February 13, 2004

Counterfactual history and the plot against Hitler

The use of counterfactuals can be a controversial subject among historians. The British scholar Niall Ferguson has edited a collection of essays on alternative history as part of an effort to promote a "chaotic" view of the past, but more traditional historians have scoffed at speculation about how history might have changed if events had followed an alternative path. E.H. Carr, for one, wrote off the use of counterfactuals as a "parlour game" for poor losers, and the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott denounced counterfactual history as "a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history." Very few attempts at alternative history have been rigorous or intelligent, after all: readers are more likely to come across a silly science fiction story about the assassination of Adolf Hitler than they are to see a serious discussion of the role of contingency in history.

Nevertheless, I'm going to do something a little risky here: I plan to discuss what might have happened if the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler's life had succeeded. Earlier this week, the History News Network led me to an interesting Reuters article on Philipp von Boeselager, an 86-year-old German who participated in that plot. Reuters quoted a remark by Boeselager that got me thinking:

"We were convinced that even if July 20 had been successful, we would have been hanged because the mass of Germans believed Hitler. They would have said: 'If Hitler was still alive, we would have won the war'," he said.

Could the assassination of Hitler, I wondered, have had negative consequences in post-war German history? Imagine, for a moment, an alternative scenario. Imagine that Hitler had been assassinated on July 20 and that Germany had surrendered to the Allies--either at the decision of the new leaders or as a result of the Nazi regime's collapse. Furthermore, imagine that this surrender was not viewed as legitimate by the German people: they might have objected to it at the time (believing, incorrectly, that the war could still have been won) or they might have come to this conclusion five, ten, or twenty years later. This belief could have changed history even if only ten or twenty percent of the German people decided that Hitler could have saved them.

Of course, history might not have turned out this way if Hitler had died. Perhaps the German government would have continued the war until its total defeat in 1945; perhaps it would have surrendered, and the German people would still have realized that their cause was doomed. Boeselager's idea has some surface plausibility, however. After World War I, many right-wing nationalists came to the conclusion that Germany would have won the war if the country's leaders hadn't "stabbed them in the back" by surrendering too soon, and it's not hard to imagine a World War II "stab-in-the back" theory in the event of Hitler's death.

Which brings us to an important question: How would the history of post-war Germany have developed under this scenario? Would Nazism or a milder form of German nationalism have experienced a resurgence? Would the country's post-war pacifism have emerged? How would German relations with America and the Soviet Union have developed?

The main advantage of this scenario, I believe, isn't to help us understand the July 20 plot or the end of World War II; it's to help us understand the course of post-war German history. In order to answer the questions above, after all, we need to understand why German history developed the way it has. Many contemporary observers expected Germany to remain a threat in the future: Lord Ismay, a British diplomat, famously claimed that NATO was founded in order "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down," and the Soviets were afraid that a resurgent Germany would become an ally of the capitalist West. This didn't turn out to be a problem, of course--just as the world economy confounded expectations by flourishing (rather than falling back into the Great Depression.)

But why hasn't post-war German foreign policy been more assertive? What role was played by the country's feelings of shame and humiliation for their total defeat, for the beginning of the war, and for the Holocaust? What role did the Cold War and the division of Germany play? How important was the American occupation and the process of de-Nazification? All of these factors would have played out differently if Hitler had been killed on July 20, 1944, and counterfactuals can highlight the role of contingency in world history and focus our attention on important questions about the past.

Posted by Ed at February 13, 2004 08:48 PM

As an alternate history aficionado, I thoroughly appreciated this well-reasoned discussion of the long term implications of Operation Valkyrie on German foreign policy during the later part of the twentieth century. Without conceding or attempting to eliminate the challenges of counterfactual speculation, this entry (like Ferguson's book), highlights the legitimate scholarly role of such discussions. Great work.

Posted by: Ben at February 15, 2004 11:18 AM

Yes, but. Counterfactuals are very dangerous. It's appallingly easy to smuggle a petitio principi in with your counterfactual speculations. There's a classic case some years ago. Rorty wrote a piece in the New York Review which assumed, counterfactually, that Heidegger had married a Jew, been dechaired by the Nazis, moved to New York and wrote his books there. Since they came out the same in this scenario, they obviously didn't reflect fascist thought.

Posted by: jam at February 16, 2004 08:04 PM

An idea I hadn't thought of, so I enjoyed the post. But 1944 wasn't 1918. My blog has details, if anyone cares to consider (& argue!) the disanalogies. Basically, (1) Hamburg et al., (2) the Eastern Front, (3) Auschwitz.

Posted by: Andy at February 17, 2004 05:59 PM
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