You know who else used to oversimplify history?

magic_face“Counterfactual certitude fallacy” would be a corollary of historical fallacy, as in any claim of certainty that a simple alteration of a particular fatal decision would have necessarily led to an on-balance better course of subsequent events. The fallacy would have a negative form, too – removal of the one great thing on which later goods hinged – but in its positive form it amounts to anti-theodicy: Rather than justify the great ill by the greater good it served, the counterfactual certitude assumes sufficient historical-surgical knowledge and skill to have achieved the good, or better, without all the bother and mess.

Adolf Hitler was this morning’s nemesis, as on so many other mornings since around 1933 at the latest, though the Twitter discussion started with a superficially more sophisticated historical analysis than “someone shoulda killed Hitler,” instead focusing on U.S. entry into World War I on the side of the Allies. Trolling the Twittervese, as often, was Matt Yglesias, asserting that it was “bonkers” to think anything else other than that a victory by Germany would have been better than real historical developments as we know them. The idea seemed to be that, if the U.S. had not entered the war or perhaps had supported the Germans (as William F Buckley also used to like to muse), then perhaps a victorious Wilhelmine Reich as opposed to prostrate Weimar Germany would not have eventually given us the Nazis… and all the rest.

There were no interchanges between Yglesias (ca. 65,000 followers) and myself (ca. 90), and therefore no opportunity to determine what precisely the U.S. would have been doing instead of intervening, how other nations might have reacted, to what extent we can be certain that Germany would have won, and how exactly we imagine the war having ended. When, however, I suggested that it wouldn’t be difficult to construct an as-bad-or-worse history than the one we know, based on Yglesias’ premise, Elias Isquith (ca. 900 followers) encouraged me to do it.


Start with victorious military-imperial Germany; grow as many mini-Hitlers as you need in each defeated power, each with his own stab-in-the-back mythology and radical answers to national humiliation; include revolutionary Russia squaring off against this German power seeking to administer a sprawling continental empire from Alsace-Lorraine or so to Rostov or so; reckon on the same rising imperial Japan in the Pacific, and the same broken international Eurocentric political-economic order exacerbating every difficulty and inequity all around the glob; and, finally, add an America that had stood to the side, had witnessed a victory of aggressive arms, and was now desperate to makes its play. Rather than having been bruised by its own seemingly pointless loss of life, America would be untouched, blaming its shrunken prospects, other adjustment difficulties, and sense of national dishonor on the anti-Wilson.

On this basis, an alternative history concretely resolving and exhausting global contradictions via heeps and heeps of corpses, with or without the guy with the rectangular mustache, writes itself – all the way up to a day in alt-2012 when someone on the Datennetz tries to argue against an alternative Yglesias’ claim that an intervention by the former U.S. of A on behalf of France and Britain might have saved us all, and democracy, from the utter horror of the bad old alternative 20th Century.

The above is an example of the first of two typical courses that most alternative history and time travel fictions tend toward. The first, ironic mode is effective re-convergence with the history we already know after whatever degree of diversion – in speculative fiction often through dramatization of the so-called “Pre-Destination Paradox.” So in the simple kill-Hitler stories, a time-traveling assassin might himself end up taking Hitler’s place in some way, either directly or by precipitating the same or equivalent catastrophes. In my more complicated alternative of multiple mini-Hitlers, alternative-we apparently still have some more converging to do, but I’m alternatively confident we’ll get there/here… or worse. In numerous episodes of the various Star Trek TV and motion picture series, as well as in Men in Black 3, or the Back to the Future and Terminator movies, re-convergence, whether sought by the heroes or resisted, often involves a reversive collapse of entire alternative histories – x years of people living and breathing and killing and loving all disappearing un-mourned into a void of “never-happened” or “never-happened as far as we’re concerned.”

The main alternative mode of alternativity involves a more or less chaotic de-conceptualization of a coherent universe, a result that can be rendered as an explosively disjunctive pseudo-reality of multiplying paradoxes, or as the proposition of multiple quasi-simultaneous or quasi-co-existent universes each representing an equally valid permutation based on one or more decision points. Yglesias’ assertion, that what was falls under the sign not of necessity but of madness – that our historical choices were simply and obviously “bonkers” – falls subtly into this second mode. Sometimes the two modes – ironic and chaotic – are promiscuously combined: MIB 3 featured an alien who is constantly referring to multiple alternative co-existent timelines, but our focus remains on a single timeline in which rescuing the present from unwanted revisions is taken to be of ultimate import.

Each typical course of timeline alteration can be seen as a fictional refraction of the underlying impossibility of time travel, a disappointment to science fiction fans, but an inexorable conclusion of theoretical physics, as explained in David Toomey’s misleadingly titled but otherwise quite enjoyable as well as accesible 2007 book The New Time Travelers. For Toomey and his theorists, the one coherent and supportable exception to the general interdiction – a journey from the end of one extremely broad universal-evolutionary epi-cycle to the beginning of another – would be utterly irrelevant to fictional scenario-building.

As for our two main timelines of interest, the anti-Yglesias argument would be that Hitler may have been a uniquely bad individual, but that the larger forces that led to the world’s greatest cataclysm (thusfar), and the modes of thought and behavior that specifically made the Holocaust possible, would still have existed without him, just as they were already pre-figured in the concentration camps and genocides of the pre-Fascist era, or the industrialized carnage of the Great War itself – and just as in other respects versions of them may still dominate our thinking and conduct today. The forces that led to U.S. entry into World War I were likewise complex. Seeming to blame the subsequent even greater war on Hitler or even on the Nazi movement in isolation implies that everything was just fine with Western Civilization, unless, even worse, it transfers the “true” guilt from them to the people who “really” made them possible.

Not that alternative history is of no interest, or that U.S. entry into WWI was a good decision, or that we can know that on balance it achieved anything worth the sacrifice of life, but we project an “instead” backwards onto “what was” as an exercise in thinking about history. During any such exercise consequentially pursued, we sooner or later re-discover the same stubborn solidity of what actually happened that Toomey’s physicists discover. The common willingness to blame whatever great ill on a single individual or a single bad decision from the past prepares us to apply the same narrow and non-systematic approach to the present.

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17 comments on “You know who else used to oversimplify history?

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  1. I was struck, when Yglesias had his own blog at the Atlantic, how unaware he was on such issues, of course, Asimov postulated his notion, before the advent of Multiverse theory, that I found out in a appendix to Crichton’s Timescape, so one can never return to the universe, one came from, you end up in the alternate reality, Scott’s show Sliders, really incorporated that paradigm

  2. Ferguson’s pity of war, really does suggest the First World’s consequences were as noxious to the Winner, as it did the losing party, a whole generation of British, French young men, slaughtered between Ypres, and the Somme,

    • I think the exchange with Yglesias began with a reference to Ferguson. I’ve read a lot about that period: The European order was past its sell-by date, and it’s very rare in history that an empire or civilization – the words we use don’t quite fit – just walks calmly off into retirement. This time the warfare was industrialized, and they didn’t get things all worked out the first time either. It’s not fashionable, but I think that closer in time to WW2 the great U.S. error was widely thought to be shirking after WWI, not getting in in the first place. I suspect the reverse concept is more popular nowadays because the American intelligentsia are on the bad side of Iraq and Afghanistan, and erring on the side against interventionism. That it’s perhaps not entirely objective doesn’t mean it’s wrong, however.

  3. And it will likely be again, sometimes around the 2020s, probably, probably we will have to lose a city, or something at that order of consequence,

  4. You’re doing good…. so far Tsar.

    Care to make a proffer on what would have happened in the US post-WWI US had we sat and witnessed a German wictory?

    for extra extra-credit you can tackle the ottoman Empire and the non-rise of the modern Middle East.

    • Already made some general observations: Instead of reacting to having-joined-the-Allies, we can presume America would have been reacting to having-not-done-so, and possibly to having a witnessed a great demonstration that aggressive pre-emptive war could “work.” That seems to be the Yglesias minimum – we didn’t help win the war for the Allies, and Wilhelmine Germany emerged victorious.

      To get more specific, you have to build a more specific scenario. Did we ally ourselves with Germany and, if so, how did we try to help them, and what did we demand in return? Or did we support the Allies aggressively, but just never send troops? Or did we move to a strictly enforced total neutrality – since, from the German point of view, and to a large extent from our own, we were already “in” on the Allied side by our insistence on trading freely with and financing Germany’s enemies. I’m assuming we agree that once the U.S. was all the way in militarily, German defeat was a foregone conclusion or very likely, though there might be a subset of scenarios in which peace was concluded earlier or later on more favorable terms to the Germans.

      Did the Allies crack during a version of the Ludendorff Offensive in 1918, or did they give up even earlier once it was clear the US was withdrawing support or supporting the Germans? Or did the war drag on for years, maybe after the Germans broke the blockade or began to exploit the resources of Central Europe and the Ukraine after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk? The Ottoman Empire enters the stage in that connection, since they were in on the Treaty. Presumably there wouldn’t have been an Occupation of Constantinople, and I suppose Germany would have supported its ally, maybe tried to keep it on life support for a while if it wasn’t fully resuscitated. Would Britain and other defeated powers have been forced out of Africa on German terms? Early completion of Berlin to Baghdad railway? Would Britain have lost control of the Suez Canal and its Asian Empire? What about all of the other colonies?

      Or would Germany have been magnanimous in victory, peace guide the planet, and love steer the stars?

  5. Demographics, (German and Irish) kept us neutral, Maybe had the Zimmerman telegraph, not transpired, although neutrality could not be maintained. without a further escalation, would the Arab Revolt have been crushed by the Ottomans, would Ibn Saud been the big winner from the whole brouhaha, in the Arabian peninsula, Grimswold posits an Ottoman empire lasting till present days, but that seems dubious

  6. Well I read the Soltzhenitsyn’s the Red Wheel in translation, which has an interesting backstory about they got to that point, btw have you heard of Rex Carruthers, anywhere, I took a look at Bolano’s voluminous magnus opus, 2066, it’s a chore.

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  1. […] the others, sooner or later also collapse amidst absurdity, and leave us, by way of the fundamental convergence principle, in our world as we know it, the same world in which we must always finally depend on our disasters […]

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