“We would be living in a different world” (WWII alternate history)

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

This circa 1938 poster reads: “60,000 marks is what this person, who suffers from a hereditary defect, costs the people’s community during his lifetime… Read ‘A New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau of Race Politics…”

When you read the historical accounts of HItler’s stunning military triumphs of 1939-1940, when you watch the old newsreel clips and look at the maps showing Nazi Germany’s rapid conquests, it is easy for your attention to be riveted solely on this aspect of the war. The shock, even from today’s perspective, is such that you can’t even conceive of a greater threat than military defeat and disaster.

Churchill, however, did see this greater threat, and he articulated it in his speech to the House of Commons on June 18, after France had asked for an armistice with Germany. He conjures two starkly different futures — first, victory:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

or defeat:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Churchill saw what could be — and this was before the death camps came into being. In hindsight, we can also clearly see that if Hitler had won the war, we would be living in a different world* — i.e., Churchill’s second image.

Can you imagine your society transformed, the Aryan race the rulers, all other lesser races servants and slaves, and Jews exterminated? Can you imagine this: that this condition is not just a tyranny imposed by brute force, but belief inculcated in people’s minds? Belief in Nazi ideology was one of Hitler’s most important efforts in Germany during the years of 1933 to 1939. Can you imagine an immense occupying army and bureaucracy sworn to his service, not a country’s? Tens of thousands of people forced to work as slaves in labor camps? A division of the government dedicated to the efficient identification, classification, collection, killing, and disposal of civilians?

One minor fact that staggers my mind is that when the gas chambers and crematoria were conceived and the plans drawn up, the designs were patented. Does this make you afraid of how minds can be deformed? Can you imagine?

And, regarding “perverted science,” let us consider what else Hitler’s scientists had in the works: nuclear fission and missiles.

Yes, we would be living in a different world — the Nazi system and ideology still alive and operating, immensely powerful, carrying out its vision, and extended over Europe and America.

Imagining that world is what Philip K. Dick attempts to do, in The Man in the High Castle, which I will discuss next.

[*I have borrowed this phrase from Michael McMenamin, in his review of John Lukacs’ Five Days in London.]

Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.