The World Turned Upside Down

The Man in the High Castle

a television series created by Frank Spotnitz and adapted from the novel by Philip K. Dick
A propaganda newsreel for the Greater Nazi Reich in the first episode of The Man in the High Castle
Amazon Studios
A propaganda newsreel for the Greater Nazi Reich in the first episode of The Man in the High Castle

In October, The New York Times Magazine presented its readers with an unexpected question: “Could You Kill a Baby Hitler?” The response to the online poll was closely divided, with 42 percent of respondents saying they would indeed take the opportunity to kill Hitler when he was a baby, if provided with a time machine. Another 30 percent said no, and the remainder were uncertain. But the response to the question on Twitter, where the baby-Hitler poll became a momentary sensation, was pretty much unanimous: mockery of the entire idea, and of The New York Times for asking such a futile and unanswerable question. (“Can I use another baby as a weapon?” asked one sarcastic tweet, while others suggested that it would be more humane simply to rewrite the Treaty of Versailles instead.) Clearly, the idea of changing history to eliminate Hitler and everything he made possible—Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust—has a deep appeal to our imagination; and just as clearly, the notion is seen as a not quite respectable fantasy.

Just this blend of fascination and condescension has long greeted writers who take the premise a step further, and try to imagine an alternative history in which World War II played out differently. What would a world without Hitler have looked like? Or, what if Hitler had triumphed, leaving Germany in control of a world empire? When proposed by historians, such experiments in “alternate” or “virtual” or “counterfactual” history are usually disdained as, at best, a busman’s holiday from serious research. At worst, they are a betrayal of the historian’s calling, which is to explore what actually did happen, not to speculate about what didn’t. Novelists have more leeway to imagine alternate realities, but traditionally, their alternative World War II tales have been regarded as mere genre fiction—pulp sci-fi or mysteries.

Still, none of this resistance has prevented writers from engaging in such thought experiments. According to Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, whose study The World Hitler Never Made (2005) analyzes what he calls “allohistorical” World War II stories, “well over one hundred” of them were published between the 1930s and the end of the twentieth century—not just novels, but TV shows, comic books, and video games. And such alternative worlds are increasingly making their way into literary fiction. No longer the exclusive province of mystery writers like Robert Harris (Fatherland) and Len Deighton (SS–GB), they have also been featured in the work of Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).

Academic historians, too, are more willing to risk speculating on what might have been, as evidenced by books like Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited…

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