Here’s What Happens When You Fuck Around and Find Out
With the history of the world on a knife’s edge, a German high court rolled the dice. It didn’t go well.
Even if you aren’t a huge history geek like me, you probably imagine a few counterfactuals even if they’re just about your own life. What if you’d decided to major in something else in college, or what if you’d decided to move to a different part of the world? What if you’d decided to get that trendy tattoo or what if you hadn’t taken up that activity that resulted in your trick elbow?
Historical counterfactuals are a lot more complicated because they have so many moving parts. Sure, you can tip the scales of fate a bit by nudging things along with one or two binary changes to history, but how many times can you think of where you can point to a single yes or no decision the stakes of which would be the fate of the planet and the shape of power for centuries?
Here’s one: in 1924, a young Adolph Hitler stood trial for trying to overthrow the German government. He used the trial as a way to broadcast his ideology and charisma to a wider audience than had ever existed. He got 8 months in jail, after which he re-formed the Nazi party and set himself on a collision course with history.
I’m not gonna get into all the ifs ands or buts about the details of the case. Obviously the court had no way of knowing what he would become. That said, it was pretty evident what he was, and yet they decided to be lenient. They asked themselves the question, “If we just prove to the world that he’s’ a bad guy, then that will be enough to sway public opinion and he will never burn down the world, play midwife to the nuclear age, and kill millions in the process, right?”
The error wasn’t in that the Beer Hall Putch happened. The error was that it wasn’t prosecuted or punished correctly. Who let Hitler use the case as a megaphone? Who thought letting him out of prison the same year as the trial was a good idea? Here we get into the gray areas of the counterfactual.