would have stayed together had they given their relationship a chance.  The counterfactual exchange, in other words, ends up showing how history's course was predestined.

Not the most original point, to be sure, but interesting to see in a prominent novel, nevertheless.  I am new to Murakami's work and found Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to be generally satisfying (but less captivating thatn The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which I liked quite a bit more).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Questionable Counterfactual: Could World War II Really Have Been Avoided?


In an interview with the German newspaper, the Osnabrücker Zeitung, the historian and former head of the Institut for Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Horst Möller, answered a variety of questions pertaining to the Second World War.  Notably, the content of the interview, sensationalistically entitled “The Second World War Could Have Been Avoided,” was full of counterfactual questions and answers.



The first was “could the war have been avoided?”  In responding to this question, Möller criticized the Treaty of Versailles for creating many “problems involving national minorities,” for example, three million Sudeten Germans on the German border with Czechoslovakia.  “One possible way of avoiding the war would have been to pursue a more reasonable set of Peace Treaties that would have addressed the problems.”

He added that a second way to have avoided the war would have been for the Allies to respond to Hitler’s aggressive actions in 1935/36 – for example his remilitarization of the Rhineland – “with more decisiveness.”

Asked to assess the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact for the war’s outbreak and whether it “would have been imaginable without it?” Möller noted that Hitler was committed to war by 1937 (as shown by the famous Hossbach Memorandum), but that the pact was still “decisive” as it “minimized Hitler’s risk” of invading Poland.  “Without the pact,” he asserted, “the war would not have unfolded as it did.” 

Finally, in answering the question whether “Hitler was primarily responsible for the war?” Möller replied, “without Hitler, the Second World War would not have transpired as it did, neither in its radicalism or timing.”  Even if Hitler’s task was made easier by Stalin, “he was the main guilty party, with plenty of helpers.”

Möller's answers are basically sound.  He judiciously balances between the primary and secondary factors responsible for the war's eruption.

That said, his claim that the war could have been avoided is not very convincing.  Given Hitler's commitment to war, it would have been extremely difficult for the Allies to have kept him from trying to realize his goals through force.  

To be fair, it doesn't seem that Müller's main goal was to emphasize the war's counterfactual dimensions.  More likely, the journalist conducting the interview wanted to emphasize them for publicity purposes.   We all know that "what if?" claims garner attention.  The interview is notable for concentrating its focus as much on what might have happened as what did. Perhaps this focus represents the new default perspective for journalists hoping to spice up their coverage historical topics.  It has certainly been seen in lots of European and American media articles about recent historical events, for example, the hundredth anniversary of World War I.  Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, but its prominence is quite clear.