Godwin’s Third law

For the last couple of days I have been following this Richard Dawkins CIF thread.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lunatic commenters are out in force for Dawkins (who I usually admire, although I haven’t got round to reading The God delusion yet,) but he really does himself no favours with his original take on why Saddam should not have been executed:

But I want to add another and less obvious reason why we should not have executed Saddam Hussein. His mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research: a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars.

I’ll leave the psychological aspects of this to those more qualified to comment, but can’t help suggesting that a classic Two Cultures scenario is about to be played out, (and that, for once, the man of science is going to feel the claws of the humanities departments.)

Fairly predictably, the evolutionary biologist is immediately pulled up by commenter “Redleader” for attempting to resurrect the 19th century “Great Man” theory of history. It is quite a long time since anyone seriously approached historical research with Carlyle’s doctrine that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” In the front of their minds. Dawkins, it seems, would like to go even further and suggest that that history should be the autobiography of “Great men”. Letting dictators write their own histories , that’s an original idea – I wonder why nobody has come up with it before?

Warming to his new role as a kind of bionic Schama, Dawkins leaps straight into a counterfactual:

Imagine, in fancy, that some science fiction equivalent of Simon Wiesenthal built a time machine, travelled back to 1945 and returned to the present with a manacled Adolf Hitler. What should we do with him? Execute him? No, a thousand times no. Historians squabbling over exactly what happened in the Third Reich and the second world war would never forgive us for destroying the central witness to all the inside stories, and one of the pivotal influences on twentieth century history.

OK….. Firstly, It takes a certain level of naiveté (or more sinisterly a desire to excuse other criminals by removing agency and motivation) in order to use what Ian Kershaw called “The Hitler Myth” and others call “The intentionalist fallacy” or the idea that everybody else in Nazi Germany was hypnotised by charisma during Hitler’s years in power.

This is not to excuse Hitler’s ultimate responsibility as leader. But merely to point out that “being under the spell of a madman” was an excuse which had great currency amongst Germans who had actually taken an active part in Nazi crimes. Secondly, when did the idea that “historians would never forgive us” cause any loss of sleep to the powerful? And thirdly, (and perhaps most importantly) which historians “ squabbling over what happened in the Third Reich” is Dawkins alluding to exactly? Irving and Lippstadt perhaps? It could of course be that Dawkins did just mean innocent otherworldy academics arguing about which uniform Hitler was wearing on a given day – but I doubt that it will be taken that way on websites dedicated to holocaust denial.

To lighten the mood let’s run with Dawkin’s counterfactual a little further: The doors of the tardis open and a manacled Hitler stumbles out into the holding cell where he is to recover from the cocktail of 28 drugs (including strychnine, belladonna, Methamphetamines and -(according to some sources) morphine, which the sinister Dr Morel had been administering to him . Whilst recovering, Hitler no doubt catches up on world events over the past 60 years, excitedly saying “I told you so” about the cold war, gulping as he reads of Stalin’s plans for the Jews and alternately smiling and frowning as he reads how he has been portrayed by others (he has a lot of reading to do.) He seeks out his modern day supporters and finds a lot of whackily deluded old men and skinhead semi-retards who he dismisses as pointless “Himmlerites” (although this does not stop some of them hijacking a plane in an attempt to free him.) As police surround the El Al jet, Hitler has been released from prison on a technicality – nobody can find a law which will allow them to detain a man who committed suicide 60 years earlier. The first act of the newly free Hitler is to denounce the hijacking and blame it on America (which he also indicts for global capitalism, every single war since George Washington crossed the Potomac and heinous “crimes against nature” such as sending Jews through traversable wormholes to kidnap innocent old men who were merely planning the final stages of the German Götterdämmerung in their bunkers.)

Immediately, in murky corners of the internet, on websites dedicated to “National Bolshevism” and “Green anarchism” he finds a new audience, one whose tentacles stretch much further into the mainstream than the ropey old skinheads. Thinking back to when he had said:

All that concerns me is never to take a step that I might later have to retrace and never to take a step which could damage us in any way. You must understand that I always go as far as I dare and never further. It is vital to have a sixth sense which tells you broadly what you can and cannot do.

Hitler begins to re-write his own history, (using his own blog –which straight away gets even more hits than Harry’s Place on the day of a Brownie post.) Using his arabic name of “Abu Ali” in an attempt to be both relevant and trendy and also stick two fingers up to the weak aryans who let him down so badly last time) he claims to have known nothing about the death camps (David Irving immediately retracts his recent admissions) and blames the generals for losing him the war, and the “CIA agent” Dr Morel for poisoning his mind and turning him aggressive in the first place. He mourns the death of dear old Strasser (who he now says he should have listened to in preference to the Prussian criminals.) and remembers Dr Goebbels early “socialist” phase during which he had said things like:Maintaining a rotten economic system has nothing to do with nationalism, which is an affirmation of the Fatherland. I can love Germany and hate capitalism. Not only can I, I must.” He resolves to rescue the good Doctor as soon as he can get the secrets of the time machine (although he will leave that awful wife behind.)

“It was the others who were to blame, not Hitler, Hitler understands globalisation” read the posters at the first “Stop the war/Free Palestine/build another autobahn” march………Michael Rosen writes another snotty letter to the SWP complaining about them associating with known anti-semites…

Of course it is all fantasy, and even taking time-travelling fuhrers out of the equation nothing like that could ever happen in the real world could it?

So is there a serious point to all this? Well scientists rarely need to use imagination (though I note Mr Muffin and Mr Valdek’s discussion about “orders of approximation” on another thread and hope that they will both have something to say here) whilst historians use imagination all the time. This is I think the reason why Dawkins has let his imagination run away with him (and allowed me to let mine roam much further on foundations that he has built.) A historical counterfactual can be a useful exercise, although in a case like this it is more likely to ask “what might have happened had Hitler not died in 1945” (or Saddam in 2006 for that matter,) rather than seem more like a plot rejected by Dr Who.

Anyway knock yourself out in the comments with “alternative history” scenarios, critiques of Postmodern humanities departments, discussions about dictatorships or (if you think I have written a load of tosh) treat it as you would a “Dress down Friday” post.

And please remember Godwin’s law – or don’t come complaining to me when Benji wakes up.