What if Hitler Had Been Assassinated and Other Alternative Histories

And what if Rabin hadn't been murdered? Serious historians are allowing themselves to grapple with such questions

The destructed hall of the 'Buergerbraeukeller' in Munich, Germany, the site of an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler carried out by Johann Georg Elser on November 8, 1939.
Gestapo / AP

On November 8, 1939, at 9:20 P.M., a bomb went off in the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer cellar in Munich. The occasion was an event marking the 16th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch that took place there. The bomb was planted by Johann Georg Elser, a German left-winger, who had worked on the device for about a year, since hearing Hitler deliver a speech in the Bürgerbräukeller, on the previous anniversary of his 1923 coup attempt, just before the events of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the July 20 plot – the better-known assassination attempt on Hitler, organized in 1944 by ranking officers – Elser was a carpenter and laborer from an ordinary Protestant family. He was out to stop Hitler’s aggression.

Elser worked completely alone, without ties to any political organization. Over the course of several months, he ate supper every evening in the beer hall, after which he would hide in a back room until late at night in order to hollow out an opening in a pillar next to the speakers’ platform. There he planted his time bomb.

But when the bomb went off Hitler wasn’t there. Due to heavy fog, he concluded his speech earlier than originally planned, so that he could return to Berlin by train instead of by plane. He and top figures of the Nazi regime left the hall at 9:07 P.M. When the blast went off, 13 minutes later, seven people were killed, but Hitler and the other Nazi officials were not among them. Elser was apprehended at a border crossing to Switzerland, tortured by the Gestapo and, after being imprisoned for more than five years, was executed toward the end of the war. Hitler viewed the event as proof that he was protected by Providence. His self-confidence swelled.

What would have happened if the speech had proceeded as scheduled and the Fuehrer had been killed in that explosion, shortly after the start of World War II? One answer is suggested by Gavriel Rosenfeld, an American historian of Nazism. In an article entitled, “What if Hitler Had Been Assassinated in 1939?” (which appears in the book “What Ifs of Jewish History,” edited by Rosenfeld and published last year by Cambridge University Press), Rosenfeld presents a logical, if hypothetical, scenario for subsequent developments.

In the historian’s alternative history, the explosion kills Hitler and members of his close circle: Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann and Julius Streicher. Nonetheless, Rosenfeld does not think that the regime would have fallen immediately – not least because some of the ranking figures would have survived, notably Joseph Goebbels, who went to the bathroom just then (as per the historian's made-up account), and Hermann Goering, who had remained in Berlin.

To shore up his strength in the ensuing leadership struggle, Goebbels orchestrates a vicious attack on the Jews, this time far better organized than Kristallnacht. Thousands of Jews are murdered in S.S. and S.A. assaults, and at the beginning of the winter, transports begin of Jews from the occupied regions of Poland and Eastern Europe to the marshes outside Lublin. In Rosenfeld’s scenario, about a million people perish after being shot or due to exposure. However, Goebbels’ extermination drive is curtailed by Wehrmacht officers, who recruit Goering to their side. After Hitler’s death, they no longer feel an obligation of loyalty to the regime; the resistance ostensibly gains momentum after a few months. Street battles break out in Berlin, and Goebbels dies after swallowing cyanide.

Within a few months, a cease-fire is attained and the borders of Eastern Europe were redrawn. The Jews are sent to Palestine, where David Ben-Gurion establishes a state. In the museum commemorating the victims of the Holocaust that is built in Jerusalem, according to Rosenfeld's story, Georg Elser is declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Rosenfeld’s scenario is only one of 16 that appear in “What Ifs of Jewish History.” Some of the most intriguing alternative histories featured there deal with Zionism and Israel. For example, in the scenario presented by the highly regarded historian Derek Jonathan Penslar, the Templers – the German Protestant sect – establish a state in the Holy Land. This is preceded by Germany’s victory in World War I and the failure of the Zionist movement. To consolidate its strength in the region, Germany creates a Protestant state called Neues Israel (New Israel), which seeks to revive the Hebrew state of the Old Testament. Support comes from Christians in the United States, and the new political entity battles its Arab neighbors tenaciously. Within a short time, it comes to resemble apartheid-era South Africa: a democracy – for Germans only.

Penslar’s conceptual experiment has an aim: to examine the attitude toward an Israel-like entity if it were, for this purpose, a Templer state with Sarona, the site of the sect's colony in Tel Aviv, as its capital. “If Israel were a Christian state and acted similarly [to its present behavior], there is no reason, given the international community’s treatment of apartheid-era South Africa, that it would be treated more gently,” he writes. If anything, it would be treated even more toughly. At the same time, Penslar suggests that an Israel-like Christian state “might have been less resilient, less determined to survive, and hence more likely to succumb to a native revolt”

Beatles in Caesarea

Until recently, serious historians rarely dealt with “what if” propositions. But of late, the research field of alternative reality has gained in popularity and has attracted some of the world’s leading historians. The professional chroniclers of history are following in the footsteps of writers such as Philip K. Dick (“The Man in the High Castle”) and Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”), both of whom set novels in alternative historical realities.

All in all, there’s no reason not to do so. Like literary writing, historical writing in the 21st century is also entitled to free itself from formalistic and methodological conventions that were fixed somewhere in the 19th century.

Jewish and Zionist history invites that approach. It’s studded with fateful intersections and with roads not taken, which could otherwise have led to a completely different reality. An article in the book by historian David Myers presents a scenario in which Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett reach an agreement in 1936 with the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, on the establishment of a binational state whose president would be Judah L. Magnes, the leader of Brit Shalom, which advocated peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs, and sought to scuttle the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Even though Israeli culture has never excelled in science fiction, it is nonetheless fond of asking, “What if...?” What would have happened if Yitzhak Rabin hadn’t been murdered? If the Yom Kippur War had been averted? If Labor-Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff hadn’t been assassinated?

Those conceptual conundrums are accompanied by questions of “Where did we go wrong?” The right wing wants to return to the Oslo juncture, or to the moment when hegemony in the pre-1948 era was stolen by Mapai, forerunner of today’s Labor. The Zionist left longs for the small, just Israel of the pre-1967 period. And the non-Zionist left finds the source of the evil in the establishment of the Jewish state, or even in the Zionist idea itself. Beatles fans want to return to 1965 and tear up the memorandum of the Israeli committee that concluded that the group “has no artistic value” and led to their being denied a permit to give a concert in Caesarea.

In any event, many Israelis these days would like to go back in time and amend the sins of their forefathers. Like the classic sci-fi paradox, they are eager to go back in time to kill their grandfather before he makes the crucial mistake. And, if not that, at least to kill Hitler.