We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America. It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.
In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform. Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war. Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism. (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)
It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction. So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place. And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others. There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity. The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.
Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention? Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago. There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones. That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.
Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression. World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized. Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.
I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK. Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up. That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.