While historians have traditionally dismissed the use of counterfactual reasoning in the writing of history, recent scholars have increasingly invoked “what if” scenarios in writing about the origins, course, and legacy of the Nazi genocide. This paper surveys the diverse ways in which counterfactuals have been employed in Holocaust historiography. It historicizes the evolution of this speculative mode of reasoning, tracing it back to the early scholarly debate about Hannah Arendt’s controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.
It goes on to show how other topics have featured “what if” reasoning,including: the debate over Hitler’s role in the Holocaust; debates over whether the Western Allies could have done more to save the Jews; how a Nazi victory in World War II might have affected views of the Holocaust’s uniqueness; how the Holocaust might have been averted had the Allies stayed neutral in World War II; and, finally, whether the Holocaust’s non-occurrence would have prevented the creation of the State of Israel. In showing how scholars have been motivated by a range of analytical, moral, and political agendas, I conclude that the readiness to ask “what if” questions confirms Saul Friedlander’s hypotheses about the absence of limits for representing the Holocaust.