Fiction's getting kinder to Nazis

The World Hitler Never Made
September 8, 2006

In his extraordinary outburst of an essay on "the poverty of theory", E. P. Thompson once famously described "counterfactual fictions" as " Geschichtswissenschlopff , unhistorical shit". Yet, as Gavriel Rosenfeld demonstrates in his well-researched discussion of counterfactual accounts of Nazi Germany, a fair amount can be learnt by examining what Thompson would have labelled a dung heap.

The degree to which fantasies about Nazi Germany have circulated in Britain, the US and Germany is remarkable. They range from books and films speculating about a Nazi victory in the Second World War and a fugitive Adolf Hitler who supposedly survived the war to the bizarre comic book encounter in which the "Fantastic Four" meet the Führer. So, what do "alternate histories" of Nazi Germany tell us?

Rosenfeld's main thesis is that alternate histories of Nazi Germany reveal a "normalisation" of how Nazism has been regarded over the past 60 years.

He sees the production of alternate histories of Nazi Germany as falling generally into two periods: first, "an era of moralism", in which the horrors of Nazism were stressed and which lasted to the mid-1960s; and second, "an era of normalisation", in which the alternate visions have been less judgmental.

This normalisation surfaced first in Britain; in the US it arrived somewhat later, and in more recent years there has been something of a return to older perspectives. In Germany, however, there has been "the greatest refusal to perceive the Nazi era from a value-neutral perspective".

According to Rosenfeld, in both the UK and the US the trend towards normalisation coincided with periods of national doubt. The British had lost its empire and the economy was going down the pan; the US was experiencing urban riots, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. No longer could one be quite so certain that the path taken since victory over Nazism had been the best. Therefore, in Rosenfeld's view, Nazism was no longer viewed as absolute evil, and the possible consequences of a survival of the Nazi regime were regarded as perhaps not so bad after all. No doubt alternate histories tell us more about the times and places in which they are crafted than about the events that provide their launching pad.

Yet questions remain. The correlations between alternate histories of Nazi Germany and contemporary British and American politics are interesting, but sometimes seem a bit too neat. Many other things could be taken into account, such as changes in popular culture, the changing face of immigration and of multicultural societies, and changes in publishing and the film industry.

Throughout his book, Rosenfeld writes of "Western memory", "the West's confrontation with the Nazi legacy" and "Western views of the Third Reich".

Yet the "West" referred to here consists of the UK, the US and Germany. Of course, there are good reasons for focusing on these three countries: the vast majority of alternate accounts of the Third Reich have appeared there.

Yet there is a tendency to assume that the preoccupations of the British and (particularly) the Americans are universal, that their perspectives can be equated with Western views and that these in turn have worldwide resonance. It would be interesting to consider how (and whether) the history that preoccupies and haunts us registers in Cairo or Sio Paulo, Mumbai or Shanghai.

Finally, it may be worth thinking about what "alternate" histories tell us about the actual historiography of Nazi Germany. The influences shaping the developments Rosenfeld describes in detail also provided contexts in which serious histories have been written.

Mainstream historians, too, may be divided among those who have attempted to explain the history of Nazi Germany rationally, sought to instrumentalise that history to make political points, or framed their investigations as a moral crusade. Rosenfeld's core observation, that "as the Third Reich has retreated further into the past, the process of organic normalisation... has helped to reduce the horror of the past in memory", will hardly come as a surprise. Indeed, the normalisation of Nazism in the popular imagination was inevitable. Yet his book provides much to think about how we choose to view and consume our history.

Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history at York University. His most recent book is Nazism and War .

The World Hitler Never Made

Author - Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 542
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 84706 3

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