What did Churchill think of Oswald Mosley?

Counterfactual story : If Hitler had conquered England

In the original English edition of the book, we see an astronaut who has just landed on the moon. He planted a Soviet flag in front of him. On the cover of the German edition stands a victorious Hitler in front of the American Statue of Liberty. The ideas of counterfactual histories can be so different. In general, Adolf Hitler fires the imagination far more than Soviet cosmonauts do. To this day, what is perhaps the most demonic of the major criminals in the history of the past century has lost little of its appeal.

"He's back" was a bestseller two years ago. As a hero of counterfactual narratives, Hitler was never gone. In the end, he either won the Second World War and now rules the earth or at least Europe. Or he lost the war, but then escaped to South America on a Vril submarine in order to prepare for his comeback from there. It is still used today as a projection surface for fears of Germans.

In this country, considerations often go in a different direction. Would it have been possible to prevent the Nazis' "seizure of power" in 1933, would an alternative scenario to Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor have been conceivable? Richard Evans also discusses this question and argues, not for the first time in the new book, that the continuation of the Weimar Republic was not a realistic scenario, but that the establishment of an authoritarian military regime, as in other European countries, would have been possible in Germany. And he rightly points out that the course of history would have been different if - not an unrealistic scenario - Private Hitler had died in World War I. He is concerned with contingency, the tension between causality and openness in historical development. It has to be defended on the one hand against rigid determinism, as it can distinguish orthodox Marxists, and on the other hand against unfounded speculations, behind which often enough only wishful thinking is hidden.

The real subject of the author is English historiography

The book is the result of lectures that Richard Evans held in Jerusalem in 2013 at the invitation of the Historical Society of Israel. The four essays on wishful thinking, virtual history, future fictions and possible worlds revolve around the questions of determinism and contingency, facticity and chance, the aporias of structuralism as well as the depths of counterfactual speculation, without always being governed by a rigorous system. Richard Evans, one of the most famous British historians, who has presented numerous fundamental works on German history in the 19th and 20th centuries, takes the opportunity to bring his own historiographical convictions to the fore.

The historian must be able to explain the course of history: "A historian who does not provide explanations goes to the level of a pure chronicler." But those who can explain do not like to believe in coincidences. And so it is not surprising that, although Evans repeatedly grapples with counterfactual considerations for over 200 pages, this argument in the end always comes down to the fact that he doesn't think much of it. Evans' belief is that counterfactual speculations have little persuasive power, because changing a single initial event neglects too many other links in the subsequent causal chain. The principle of “ceteris paribus” that one only changes one variable under otherwise the same conditions, a basic requirement for valid experiments, does not work in history.

The author's actual topic is English historiography, which he deals with intensively, both with the conservative historians of the interwar period and with the controversial personality of Niall Ferguson, on whom Evans repeatedly works in detail. We learn a lot about English history in the past century. Many of the counterfactual scenarios revolve around the question of which political forces would have gained the upper hand in the country if the Germans had succeeded in occupying Great Britain in the First or Second World War. Would the British Nazi Oswald Mosley have headed a puppet government or would the Conservative Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare have taken on the role of a British quisling? And what would the further path of Lord Halifax, who many consider to be the architect of the appeasement policy, have looked like?

A plea against politically motivated fantasies

Conservatives mourning the collapsed British Empire discuss other counterfactual considerations. You ask how history would have been if Great Britain had behaved neutrally in the First and / or Second World War, whether it would then have been possible to preserve the British Empire, possibly at the price of a German Empire, the European one Continent dominates. These examples show that the authors are often less concerned with gaining historical knowledge than with wishful thinking, and Evans shows no mercy. In particular, he refutes Ferguson's thoughts that Great Britain waged the wrong war in 1914 in delightful detail.

The Euroscepticism of the Thatcher era occupies a large space with Evans, which was directed primarily against an overpowering Germany whose reunification could possibly lead to a Fourth Reich. The modernization crisis in Great Britain, to which Thatcher responded with a radical conservative reform program, led to a renaissance in the glorification of Great Britain's role in World War II and, on the other hand, to a dramatically increased fear of a resurgent Germany as the dominant power in Europe.

The prime example of a Eurosceptic counterfactual novel was “Vaterland” by Robert Harris, a world bestseller that appeared two years after German reunification and assumed that Hitler had won World War II and that Germany now dominated Europe. Evans quotes Harris: "You don't have to share Margaret Thatcher's views to see how similar what the Nazis were up to in Western Europe is to what is now a reality in the economic field."

Richard Evans castigates with remarkable clarity the radical deterioration of British attitudes towards Germany at the time: “While it was normal in Great Britain during World War II to fear a European future dominated by evil Nazis, it was in British eurosceptic narratives that In the 1990s it was normal to believe that this future has long since become the present or is imminent. ”The British stubbornness towards the process of European unification, which astonishes the average European again and again, gains in plasticity here.

In the last of his four entertaining and instructive essays, Evans explicitly opposes politically motivated fantasies. They lack an interest in knowledge, instead they are replaced by wishful thinking guided by interests. Arbitrariness and superficiality characterize the scenarios. At the end of all discussions, the author always comes back to his conviction that the counterfactual perspective is "by no means of central, but rather of marginal importance". Her motives are rooted in the present and for that reason alone it is difficult for her to make a truly veritable contribution to the exploration of the past. It has not been explained to us as elegantly for a long time as in Richard Evans' new book, which Richard Barth translated into German excellently.

- Richard J. Evans: Changed pasts. About counterfactual narration in history. Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Munich 2014. 220 pages, 19.99 euros.

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