Cyril Kornbluth's novella "Two Dooms" begins with Edward Royland, a theoretical physicist pondering his situation at Los Alamos in May 1945. His dissatisfaction with it is tied to his feeling that the Manhattan Project in which he personally has been involved these last few years was all a colossal waste of time. However, a late development (the completion of "Phase 56c") changes that feeling into a profound anxiety that
Oppie [Robert Oppenheimer] and the rest of them were going to break the sky, kick humanity right in the crotch, and unleash a prowling monster that would go up and down by night and day peering in all the windows of the world, leaving no sane man unterrified for his life and the lives of his kin. (1)
Not sure what to do about it, Royland hopes to clear his mind by going to the nearby Hopi reservation and seeing his old friend the medicine man, Charles Miller Nahataspe. Hearing about his problem, Nahataspe suggests he try "God Food," dried black mushrooms far stronger than peyote, and finds himself transported a hundred and fifty years into an alternate future—the early 22nd century in a timeline where the atomic bomb that has instilled such dread in Royland never materialized, resulting in the conquest of the world by the Axis.
Fifty years old now (it first appeared in Venture Science Fiction Magazine in July 1958), "Two Dooms" preceded Philip K. Dick's more famous World War II allohistory, The Man in the High Castle, by three years. Dick's novel is the cleverer and subtler of the two stories, but Kornbluth's earlier novella was the one that truly marked out the trail so many others would follow in the years since. As Gavriel D. Rosenfeld notes in his landmark 2005 study of World War II-themed alternate history, The World Hitler Never Made, "Two Dooms" was the story that "inaugurated the...allohistorical attention towards Nazism" of the post-war period; and in that early Cold War atmosphere, also "the first work to revive the demonic wartime image of the Germans" that had softened with the focus of those years on the Soviet Union and Communism. (2)
One can go even further than Rosenfeld in identifying the elements of this story that would later become standard, if not cliché. As is typical in many later World War II allohistories (Dick's novel included), the defeat of the U.S. in World War II in Kornbluth's novella left the United States divided between German and Japanese zones of occupation. The consequences of the Axis victory are not only nightmarish in their horror, but nightmarish also in a literal sense—their quality of unreality, highlighted by the witness given to them by a traveler from another time who struggles to return to their saner world. And of course, Kornbluth's comment about World War II is meant to also say something about a more contemporary issue (in the case of "Two Dooms," the invention of the nuclear bomb).
Of course, what is true of the World War II allohistory has a way of being true about allohistorical writing generally. As Geoffrey Winthrop-Young put it in his article "The Third Reich in Alternate History" in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of Popular Culture:
no matter how loosely or tightly alternate history is defined, there is unanimous agreement that no scenario is treated more often than an altered outcome of the Second World War. (3)
This is not only the case where sheer mass is concerned, but also with the most popular, most visible and most acclaimed efforts as well. Dick's High Castle aside, the alternate history novel to have achieved the genre's greatest mainstream success in recent memory is surely Robert Harris's Fatherland. The prolific Harry Turtledove, widely hailed as the grand master of the genre, has written not one, but several series exploring different versions of that conflict (the Worldwar, Infamy and "Timeline-191" sequences), as well as numerous additional one-shot novels and shorter works like In The Presence of Mine Enemies. Of the last six winners of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History (long form), four are World War II-related (namely J.N. Stroyar's The Children's War, Murray Davies' Collaborator, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles), and the same theme turned up yet again last year in another book that grabbed a great deal of mainstream attention (and a place on the New York Times bestseller list)—Michael Chabon's much-discussed The Yiddish Policemen's Union. (Among these, Winthrop-Young observes, "Hitler's victory remains the most popular scenario," as the above list indicates. )
Indeed, this vein has been mined so often that Sidewise Award founder Steven H. Silver wrote in the speculative fiction quarterly Helix that
If I've gotten one thing out of reading alternate history for the Sidewise Awards for the past eleven years, it is the strong desire not to have to read any more stories which deal with...World War II.
Nonetheless, Silver acknowledges in the piece that writers will surely go on writing them, and he will surely go on reading them. That being the case, it seems only reasonable to ask: why has the alternate history genre come back to these themes, these tropes, time and time again? Why is it that writers keep returning not only to World War II, but to the same might-have-beens, in particular, a crushing Axis victory with horrific consequences?
Far from anomalous, the popularity of the idea seems to me to be over-determined by a multiplicity of factors. First and foremost among them is a major limitation writers of alternate history labor under, namely that a story of this kind only works (at least, as a piece of alternate history) if the audience knows how things really went in our timeline, and so can spot the twist and appreciate the difference when they do see it. This limits the range of potential subjects to what a large readership can be expected to know something about—and care about. Unfortunately that list is a short one, and gets shorter when considered internationally, leaving not very much besides World War II. (The U.S. Civil War, the second most popular genre theme—and which Silver also says he is tired of reading about—is primarily an American preoccupation.)
For the British, and increasingly for Americans as well, it is the war with Germany that dominates popular memory of World War II, and in some sense, history more broadly. Indeed, the fact has long been the butt of jokes. On the G4TV video game review show X-Play hosts Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb routinely joke about the sheer ubiquity of World War II-themed video games, and no doubt many viewers were able to relate when Tripping the Rift's Chode said in the show's pilot episode that "Just once, I'd like to time travel and not see Nazis!" Nonetheless, the Second World War (especially as retold by Stephen Ambrose, Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg) retains its psychic hold on the popular mind.
A related limitation is that the event being tweaked in the story must be large enough to plausibly and recognizably skew the timeline. A fiction writer's alternate history and the "counterfactuals" that historians use to pursue scholarly inquiries are two different things, and it must be admitted that many brilliant alternate histories are utterly unconvincing as historical analysis, Kornbluth's novella included. (For a thorough discussion of what does make for a good counterfactual, see the first chapter of Unmaking the West: "What-If?" Scenarios That Rewrite World History, by volume editors Philip E. Tetlock and Geoffrey Parker.)
Nonetheless, there is a limit to how far away a writer can move from the actual record and still claim to be writing even an "alternate" history, and World War II happens to be comparatively rich in options for such significant tweaking. Most of those possibilities, at least where an Axis victory is concerned, happen to lie in the fight between the Allies and Germany. After all, Germany was by far the most powerful member of the Axis, with four times the national income and industrial capacity of Japan. Additionally, in a world dominated by European colonial empires, Germany was a lot closer to the centers of gravity of the major players. Japan overran French and British colonies in Asia—but Germany conquered France outright, and may have had a real shot at doing the same to Britain itself.
Even a casual reader of history, consequently, finds it easy to come up with world-changing possibilities there. For instance, what if the British frittered away their fighter squadrons trying to defend France in the spring of 1940? What if Lord Halifax succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill, and opted to make peace with Hitler? What if Germany determinedly pursued the "Mediterranean" strategy, capturing Gibraltar, locking up North Africa and rolling east? And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
By contrast, it is much harder to pick out really war-deciding moments centering on Japanese action. The Battle of Midway is routinely described as a decisive battle, and it did in fact mark the end of Japan's run of victories against the Allies in the Pacific theater in World War II. However, the most likely consequence of even a crushing Japanese victory there would have been to delay an Allied victory by months, the disparity between Japanese and Allied resources simply too large for it to be otherwise. Indeed, the difficulty of imagining Japan coming out of its war victorious is amply demonstrated by editor Peter Tsouras's essay collection Rising Sun Victorious where, despite the title, Japan wins a battle only to lose the war in most of the pieces. (I have yet to see any historian or group of historians even attempt a similar project centering on Italy.)
Additionally, for dramatic and entertainment purposes (and perhaps reflecting a broader conservatism), there is a tendency to alter the timeline in a way that leaves us breathing a sigh of relief that our own twentieth century, horrible as it was, was not worse still. This translates into setbacks, frustrations, disappointments, and horror stories being far more commonplace than wish-fulfilling speculations about what might have been (as we see in many of Michael Moorcock's Seaton Begg stories, for instance). There is also a preference for clearly delineated, recognizable heroes and villains permitting a reading of the events as a historically simplistic but dramatically compelling narrative of good versus evil.
Once again, World War II fits the bill, and especially the Third Reich. It is with the Nazis, rather than comparatively anonymous Japanese militarists, or the buffoonish persona of Mussolini, that the idea of the Second World War as a contest between good and evil is so closely associated, so much so that a display of Nazi props has become a cheap way of getting attention. As Winthrop-Young puts it in his article,
Almost any combination of swastikas, black uniforms, and German accents will ensure instant drama by providing an immediately accessible good-versus-bad set up with little need for further elaboration. (5)
It helps that the Nazi regime offers potential material for a wide range of comments and analogies. It can be used to represent perceived foreign menaces, even quite different ones (as with those who read Harris's Fatherland as being not about Nazi Germany, but the Germany of the 1990s); to say something about racism, religious persecution, the destruction of democracy, and the rise of totalitarianism.
The tendency of observers from different points on the ideological spectrum to look at Nazism and see two opposite things is also well established in the historiography. Leftists often view fascism as capitalism's defensive reaction against socialism, while rightists emphasize the socialism in "National Socialism," and the questions get only more complicated from there. Was Nazism a monstrous reassertion of traditional values, or an off-the-wall flight from them to some imagined pagan past? Were its most horrible acts indicative of the technological mentality run amok, or a reversion to primitivism, so appalling because the most modern tools are used to achieve the most retrograde ends? In short, writers have successfully used Nazism to represent not only capital "E" evil, but many particular kinds of Evil—something for everybody.
However, none of this is to say that every possibility these parameters offer has been exhausted, and it is equally worthwhile to look at the possibilities writers have tended to ignore. None of these omissions is more glaring than the history of the war on Germany's Eastern Front. While there is at least a vague awareness among most that a great deal of importance happened there (indeed, by any conceivable yardstick, the European war was overwhelmingly a fight between Germany and the Soviet Union), English-language writers focus on the involvement and experiences of the Western allies, particularly Britain and the U.S. Obviously familiarity and national particularism have something to do with this. So does the problem that Norman Davies points out in his recent study, No Simple Victory—that thinking of the war as a struggle primarily between Hitler and Stalin makes it much harder for mainstream opinion to characterize World War Two as a simple contest of good and evil.
Nonetheless, this has entailed a neglect of plenty of interesting ideas. One is a situation in which the Western allies find themselves fighting both Hitler and Stalin at once in 1940. (The League of Nations, after all, came quite close to intervening on Finland's side against the Soviets in the Winter War, which would have exactly this result.) Another is the consequences of a limited German victory against the Allies in the west for the post-war settlement, a German victory against the Allies on D-Day, or at the Battle of the Bulge, easily leaving the Soviet army in control of a larger part of Europe when V-E Day finally arrived.
Of course, it can be pointed out that this kind of World War II counterfactual quickly turns into a Cold War counterfactual, and so far few writers have been willing to try their hand at one (except in the very loose sense of substituting a continent dominated by Nazi Germany for the Soviet Union, as Brad Linaweaver does in "Moon of Ice"). The few exceptions to the rule, like Brendan DuBois' 1999 Resurrection Day, tend to simply confirm the idea that barring a misstep leading to a nuclear war, things would have turned out pretty much as they have.
This may be because, by comparison with World War II allohistory, really interesting Cold War allohistory is inherently difficult to write. The nuclear arms build-up relegated the use of force by both superpowers to the edges of the global chessboard, making it hard to pick out decisive moments on the battlefield (at least, after V-E Day).
The wide gap in material resources between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which is even wider when the Western alliance is compared to the Soviet bloc as a whole, is another constraint. The Soviet Union managed to narrow the gap in the 1950s and 1960s, but despite widespread expectations that the Soviets would eventually catch up, never managed to close it. If anything, the facts have been exaggerated by the attitude of contempt which has replaced the earlier paranoia about Soviet capabilities. The intellectual dominance of a simplistic version of neoliberal economic theory only reinforces the tendency to view the Soviets as hopeless blunderers who could not possibly have done better. (There was never such an attitude toward the Nazis, who are generally held to have been efficient industrialists, technical wizards and capable warriors, whatever one makes of them morally.)
The result is that, especially after V-E Day and Hiroshima, plausible, significant alterations to the Cold War's timeline dwindle quickly in number, and tend to be a little too obscure for popular taste. For instance, what if rather than leading to a nuclear war as in DuBois' novel, the Cuban Missile Crisis was avoided altogether, denying Stalinist hard-liners the chance to retake power in the Kremlin, permitting the continuation of liberalizing reforms in the Soviet Union after the early 1960s? This line of reasoning would probably go right over the average reader's head, and also have a much more ambiguous outcome than the occupation of the U.S. by Soviet troops (as happened in jingoistic Cold War-era fantasies like the film Red Dawn and the mini-series Amerika, or the pilot episode of Sliders, a rare television foray into this territory).
It may also be that the Cold War's conclusion is still too near a thing. Rosenfeld notes in his book that the early World War II alternate histories were triumphalistic and moralistic in tone, prone to view history in black and white terms, treating the Nazis as a unique evil and flatly validating the Allied conduct of the war (a tendency "Two Dooms" certainly reflected). As writers and readers gained greater distance on the event, they displayed an increasing tendency to relativize, aestheticize and universalize the conflict, whether in taking a more critical approach to the received version of events; seeing it in shades of gray; regarding it as analogous to other events; or treating it as easy material for entertainment.
The present ubiquity of World War-II themed allohistorical fiction is inconceivable without that greater variety of perspective. It may well be the case that we remain too firmly in the post-Cold War's triumphalistic, moralistic phase to do very much with the idea, especially in the United States, where the outcome of the conflict is widely regarded as not only an American victory, but as fully validating the American way of life. However, the recent success of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may suggest that Americans, too, are starting to find the Cold War a quaint enough thing to enjoy stories of the type. The Cold War may never become as popular a genre topic as World War II, but we could still see a lot more stories of alternate Cold Wars in the years ahead, and many of them are likely to be rooted in the events of alternate World War IIs too long ignored.
- Cyril Kornbluth, "Two Dooms." In Gordon Van Gelder, One Lamp (New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2003), p. 8. [back]
- Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 100-102. [back]
- Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, "The Third Reich in Alternate History," Journal of Popular Culture 39.5 (2006), p. 879. [back]
- Ibid., p. 878. [back]
- Ibid., p. 879. [back]