Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[REVIEW] Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld's new book The World Hitler Never Made is a triumph, perhaps the first academic historiography ever written about alternate history. As the book's title suggests, Rosenfeld is specifically interested in the vast array of stories--novels, short stories, comic books, television and film--set in worlds where Hitler and Naziism encountered fates as various as their complete victory to their early defeat. The author first took note of this flourishing subgenre of alternate history in reading Robert Harris' 1993 Fatherland, a novel set in a 1964 where a Greater Germany reigned triumphant over Europe if locked in a Cold War with the United States. Over the course of the 1990s, as the Internet spread and let alternate history gain a higher profile even as the counterfactual method gained legitimacy in academic history via the works of Niall Ferguson (Virtual History, The Pity of War, Empire) and others. The focus of Rosenfeld, a student of Germany and the Second World War, was more specific.

What set of motivations or concerns had eld people over the years to wonder "what if?" with respect to the Nazi era? How had they imagined that the world might have been different? What explained the growth of such accounts in recent years? Finally, and most importantly, what did alternate histories reveal about the evolving place of the Nazi past in Western memory? (3)

Rosenfeld places alternate history and the counterfactual method, techniques which challenge accepted assumptions about the inevitability of events and the difficulty of determining the truly significant events, in the context of the post-1960s decay of authority in the West. In cultures where it was no longer possible to uncritically accept the claims of authorities, every claim became suspect. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether or not the Second World War was necessary was another newly opened topic. Examining the alternate histories produced by British, American, and German popular culture in the post-war era, Rosenfeld suggests that, starting in the 1960s, there has been a pronounced shift, from moralistic works which were preoccupied with Hitler's crimes and justifying the course of events to more contested and divided interpretations which reject an uncritical examination of the Nazi era. At present, after the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War in the late 1980s allowed alternate-history writers more freedom to consider different scenarios, combining post-war triumphialism with Cold War criticism. Four trends are seen as particularly important.

  • Organic normalization. The simple passage of time makes Nazi crimes increasingly distant from the minds of those in the present day.

  • Universalization. The fact that Nazi war crimes can be assimilated into the study of crimes against humanity in general decreases their uniqueness.

  • Relativization. Nazi war crimes can be minimized, for domestic political purposes.

  • Aestheticization. The most worrisome of Rosenfeld's four trends, the aestheticization of the Nazi era for psychological or commercial motives

The relevant literature of each of the three countries studied by Rosenfeld manifests different trends. In the case of the United Kingdom, alternate histories seem to have been most often used to challenge the myth of the Untied Kingdom as a nation firmly opposed to the Nazis, often by suggesting that Britons would have collaborated had Nazi Germany managed Operation Sealion. Americans, for their part, more often question (as in Brad Linaweaver's Moon of Ice) whether American intervention was ever necessary, if a Nazi Europe would have been less threatening to the United States than the Cold War's Soviet empire. Germans, for their part, seem to be concerned with the question of how Naziism could be incorporated within German national identity, whether or not (for instance) Naziism and the Holocaust were inevitable products of German society in the 1930s.

As one would expect, the question of morality has remained quite potent. The first generation of alternate-history writers critical of the accepted story of Naziism retained the original emphasis on the singularity of Nazi crimes. For instance, Philip K. Dick's famous 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle describes Nazis as immensely evil and motivated by a will to power, willing to depopulate Africa and hunt down the last Jews; oddly enough, for an audience familiar with Unit 731 and the Rape of Nanjing, the Japanese are the only victorious Axis power that has resisted this purge of decency. Similarly, the script of Harlan Ellison's famous 1967 Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" was tweaked to make Edith Keeler's pacifism allow for a Nazi victory. In Germany, Otto Basil's 1965 novel Wenn das der Führer wiste and Arno Lubos' 1980 Schwiebus examine solitary characters left to fend for themselves in of a morally bankrupt and declining society.Later, however, Naziism's ruthless modernity was increasingly presented as something present in modern Western democracies, as in Brian Aldiss' 1970 short story "Swastika!".

A critical moment came in 1979 with the Saturday Night Live sketch "WI: Uberman", where Klaus Kent as portrayed by Dan Ackroyd saved the Führer from the 1944 bomb plot and went on to win the Second World War for the Nazis, taking Stalingrad, rounding up six million Jews, even "killing England." For perhaps the first time, the idea of a Nazi victory was presented as pure entertainment. The organic normalization of Nazi crimes, Rosenfeld argues, had by this time progressed to the point where a Nazi victory could be seen as funny. In the 1980s, almost anything was possible, with Linaweaver arguing in Moon of Ice that Nazi Germany would inevitably have succumbed to the superior libertarianism of the United States, and British poet Craig Raine's play 1953 making fascist Italy the leading villain and downgrading Nazi Germany to a second-rank power. Still later, Robert Harris' Fatherland, which critically examined the repression of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany slowly succumbing to reality, was able to include a SS officer as hero of the plot. In 1995, German writer Alexander Demandt went so far as to conclude in his article "Wenn Hitler gewonnen hatte?" that even a worst-case Nazi Germany would be no worse and in many ways better than East Germany.

Other writers, taking a different angle have asked whether a world without Hitler would necessarily have been a better world: Stephen Fry's Making History and Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream are the most representative examples. Hitler, too, has been humanized, removed from a position of transcendant and inhuman evil to a simple human being produced by human choices. No writer has done a better job at this than George Steiner in his 1980 The Portage of A.H. to San Cristobal, a powerful text where Hitler presents his own arguments on his own terms: Jews developed the concept of the master race, Britons developed the concentration camp, the Soviets committed atrocities as bad as anything the Nazis did, he did create Israel. In the novel, Hitler was almost viscerally convincing; in the 1982 stage adaptation, Hitler was applauded after his final monologue.

In the end, Rosenfeld reluctantly concludes that the normalization of Naziism is inevitable, that the contextualization of Nazi crimes within a broader context is in fact a useful way to think of Nazi crimes in such a way as to prevent their recurrence, in any form. He's quite right, of course: There have been many other atrocities apart from those committed by the Nazis, and concentrating on Nazi crimes in such a way as to avoid examining the broader contexts and causes of crimes against humanity is counterproductive. Even so, I also think that the normalization of Naziism can proceed too far, ignoring the singular consequences of a victorious Nazi Germany. Ralph Giordano's argument, expressed, in 1989's Wenn Hitler der Krieg gewonnen hätte (If Hitler Had Won the War) argues that Germany would have first tried to conquer Africa, then desolate eastern Europe in the fashion laid out in the Generalplan Ost, and finally fight a war against the United States is unproven, of necessity. Even so, Naziism was uniquely radical, planning the wholesale reengineering of Europe's ethnicities and economies at enormous cost and managing to inflict quite a bit of damage on Europe in the six years that it had to act on the whole of that continent. Can we seriously expect that a regime led by Hitler and friends, people who welcomed Berlin's destruction on the grounds that the German people had proved itself weak and unworthy, would not have happily engaged in the most dangerous and nihilistic adventures? The post-Stalin Soviet Union, for all of its crimes, at least wasn't ready to desolate the planet on a whim.

Memory--in relation to Nazi crimes just as in relation to all crimes is key. Harry Turtledove's 2003 novel In the Presence of Mine Enemies (reviewed here by John Reilly) does as much of a disservice to memory by slavishly patterning the Reich after the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union as John Ringo and Thomas Kratman's Watch on the Rhine does by making a rejeuvenated SS Germany's protectors against alien invasion. Pretending that Naziism was not, at its roots, an ideology that took gleeful pleasure in harm from its start, takes willful blindness. Richard Grayson's famous 1979 story "With Hitler in New York" takes note of this trend of selective ignorance, describing Hitler as a nondescript guy like any of the others, with a bit of a bad unmentioned history but with peers uninterested in starting a fuss and a Jewish girlfriend to boot.

Grayson's tale imagines an alternate world that has largely forgiven Hitler for his crimes and forgotten them. Such a world--in which the story's narrator can ignore his grandfather's own death in order to get stoned with Hitler and can muse, "I wonder if I am beginning to fall in love with him"--is a callous, unfeeling one, in which historical consciousness has either atrophied completely or become irrelevant to most human beings. In short, it is a nightmarish world of total amnesia (235).

Consciousness is nice indeed.

UPDATE (1:08 PM) : Crossposted to soc.history.what-if and rec.arts.sf.written.
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