The Long View: The World Hitler Never Made

Alternative history, which gets the unusual name allohistory in this book review, has been one of my favorite genres. When done well, you tend to learn a lot of real history by proxy, since good alt history is based on real events. One can never invent stories near so wild as what actually happened.

The book John reviews here is a survey of alternative histories about the Third Reich. Some are about a world in which the Nazis never were, and some are about a world in which the Nazis triumphed. None of the stories are actually pro-Nazi. [John managed to find a partial example the author missed] However, the kind of stories we tell about the Nazis have changed over the years. The most vicious and diabolical portrayals came from the immediate post-war years. As time has passed, the Third Reich began to be portrayed as something that was the more banal evil of later Communism, gray, and bureaucratically neglectful. In the end, Hitler has become a joke, Godwin's Law non-withstanding.

We can't take Hitler seriouisly anymore

The World Hitler Never Made
By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press, 2005
524 Pages, US$19.80
ISBN 0-521-84706-0


Every generation gets the space invaders it deserves. In H. G. Wells's day, they were aggressive railroad trestles armed with late Industrial Revolution death rays and poison gas. By the 1950s, they were subversive vegetable bodysnatchers that tried to appear 200% American. Now comes Gavriel Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfield University who specializes in the postwar reception of the Third Reich, to propose that every generation gets the alternative Hitler it deserves. We can learn quite a lot about how Western society has dealt with the memory of the Nazi regime, he suggests, by examining the speculations that have appeared over the years about how that stretch of history might have been different. Most important, by noting how these speculations have changed, we can make some useful inferences about the working of historical memory and about the political cultures of the several nations in which these speculations have appeared.

The book covers four classes of hypotheticals: Hitler wins; Hitler loses but escapes; Hitler is deleted from history; and hypothetical Holocausts (both Holocausts avoided and Holocausts that were more complete). According to the cumulative table of sources in the Appendix, this survey covers 116 works, including novels, short stories, essays, films, television productions, and some academic histories. The works that are discussed are of very variable quality. They range from novels of great merit, such as George Steiner's "The Portage to San Cristobal" and Len Deighton's "SS-GB," to the unfortunately never-to-be-forgotten film, "They Saved Hitler's Brain." (There is an image from that film on the book's dustjacket: they saved not only the brain but the whole head, cowlick and all.) Alternate history (or alternative history, or uchronie: the author prefers "allohistory") has been a recognized genre for some time. It will be easy for attentive readers to point to a few examples the author overlooked, but this survey is remarkably comprehensive.

Allohistorical stories involving Nazi Germany are chiefly an Anglo-American phenomenon, but about 15% of the author's sources are German or Austrian. British and American stories (including a few novels) about the consequences of a German victory began to appear even before the Second World War began. After the war, speculation about that topic took a rest. Such works as did appear, such as Noel Coward's well-received 1947 play about Britain under German occupation, "Peace in Our Time," and John W. Wall's novel "The Sound of His Horn," portrayed Germans as diabolical and their victims as heroes. In comic books and pulp magazines, however, there were numerous stories about how Hitler had escaped and the terrible things that would happen to him when he was caught. In the late fifties and early 1960s, interest revived in allohistory about Nazi victory, either in terms of global conquest or the occupation of Great Britain. Some writers depicted the victims as collaborators. It is to this period that we owe what perhaps remains the best-known "Hitler Wins" novel, Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle, as well as some notable British teleplays, such as Giles Cooper's "The Other Man."

In the 1970s, Rosenfeld tells us, the Hitler Wave began. Popular culture and historical studies treated many aspects of the history of the Nazi era. In allohistory, the Germans began to be portrayed as less absolutely villainous. Alternative historical scenarios were increasingly used to critique the increasingly troubled societies of their authors.

The last great inflection came with the end of the Cold War in 1989. At that point, it became easier to believe that the defeat of the Nazis had not simply cast out the fascist Satan with the communist Beelzebub. The outcome of the Second World War again seemed optimal, and allohistory in large part reflected this. However, well-thought-out works like Robert Harris's "Fatherland" depicted a Nazi-dominated Europe that seemed less like the Hell of earlier allohistorical speculation and more like ordinary unhappiness. Rosenfeld calls this evolution "normalization." As we will see, it worries him mightily.

The early British interest in the subject is not hard to explain. During the war, every adult Briton had reason to contemplate what life would be like if the Germans invaded the country, since the Germans were evidently preparing to do exactly that. British civil defense work involved some preparation for that eventuality; some people even trained for a partisan underground that would operate under a German occupation. And after the war, of course, the German plans for the occupation became public, and featured in many essays and news articles.

In the early postwar era, the British prided themselves on being made of sterner stuff than the continentals. Even if the Germans had occupied the country, the early stories said, the British people would not have collaborated. During the revival in the 1960s of allohistorical speculation (occasioned by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Rosenfeld suggests), some British writers took a different view. Though the Germans were still portrayed as very bad, the British became no better than the French. Some would have resisted, but not always in an admirable fashion; many would have joined enthusiastically with the projects of the Greater Reich.

This difference acquired a political coloration. Leftists tended to portray the British after a lost war as behaving no better than the people across the channel. Their stories implied that there would be nothing to lose by Britain merging with a supranational Europe. Nationalists, in contrast, held up the ideal of the "finest hour" (which Rosenfeld, inexplicably, almost always refers to as "the myth of the finest hour"). In the 1990s, though, it was two generally conservative historians, John Charmley and Niall Ferguson, who debated British membership in the European Union allohistorically. Charmley, notoriously, argued in his biography of Churchill that Britain could have maintained its empire by letting the Germans have their way, especially toward Russia. Ferguson thought otherwise, though we may recall that he thought most of the unpleasantness in the 20th century could have been avoided if only Britain had not intervened in the First World War.

The American question had always been about intercontinental neutrality: a question that is, curiously, asked in allohistory far more often about the Second War than the First. Early stories and assessments by historians portrayed American nonintervention in the Second World War as an unmitigated disaster. Usually it would result in the conquest of the United States, but it always made the world far worse. By the 1970s, however, some Americans of all political persuasions were arguing that the Cold War had ruined America. Allohistorical writers pointed out, reasonably enough, that the Cold War was the result of the eclipse of Germany. American writers of a libertarian bent produced stories in which Eurasia was left to its own devices. The result might be a crumbling Nazi tyranny or a hemisphere of ruins, but it would leave America prosperous and unharmed. (Even Robert Heinlein had thoughts along these lines.) Leftists, in contrast, suggested that the survival of the Nazi regime would have made the world no worse, and therefore that there was no real difference between a Nazified world and an Americanized one.

A common variation on this thought was the backstory of Norman Spinrad's famous "The Iron Dream," a science-fiction novel that was supposed to have been written by Hitler after his political projects failed and he immigrated to the United States. In this scenario, which is really a variation of the Hitler Deleted class, a Nazi-like movement forms in the United States because of the anxiety created by the Soviet annexation of Europe. In this type of story, the Third Reich is implicitly the Awful Example that the United States needs.

German-speaking writers were last into the allohistorical field, and were always more likely to think these problems through in essays than in fiction. (As a German once put it to me, Germans don't need to imagine alternate history because for Germany the first half of the 20th century was alternate history.) The earliest allohistorical stories argued that a Nazi victory would have been a disaster for Germany, too, as the regime got stranger and stranger. Later efforts, though, tended to fall into politically tinged classes, like their Anglo-American counterparts. Politically conservative people, who thought well of the postwar Federal Republic, continued to depict the world of a Nazi victory as dramatically worse than the real world. Leftists, however, often created scenarios in which such a victory resulted in a world not very different from our own, with the implication that liberal democracy was just a mellower form of fascism.

Later German allohistory explored the possibility that too much historical memory can be a bad thing. Some works described scenarios in which the Morgenthau Plan for the postwar deindustrialization of Germany was actually implemented. In a novel of this sort, the younger generations were forced to enact grotesque rituals to commemorate the misdeeds of their ancestors. The effect, of course, was to create resentment, so that whatever regret that Germans might have felt about a black spot in their history was obviated by the injustices done to them in the present. This sentiment is a fictionalized representation, Rosenfeld suggests, of the real feeling in the German world.

Such thoughts are not unknown in the English-speaking world, however. Perhaps the best Hitler Escapes novel, "The Portage to San Cristobal," features an aging Führer who is tried by an Israeli court in the Brazilian jungle. The book suggests that the very attempt to seek justice for the Holocaust keeps Hitler and Nazism alive. Rosenfeld does not dismiss this possibility, but he is clearly troubled by it. He is after, all, a student of the memory of the Holocaust, and his study shows that the increasingly popular genre of allohistory works to undermine the historical specificity of that event.

Rosenfeld does not record a single pro-Nazi allohistorical novel (I came across just one, online, and I believe it was never completed). Nonetheless, the trend in allohistory has been to move from stories in which a Nazi-dominated world is surreally evil to stories in which the Nazi empire has mellowed into a drab totalitarian state. A good example is Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which simply transferred the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union to the fall of the Nazi Party in Greater Germany. Indeed, in such a case, verisimilitude requires that the regime be credited with some laudable achievements. Even Stalin built the Moscow subway.

The flaws of the allohistorical regime cease to be the flaws of the actual Third Reich. They become universal flaws. All those Hitler Deleted stories in which Nazism arises in the United States suggest that fascism is a danger inherent in human nature. That may or may not be true, but making that point can distract attention from the history of what actually happened in Germany. For better or worse, however, the effect of allohistory on the memory of the Third Reich has been normalization and universalization. Allohistory itself, Rosenfeld suggests, is characterized by "presentism": these imaginary histories are wholly at the service of the conflicts and controversies of the time in which they are written.

There are some features of the allohistory of the Third Reich that seem to defy explanation. For instance, almost all stories in which the Holocaust is eliminated by well-meaning time travelers turn into variations of "The Monkey's Paw": when you get three wishes, the last one will be "put it back the way it was!" There is also a strange consensus that the result would have been much worse if the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded. I myself wrote a long essay arguing just that; I seem to have been caught up in the collective unconscious when I did so.

Finally, there is the fate of Hitler himself. In his earliest postwar allohistorical incarnations, he is up to his old tricks: inciting neofascist movements and devising superweapons in jungle exile; in one American television drama he is the colleague of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. By the 1970s, he is portrayed as a decrepit old man, almost pitiable. Revenge against such a creature seems irrelevant in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. In his most recent metamorphosis, though, he meets as strange a fate as any allohistorical scenario: he has become a clown. Increasingly over the last 30 years, der Führer has been appearing in comedy sketches and comic books, where he displays a short temper and a certain talent for explosive epigram.

Hitler's final state may be that of Mad Baggins, who, as Tolkien tells us, used to vanish with a flash and bang in fireside stories and became a favorite character of legend after all the true events were forgotten.

It may be allohistory, but you can't make this stuff up.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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