Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Enigma of Hitler: Counterfactual Perspectives

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Enigma of Hitler: Counterfactual Perspectives

Article excerpt

AS ISAIAH BERLIN WAS THE FIRST TO ARGUE, plausibility is an essential requirement for any historian adopting a counterfactual strategy.1 If it is to achieve any degree of legitimacy, counterfactual history must be based not on "mere fantasy" but on "calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world."2 Such a high degree of self-restraint may not be required of the writer of fiction, for whom a portion of fantasy is, in fact, an indispensable precondition for the imaginative exploration of any subject, including the historical, but I would argue that such fantasy is least likely to trivialize a subject such as Hitler where it is tempered by a concern for plausibility.

Studies of the Nazi period continue to proliferate, but the figure of Hitler remains by common consent an enigma eluding final explanation. This is a situation which literature may be thought to have done relatively little to improve. Writing in 1975, J.P. Stern regretted "the failure of creative literature to add very much to our understanding of Hitler's personality," adding that, apart from a few pages by Richard Hughes and Günter Grass, "the literary imagination has on the whole found itself outstripped by the facts of the case" and that "the true nature of the man is trivialized and obscured rather than illuminated by the antics of Charles Chaplin and the deeply unfunny comedy of Bertolt Brecht' The following analysis asks whether such a judgment can be significantly modified in the light of the three novels under consideration here, all of them published after 1975.5

Stephen Fry's comic novel Making History (1996)6 asks the most radical question of all: what if Hitler had never existed? Can it be assumed that the erasure of his name from the pages of history would have made a fundamental difference to the face of the twentieth century?

Fry explores this question through the adventures of the novel's hapless hero, Michael Young, a doctoral student of history at Cambridge University who, as we first meet him, has just completed a thesis entitled "From Brunau to Vienna" in which he deals exhaustively with Hitler's early years.7 He strikes up a relationship with a theoretical physicist, Professor Leo Zuckermann, and Michael then becomes the first person to whom Leo shows a home-made laptop-like box on which he practises what he terms temporal imaging. Although still at an early stage of development, the box essentially opens up a form of time travel: for example, enabling Leo to look in on events at Auschwitz as they happen on 9 October 1942 - one day, he says, after his own father reached the camp (in a surprising twist to the story, the latter is not, as the reader initially assumes, a Jew, but a Nazi).

Michael immediately sees here the possibility of removing Hitler from history, not by killing him (Leo does not approve of murdering even Hitler) but through doctoring the water in Brunau on 1 June 1888 using - without her knowledge - a permanently sterilizing male contraceptive pill developed by Michael's former girl-friend Jane, a Cambridge geneticist. If he had had to, he would have dressed this up for the unknowing Jane as a scientific experiment, as "an investigation of time and historical possibility" (113), but in fact his aim is to change history and "make a better world" (110). His assumption that this can be achieved simply by preventing the birth of Hitler justifies him, he feels, in playing God with history.

But in Book Two of the novel all his optimistic expectations are thwarted. The water in Brunau has been successfully doctored, but far from nipping Nazism in the bud, this enables an even more destructive form of the same phenomenon to develop. The birth of Adolf Hitler is avoided, but his place as Führer is simply taken by Rudolf Gloder. Hitler and Gloder are essentially interchangeable, confirming the structuralist view that not any particular individual but deeper trends in German history are the real explanation for the rise of Nazism. …

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