The Nazi Alternative Universe

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.

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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.

 

The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!

Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

Holocaust Survivors

Richard has a fine story in the Post-Gazette about a meeting of Pittsburgh-area survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but it’s heartwarming to know that they meet, remember, and worry about whether that especially unforgivable, murderous chapter in the sordid history of the human race can happen again.

Reading Richard’s story reminded me of the first time I focused on the fact that I met a Holocaust survivor. I was traveling through Europe and encountered a vivacious older woman, probably in her 50s, with flaming red hair and an outgoing personality. We were talking, she shifted in her seat and moved her arms, and a crude numerical tattoo that I hadn’t noticed before was exposed. I looked at it and realized what it was, and she saw that I had seen it and decided to tell her story.

Her name was Bella and she was from Poland, she said. When she was young, the Nazis came and took her family away. She never saw her father and brothers again. She was separated from her mother, and she and her sister lived in one of the Nazi death camps. Her sister died, but somehow she survived. When the war ended and she was miraculously freed, she found that her entire family had been killed — but she felt it was essential that she live on. She related her story in a flat voice, and you could tell that she lived with those horrible ghosts and memories, but there was a definite steeliness to this woman who had endured so much.

Talking to her, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a member of the race that could commit such a monstrous act. I also was uplifted, however, by her positive attitude and by her view that, by surviving and going on, she was spitting in the eye of Hitler and the Nazis and their idiotic notions of an Aryan “master race.” There is still much to be learned from victims of the Holocaust.

Mein Kampf, And Combating Speech With Speech

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s feverish biography and racist Nazi manifesto, has not been published in German since 1945.  That will change soon, when an annotated edition will be published for students to read.

The book has not been banned in Germany.  However, the state of Bavaria controls the copyright, and it has not consented to any publication of the book in more than 65 years.  The copyright ends in 2015, and Bavaria has decided to publish a scholarly edition to preempt the field before Mein Kampf passes into the public domain — and also to “demystify” the book for Germans who haven’t been able to read it in their native language.

If you’ve never read Mein Kampf, don’t bother.  I had to read it for a college class, and it was dreadful — badly written, ranting, nutty, and boring.  Reading it was a long, hard slog.  Having read it, I wondered how in the world Hitler could have captured the imagination and loyalty of the German people in the years before World War II.  There certainly was nothing in the book that explained it.

Books can be extraordinarily powerful.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, may have been the most effective means of changing the views of Americans about slavery in the 19th century.  Fearing books and trying to suppress them, however, only enhances their power.  Far better to let hateful speech like Mein Kampf remain available, and respond to it in ways that demonstrate its appalling lunacy.

I’m convinced that those Germans who read Hitler’s diatribe anew will recognize it for what it was:  the rantings of a misguided madman.  Let them read it, and draw their own conclusions.

Lessons Of The Lunar Nazis

The hottest ticket at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a self-proclaimed “B Movie” called Iron Sky.  Its consciously over-the-top plot features Nazis trying to conquer Earth from a swastika-shaped base on the far side of the moon.

I doubt Iron Sky will ever make it to our local multiplex cinema, but the movie’s popularity shows, once again, that people are endlessly intrigued by Nazis.  Books, movies, and TV shows involving Nazis always seem to find an audience.

The original Star Trek had two episodes involving Nazis — one in which a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy goes back in time and changes history so Germany wins World War II, and another where a famous historian tries to help a culture by modeling it on Nazi Germany, with predictably disastrous results.  Nazis make great bad guys (and often comic relief), as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Inglourious Basterds, among many others, have demonstrated.  Some years ago the book Fatherland, about a detective who uncovers a dark secret in a triumphant Nazi Germany, was a best-seller.  Alternative histories in which Germany prevails in World War II also are a staple of that genre.

Nazi Germany was one of the most brutal, bloody, awful regimes in the history of the world.  Why is it such a popular subject for fiction — to the point where it can even be the subject of humor?  Why does Nazi Germany seem to be a far more popular setting for fiction than, say, Imperial Japan?

Perhaps it is just because Nazi Germany, with its goose-stepping soldiers, stiff-armed salutes, and elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, already seems so fantastic that it is especially well-suited to whatever embellishment a creative mind could supply.  I also wonder, however, whether fictionalizing Nazi Germany is just a kind of cultural defense mechanism.  If you routinely depict Nazi Germany as a setting for outlandish activities, maybe it is easier to forget that a racist, bloodthirsty, soulless government actually existed, slaughtering Jews by the millions and dominating Europe, only 70 years ago — within the lifetimes of millions of still-living people.