Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

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.



On the 70th Anniversary of Hitler's Death

My post today on website, The Conversation, deals with a few counterfactuals relating to Hitler's death on April 30, 1945.


It's always worthwhile wondering "what if?" on the occasion of anniversaries.  It remains to be seen what percentage of commentaries today go down a counterfactual route, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is substantial.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

A More Economically Rational Nazi Germany?


Although I haven’t read his book yet, Pierpaolo Barbieri’s new study, Hitler’s Shadow Empire, promises to offer some interesting counterfactual ruminations about a Nazi Germany that might have been had Hjalmar Schacht been able to implement his comparatively pragmatic economic policy vision.


At least that is what a new interview with the author in The Huffington Post suggests.  Entitled, “Hitler, Franco, and a Banker: The Path Not Taken in Nazi Germany,” the piece begins with the interviewer, Elizabeth Nicholas, noting:

“Winston Churchill's axiom that history is written by the victors is a cliché drilled into budding historians, hinting to them, perhaps, that alternative histories can be unearthed by imagining what might have happened had the losers won.”

She goes on to observe:

“Barbieri illustrates why history should be written by historians rather than mere victors by vividly and meticulously illuminating the two very different conceptions of a what a strong Germany meant in the Nazi Party's prewar years among the party's leaders.”

“One faction believed that not only did the political acquisition of a territory still matter, but that it mattered most. Mass annexation was considered essential to the future of the German people. On the other hand was a faction defined in Hitler's Shadow Empire by the Führer's one-time Minister of Economics and President of the Reischbank, Hjalmar Schacht, who knew that without successful economic policy, land grabs meant little. Schacht advocated for an informal empire of economic rather than military dominance, similar to the colonial model and motivated by the prospect of new markets and natural resources. It was Schachtian economics, Barbieri suggests, rather than ideological fraternité that led Hitler to lend his decisive support to Francisco Franco on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Had Schacht not been forced from the party in 1938, Nazi Germany's European expansion might have played out quite differently than it did.”

In proceeding with her interview, Nicholas queries Barbieri as follows:

“Tell me about the divisions within the Nazi Party in the 1930s. It seems there were two very distinct ideas about what kind of might Germany should seek to amass.” Both ideologies shared the goal of a powerful Germany. The faction of the party that eventually won out advocated for a policy based on Lebensraum, the idea that territorial expansion and conquest was essential for German strength and survival. The policy Schacht advocated for was based on a more informal empire, like the kind Hitler established with Franco's Spain, built on expanded access to export markets and resources. Its aims were economic rather than military, and it built on World War I ideas associated with Weltpolitik.”
“Why did the Lebensraum faction win out? 
In writing this book, the most interesting thing was trying to see how things ended up the way they did. If we look at history is a Borgesian garden of forking paths, what different choices might have been made to result in different histories? I think considering all of those possible different choices, rather than saying from 1933 on, Auschwitz was a forgone conclusion, gives a more interesting and honest view of what decision making is in politics and life. There were rational people, Schacht among them, running policy in the Nazi Party's early years, and its interesting to consider what might have gone differently had his more economics-oriented faction prevailed over the one that did.
“For the first four years the Nazi Party was in power, the Lebensraum rhetoric was mainly just that -- propaganda broadcast to the masses while more rational policies were actually being implemented at the top. At times Hitler himself disowned some of the extreme versions of these ideas, particularly support for "autarky" or economic closure. Schacht's fiscal policy and work projects like the Autobohn and the construction of the Luftwaffe worked well economically boosting jobs and growth, and won the party popularity.”
“But when it came time to moderate that policy to make it sustainable, Hitler refused to do so. He fired Schacht and replaced him with someone who would never tell him something wasn't possible. He centralized all decision-making in himself, and the pragmatists were marginalized or left the party on their own. Once those traditional conservative members had left, all that was left were the zealots, who would never tell Hitler no, and for whom rationality was irrelevant.”

These observations seem unobjectionable as far as they go, but I am interested to see how far Barbieri extends his counterfactual ruminations and whether they pass the plausibility test.

To be sure, a Nazi Germany that followed Schacht’s vision would have been vastly preferable and much more moderate.  But then it would not have been Nazi Germany. 

By the late 1930s, Hitler had sidelined or purged all of the comparatively independent “old elites” from key sectors of German institutional life and replaced them with “yes men.”  Schacht with Walter Funk in the economics ministry; Werner von Blomberg, Werner von Fritsch, and Ludwig Beck with Walter Brauchtisch, Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl in the Wehrmacht, and Konstantin von Neurath with Joachim von Ribbentrop in the foreign office.

Hitler pursued this course as part of his desire to intensify his regime’s ideological direction, which infamously culminated in global war and genocide.

To speculate that Schacht could have done anything to avert this, if this is the thrust of Barbieri’s counterfactual musings, would not be very compelling. 

But the book may be intent on making another implicit point (and maybe once I read it, I will find that it is made explicitly), which is that the Nazi Germany that might-have-been strongly resembles today’s Germany – with Angela Merkel using “soft” economic power rather than aggressive military power to assert German hegemony in Europe through the EU. 

In short, the book may offer a subtle lesson from the Third Reich that could have been for the Fourth Reich that still may be.

I’m looking forward to finding out….


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Counterfactuals and the Role of Assassinations in History


With the recent publication of  T.J. Turner’s new alternate history about President Abraham Lincoln’s (non)assassination, Lincoln's Bodyguard: In A Heroic Act Of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President! John Wilkes Booth Killed In Act Of Treason, it is fortuitous that today’s New York Times features an opinion piece on the role of assassinations in changing the course of history.


Written by academic scholars Benjamin F. Jones And Benjamin A. Olken, the essay, entitled “Do Assassins Really Change History?” does not feature much explicit “what if?” reflection, but nevertheless has many counterfactual implications.

Predictably the authors at the outset weigh in on a standard question of historical causality, comparing the relationship between great individuals and structural determinants in the perpetration of assassinations.
They write: “One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.
They then go on to note:
“Prominent examples of assassinations raise intriguing questions, but do not settle the matter. Would the Vietnam War have escalated if John F. Kennedy had not been killed? Would the Middle East peace process have proceeded more successfully if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had not been assassinated?”
The authors then cite statistics to provide answers: 

“To better understand the role of assassinations in history, we collected data on all assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004, both those that killed the leader and those that failed.”

“Assassins are often inaccurate, and their victims are usually bystanders. Even if the gun is fired or the bomb actually explodes, the intended target is killed less than 25 percent of the time….”

“A leader’s survival can depend on remarkable twists of fate. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, reportedly survived an assassination attempt in which a live grenade bounced off his chest and killed or wounded several people in a crowd nearby. Kennedy did not escape the bullet that killed him, even though it was fired from 265 feet away and he was in a moving car. But President Ronald Reagan survived being shot at close range, as John Hinckley Jr.’s bullet punctured his lung but stopped just short of his heart.”

Thus far, the essay tells us little that we don’t already know: chance plays a major role in assassinations.

More interesting is the authors’ effort to chart the consequences of failed or successful assassination attempts:

They write: “We compared the 59 assassination attempts in our data that happened to succeed with 192 close calls that happened to fail.”

“We found that assassinations do have an effect on political systems, but with caveats. For one, the effects are largely limited to autocracies. On average, the deaths of autocrats have prompted moves toward democracy, which appear 13 percentage points more likely than when following failed attempts. Democracies, in contrast, appear robust: The deaths of democratic leaders do not lead to a slide into autocracy.”

“Assassinations can also change the path of war. For countries in moderate conflicts, with fewer than 1,000 battle deaths, assassinations feed the flames, as these conflicts are more likely to intensify. On the other hand, for countries already in intense conflicts, assassinations of leaders appear more likely than failed attempts to bring the war to a close.”
“Failed attempts themselves may change outcomes; an autocrat who survives an assassination attempt may crack down on opposition groups, leading a country further from democracy. Our data are consistent with this “intensifying autocracy” effect. Assassination attempts on autocrats thus bring considerable risk: They appear to increase the chance of democratization if the attempt succeeds, but lessen it in the far more likely event that the attempt fails.”
The chief takeaway: “The historical evidence is that assassinations do matter when targeting autocrats, but they primarily bring risk.”
These findings suggest some possible parameters for gauging the plausibility of counterfactual scenarios involving regime change.  They would suggest, for instance, that narratives featuring FDR being assassinated in 1933 (see Alan Glenn’s Amerikan Eagle, or even Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) are unrealistic in proposing a subsequent American turn to fascism.
But the findings may have to be qualified in light of important exceptions.  If Joseph Stalin was, as many scholars believe, actually poisoned in 1953, his death had little effect on the authoritarian Soviet system.  Many medieval kings in England were assassinated (usually by relatives) without jeopardizing the institution of monarchy. 
Most importantly, the essay cannot account for more subtle, but no less important, counterfactual questions involving assassinations in democracies.  Even if the institution of democracy survives the killing of its leaders, the actual policies that would have been adopted had they survived might have been quite different.  A surviving Lincoln or Kennedy probably would have governed quite differently from their successors.
Still, the finds are suggestive and should be kept in mind by anyone spinning out future counterfactuals.