Counterfactual, counterhistory, counter memory


By Ivan Schneider
Seattle Review of Books
September 19th, 2016

Counterfactual history, or counterhistory, has its signature moves: Killing Hitler. Letting the other side win the war. Imagining a home for the Jewish people outside of Israel.

A prominent example of a Jewish-themed counterhistory is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which the U.S. government, instead of supporting the formation of the modern state of Israel, grants a temporary lease to the Jewish people for Alaskan territory. The novel follows a down-on-his-luck detective trying to solve a case at the cusp of the reversion of Alaska to the United States. It turns out that (mild spoiler alert) religious zealots are the bad guys, which is only fair because in the stories that religious zealots tell themselves, Jewish-American writers are the bad guys.

One of the reasons for Chabon’s success was that the novel had a great premise. TV’s Northern Exposure was funny with just one Jewish doctor moving to Alaska, and so you can see the comic potential of having the entire Jewish people donning parkas. It’s also funny at the level of dialogue and language. In Chabon’s Alaska colony, people speak Yiddish, which is inherently funny, especially with Yiddish words placed into new contexts: a gun is a sholem, a patrolmen a latke, and so on.

The premise of Simone Zelitch’s counterfactual history novel Judenstaat is that in 1948, the Jewish people formed a new homeland with the backing of the Soviet Union, in the German state of Saxony, bordering Poland and Czechoslovakia (#SpasiboStalin).

In Judenstaat, most of the Jewish people speak German. That’s probably why the jokes are so different. Here’s one — and for the setup, you need to know about Dresden’s Hygiene Museum:

One of Judit’s earliest memories was of that museum where she opened drawers labeled “Foreign Objects,” filled with oxidized coins and bobby pins, misshapen marbles, most of them well over a century old. They had all been removed from the stomachs of children.”

Later, Judit Ginsburg is in pillow talk with her German boyfriend Hans.

“They’ll have to put me in the Hygiene Museum,” Judit said, and when Hans looked baffled, she added, “Because I swallow foreign objects.”

Yiddishe kopf, nu? Hold on, there’s more.

Then Hans said, “Why don’t you move in with me?”

Let’s recap: Judit transcends a sexual taboo of her time and then compares herself to a marble-eating child. At that precise moment, Hans wants to take it to the next level. I am truly fascinated by German humor.

The original Judenstaat was an 1896 pamphlet by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State).1 Herzl’s plan was simple: “Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the earth’s surface that is sufficient for our rightful national requirements; we shall take care of everything else ourselves.”

Herzl proposed the formation of “The Jewish Company” in London, which would be responsible for the orderly sale and liquidation of emigrating Jews’ real estate and business interests in order to finance the lawful purchase of land elsewhere. A political organization, “The Society of Jews,” was to advocate and negotiate for the actual territory. Herzl writes:

“The Society of Jews will negotiate with the present authorities of the country—under the protectorate of the European Powers, if the matter makes sense to them. We shall be able to offer the present authorities enormous advantages–assume part of their national debt, build new thoroughfares (which we should require ourselves), and do many other things. But the very creation of the Jewish State will be beneficial to the neighboring countries, because the cultivation of an area enhances the value of its surroundings, on a large as on a small scale.”

Herzl was optimistic about the possibility of Palestine:

“Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland. The very name would be a powerfully moving rallying cry for our people. If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return pledge ourselves to regulate the entire finances of Turkey. For Europe we could constitute part of the wall of defense against Asia; we would serve as an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”

Yet the Zionists weren’t placing all their bialys in one basket.

Writing about the Sixth Zionist Congress held in 1903 in Basle, Switzerland, London playwright Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) considered the merits of various parcels. 2

Zangwill had his doubts about Palestine:

“Palestine proper has already its inhabitants. The pashalik [Ottoman province] of Jerusalem is already twice as thickly populated as the United States, having fifty-two souls to the square mile, and not 25 per cent of them Jews so we must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the tribes in possession as our forefathers did, or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan and accustomed for centuries to despise us.”

Egypt’s Sinai peninsula? No, we can’t expect manna to fall again, and it would be too expensive to irrigate, said Zangwill.

Mesopotamia? “Beyond our means.”

Cyprus? “The nearest island to Palestine, but the attempts at Jewish colonization have always agitated the natives.”

Canada? “Probably too cold.”

Argentina? “Certainly too Catholic. We have never got fair play except in Protestant countries.”

How about the United States? “When the United States were forming, a Jewish State might have been among them. But now it is probably too late, though I am not quite sure.”

And then there was Uganda. The British were offering a grant of about 5,000 square miles (slightly smaller than Connecticut), a lovely plot of land in the Uganda territory of the East Africa Protectorate, now part of Kenya (#ThanksObama). This African Zion was to be nestled between Lake Victoria to the West, the Great Rift Valley to the East, and the Serengeti to the South, just 30 hours by train to the sea!

Zangwill on the East Africa Protectorate:

“Is that a step backward? It is rather a step forward. Palestine may remain closed to us for centuries – are we therefore to stand still? Certainly it is a long way round to go by East Africa, but sometimes it is the short cut that proves the longest, and the long way that is the shortest.”

At the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, the Uganda offer (see article: “High Plateaus of East Africa Where White Races Can Live and Thrive”) was rejected. After all, anyone who’s read Adam Smith would know better than to pick an inland country entirely dependent upon right-of-way with its neighbors for transit of goods and people.

Also in 1905, chess legend Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the Jewish son of a cantor, introduced a German term into English chess commentary: “Zugzwang,” meaning all your possible moves are bad moves, and you’re compelled to move anyway.

In the 2016 novel Judenstaat, the protagonist Judit Ginsberg, graduate student, meets uncircumcised orphan Hans Klemmer, an ethnic German. They move in together (obviously), marry, and try to conceive.

Judit’s academic mentor, historian Anna Lehmann, has a steamer trunk of photographs and documents about the failed attempt to colonize Palestine:

There were a hundred reasons why the Rothschild colony disappeared: the war, the climate, T.E. Lawrence and the promises the British made to Syria and Jordan, even the Russian Revolution. Yet Anna Lehmann’s own argument—one that gained currency—was that the messianic element doomed the project from the start. “Messianic” wasn’t even her name for it. It was their own. Palestine Jews believed that in returning to the land mentioned in the scriptures, they would become the agents of their own salvation.

With Lehmann’s help, Judit gets a job as a documentary filmmaker at Dresden’s National Museum. Hans becomes a prominent conductor. Then, Hans is assassinated. His vengeance-seeking ghost haunts Judit as she works in the archives. Someone slips Judit a note: “They lied about the murder.” The search for the truth commences as Judit sets out to unravel the mystery.

Zelitch’s aesthetic sensibility is aptly captured by Professor Lehmann’s praise of Judit’s curatorial work:

“Those photographs. Very well done. Particularly the arrangement. Very little context.” […] Lehmann went on. “You have a talent in that direction. Make people work. Create mysteries. Let others solve them. Never solve the mysteries for them.”

Zelitch follows precisely the advice voiced by Lehmann. Within the flashbacks of the well-crafted narrative, Zelitch intersperses documents: transcripts, a journal abstract, graffiti writing, a manifesto on genocide. You have to be a careful reader to piece together the timeline, detect the historical resonances, and digest their unsettling implications.

And unsettling it is.

In Judenstaat, historical memory is plastic, and crimes against humanity go unexamined.

Among the “black-hat” Orthodox Jews in the Loschwitz quarter of Dresden, Judit meets Shaindel, a young girl who’s never heard of Auschwitz. Judit ruminates: “The black-hats believed that the slaughter was a consequence of Jews like Judit who had turned their backs on God. Maybe Shaindel’s ignorance was better than what someone might have taught her”.

Jewish religious practice no longer exists outside of Loschwitz. Most of Judenstaat’s secular, German-speaking Jews had never set foot inside those synagogues “for old people and black-hats”. This is almost a Judenfrei Judenstaat, the Jews with religious sentiment gathered into an internal ghetto.

With their Mitzvah Tanks inviting people to participate in Jewish rituals, the “friendly black-hats” of Rabbi Schneerson’s Chabad organization proselytize to little effect from their headquarters at Loschwitz’s Yenidze Cigarette Factory, an actual place built to resemble a mosque in the Orientalist style.

The Jewish Defense Force also has its ineffectual tanks, these placed in the service of the Soviets:

It began when the Judenstaat Defense Force was deployed across the border in Czechoslovakia. These boys rolled into Prague to suppress a coup. Their tanks were soon surrounded by fascists—that’s what the radio said—the same scum who had herded Jews into Thereisenstadt. Photographs surfaced: stone-throwing thugs attacking JDF troops. Wearing their blue striped helmets with the yellow stars, those soldiers continued the brave work of the ghetto partisans, and, as before, they fought side by side with their Soviet brothers, completing the work of the Liberation.

But is this really the Judenstaat we would find in an alternate universe?

The black-hat girl Shaindel guides Judit to a purveyor of bootleg videotapes whose library includes Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Rambo II (sic), Nine to Five and The Breakfast Club. Do these five films exist in every single corner in the multiverse, a cultural manifestation of the universal gravitational constant? I sure hope so.

Still, the scripts would be vastly different. If there had been a USSR-backed Judenstaat in Saxony, the Cold War would have layered the Red Scare atop the infamous “dual loyalty” charge. Jewish Americans would have been suspected as Communist double agents, giving official sanction to anti-Semitism. You can forget about Jews in Hollywood, except a few thickly-accented characters cast as villains. In the alternate history version of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Col. Troutman sends John Rambo to rescue POWs from Jewish torturers showing Charlie how to make matzoh. “They drew first blood.”

This may seem to be a small quibble. Yet in counterhistory, there are no small details. Every artifact makes a statement. One false note breaks the spell.

A counterfactual dealing with Jewish colonization has to explain not only the Jewish presence in the counterfactual country, but also the effect of absence elsewhere. If there had been an in-gathering somewhere other than Israel, what would have been the fate of remaining Diaspora Jews? Absent Israel, how would Middle Eastern history have unfolded? Zelitch’s low-context style of presentation leaves these details unexplained.

You need plausible science to write “hard” science fiction. That’s why I don’t mind when Neal Stephenson spends hundreds of pages explaining what happens after the moon explodes in Seveneves. You’re reading the novel because of the premise, not the characters.

Similarly, “hard” counterfactual history needs to color the entire map, without blank spots.

If you’re doing a counterhistory on topics that have significant contemporary resonance, such as justifications for the State of Israel, historical memory of the Holocaust, the persistence of religious practice in a scientific age, and a resurgent anti-Semitism, you have to go further than artfully-arranged snapshots from an alternate timeline.

Show your work.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is a history professor at Fairfield University who specializes in counterfactual history and maintains a blog at The Counterfactual History Review. Rosenfeld is also the editor of a forthcoming collection, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism, which is roughly split between essays and fictional documents.

The essays explore what might happened if history had diverged at certain key points: the Exodus, the destruction of the Temple, the construction of the ghetto, confinement to the Pale of Settlement. Alternate histories are proposed for Palestine, including a Christian state and a Palestinian-Zionist compromise; and for different paths of 20th century Germany.

The fictional documents include an encyclopedia entry (“What If Spinoza Had Repented,” Eugene R. Sheppard), travel guide (Adam Rovner, “What If the Jewish State Had Been Established in East Africa?”), memoir (Michael Brenner, “What If the Weimar Republic Had Survived?”), and a Righteous Gentile award presentation (Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “What If Adolf Hitler Had Been Assassinated in 1939?”).

I’ve decided that I prefer my counterhistory in short-form rather than novels; essays rather than invented documents. The straightforward discussion of various scenarios and their implications seems to be a much faster way of conveying a sense of historical possibility at key moments in time. Characters and mysteries and all of that genre stuff just gets in the way.

I also have my doubts about the entire counterhistory concept.

Counterfactual historians resemble chess players reviewing noteworthy grandmaster games. Both arrange the board as it once stood and then imagine alternate outcomes. The chess annotators call attention to moves both questionable (e.g. “1… h5?”) and brilliant (“11… Na4!!). Commentators also describe alternate lines, “what-if” scenarios that either show why a different move wouldn’t have worked, or call attention to a missed opportunity.

The problem with counterhistory is that the rules of chess are deterministic while the rules of life are not.

According to the philosopher Karl Popper, historical prediction is impossible because the growth of scientific knowledge is inherently unpredictable. That’s to say, who could have anticipated, in advance, both the invention and the effect of atomic weapons on the outcome of World War II, television on the Vietnam War, and orange hair transplants on the 2016 election?

Suppose that Albert Einstein, rather than teach physics in Bern, Prague, and Berlin, instead accepted a post at the Hebrew University of The East Africa Protectorate? Maybe he would have proposed the theory of general relativity from anywhere, but would he have developed the idea to fruition so far from the rest of the scientific community? Might he not have fallen ill, or quit science to become a musician? There’s no end to the cascading implications of historical events. In each alternate universe, the growth of knowledge progresses, or regresses, at a different rate. Even when starting from the known past, you can’t predict the future.

Zelitch’s Judenstaat suggests that the zugzwang of modern Jewish identity might have been avoided if history had unfurled differently.

Herzl’s Judenstaat shows us that an inspired individual can imagine a future beyond hate; that borders can be negotiated; and that the future is subject to our control.

That’s history we can use.

  1. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Herzl Press, 1970)
  2. Israel Zangwill, Speeches, Articles and Letters of Israel Zangwill. Ed. Maurice Simon (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1973) 189-190.

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