Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won

A new Amazon show, and tons of stories before it, imagine a world where America lost WWII. Here’s how alternative histories became so weirdly popular, and why they matter.

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, issue 64.   Archie Comics

In April of 1945, as the tanks of the Soviet Red Army rolled into battered Berlin, Adolf Hitler was hidden away in an underground bunker with the Nazi high command and his lover, Eva Braun. On the afternoon of April 30—after officially marrying Braun, and dictating his last will and testament—he bit down on a cyanide capsule and shot himself in the head with his Walther PPK. Roughly a week later, with Germany’s unconditional surrender, World War II was declared officially over. In a death-fight for the very existence of human liberty, America and the Allied powers had won.

But that is, of course, just what happened in this reality.

In some tellings, Hitler escaped to the jungles of Central America and lived peacefully for years. In some tellings, he never was captured at all. In some tellings, the Third Reich—monstrous and all-powerful—really did march on for Hitler’s prophesied one thousand years.

Alternative histories of World War II—surreal and unsettling fictions in which the Nazis win—predate even the outbreak of World War II. They exist as movies, as novels, as stage plays, as comic books, as video games; they’re churned out by literary gods and anonymous bloggers and then-active-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich alike.

Now, Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle—in which the victorious German and Japanese armies subjugate and split America—is a streaming hit: recently renewed for a second season, it’s Amazon’s most viewed original series to date. With the show’s extensive press coverage and its splashy ad campaign—including the arresting image of Lady Liberty giving New York the “Sieg Heil”—it’s managed to drag the long, complicated tradition of WWII fabulation out of the shadows. For the first time in American culture, the Nazi alternative history has gone pop.

But where did it come from? And what is it doing here now?

“Alternative history occupies a very specific niche,” says Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a professor of history at Fairfield University and the author of The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, as comprehensive a look as WWII alt-history as you’re going to get. “It has its aficionados, the people who are really committed to it. But it hasn’t made a breakthrough to mass popularity.” High Castle, says Rosenfeld, is the first alt-history product hoping for an audience that has “no understanding of this field” to "get into it.”

So let’s get into it.

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won   Quality Comics, 1944

The first-ever case study, according to Rosenfeld, comes from 1937—four years after Hitler was legally elected chancellor of Germany, but two years before the country set off the war by invading Poland. It’s a novel from the U.K. called Swastika Night; it imagines the Nazis winning something called The Twenty Years War, and still ruling the world centuries into a nightmare future. At that point, explains The Guardian, Hitler has long since entered mythology as a divine being believed to be “seven foot tall with long blond hair” who “literally exploded from the head of God the Thunderer.”

In 1940, a year before the U.S. would enter the war, America got into the game with Invasion—which advertised itself as an “eyewitness account of the Nazi invasion of America”—and Lightning in the Night, in which the Nazis take Washington, DC. Way before the Independence Day aliens would get the chance, the Nazis blew up the White House.

Comedy has roots in the field, too. In a 1979 episode, SNL imagined Superman having been born in Germany and, as would follow, coming up not as an American do-gooder but a Third Reich assassin. The results were grim: the newspaper headlines read "Uberman Kills Every Person in England, U.S. Next.” In 2001, the show revisited the genre: a Weekend Update riff from Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon led to Chris Kattan prancing around as a much cheerier, alternative reality version of the Führer—“Gay Hitler.” Years later, on 30 Rock, a spare joke suggests Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy has a secret life as an amateur alternative historian. (“What if the Germans had won the war, Lemon?”)

Serialized sci-fi, unsurprisingly, has been a comfortable home for alternative history. On a 1967 episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk and Spock travel back in time and—of course—accidentally cause a Nazi victory. Young Shatner, realizing their mistake, goes in: “Germany. Fascism. Hitler.” In 2004, the Star Trek Enterprise and Scott Bakula find themselves in a parallel universe where the Nazis have tapped the powers of the Na'kuhl aliens and taken Brooklyn. Hideous extraterrestrials, it turns out, look just right in the wehrmacht uniforms.

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won Star Trek: Enterprise's Na'kuhl alien Nazi.   UPN

Perhaps Star Trek was inspired by 1970s issue of the Justice League, in which Nazis have taken America and Mount Rushmore: they carve Hitler’s face into the presidential mount. Thankfully, the League joins forces with the Freedom Fighters—including a brawny Uncle Sam—to take them down. In the end, Red Tornado punches out Hitler—only to realize, as Rosenfeld explains in his study, “that [Hitler] and the entire Nazi leadership on Earth are androids who have been installed in power by the very mind-control machines they have invented to implement their rule.”

An on and on it goes. Hell, there’s an entire blog dedicated to people punching Hitler: time-traveling Abe Lincoln, MC Hammer, a kangaroo. There's the 1973 detective novel The Ultimate Solution, in which the victorious Nazis give all “racially inferior peoples” tracheotomies at birth. The 2012 movie Iron Sky, in which the defeated Nazis have been waiting all this time on the dark side of the moon. In a 2002 episode of the UPN revival of The Twilight Zone, a young Katherine Heigl journeys back to Weimar Germany to carry out the dreams of all righteous time travelers: killing baby Hitler. She gets a job as a nanny at the Hitler household then leaps to her death off a bridge while clutching the babe, but it's to no avail: Hitler’s other nanny witnesses the whole thing, and promptly, unbeknownst to her benefactors, swaps in another child.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is, technically, alternative history. In the movie, the Bear Jew sprays machine gun bullets into Adolf in a movie theater palace that’s engulfed in flames. In real life, sadly, Hitler was not killed by the Bear Jew.

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won   The National Police Gazette / www.pulpinternational.com

Nearly immediately after the end of the actual war, the rumors flew. “One American GI,” said the Washington Post, “reported that he had seen the Führer, Eva Braun and her sister Gretl in Bernheim in the house where he collected his laundry. This man had to be Hitler, the GI felt, because he […] ‘exhibited great sentiment over the photograph of a dog’ which seems to have closely resembled Blondi, the Führer’s own Alsatian.” From there, whole alternative history narratives unspooled. Up to this very day, the “Hitler lives!” strand is much debated and explored. In that way, he’s a lot like ‘Pac.

Just last year, a big splash hit in German cinema was Look Who’s Back—a Borat-style comedy in which Hitler wakes up from a coma that’s lasted since 1945, only to find himself embroiled in a series of hilarious fish-out-of-water hijinks. The movie was shot by having an actor, Oliver Masucci, actually walk the streets of Germany, through unwitting crowds, as the Führer. “It was incredible, I was suddenly the attraction, like a popstar,” Masucci would explain. “People clustered around me. One told me she loved me, and asked me to hug her. One, to my relief, started hitting me.”

Around the time that Masucci was roaming the streets in Hitler drag, Rosenfeld published another study exploring Nazism in the mainstream. Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture examines the nature of material like Look Who’s Back, and the process by which the Third Reich—once an almost literally unspeakable evil—has been, bit by bit, mollified. After decades of pop’s ceaseless fun-house mirroring of Hitler’s image, for younger millennials it’s quite possible that Hitler—like Jesus and Osama Bin Laden—exists as much within the historical record as he does as within the fictional one.

Which brings us back around to Man In The High Castle. Philip K. Dick’s original novel was published in 1961. Is the existence of this splashy adaptation inevitable? Or is there a reason it comes to us now, in 2016? Are audiences smart enough to accept the sight of swastikas and the sound of “heil Hitlers” in the name of grandiose thought experimentation? Or is it that they see all history as a kind of fiction, anyway?

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won   The Man in the High Castle / Amazon

Despite its countless incarnations, alt-history has always been a relatively niche pastime—”the rantings of a lunatic fringe,” as Rosenfeld facetiously calls it. Now, it might actually be having a moment. Already, another spiffy alt-history product is is imminent: Hulu’s Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63, in which James Franco is a time-traveling high school teacher attempting to avert the Kennedy assassination. Which means a lot more people might be thinking along the lines of Rosenfeld’s work, and his statement of purpose: that "examining tales of what never happened can help us understand the memory of what did.”

Elaborating in conversation with The FADER, Rosenfeld explains how High Castle is aspiring not just for unmoored fantasization but for a twisted reflection of real life. “My hypothesis is that the Amazon series may be seen loosely as an analogy,” Rosenfeld says, “to post-9/11 America. There are attempts to draw parallels. Terror cells—a feeling of being under siege. The Patriot Act—the suspension of civil liberties. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib—scenes of torture. Viewers might see the premise as [reflecting] a country that was on the verge of going Fascist. The show can be seen as an allegory to not where we are today, but where we could be if we let down our guard.”

Amazon’s High Castle provides something that, for all of Dick’s talents, the novel cannot: an immersive, exhaustive, big budget realization of what a Fascist-occupied America would actually look and feel like. (Dick’s novel is chilling, but the Nazis were experts at brutalist iconography; slapping a Swastika armband on an actor still has a very specific kind of impact). “The Nazis were completely all about overexposing their imagery in the public space,” Rosenfeld says. “I think it’s certainly plausible that they would go way overboard.” He points to the images associated with High Castle: the refashioned Statue of Liberty; Times Square, now completely awash in Iron Eagles. “Would the Nazis have spent all that money to take classic American symbols and really transfigure them? Maybe!”

Where it gets very complicated is where High Castle actively pokes at America’s legacy. “It’s not just Nazis occupying America,” Rosenfeld points out. “It’s Americans collaborating with Nazis.” Which means it’s a quiet rebuke to the epochal legend of WWII’s Greatest Generation—the brave men and women that defeated tyranny and saved international human liberty. Instead, he says, High Castle depicts “the American people not being defined by heroic resistance but by craven collaborationism.” But therein lies the real value of High Castle, and a lot of Philip K. Dick's work: it's eternal skepticism. It's forever doubts as to reality really being real. The value of alternative history is the value of doubt.

In his book, Rosenfeld describes the dangers of the historical record as falling into a “collection of ritualized ethical lessons.” He talks of the dangers of anything being “overly mythologized,” and argues that even with something as black and white as The Free World vs. the Nazis, there is ambiguity. Take, as just one explosive example, the Sonderkommandos: Jewish prisoners, forced to cooperate—motivated by fear? by opportunism?—in the daily operations of the death camps and the hourly disposal of the bodies. “Terrorized victims surviv[ing] on the fringe of collaboration,” the New York Times wrote in 2012. “What Primo Levi called ‘the gray zone.’” Of course there is ambiguity; real life always has ambiguity. The power of alternative history, then, is to declare that the real world is not predestined—to remind us of what could have been, and what still could be.

Frank Spotnitz, the showrunner of High Castle, has, in an allusive way, spoken about this very thing: “You can’t take for granted that we’re the good guys. America is an idea. And it’s up to each generation to live up to that idea.”

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About What Life Would Be Like If Hitler Won