Gavriel Rosenfeld joins us talk to discuss What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism, counterfactual history, and the role that history, truth, and fiction play in the public sphere.
Other counterfactual books (both scholarly and popular), TV shows, and movies discussed:
- Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2005)
- Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007)
- Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (2009)
- Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (2011) and the Hulu TV show (2016)
- Robert Harris, Fatherland (1992) and the HBO movie (1994)
- Ben Winters, Underground Airlines (2016)
- Richard Ned Lubow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I (2014)
- Cyril M. Kornbluth, “Two Dooms” (1958), in His Share of Glory
- HBO’s proposed (and scrapped) show, “Confederate”
- ‘Game of Thrones’ Creators Land New Series at HBO (Variety)
- The Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond to the Backlash and Explain Why They Wanted to Tell This Story (Vulture)
- Sean O’Neil, “Can we just stop fantasizing about the South winning the Civil War?” (AV Club)
- Bree Newsome, “We don’t need a TV show about the Confederacy winning. In many ways, it did.” (Washington Post)
- Gavriel Rosenfeld, “In Defense of HBO’s Counterfactual ‘Confederate,'” The Conversation, Sept. 2017
- “Why HBO’s Planned ‘Confederate’ Series Alarms Some Historians”
- Scholarly works
- What would America be like without immigrants? Counterfactual history and debates about immigration
Relevant books and ideas mentioned about the question of Jewish historians and counterfactual history:
- Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor (1982)
- David N. Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Historians and the Zionist Return to History (1995)
- Wissenschaft des Judentums
- Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891)
Other theoretical issues relating to debates about history and narrative:
- Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1973) and The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1990)
- Robert Bernasconi on Jacques Derrida’s concept of supplementarity
Gavriel Rosenfeld is Professor of History at Fairfield University, and he serves as director of the undergraduate program in Judaic Studies there. In addition to his new book What Ifs of Jewish History, which we discussed in this episode, other notable works include Building after Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust (2011) and Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (2015).
Counterfactual history is fascinating because it inverts the assumptions of what we think history is all about: instead of trying to uncover events as they actually happened, it’s about thinking about what could have happened.
In What Ifs of Jewish History, Gavriel has brought together a series of 16 essays written by leading scholars in Jewish history. Each chapter considers a scenario about how Jewish history could have gone differently, like: What if the Exodus from Egypt had never happened? What if the Jews had not been expelled from Spain in 1492? What if a Jewish state had been established in Uganda? What would have happened if Hitelr had been assassinated in 1939? What would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War?
The book is a lot of fun. And it’s important, too. Alternate history is everywhere in popular culture, but historians aren’t usually a big part of this conversation. The book’s argument, to some extent, is that historians have shied away from counterfactuals because what of a sense that scholars should be in the business of truth, and things that didn’t happen were by definition outside of this purview; alternate history and counterfactual reasoning have for this reason been seen by many as not “serious” enough, or the realm of fiction and entertainment, instead of fact.
However, that “what if” question is an important part of historical reasoning—how we try to understand the past and the world around us. And if we want to say that history matters, well, these are some of the kinds of historical questions that people are asking all the time: Not just what happened, but how it could have happened differently. For this reason, this book raises important issues and complex questions about the past itself, how we engage with it, and what could have been if only things had gone differently.
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: I was really excited to get a chance to talk about this book. One of the things that I find to be so interesting about What Ifs of Jewish History and this “what if” question more broadly is that it frames, in a sort of way, a kind of an unusual history book: It’s really about what didn’t happen in Jewish history. Can you maybe tell us a bit about the idea of counterfactual history, and why you think this is a useful approach?
Gavriel Rosenfeld: Sure. Counterfactual history has a really long history, in the sense that it dates back to antiquity. If you look at some of the foremost Greek and Roman historians from the period of the fifth century onward, whether it’s Herodotus or Thucydides or later Roman historians, likes Sallust or Tacitus, you actually see in their texts and their narratives all kinds of “what if” formulations where they muse reflectively about how certain events might have transpired otherwise. And one can actually find signs of counterfactual thinking in ancient Egyptian, Hittite, and Sumerian texts. It all makes it pretty clear that thousands of years ago, human beings were wondering “what if” and coming up with fantasies and nightmares about how things might have been different. And when you go through the Middle Ages up to the early modern period and into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you see counterfactual thinking even in the works of modern historians.
But despite that long paper trail, most historians today don’t take counterfactual history seriously because they argue that historians should, by definition, not engage in that kind of thinking, and ultimately they have often assumed that historians haven’t engaged in that kind of thinking. But the historical record shows, as I’m trying to document in this new book project I’m working on the history of counterfactual history, that it’s really been ubiquitous and that it’s high time for us to take it seriously because as part of the historical repertoire of what historians used methodologically to try and understand what really did happen.
JL: So when you say that it’s part of the repertoire, in what way is it a useful tool for historians and also for everyday people to think in counterfactual terms?
GR: The easiest way to describe it is to point out that there are two primary rationales for employing counterfactual reasoning in historical scholarship. The first is just to shed light on causality, that’s to say, the forces that cause historical events to happen. The other is to allocate what Aristotle said was “praise and blame,” that’s the say, to judge historical events as having been morally upright or having been immoral in one way or the other. And if we just, for example, look at the question of causality, there’s the age-old historiographical debate about agency versus structure, the question of if individuals shape historical events, or if there are deeper forces involved.
Well, one way to disentangle the relationship between the individual and deeper structural forces is to remove one of them from your equation, as Max Weber already pointed out in the nineteenth century. If you want to try and determine the cause of something and you’re choosing from multiple variables, isolate one from the mix, subtract it, and see what it is that you’re still left contemplating without it.
So to give you an example, how important was Martin Luther for the Reformation? If you have the belief that Luther’s role was pivotal, one way to determine whether in fact that was the case is to imagine a Reformation or imagine a German culture in the early sixteenth century without Luther: Would it have been sufficient to have other deeper forces, let’s say the general disaffection with the Catholic Church, yielding some kind of Reformation-style event?
If you don’t have the pivotal leader who drives those forces forward or whether it’s Lenin in the Bolshevik Revolution or whether it’s Hitler and the Nazis, the role of individuals in history is something that has always been interesting and to imagine some of those individuals being different or absent or to imagine some of the deeper structural forces being absent and the individuals being present, it’s an easy way to kind of isolate the relative levels of causality that different factors are involved in.
JL: Right, it’s almost like you’re describing scientific experimentation in a certain way. You’re trying to identify the individual factors and variables.
GR: Yeah, and it’s part of logical reasoning. All counterfactual reasoning employs logic, it employs inference, it employs conditional statements and all kinds of hypotheses, and if that’s part of the scientific method then fine. Of course the reason why historians and other scholars have been dubious about using this kind of reasoning is that we can’t reproduce historical circumstances in the laboratory setting. And so much of what we end up surmising is exactly that, just pure hypothesis. For those empiricists or those objectivists or positivists who would like to try and make “scientifically true” claims about history, counterfactual reasoning is totally anathema.
What I would argue, of course—and that we can talk more about later—is that the expectations that people have had about historiography have changed. There’s been, certainly since the 1990s, a growing willingness to understand that history isn’t just about documentation and empirical proof. It’s about writing narratives and coming up with arguments and a lot of it is subjective. Obviously, speculation itself is very subjective, and if we’re willing to make allowances for that in the way we write history and read history, then I think there’s going to be a greater amount of openness to this kind of thinking which has always existed.
JL: I think you point this out in the book. You talk about how historians have often shied away from counterfactual history, but in real life, we use “what ifs” all the time. What if I didn’t miss my bus this morning? Or on a much larger scale, what if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election? And they’re especially prevalent in fiction, where we see a whole genre of alternate history, so to speak. Why do you think there’s this kind of a divide between scholars, and especially historians, on the one hand, and this popular discourse on the other?
GR: Right. Historians want to be taken seriously in terms of what we write. Our claim to popular relevance is that we describe what actually happened, that we explain what actually happened, that we are involved in the “truth business.” If all of a sudden we’re opening up the can of worms, which is that history is not just what happened, but what might have happened as well, then of course we’re all of a sudden into the realm of pure fiction, and fiction has always been the enemy of truth. And we’d like to keep fiction at arm’s length.
If you just think about the debates that have been raging over the decades over Hayden White’s Metahistory and The Content of the Form; the idea that historians might actually be employing narrative techniques taken from literature really upset a lot of people because we’re territorial and we want to defend what it is that we do based on what it is that makes us unique, which is our claims to truth. So the prejudice and the bias and the suspicion against counterfactual history is pretty clear.
I think the problem for historians is that deep down, they recognize what most laypeople recognize, which is that counterfactuals are incredibly fascinating, entertaining, and thought-provoking because it really gets to the core of our imaginative powers to contemplate what might have happened. And all of us, like you said in terms of thinking about our personal lives, if we’ve gone to a different college or met a different significant other or taken a different job—all kinds of things might have been different. And so we’re constantly thinking in these terms, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t do so at the macro level in terms of political history, social history, cultural history.
And the fact or the rationale for this being incredibly popular is in fact proven by what you just said a second ago, which is that alternate history as a genre of popular culture—especially in film, television, literature—is thriving as never before. So there’s clearly a potential that is increasingly being tapped for wider audiences, and I think historians are a little bit gun-shy about participating in that because it might undermine their claims to seriousness. And when all said and done, historians have oftentimes felt uncomfortable with doing anything that might be regarded as entertainment. Even those scholars who write with trade presses might be seen by some as selling out because they’re not going with the hardcore academic press. That kind of bias still exists because it is seen as selling out one’s scholarly credentials, or watering down one’s scholarly pretensions for the sake of making money and being popular. So that tension always exists.
I think anything that smacks of selling out to a mass audience, to popular culture, to the entertainment industry, anything that might conceivably be done financial reasons, for commercial reasons, the stuff sells. I think a lot of historians feel uncomfortable with that and so beyond merely wanting to protect their turf of truth, they want to make sure that they’re not having their motives impugned by people who think, “well they’re engaging in selling out.”
JL: I think it raises some important questions about the place of historians and scholarly history within the wider popular culture. So long as historians avoid those kinds of discussions—and perhaps in the service of trying to be serious stay in our libraries and our lecture halls—in a certain way, we are ceding this whole historical discourse to a whole other set of people who are writing these “what if” histories even if they aren’t really backed up with the kind of research that we might do ourselves.
GR: Right, at the end of the day my position would be: Let’s throw the field open. Let’s make people recognize the legitimacy of counterfactual history. But let’s also do it seriously. There are methodologies that are unique to the field, there are practices that are good and some that are less good, and not everything that is a speculative narrative is as equally well informed as any other. So I think we can be judicious in terms of how we embrace the field and one of my main interests in recent years has been to lend counterfactual history academic credibility, but through legitimate methods by tracing the history of the field and also trying to further refine the various ways of defining it, typologizing it, and doing it systematically.
JL: So let’s talk for a minute about counterfactual history in popular culture that we see so much of: Think about Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, “The Man in the High Castle,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” What do you make of these kinds of counterfactual histories, both in terms of the fact that they are so popular and profitable? And also how do you think they stack up, from a historical perspective? Obviously they are not true, but they are still engaging in this historical reasoning and in representing the past in a popular medium in one way or another.
GR: Sure. I mean, for me the most important thing is the very fact that major fiction writers like Michael Chabon or Philip Roth already, over a decade ago, felt that the genre of alternate history was legitimate enough for them to try their hand at it. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is another example of someone who has kind of crossed over into this subgenre of alternate history from just straight horror fiction or what have you. And Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines is another example.
And while the Second World War and the Nazis, well that certainly represents a really perennially favorite field to engage in, the topic of the Civil War remains immensely appealing for lots of people as was shown by HBO’s controversial proposal of the show “Confederate.” You may have followed also last year, the big debate over the showrunners for “Game of Thrones” and whether their new proposal was going to be politically too sensitive to actually tackle for HBO. It seems like the jury is still out on whether it’s going to go forward, but whether it’s the Civil War, whether it’s the Bolshevik Revolution, which is, of course, marking its hundredth anniversary, anytime we’re trying to look back on a historical event and interpret its significance, it’s very common these days to ask questions pertaining to how the event might have turned out differently.
The same thing is true with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated June 20th, 1914. With the hundredth anniversary of World War I still with us, now people in the last couple of years have been asking that question if he’s not killed do we still have the war? So in pivotal moments of history—and of course, the twentieth century is full of them—it’s always tempting to try and draw judgments by asking questions that are coming from unusual angles.
And I think especially now when we are sort of letting a thousand flowers bloom in terms of methodological potential, it’s especially intriguing for people to meditate on these things. And honestly, not only are historians warming up to it, but I think they’re warming up to it because journalists and fiction writers are sort of beating them to it. And if they’re not careful, they’ll be kind of sequestered out of the market and therefore, I think it’s valuable to have our stake being made clear, because we are in a way the goalkeepers or the referees for when is a counterfactual claim stretching the truth beyond the bounds of credibility and when is a counterfactual hypothesis still relatively realistic or reasonable?
JL: Right, one of the challenges of being a historian and watching or reading so many of these kinds of counterfactual narratives or even just historical fiction-focused works is how unrealistic so many of them are. If you watch “The Man in the High Castle,” for instance, they clearly didn’t have people working on the show who really knew that much about what the Nazi occupation of various countries was actually like.
GR: Honestly the best way to characterize all these recent novels or TV shows, is it’s really on a case by case basis, because some of them are incredibly strong with regard to the production values, with regard to the acting, some little bit less. So, for example, Robert Harris’ famous novel Fatherland was turned into an HBO film back in the mid-90s with Rutger Hauer, Miranda Richardson, and the production values were fairly mediocre by present-day standards. Whereas when you see how much Amazon Prime has invested in “The Man in the High Castle” or how much Hulu invested in 11/22/63 with James Franco. I think the fact that we’re in an era of binge-worthy television programming, in any case, lends alternate history particularly well to mass consumption. But it’s certainly true that when you really look closely at some of the plots, you can pick them apart in terms of plausibility, and that’s where the historians I think really do have an opportunity to be not so much the judge and jury about whether a show should rise or fall based on its legitimacy, but it can kind of keep us from going overboard in terms of some of the leaps that we might be willing to make or claim with regard to how history might have been different and of course implicitly how it might have been better, or worse.
JL: I think one of the assumptions of some of these alternate histories, and this is true in your book also, is that so many of the chapters focus on if one person had done something differently or if one person had been assassinated. You have the chapter on Hitler, and if he had been assassinated in 1939, and the idea that one person being in a place or not being in a place would make a difference. It goes back to this fundamental intellectual question—something that you mentioned earlier about agency versus structure, that so many of these alternate histories, like for instance like 11/22/63 that you mentioned by Stephen King, is based on the idea that if JFK had not been assassinated, so much would have been different. So much of the work that historians and other scholars have been doing now, for decades really, has been about showing the greater forces at work: Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election 2016, whatever you think about the politics, the stock market would probably be doing similarly because the major economic forces would be the same.
GR: Right, or if for example, Al Gore defeats George W. Bush in the 2000 election it’s certainly possible that 9/11 happens anyway, and that we might end up invading Afghanistan anyway, although lots of scholars have drawn the line at invading Iraq because we potentially wouldn’t have had Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, or a coterie of foreign policy hawkish advisors in a Gore Administration. And there may be, in fact you do see, something being quite different. So the idea of structure versus agency is very closely linked to the sort of related question of determinism versus chance, because it goes hand in hand with how chance events can often times have a notable impact on history; on the other hand, certain things are just kind of destined to take place regardless whether it’s demographic trends, economic forces, and geopolitical rivalries perhaps.
JL: One of the things that really struck me, looking at your book, is how so many have the chapters relate how if things perhaps had gone differently in Jewish history, even in ways that we might assume would have been on the net positive, history still might have gone awry. So, for instance, in your in your chapter on if Hitler had been assassinated in 1939, you suggested that fewer Jews would have been murdered in the Holocaust, but that Hitler’s assassination would still have led to Jewish violence and the millions still would have died. Further, you even suggested, I think in a really interesting way, that a Nazi regime that was not led by Hitler would not necessarily have been so soundly defeated, and could have remained in power even after the conclusion of the Second World War. And a number of chapters present scenarios like this.
GR: Right, and I think one of the reasons why counterfactual history opens up all kinds of new perspectives on what really did happen is that it’s really incumbent upon us to challenge inherited truisms about how history really unfolded. So to give you an example, it’s always easy to surmise that if Hitler had only been assassinated in 1939, history would have been much better, everything would have worked out for the best. In fact, when you actually play out the variables and the chain reaction of events that might have ensued from a Hitler assassination in November of 1939, it’s pretty clear that from the perspective of the people in that world—who would never have known that a Holocaust to the tune of 6,000,000 Jews had been avoided—it would have still been seen as a colossal disaster, and there’s no getting around that.
So to challenge preconceived notions about how history actually was, counterfactual history really does give us an opportunity to come up with quite distinct perspectives, take things really outside the box so to speak. And I think, for that particular reason, the more that can be done to challenge inherited truths from whatever perspective—and by the way counterfactual history is neither right nor left, you can have conservative versions of it, and you can have liberal versions of it. It’s just whether or not it’s done well, and it’s done plausibly. I think that should be the primary way of judging it.
JL: I think one of the really interesting things that what you’re doing here is, perhaps, maybe making a kind of intervention against some of the overly simplistic kinds of what-if scenarios.
GR: In fact, that’s very visible in some of the contributions in the volume on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the interesting features of my edited volume What Ifs of Jewish History, is that a good four or five of the contributions deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explore ways in which in itself might have unfolded differently. There’s no denying that one of the emotions that informs counterfactual thinking at the basic human level is the question or the feeling of regret. And it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why, today, on both sides of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be a lot of regrets about the way the relationship in the twentieth century has unfolded. And, well, missed opportunities are really important feature of regrets and counterfactuals in general. So there are essays in the volume that point out how the Arab side missed out on plenty of opportunities to make peace and maybe create a Palestinian state as early as 1947. Whereas by contrast, some have argued that leadership under David Ben Gurion in the thirties had some really good opportunities to have peace with the Palestinians, and they missed out. So the path not taken is always something that we’re sensitive to when we’re not happy where we are in the present.
So if there’s crisis in the present day world, and if there’s insecurity and anxiety there’s going to be a greater psychological tendency to explore missed opportunities and to express regrets. They’re competing emotional or psychological desires that underpin other counterfactual, but we can talk about those at a different juncture.
But certainly with regard to Jewish history, the twentieth centuries have been so turbulent that it’s not really surprising whatsoever to imagine things going differently.
JL: Right. I mean, it’s interesting you talk about the path not taken right it reminds me Noam Pianko’s book Zionism and the Roads Not Taken. So even in histories that are not really counterfactual in their nature, there’s still this going through this process of excavating some of these roads that people didn’t really go down.
GR: Some historians leave those counterfactual possibilities implied within their narratives, others frankly take the logical step and start extrapolating how in fact things could have been different, if opportunities that weren’t taken advantage of were actually pursued. And I think sometimes it’s the question of, how much do we want to stick our foot in the water? You may put your toe in, and then your ankle, and many historians just say the water too cold. We’re not going to go any further. Others dive right in all the way and say if we’re going to be going halfway in we may as well see what potential this entire methodology offers to us, and I think that’s maybe where historiography will be increasingly going in the future. I’m not holding my breath to see everybody doing it, but there are enough historians who have actually gone out of their way. I could cite concrete examples if you like, but who have gone out of their way in recent years to actually make explicit what has always been implicit, and I think that’s just a way of liberating historiography to pursue. You know, probably, it should have been pursued years ago.
To give you a concrete example, there’s a book by Peter Bowler called Darwin Deleted. The whole book which some 300 pages is an exercise size in counterfactual analysis asking the question, would western civilization still have generated the theory of evolution had Charles Darwin never existed? He points out that many other naturalist biologists were working on different versions of what came to be known as a Darwinian theory of evolution around the same time as Darwin. But had Darwin not been, there would have been maybe some different tweaks to the theory but some version of it still would have emerged.
And then, of course, we get into the larger question of why would anyone want to spend 300 pages examining whether evolution as a theory still comes into being without Darwin? Well, of course, it gets into the larger issue of how Darwin’s been politicized by certain conservative political camps, whether he’s to blame for the Holocaust, whether he’s to blame for secularization or atheism or you name it, because he’s become such a lightning rod for a lot of the scholarship.
I think some scholars like Peter Bowler, and this was a University of Chicago press book that came out three or four years ago, wanted to kind of defuse the controversy surrounding by saying “let’s just reframe the argument without Darwin, period, and where do we end up.” So that’s a great example of doing that or, if you take Jeffrey Gurock’s book The Holocaust Averted, or if you take Richard Ned Lubow’s book on whether World War I is going to happen where you have Franz Ferdinand surviving the assassination attempt against him, which is another several hundred page book. I think Scholars are losing their inhibitions about thinking in this vein and while it’s true that many of the books are still pitched more to a mass audience, there’s no reason to have to be seen as “history lite.” But it can be enormously serious and grounded and footnotes and secondary research and so forth.
JL: I think one of the things that we find studying history broadly speaking you really get a very intense knowledge of the way in which everything is contingent and conditional, that people make alternate plans for all sorts of scenarios. If you look at military planning, for instance, they have plans for every scenario, or they try to anyway. What that means is that we have the resources, in a lot of ways, to understand the various contingencies of different groups, institutions, individuals, and so on.
GR: The fact the matter is that nothing, truthfully, if we’re honest with ourselves, nothing is inevitable. The Bolshevik Revolution didn’t have to happen. World War I did not have to happen. Any number of other scenarios have been conceived by multiple scholars to prevent the eruption of those kinds of events and oftentimes reasons why those events did in fact happen. They do have to do with contingencies, but for certain circumstances the outcomes would have been entirely different, and I think it’s worthwhile for us to keep ourselves humble about our ability to be able to predict everything. Because we’d love to have the certainty that can come with a deterministic worldview about economic forces and social trends and so forth, to be able to anticipate what’s going to happen. But half the time, or at least quite often, we can’t predict the quirky chance contingent events that take place and surprise us, and then we’re playing catch-up.
So for the sake of being modest in our ability to forecast the future, I think it helps us to ground ourselves in the ways in which contingent events have more often than not actually shaped historical outcomes.
JL: So, in Derek Penslar’s chapter in your book—about how a German victory in World War I would have led to the creation of a Protestant state in Palestine instead of ultimately a Jewish one—he suggests that the things would have remained the same, even with changes in major historical events which is to say that he suggests that there would have still been a great deal of hostility from the neighboring Arab countries. So, how do you think the counterfactual analysis helps us to understand sort of not how things would have been different, but maybe how things would have stayed the same in certain ways?
GR: So the easiest answer is to point out that all counterfactual histories come really in three versions: there are nightmare scenarios, there are fantasy scenarios, and then there what I call stasis scenarios. The easiest way to describe them, of course, is to point out that if you come up with a nightmare scenario you’re imagining a way in which history turned out worse than it did in reality. A fantasy is one in which history turned out better than it didn’t in reality. And the third, of course, is that there really isn’t much of a change, there’s stasis. The more that things change the more they stay the same, so to speak, and to point out that had there been European colonial state of a Protestant pedigree sponsored by the German Kaiserreich in the space that currently is occupied by the Jewish state of Israel—yeah, there probably still would have been Arab opposition, there would have been decolonization effort, there probably would have been a national liberation movement of some sort in that sense, everything is exactly the same.
I think what Derek Penslar points out in his piece, though, is that because there’s something in the Jewish in the western imagination that has oftentimes been linked up to antisemitic myths and conspiracy thinking and so forth; I recall his claim is that a Protestant state in the Middle East would not have been the international obsession that a Jewish state in the Middle East is. And so it would have been maybe like Kenya or South Africa or Namibia, but it wouldn’t have been something that garnered the headlines that it does. Moreover, because a Protestant state would not have had existential significance to Protestantism as a world religion or to Protestant people across the world, unlike the Jewish homeland for world Jews, you know, the question of whether that state would have gone the way of Algeria—which is to say in the early 60s it just folded. As he points out, a Protestant state would have collapsed much sooner than a Jewish state did because it wouldn’t have been defended tooth-and-nail like the only Jewish state in the world ended up being. So it’s true, there are things that would have been structurally similar, but some of the nuances between Christian and Jewish states are not insignificant. And so in that regard there are notable differences as well.
JL: The way you’re describing it, that counterfactual is that things would have been better, they would have been the worse, or they would have been about the same—That’s almost obvious in a certain way, that when things change they’re going to go in one of those directions.
GR: Right, and I think the reason why it’s important to typologize counterfactual histories this way is to be able to explain why in certain eras, certain societies, people start really obsessing over some of these questions. So to give you an example, when you look at questions like “if JFK had only survived we could have avoided the Vietnam War.” Well, of course, it stands to reason that at a time when Americans in the 1980s were particularly exploring in great emotional detail and depth the legacy of the Vietnam War because it was still fresh in mind, one would expect to see a lot of counterfactual analyses of, you know, “if only Kennedy had survived we could have avoided this entire catastrophe,” because the catastrophe was still very fresh in mind, the fantasy of history turning out better makes a lot of logical sense.
Whereas other societies and other eras, for example, the French in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s, many of the early counterfactual and alternate histories explored the possibility if only Napoleon hadn’t been defeated at Waterloo, the French Empire would have survived and persisted. Well, of course, in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s, many people in France were highly nostalgic for a moment in the sun having come and gone. And they wished that history had turned out better. So they, too, would like to focus on that kind of set of possibilities.
By contrast, nightmares tend to proliferate in very different time periods. One school of thought argues that people tend to imagine the world turning out worse when they want to sort of validate the present as the best of all possible worlds. And if you want to make it seem as if today is, you know, pretty good, and we’re happy with it—just imagine how much worse things could have been if only X, Y or Z had happened.
For example, there’s a famous short story that deals with the Nazis developing the atom bomb and nuking you know Western powers during World War II and actually winning World War II, called Two Dooms by Cyril Kornbluth, mid-1950s, if I’m not mistaken. It so happened to be the case that when that short story was published, the United States was the midst of Cold War confrontation with Khrushchev. It was one of those times when everyone feared the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Maybe if you imagine history turning out worse, with not just that being the Soviet Union squaring off against United Sates, but having the Nazis have the bomb, well that’s one way to feel better about your difficult present by thinking at least it couldn’t, at least it’s not worse because it could have been.
So, depending on the psychological moment people are in the midst of, we are going to be imagining things turning out better, turning out worse. And frankly you see Donald Trump justifying his present day political agenda by saying if Hillary Clinton had gotten elected, the stock market would have lost half of its value. And of course that would have been a nightmare, but those nightmares have their political utility just like fantasies have their political utility. So to get into the psychology of why people imagine what ifs in one direction or another, I think is incumbent upon us to understand how that works so that we can sort of respond to rhetorical claims of that kind.
JL: It’s not just the political utility of counterfactual. There’s also a potentially spiritual types of utility. One of the things that really struck me was how you talked about how counterfactual history or counterfactual analysis is something that we really don’t see being employed by Jewish historians when we’re talking about the nineteenth century, broadly speaking. One of the things that is really quite interesting is that you would think that, with the Jewish historical experience, that counterfactual approaches might have been among the various tools that Jews would have employed in order to try to make sense of their present. And you might think that counterfactual approaches might have given them another set of tools to think through the various challenges that they were facing, and so to use a counterfactual approach to thinking about counterfactual history. Why do you think that it is that across the arc of Jewish history we don’t really see counterfactual analysis being employed by Jews?
GR: There’s a lot there. Those are all excellent points. I think the first thing is that we have to distinguish between Jewish historical consciousness and modern Jewish historiography. So if you’re talking about the Hebrew Bible, obviously, it’s a religious text first and foremost. It has many historiographical features to it, but at its core there is a philosophy of history that underpins it, and that’s a deterministic philosophy of history, a teleological one that more less believes in divine providence, that believes that God has a master plan for the children of Israel and depending on how well the Jewish people have adhered to the covenant or violated the covenant, there are some pretty predictable deterministic rules that will be employed. Because when the covenant is violated, there are punishments. And when it’s adhered to there are rewards. But everything is sort of in the hands of a divine figure, so not actually much expression of what-ifs in the Hebrew Bible.
I guess the one exception is you have a lot of deterministic counterfactual where God’s wisdom of validated by people who are expressing sort of admonitions against people who have violated the covenant. For example, in Psalms or in the prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, there’s a lot of reference to, “if only you had to adhere to the covenant, you wouldn’t be in the present predicament that you’re in.” But that is basically to kind of make it clear that history is meant to happen in a certain way and those who sort of diverge from that are going to get punished. But there’s not really any long-form extrapolation about how history could have been different, it’s just kind of one-off short-form admonishing phrases, just the kind of recommit to the covenant as best as one can. And throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, what you essentially see is this very emphatic insistence on adhering to the law as the main rationale for, if ever, asking for counterfactual questions.
And then when you get to the rabbinic period, of course as Yosef Yerushlami pointed out a couple decades ago [in Zakhor], the Jews just turned away from history altogether. They turned to Halakha they turned to Talmud, they turned to legalistic interpretations of scripture, and they really just stopped writing history altogether. Probably that’s to do with the fact that those no autonomous Jewish nation-state anymore, but rolling through the period of late antiquity through the Middle Ages, into the modern era, only when Jews become historians in the 19th century and start adopting modern sort of secular methods of historiography, and then do they almost make themselves open to the possibility of counterfactual. But then even then they sort of stopped short, far shorter than where for example French or German or British historians are willing to go in the 19th century.
Because as David Myers argued in his first book on Jewish historiography, even secular trends within Jewish historiography had a deterministic or teleological element to them. So whether it’s fine regrets and this emancipation as progressive narrative about Jewish history is migrating from the horrors of the Middle Ages in and the ghetto into equality that was a deterministic narrative. Or whether it’s the Zionist narrative of scholars either in Europe or in the Yishuv and the later the state of Israel, where everything is building towards the return to Zion. And that element of determinism, according to many scholars who study this topic of counterfactual history, it always acts as an impediment to freely imagining how things could have been different because if you think history has to go a certain way you’re not likely to open yourself up to alternatives.
JL: So you think that Jewish historians were fundamentally to deterministic?
GR: I think they were, for, what, 1800 years, until modern assimilationist forces began to affect the community, the religiosity of Jews was a disincentive or at least was an impediment to mulling over things counterfactually. And, by the way, that’s very much corroborated by the fact that at the exact same time that the Jews are writing the Hebrew Bible in the centuries before the Common Era, the Greeks and Romans are going gangbusters and speculating in a counterfactual vein at the exact same time. And the argument that I make in the introduction to What Ifs of Jewish History is that Greek and Roman historiography was anything but deterministic. And that has to do with the polytheistic nature of Greco-Roman religion, the idea that there’s not one omnipotent deity steering events towards a certain end but rather the chaotic, constant competition between multiple jealous gods, which you know sometimes intervene in human affairs, but not towards any larger goal, so chaos seems to be the norm. Chance and contingency play a huge role in the Greek and Roman mental outlook, and so you find just countless examples of a willingness to entertain what ifs in ways that you don’t see whatsoever either in Jewish historiography, or frankly early Christian historiography as well in the early Roman Empire. Only when Jews become professional historians in nineteenth and twentieth centuries do they have the capacity to think in what if terms. And then even by the time you’re into the post-war period after 1945, they’re still late adopters.
So one great indication of how even when Jews have the ability to think counterfactual, l they kind of lag behind non-Jewish historians is the fact that when counterfactual history really hit its stride in the 1990s and when countless collected volumes and anthologies were being produced on everything from military history diplomatic history to British history to American history, there was simply no sustained interest among Jewish historians in this topic.
So I frankly came up with this idea for this collected volume, which has sixteen contributions, to finally put Jewish historians on the same footing as secular non-Jewish historians and to explore sixteen different questions from the perspective of counterfactual Jewish thinking and why there has been so much reluctance. I think it’s hard to say but, again to invoke David Myers, in one of his essays, he points out how methodologically speaking Jewish historians since 1945 have been pretty conservative methodologically and while they followed the larger trends say from political to social to cultural history, they haven’t been at the crest of the wave. They’ve been kind of bringing up the rear a little bit. So my own hope was that better late than never, and let’s start inviting Jewish scholars to do what they have the innate ability to do, but they haven’t been asked by any one person to do in a group like setting, and that’s to put together collected anthology of texts.
JL: One of the things that I think is so striking about the book, if we want to talk about the book itself, is the way in which it is really so diverse in so many ways. One of the ways it really struck me was the multitude of genres among the various chapters. Some of them are straight up analyses of what might have happened to something had gone differently so like, for instance, in Steven Weitzman’s chapter on the Exodus, Chronicles is a kind of narrative that that seems to write the Exodus out of Jewish history, while others take a what-if scenario to be true. For instance, your chapter on Hitler or even using Eugene Sheppard’s chapter on Spinoza, if he would have repented and returned to the Jewish community, presents kind of a fake Encyclopaedia Judaica article. And I found this to be so fascinating, sort of the diversity of the kinds of not just analyses, but also the ways in which they were written in the book.
GR: Right, that’s a great point. I think, without getting too schematic, all counterfactual histories either come in the form of analytical, scholarly alternate histories or in the form of literary, imaginative alternate histories. So in this book there is a fake memoir by Walter Rathenau. There is a fake righteous Gentile letter that I produced that Yad Vashem “gave” to the biological son of Gary Elder who assassinated Hitler “successfully” (i.e. not in real reality) in 1939. There is the fake Encyclopaedia Judaica article. There’s Adam Rovner’s brilliant fake travel guide to New Judea in Africa.
So the genres are quite diverse. Frankly, that’s to the credit of the contributors. And everybody really hit their stride by coming up with whatever approach they felt comfortable with. And it’s also to their credit that none of them had any prior history in writing in this counterfactual vein. And to this day, I’m constantly reminded by many of them, when I see them—and I don’t want to sort of make it seem as if this is another example of “history lite”—but they all said they have tremendous amount of fun, and explicitly use the word fun, in actually writing these kinds of essays. Because you are freed from, liberated from some of the constraints that usually historians have to abide by. But that’s not to say that these are not essays deeply informed by the expertise of all these individual scholars, but to not have to cite footnotes and to not have to do archival research, but simply to use one’s knowledge of what did happen to extrapolate what might have happened. That’s really liberating.
JL: It certainly is a lot of fun to read, too. But here’s the thing, and this is this is why I wanted to bring up this question of genre: One of the things may be a little bit problematic about all of this is that all this might be a bit confusing to people who read the book, who maybe find it online say on Google Books or something like that, where the material might be out of its context. If they don’t realize that it’s not true that Benedict Spinoza returned to the Jewish community, they might read this, and it seems like an encyclopedia article. So besides the title obviously there’s not like a big disclaimer saying “hey, by the way, this is not what actually happened.” I’m curious what your take is sort of on the possibility for readers to take things out of context, especially in the era of so-called fake news.
GR: So it’s worth actually taking out a magnifying glass in the book the next time you take a look at it. Because while it was something that I was annoyed by, Cambridge University Press actually required me to add an asterisk next to the title of all the chapters in the book that were actually fabricated documents. Chapter 12 by Michael Brenner, what if the Weimar Republic had survived, a chapter from Walter Rathenau’s Memoir*, and at the bottom of the page says: “This chapter is a work of fiction.” Now, all right, fine. If in fact, one is worried that taken out of context some of these documents might mislead people, then I guess you do have to add the disclaimer and say in fact what you’re seeing here is purely work of imagination. And you don’t want to pollute the stream of historical truth by having a lot of dirty water seeping into it in the form of fabrications, especially, as you rightly point out, in an era of fake news. My traditional response to that fear is that, first and foremost, the people who read counterfactual history are by and large already educated on the question of real history. Because to really appreciate Walther Rathenau not being assassinated, you have to know in the first place that he was assassinated. And that it’s almost kind a higher-level, connoisseur-like taste within history that appeals ultimately, I think, to people who are relatively well-informed. And the idea that the vulgar, unwashed masses are going to be led astray by this, I frankly think most people who aren’t interested in history already are even going to find their way to some of these kinds of what-if analyses.
That said there is a document in my own essay on page 281 on Hitler being assassinated where I used Photoshop to create a fake stamp marking Hitler’s assassination, which was actually based on a real stamp that I simply digitally altered. Now if somebody cuts and pastes that and puts it somewhere online and comes up in a Google image search, yeah, I think that could potentially be problematic. That of course may be true for lots of things that are taken out of context, but at the end of the day what keeps me from not being kept up at night is the idea that John Stuart Mill pointed out back in the mid-nineteenth century, which is that even when error exists in the world, the very fact that misinformed views and misinformed opinions end up clashing in the free marketplace of ideas with truth, all that does is further to reaffirm the truth of truth.
It’s the same argument, I think, that people have made about the existence of Holocaust deniers. At the end of the day, the existence of Holocaust denial in the realm of the free marketplace of ideas, as it collides with the truth and as its refuted by the truth, will only further re-entrench the truth in people’s minds because the truth is only reaffirmed by its collision with error as Mill points out. So I think by the same token we have a further and deeper appreciation for what really happened in the past by understanding and being aware of what didn’t happen past.
JL: I think that is a really interesting point. I think when we talk about why what if, counterfactual history is useful, it doesn’t provide us with straight up information or necessarily new insight into what happened and of the events themselves, but it really does provide an interesting and a useful kind of companion to allow us to think about it in other ways.
GR: It keeps us from taking things for granted. I actually wrote a couple blog posts about an essay published by Bret Stephens, and one essay in the New York Times published by Paul Krugman, both of whom basically said “Imagine America without immigrants,” as part of our debate about how good or bad immigration is for the country. Just take a second and stop and ask the question: Without immigrants, what kind of country would we have? Bret Stephens’ article actually asked what would we have without Jewish immigrants. But Paul Krugman more broadly says what if the know-nothings in the nineteenth century had gotten their way and barred Irish immigrants and Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants from coming to the U.S.; it would have been an impoverished place. Well, that’s probably an exercise or a thought experiment worth having because at a time when immigration is being challenged, we can’t just take for granted that it’s always going to be viewed as a positive. We have to be able to understand why it’s a positive. And by removing it from our awareness, we can appreciate it because in the spirit of absence makes the heart grow fonder. What we don’t have, we all of a sudden can appreciate. And by subtracting from history things that happened, well, maybe we’ll stop thinking only in terms of things being inevitable, and we won’t take them for granted. We’ll have a newfound appreciation for them.
JL: I want to go back to something that you said earlier in the conversation. You made a reference to the idea of historians and scholars generally speaking being in the business of truth. So what do you think is the place of counterfactual history in a cultural and political moment when so many people are disinterested in the facts of reality in the present, let alone in the past?
GR: It would be very easy for critics of counterfactualism to say: you see, Donald Trump uses counterfactuals all the time; aha, you see, Vladimir Putin uses counterfactuals all the time. And in fact, they do! Trump, of course, ran into a lot of trouble over a year ago when he said that if Andrew Jackson had been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. Well, people point out that Jackson died in 1845. He was making a different point, and the point was a ludicrous one, but it was a classic example of a sloppy counterfactual.
And especially every time you have a really schlocky alternate history novel that employs time machines or ray guns to show history turning out differently, it makes people think that this is just for drunk people at cocktail parties, and nothing more. The fact of that matter is that in a time period where the truth is increasingly becoming a casualty of fiction, we do have to defend the rationale for understanding the importance of counterfactual history. And I’m sort of always on the alert for people trying to find it guilty by association. But I think especially at this point in time, it’s like Jacques Derrida’s idea of supplementarity; we can only really understand the concept by being aware of its opposite. If you really want to understand truth, you have to understand well, what the absence of truth is like. And you also in order to understand, what did happen, you have to understand what might have happened, but didn’t happen. So the two go hand-in-hand with one another. I think it’s literally like understanding love by also understanding hate, good with understanding evil, high and low, you know, all these binary oppositions that deconstructionists have loved taking apart over the years. History and fiction is one of those things we can also take apart by bringing counterfactual history and turning into the other of conventional history, and to see how they interact. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
JL: I think that’s a really great point that you bring up, that in order to understand truth in history we need to understand falsehood as well.
GR: Hugh Trevor Roper put a really well the early 1980s where he said that in order to understand what happened, we actually have to understand what might have happened. Or to even add further, one needs to understand history as what happened in the context of what might have happened because there are any number of contingencies that could happen at any given moment in time. And only by being aware of that web of contingencies, and how things could have turned out differently can we really appreciate how things ultimately happened as they do.
JL: Right, and I think that’s one of these ways in which this kind of analysis is really important for a much broader set of people than just scholars. We’ve been throwing around theorists and terms, but what you describe when you talk about Donald Trump’s botched exercise in alternate history is it’s a kind of historical analysis, and I think this is something that the people don’t always realize. The very idea to “Make America Great Again” is based on a historical perception of some kind, and everybody is partaking in historical analysis on a day-to-day basis, but more often than not it’s not very nuanced, and it’s not really rooted in a deep understanding of the way which history works.
GR: And a lot of times there’s a lot of political anxiety that leads to misinterpretation. So when a lot of left-liberal black and white activists condemned HBO for contemplating a show called “Confederate” where the South has won the Civil War and slavery still exists in the present, that was just uniformly in the wake of Charlottesville, for understandable reasons, described as a white supremacist fantasy, and it had to be opposed tooth and nail. Well, I wrote a couple of pieces pointing out that in fact most of the works of alternate history that have imagined the South winning the Civil War and slavery surviving the present have been mercilessly critical of anything smacking of white supremacy or the KKK or the “lost cause.” And that the fact that people misinterpret the intentions that oftentimes exist behind counterfactuals, it’s all the more reason why we have to educate ourselves in terms of how these things are oftentimes used.
And to point out that there really is no such thing as a political direction to asking what if, it can be used just as easily for liberal and conservative purposes, but you know we are still trying as well. Scholars are still trying to educate the broader public about what the whole field is about. And only when scholars set aside some of their long-standing biases against the field do I think will have the ability to avoid some of these misinterpretations in the future as there will just be a higher amount of cultural literacy about what it is that counterfactual analysis is all about.
JL: As we conclude, the one question that I want to ask here might be: We talked a lot about some of the contributors’ chapters in your book and also about the idea of counterfactual history, but try to bring it all together, in what ways do you think that Jewish history in particular you know has something to contribute to this broader exercise in counterfactual history?
GR: I think the easiest thing to say—and it actually it’s not a forced comment whatsoever—is that counterfactual history always thrives in time periods of rapid change. And in terms and time periods of great social, economic transition political turbulence times of economic crisis, increasing nationalism, polarization between rich and poor, ethnic groups, races, whatever. If it’s if in fact the case, as I would argue, that counterfactuals are oftentimes going to be spurred on by wondering what ifs about moments of pivotal moments of change, well, of course, Jewish history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is just chock full of these kinds of pivotal moments. Frankly, Jewish history over the course of several millennia is full of these kinds of moments. So, because Jewish history has always had the highs and lows—of repeated tragedy, twentieth-century Holocaust, and also what some people argue is the miracle of the creation of the state of Israel, triumphs as well—to see how Jewish historians have wrestled with how things could have been different, either better or worse, certainly has paradigmatic significance for how other societies other cultures have wrestled with their own pivotal moments where things went one way but could have gone a different way. That’s what we call points of divergence. And so whether we’re talking about the Armenian genocide for Armenians, whether we talk about the Irish potato famine for people in Ireland or Irish-Americans, whether we’re talking about any number of questions for any culture, the Jewish experience, while it is uniquely restricted to the Jews, has always been tied into larger universal phenomena in western history. And so to see how they could have unfolded differently certainly I think has emblematic significance for lots of other historical legacies.