Hitler’s Car Accident – Why Historians Don’t Engage in Counterfactual History and You Shouldn’t Either


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Hitler in a car (but no accident), 1940.

“What if Adolf Hitler was killed in a car accident in 1933?”


Chances are that at one point of your school or college formation you came across a question that sounded something like this. With me it came up in a high school history class. Little was I aware how superfluous the question was.

The direction which this question is trying to aim is obvious: If Hitler was killed in 1933, would there be a World War II. Would 6 Million Jews have been murdered in concentration camps? All of a sudden, everybody in the classroom had an opinion on the issue. As one Ancient History professor once said: “Discussion without factual base is an easy exercise.”

However, the question is nonsense.

Firstly, Hitler quite obviously did not die in a car accident in 1933, World War II happened and 6 Million Jews were murdered in the Nazi’s death camps.

Secondly, historians struggle to determine the significance of different factors for a certain outcome — even with events that actually happened.

Thirdly, there is an infinitive number of alternative scenarios if we venture into the realm of the possible. History might have played out the same minus the personal life of Hitler. We might have world peace today and settled on Mars. The United States and the Soviet Union might have entered in a low scale conventional war without the common German enemy, eventually developed nuclear weapons, escalated the war, and annihilated humanity. For what we know, elephants might have enslaved mankind in some wicked turn of events. What is the point?

Finally, the uncertainty factor exponentially increases with time. Most likely, Hitler’s friends and relatives would have buried the would be dictator after his fatal accident in 1933. This was common practice then as it is now. A funeral would be held. In other parts of the world history might not have been affected immediately. In 1933, the New Deal would still have been advanced and prohibition would have ended in the United States, Paraguay would still have declared war on Bolivia, and Choudhry Rahmat Ali would probably also have published the Pakistan Declaration. But what about January 3rd, 2018? Would I even write this post?

History happened. What historians do is reconstruct plausible scenarios based on the information (sources) they find. Look at different factors that led to events and developments. If there are no sources and only assumed factors, the exercise is pointless.

How does this translate to one’s personal life?

Ever doubted a decision you made? What if i took/didn’t take this job offer? What if I married/broke up with that man or woman? Recently our house burned down. We are now looking for the reason. Maybe if had called the night the fire broke out, someone would have had to go look for the phone, seen the fire a little earlier, and could have put it out before it was too late. But I didn’t. The house burned down. This is history now.

Whenever I look back on a decision therefore I assume it was the right one. Why? Firstly, I am still here reflecting the consequences. In a worst case scenario this wouldn’t be the case. Secondly, my loved ones are still around too. It can’t be that bad.

So why spending energy on alternative outcomes.

Do it like the historians. Don’t engage in counterfactual history.

PS: Unless you are a language teacher and are giving your students an exercise on how the use conditional clauses.

 

Image: dailymail.co.uk

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