Hitler and the ‘What If?’ Question

“The World Hitler Never Made,” by Gavriel Rosenfeld (Cambridge University Press, $30).

In 1979, comedian Al Franken wrote a skit for “Saturday Night Live” called “What if: Überman,” featuring Dan Aykroyd as Klaus Kent, a clerk in Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda. Klaus dashes into phone booths to become Überman, uses his X-ray vision to detect bombs and to reveal Jews by looking through their pants, and ultimately leads his country to victory. The Nazi organ Der Daily Planet reports, “Überman Takes Stalingrad in 5 Minutes: Diverts Volga,” and “Überman Rounds Up Two Million Jews: Total Past 6 Million.”

This is undoubtedly one of the more outrageous examples, but since 1945, more than 100 authors and screenwriters in Europe and America have asked the same “what if” questions: How would the world look if the Nazis had won? If the Holocaust had never happened? The theme has attracted some of the finest minds in Anglo-American letters. Philip Roth’s latest best seller, for example, “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) imagines an alternate past where U.S. President Charles Lindbergh signs neutrality pacts with Germany and Japan in 1940 and forcibly resettles the country’s Jews to the rural Midwest.

These scenarios, known as “allohistory,” or alternate history, are the objects of Gavriel Rosenfeld’s careful study, “The World Hitler Never Made.” The Fairfield College professor has analyzed every artifact of “what if” speculation on the Nazi era he could unearth, from celebrated sci-fi novels such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” to obscure “Twilight Zone” episodes, to fiction that one might describe politely as complete schlock (read: Newt Gingrich’s co-written flop of a novel, “1945,” about a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union; the book was so unsuccessful that most of its unsold copies ended up pulped one year after its publication in 1995).

Rosenfeld admits that the works are of “uneven literary quality” — but that is precisely the point. While most academic studies of literary representations of the Nazi era and the Holocaust focus on “high” art and literature, Rosenfeld’s aims to study the images of Nazism that proliferate in popular culture. Whether they intend to or not, speculations about the “what ifs” of Nazi history offer good evidence of our memory of the actual events.

What he discovers is a not altogether shocking but nonetheless worrisome trend: As the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past, authors are taking more and more liberties with their portrayals of Nazism — and readers are responding. From the end of the war to the mid-1960s, allohistorical works in the English language depicted the Nazis as uniquely evil and portrayed an imaginary Nazi occupation of England and America as straightforwardly dystopic. Since then, he argues, alternate histories reveal an increasingly “normalized” memory of the Nazi era and even of the Holocaust. That is, recent works are less likely to represent Nazis as purely evil and the Allies as purely valiant.

In the postwar period, the allohistorical imagination conjured up what can only be called absolute nightmares of a Nazi future. In 1947, Noël Coward wrote a play sarcastically titled “Peace in Our Times,” set in Nazi-occupied London from 1940 to 1945. The story’s protagonists wage a noble war of resistance against a brutal Gestapo official, who avers that it is Germany’s “destiny to rule the world,” while Britons who preached appeasement in the 1930s end up collaborating with their persecutors. John Wall’s “The Sound of His Horn” (1952), set in the Nazi calendar year 102 — a century after the “First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism,” Adolf Hitler’s victory over Europe — emphasized the brutality of a would-be Nazi-ruled continent. Science fiction author Cyril Kornbluth published a short story in 1958 titled “Two Dooms,” in which an American nuclear scientist eats hallucinogenic mushrooms that make him imagine a German-occupied America where extermination camps have been set up outside Chicago. In all, Nazis were painted as unparalleled in their wickedness.

But, Rosenfeld notes, in the mid-1960s authors started writing alternate histories of Nazism differently. For example, at the dawn of “a more pessimistic mood within postwar British society,” the genre was used to break down national myths instead of reinforcing them, beginning in 1964 with Giles Cooper’s “The Other Man” and the 1966 film “It Happened Here.” These works, Rosenfeld writes, “blurred the line between the British and the Germans, depicting both as mired in the same immoral world” by focusing on the possibility of British collaboration.

In the United States, disillusion with the Vietnam War inspired revisionist portrayals of America’s war against the Nazis. In 1972, the political scientist Bruce Russett published “No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry Into World War II,” an analysis of “might-have-beens” in World War II. Claiming that Americans might have been better off had they never entered the war, Russett relativized Nazism’s evils by insisting that “Nazism as an ideology was almost certainly less dangerous to the United States” than communism. He criticized American intervention in Vietnam by contesting the historical necessity of intervention in Europe.

This trend becomes even more pronounced by the beginning of the 1990s, by which time Robert Harris could crack the international best-seller list with his novel “Fatherland” (1992), featuring a humanized and even honorable Nazi as its protagonist. Recent novels about the Holocaust, such as Daniel Quinn’s “After Dachau” (2001) — however noble their intentions — have undermined the Holocaust’s uniqueness by using it to draw attention to other genocides, reflecting what Rosenfeld regrets to call “the erosion of prior moral perspectives” to the Holocaust and the Nazi era in general.

In the end, Rosenfeld has mixed feelings about alternate histories. On one hand, he recognizes their capacity for critique, but he also worries they can distort or divert our attention away from real history. It is clear, however, that Rosenfeld’s book is not so much a contribution to literary criticism — in which it is at times lacking — as much as to a larger debate over the portrayal of Nazism.

“Humanizing Hitler may in fact eliminate him from our nightmares, but it may also diminish his place in popular awareness altogether,” he writes. “Only as long as the dictator continues to haunt us are we likely to continue studying, reflecting upon, and drawing historical lessons from, the Third Reich’s destructive legacy.”

Rosenfeld might be exaggerating the extent to which our culture is “forgetting” the evils of Nazism, but his warning is well taken.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Noah Strote writes on Jewish and European history. He lives in Berkeley.