This Christmas brings the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad. Instead of looking to historians for enlightenment on the subject, why not turn to the greatest war novel I've ever read, Life and Fate (German title Leben und Schicksal) by Vassily Grossmann. Grossman was a journalist attached to the Red Army, who covered the battle there. The remarkable achievement of the book is that it cuts across multiple locations in and around the battle of Stalingrad and shows how soldiers and civilians experienced the war. By the time Grossman wrote the novel in the late 1950s, he had become disillusioned with the Communist system. No longer beholden to Soviet myths, he could portray the fates of ordinary people, in particular Soviet Jews, caught up in the jaws of two totalitarian and anti-Semitic systems.
Around 1993 I was sitting in seminar on the demise of the Weimar Republic led by Heinrich August Winkler, who engaged us in a lengthy discussion about what did not happen. As is known, the SPD failed to respond decisively to Franz von Papen's coup in the state of Prussia, the so-called Preussenschlag of July 1932. This failure to act proved a burden for postwar Social Democrats. However, Winkler asked us, did the SPD have an option? He played through the likely outcomes of any other course of action and concluded that they had had no real options. That was my introduction to counterfactual history. The greatest book of counterfactual history that I have read was not written by a historian, but by a novelist, Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman's Union (German title Die Vereinigung jiddischer Polizisten). What if most of the Yiddish speaking population of the Pale of settlement had not been killed in the Holocaust, but had been rescued by the United States around 1940? Given the prevailing global antisemitism of the day, Jews Chabon reasons that Polish Jews would not have been welcomed with open arms, but sent to live in the territory of Alaska, where reservations would have been set up for them alongside the Tlinget natives. With a large Jewish population, statehood would have been off the books, and so the scene is set for a humorous detective tale in contemporary Sitka, where an intact Yiddish world thrives.
I have spent more than a few hours reading stories to my children and the ones I enjoyed the most were contained in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials, a trilogy consisting of The Golden Compass (UK title Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass. The premise is that the medieval Catholic Church did not fragment and that it now rules contemporary Britain and the University of Oxford, where the story commences. The dark powers of the Magisterium carefully oversee scientific inquiry (called natural theology of course) and seek to suppress heretical investigations into a parallel world and the physical and spiritual bridges leading to it. It is a wonderful antiauthoritarian tale for all ages. The anticlerical animus of the author is motivated by a spiritual yearning, which I found intriguing. I initially believed that Pullman was describing a monistic system, but as the story progressed, I realized that his tale was an elaborate gnostic fantasy, where the God of the Magisterium was a false god, a demi-urge seeking to hide the true reality.