Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Pax Germanica -- the Future Historical

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Pax Germanica -- the Future Historical

Article excerpt


World War II was not one war but a great many overlapping wars with distinct objectives. These differing experiences still haunt the present, not only in the memories of survivors but also in the myths which colour the minds of subsequent generations.

E. P. Thompson, 'VE-Day', Sanity (May 1985).

Why is it that novelists from P. K. Dick to Robert Harris have played with the counterfactual fantasy that the Nazis won the Second World War? It seems there's a shameful fascination in imagining a late 20th-century where readers of Q Magazine name Adolf Hitler rather than John Lennon as their Millennium Man.

J. Jones, 'Adolf Hitler: Fuhrer of Kitsch', The Guardian (12 July 1999).

1. Counterfactual history

Science fiction, 'future history', is less fettered than most literary genres in exploring alternative outcomes for important historical events, and in exploring the less predictable implications of those events. Of all the possible 'alternative history' subjects available to sci-fi writers, World War II has proved to be remarkably popular. Nazism continues to haunt European and American imaginations: it is a subject on which literary creativity and speculative scholarship have begun to intersect, asking fundamental and awkward questions about Allied opposition to Nazism, the content of victory and the nature of defeat.

What was World War II about? What would Europe have been like if the Nazis had won? What can imaginative literature reveal to us of the world the Nazis would have created? What effect has the Cold War had in shaping our perceptions of the Nazi years? What myths have we built up, in the post-war years, about Hitler and his ambitions and about the nature of victory over Hitler? When writers create Nazi dystopias, what are they telling us about our world, about the post-era, about the cold war, about what lurks within our current social and political arrangements?

An Allied victory over Hitler's Germany may have been inevitable in the long run, but key decisions (Hitler's failure to invade Britain in 1940, the German invasion of Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, the invasion of the USSR, the declaration of war on the USA in support of Japan) meshed with logistical facts to provide us with the outcome we recognize. But the inevitability of Allied victory is only clear in retrospect. Things could have turned out very differently if the Americans had listened to Ambassador Joseph Kennedy instead of F. D. Roosevelt; if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbour; or if, having decided to attack Pearl Harbour, had wiped out the US aircraft carriers; if the Nazis had not honoured their treaty with Japan and had failed to declare war on the US; if Hitler had invaded England instead of turning towards Moscow; if Winston Churchill had sued for peace. ...

In general academia has tended to regard such speculation as slightly dotty and definitely marginal to genuine research, but the possibility of a Nazi victory has been the subject of several imaginative academic treatments, and with the publication of Niall Ferguson's Virtual History counterfactual history has become a subject of popular interest and serious intellectual debate. Significantly no less than three of Ferguson's nine chapters touch on possible alternative outcomes to the World War II. Ferguson has written:

Historians who stress the chaotic and ultimately self-destructive character of the Third Reich would have us believe that ... the Third Reich was pre-programmed to collapse in 1945. What remains unclear, however, is how far their assumptions of an inevitable Nazi defeat are based on a realistic assessment of what could have happened -- and how far on mere wishful and teleological thinking. Certainly, many aspects of Nazi planning appear so bizarre to us that it is hard to imagine their ever having been realised. But not all. [1]

Ferguson makes the point that some aspects of Nazi thought are so 'modern' it is easy to see that they could have come true. …

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