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The Importance Of Alternative History & Nazism In Literature

What if Adolf Hitler won World War II? It’s a question that has been asked by countless historians and authors alike. Whether you are reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America– Nazism plays a key role in the imagination of science fiction. But why do these books exist? What can we learn from a potential Axis victory? Does World War II represent the fears we experience today? I hope to interrogate these questions and reach some satisfying conclusion in this blog post.

It should be said that I don’t find these books to be morally repulsive. Entertaining the notion of an Axis victory is not the same as endorsing Nazism. In fact, I’d argue that such texts act as strong arguments about the shortcomings of Nazi ideology. By giving a looking glass to Hitler’s arguments and Nazi practices, we are able to be critical. Alternative History needs to have unsettling premises in order for it to be effective- otherwise, the genre fails to work. Readers can deal with complex and upsetting material, and should have the maturity to grasp that portraying a Nazi victory is not the same as supporting one.

Arguably- Alternative History that flirts with the notion of an Axis victory- highlights the following:

  • That history is important, and worth studying
  • As citizens of the world, we have a duty to ensure that the horrors of World War II do not happen again
  • The importance of fighting for values such as truth, justice and fairness
  • The importance of reflection, and to never forget the past.
  • The power of propaganda and hate-speech
  • How warfare can tear apart communities and countries

None of those things that I have listed are bad. In fact, they are helpful and positive. Literature that encourages inquiry, critical reflection and active discussion are fantastic. I also think that’s why books like Fatherland are huge successes- because not only are they daring in their ambitions, but because they actively assist in benefitting the human race’s understanding of history and trauma. Simply put, we should be discussing Nazism in our literature. What I love about science fiction is that it encourages debate and further inquiry. History is never off-topic, it’s forever relevant.

Of course- part of the success with Nazi-themed Alternative History stems from our ongoing cultural fascination with Nazi Germany and World War II. The fact is, the end of World War II is seen as the birth of a ‘new world’- with the forging of the United Nations, new weapons, mass communications, an emphasis on foreign policy and international relations and increased migration. If a writer wants to use alternative history to comment on today’s world- understanding World War II is an ideal place to start. Due to World War II holding a horrifying place in humanity’s memory- writers who wish to exploit such fears are able to.

I’d like to see authors experiment with other time periods. What’s great is that history is so diverse, that the possibilities are endless. So I’d encourage writers who are working in the alternative history genre to continue and develop their ideas further. A good alternative fiction book is one I will always treasure.

Here are some alternative-history books that deal with an Axis victory:

The Man In The High Castle – Philip K. Dick (purchase here)

Germany and Japan wrestle for control over the United States of America- as we get insight in the everyday lives of its citizens. With science fiction ideas of aliens, time travel and other dimensions, Philip K. Dick invites us into a world that is both unsettling yet interesting. It’s probably the most well-known alternative fiction novel for a good reasons.

Fatherland – Robert Harris (purchase here)

Premise: What if Hitler won? This question is posed on the cover, as we navigate the deep dark truths that construct deadly and dangerous worlds. You’ll be engrossed in the deep conspiracy that is set in Berlin. Not only is this a highlight of the alternative history genre- but there is alot for detective fans to enjoy.

Swatstika Night – Katharine Burdekin (purchase here)

Premise: Written in 1937, this novel is unsettling yet effective. As the Nazis reshape history, we are stuck trying to figure out how this happened. Seen as a novel that paved the way for the likes of George Orwell- Swatstika Night demonstrates how science fiction has the foresight to predict future events, and will inspire you to think about the world you inhabit today.

SS-GB – Len Deighton (purchase here)

Premise: Set in Britian, this detective novel features a mystery riddled with secrets. In a country where Churchill has been executed and the British Command surrended to the Nazis, this novel is seen as a classic in the Alternative History genre, as its fusion of crime and espionage has been admired by both authors and historians alike.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth (purchase here)

Premise: Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles A. Lindbergh, who negotiates an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler.  Written by acclaimed author Roth, this novel is a highlight of speculative fiction and brings the terror of Nazism into the American sphere.

Madeleine

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