Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Victor Davis Hanson’s Anachronistic Counterfactual About Obama Appeasing Hitler

Victor Davis Hanson often uses counterfactual reasoning in his work, but his recent post entitled “President Franklin Delano Obama Addresses the Threat of 1930s Violent Extremism,” fails to fulfill the criteria of a being a genuine counterfactual. 

Subtitled “Imagine Obama as an American President in 1939,” the premise is automatically disqualified from counterfactual status as it is based upon the physical impossibility of Obama being president before he was born.  Rather than functioning as a legitimate counterfactual, it can be viewed as an “anachronistic counterfactual” that sacrifices plausibility for the sake of polemic.

Of course, there is a genuine counterfactual implied in Hanson’s essay.  It could be worded as follows: “What If the United States under FDR had responded to the Nazis in the same way that the United states under Obama has been responding to ISIS?”

Hanson could have drawn many of the same provocative conclusions that he offers up in his essay, while maintaining the integrity of his counterfactual.

Indeed, many of the claims are worth pondering.  Hanson provokes us to think hard about whether the Obama administration’s efforts to separate ISIS from Islam is truly convincing by exporting the present-day administration's reasoning back into the 1930s.

For instance, he has (fictional President) Obama exclaiming:

“So make no mistake about it: National Socialism has nothing to do with Germany or the German people but is rather a violent extremist organization that has perverted the culture of Germany. It is an extremist ideology that thrives on the joblessness of Germany and can be best opposed by the international community going to the root of German unemployment and economic hard times…”

Hanson is right to remind us that Nazism was partly rooted in German political culture and that it would be shortsighted for us to ignore ISIS’s links to Islam.

Hanson is equally provocative in using his anachronistic “what if” to cast doubt on the idea that western/liberal actions can be blamed for Islamic extremism by showing how an analogous claim would irresponsibly let the Nazis off the hook for their aggressive behavior in the 1930s.

This becomes clear when he has the 1930s Obama proclaim:

“More broadly, groups like those headed by Herr Hitler and the National Socialists exploit the anger that festers when people in Germany feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better. Here I would remind ourselves of our past behavior in waging wars near the homeland of Germany. I opposed the Great War, and further opposed the Versailles Treaty that disturbed the region and stirred up violent passions and extremism.”

Hanson, to be sure, is wrong to entirely dismiss the contention believed by his fictional President Obama (as well as real one today) that American actions had/have a role in leading to the rise of the Nazis and ISIS.  (Western decisions after World War I vis a vis Germany did help foster a climate where the Nazis thrived).  Moreover, he is wrong to dismiss circumstantial factors beyond German culture in leading to the rise of Nazism (After all, Nazism only thrived in Germany when the country descended back into internal domestic crisis).  

But Hanson is right to raise these issues for discussion.  

I only wish he had done so in the guise of a different historical narrative that enjoyed higher plausibility.

For instance, he could have followed the example of P. J. O’Rourke who produced a well-known National Lampoon illustrated essay in 1980 entitled “If World War II Had Been Fought Like the War in Vietnam.”  It condemned the “soft” US military campaign in Vietnam by showing how if the US had fought the Second World War in the same way, it would have led to disaster.    Like Hanson, in short, O’Rourke imagined a counterfactual nightmare in order to criticize the present.

Hanson’s counterfactual resembles the anachronistic quality of Justin Bieber’s (admittedly much lazier) remark several years ago about the high likelihood of Anne Frank becoming one of his fans if she were alive today. 

I will keep an eye out for more anachronistic counterfactuals to see if they constitute a noticeable trend.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Would Hitler Have Become Hitler If He Had a Different Name?

In this week's issue of The Forward, I review Matt Ogens' brilliant and endearing new documentary film, Meet the Hitlers.  

The review ends with some counterfactual speculation about the ramifications of Hitler's father NOT having changed his surname back in 1876.

Click HERE for the link.

(Meet the Hitlers is currently showing at film festivals and has a wonderful trailer that can be seen on the film's website).

Monday, February 2, 2015

Nuking Berlin (Again): Steven Shapin on Churchill and the British Atom Bomb

One of the benefits of my long deferred decision to subscribe to the London Review of Books is that I recently came across an extended counterfactual reflection from a few years back on the nuclear destruction of Berlin by historian of science Steven Shapin.  Actually, it’s more of a meditation of what would have happened had Great Britain under the leadership of Winston Churchill decided to invest more resources in the developing of the atom bomb during World War II. 

Shapin’s reflections appeared in his review of Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics.  What I found most interesting – and indeed significant – was that Shapin begins his review of the book with a counterfactual history of the world as it might have been – had England developed the bomb – as method of appreciating the significance of Farmelo’s book.
The review begins as follows:
“Winston Churchill’s decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Berlin on 1 July 1947 wasn’t a difficult one. The war hadn’t been going well since the landings in the Pas de Calais in May 1946 were thrown back with terrible losses – a failure that had much to do with the amount of treasure and materiel that had been diverted to Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. The Americans remained preoccupied in the Pacific, still wary of the slaughter that would surely attend an invasion of the Japanese home islands, and it wasn’t likely that another landing on the Atlantic coast of Europe could be mounted for several years. British and Canadian carpet-bombing of German cities continued, but ever since the Russians had been dealt an almost fatal blow by the capture of Moscow in September 1941, the Nazis had been able to shift military production out of range of Allied bombers and harden the Atlantic defences. The alternative to using the Bomb on Berlin would be more V-3 rockets falling on London and stalemate in the west, a thought too dreadful to contemplate. As Churchill foresaw, the Bomb instantly decapitated the Nazi leadership, and General von Kleist, the commander of the remaining German forces in the west, offered unconditional surrender. Britain’s Bomb won the war.”
“Producing the Bomb had cost Britain dear, ever since Churchill decided early in 1942 to go ahead with the massive project on the basis of the reports of the MAUD Committee and secured the vital collaboration of the Canadians in uranium isotope separation using the gaseous diffusion method. He had directed British scientists not to tell the Americans about calculations done in Birmingham early in 1940 by the émigré physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, which established that no more than a kilogram of fissionable U-235 was required for a bomb. American scientists, like the Germans, who also believed that tons might be needed, had not gone ahead with their proposed Cambridge Project, named after the Harvard and MIT affiliations of its leading figures. The Americans had concluded that it would be impossible to produce so much U-235 in time for a weapon to be used in this war, so in June 1947 Britain emerged as the world’s only nuclear power, and the gun-method uranium Bomb – nicknamed Fat Man (after the prime minister) – was successfully tested in Newfoundland. The British Bomb had seriously strained the alliance with the Americans, but there was no more a ‘special relationship’ with the US than there was with France. Britain had entered the war as a great imperial power, and Churchill was determined that it should emerge from it at least as great, a benign world policeman.”
“As it turned out, however, Britain’s use of the Bomb on Germany had the opposite effect. Like Aesop’s fable of the frog trying to become an ox, Britain puffed itself up until it burst. It could neither preserve its empire nor command the resources to sustain a superpower role, and historians now write fanciful ‘what if?’ stories envisaging a world in which the Americans were the first to develop the Bomb. They imagine what might have happened had Britain not implemented an open-arms policy towards émigré Jewish scientists and had Enrico Fermi gone to the US instead of Britain, where he so effectively joined his theoretical and experimental talents to those of Frisch, Peierls and dozens of other escapees in the massive and spectacularly successful Edgbaston Project. If all those things really had happened, the fantasists suggest, the Americans might have built the Bomb even sooner than the British did, given their vast industrial capabilities. They might have pursued a wide range of ways of producing U-235 and plutonium, even the electromagnetic separation techniques that the British-Canadian project had set aside because of their enormous expense. What if the US had become the world’s first nuclear power as early as the summer of 1946, then used its first two bombs on Kobe and Nagasaki, and its next two on Vladivostok and Moscow, since the Soviets had repulsed the Germans at Moscow and were threatening to dominate half of Europe? What, then, would Britain’s fate have been in the following decades? What if, unencumbered by the impossible demands of remaining a great power, Britain had not so disastrously attempted to retain its empire and had instead enthusiastically embraced a resurgent federal Europe? What if Britain had devoted huge resources to help reconstruct a still radioactive Soviet Union and formed a peaceful Atlantic-to-the-Urals ‘Eurovision’ partnership ranged against the rampant and dangerous American superpower? What if America, as the world’s sole nuclear state, was itself about to be destroyed by its own vaulting ambition?”
“Things didn’t happen that way, but they could have. Counterfactual history seems so implausible because our minds tend to drift from knowing the way things turned out to the assumption that that’s the way they had to turn out, but it prompts us nevertheless to think about the fragile interconnections of events, structures and personalities. Imagining a world in which Britain produced its own nuclear weapons during the war makes you consider the opportunity costs of things that didn’t happen because certain other things did: for example, the resources unavailable for assembling a Continental invasion force because they were devoted to a nuclear programme, and the political implications of things that might have happened if Britain had made its own Bomb, not least the effect on postwar relations with the United States.”

What a wonderfully provocative way to begin a book review!  Shapin’s attention to detail is impressive and his understanding of the utility of counterfactuals is spot-on.

That said, there are a few glitches.  First, he violates the “minimal rewrite rule” (to wit: change as little as possible to the historical record after your initial point of divergence) by adding a second counterfactual with the Germans’ capture of Moscow in September 1941.  (How this transpires is left unexplained).  Presumably, British panic at the USSR’s near-defeat is what sparks their move to develop the atom bomb. 

But in reality, a near Soviet defeat might very well have led the UK to throw in the towel against the Nazis; with the USSR essentially out of the fight and the US not yet in it, England’s will to fight would have flagged.  This was Hitler’s strategy all along, of course, and one can imagine the separate peace camp in England pushing for an end to hostilities.

This is why Shapin’s conclusion that the British would have ultimately nuked Berlin (though not til 1947) does not convince as much as the hypothetical scenario of a German army victory in the Battle of the Bulge leading to this apocalyptic outcome.  (Click HERE, for a recent post on this topic).

Two and a half cheers, though, for Steven Shapin for adding further legitimacy to allohistorical speculation in academic writing.

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.