The twisted allure of imagining the Nazis in charge

PUBLISHED: 05:08 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 05:08 13 March 2017

SS-GB

SS-GB

Archant

Why are we obsessed with the nightmarish alternative history of what would have happened if the Nazis had won?

Nazis have taken over London – on screens at least. The BBC’s absorbing new series SS-GB, based on Len Deighton’s popular 1978 novel, imagines a world in which the Nazis have invaded and defeated Britain by 1941.

Such an imaginative conceit is by no means unusual. Similar dystopian visions of Nazi victory in the Second World War have long been popular. Take, for instance, Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992), Stephen Fry’s Making History (1996), Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and CJ Sansom’s acclaimed Dominion (2012). There was even Iron Sky, the 2012 film which imagined that the defeated Nazis fled to the other side of the moon in 1945 only to plan a space fleet to return to conquer Earth some 60 years later.

As Gavriel Rosenfeld has eloquently argued, persistent rewriting of history is intimately connected to changing perceptions of the Third Reich’s real historical legacy as well as to subversive efforts to “normalise” the Nazi past in the West, and especially in the United States and Britain. Through imagining a life of defeat and occupation, Britons and Americans (who have authored, read or viewed the vast majority of these visions) are able to bathe in the still-lingering glow of victory, while at the same time closing the distance between themselves and their wartime enemies.

This nightmare of a Nazi military victory – and of a Nazified world order – was in fact first explored in pre-war fiction, most notably Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937). But it was not until the Cold War that the idea took hold, with a flurry of activity in the early 60s.

The year 1964 saw The Other Man air on ITV (with Michael Caine in the lead role) and 1965 the cinematic release of the powerful and provocative It Happened Here. Using deliberately grainy 16mm black and white film, this latter production offered a harrowing portrayal of what a Nazi occupation of Britain might have looked like.

In the United States, meanwhile, the most powerful vision of a Nazi victory was surely Philip K Dick’s 1962 story, The Man in the High Castle. Set in the 60s, Dick describes an America occupied in the west by Imperial Japan and in the east by the Nazis. The two victors of the Second World War are technically at peace, but tensions are mounting, particularly once the Japanese government learns that their Nazi “allies” may be developing new and terrifying weaponry in order to secure overall control of the North American continent.

Tellingly, these 60s stories are once again very popular. Dick’s frightening vision is the subject of a current Amazon Prime TV series, now in its second season. Similar imaginings have featured in the NBC series Timeless (2016), which features an episode given over to a rewriting of the Second World War, while the 2011 Welsh film Resistance (starring Michael Sheen) begins with the failure of D-Day and the subsequent German invasion and occupation of Britain.

The BBC’s adaptation of SS-GB is just the latest in this line. Clearly, alternative histories of a Nazified world again have commercial and cultural traction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideas and images offered by such a counterfactual Nazi world seem to have worked their way into contemporary political discourse.

Amid the ongoing cross-Channel rancour connected to Brexit, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, asked whether the French president François Hollande’s function within the EU was akin to a Nazi prison guard. And during a recent and now typical Twitter outburst, Donald Trump, the US president, responded to his antagonists (in the media and intelligence community) with a pointed question: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

Seen in this context, the contemporary fascination with counterfactual history is the popular culture counterpart to Trumpian political “truth”. In Trump’s pronouncements and press conferences, truth is invented and reinvented on a daily basis. Media critics are Nazis; civil rights leaders once battered by the baton are “all talk”; the families of heroic veterans can quickly become villains; and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass is even resurrected from the dead.

On television, meanwhile, history is remade and re-imagined via the most persistent Anglo-American “what if” nightmare – Nazi victory. The popularity of this kind of television history in the “post-truth” age of fake news surely makes perfect sense: they are two sides of the same coin.

While very different in purpose and power, both are suggestive of a world in which the lines between fact and fiction are increasingly blurred. But the apparently symbiotic connection between the two should also give us pause for thought, particularly when the last age of counterfactual fascination – the 60s – is kept in mind.

Now, beware a spoiler.... At the very end of his story, Dick confronts the reader with a revelation. The “reality” of an Axis victory is a myth, and the counterfactual histories of Allied victory authored – to Nazi irritation – by the mysterious “man in the high castle” are instead the “truth”. It is a skilful plot device, arresting and jolting. It also invites a troubling thought: if the “man in the high castle” writes the truth from deep within a myth, what does this mean for Dick’s own relationship with – and to – the 1960s? Does it suggest that Dick was similarly in a high castle and that his counterfactual vision of Nazis in New York contained a “truth” of sorts?

Dick’s contemporaries later endured the Age of Nixon, witnessed frequent racialised brutality targeting African-Americans in the south, and encountered – and perpetrated – the massacre of My Lai in the Vietnam War (which one American soldier later admitted was a “Nazi kind of thing”).

As we enter our own counterfactual age, in which truth is twisted and lies disseminated, the renewed obsession with “alternative histories” provides a powerful, cautionary reminder of what can happen when nightmares are made real.

Sam Edwards is senior lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a Friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish).
  • Become a Patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You or your company will be mentioned in the newspaper each week (should you wish) and you and a guest will be invited to join the editor at a special lunch in London this June to discuss the anniversary of Brexit.


Supporter Options



Latest articles

We will keep marching for the UK’s future in the EU

Why Saturday’s protest needs to be a display of unity for all our sakes

Just how reliant is our economy on workers born overseas?

It is not just construction, technology and retail that relies heavily on overseas workers. Brexit could impact industries across the economy.

Never has the truth about Brexit been more needed

George Osborne is not the only big newspaper appointment to make waves. Our editor-at-large Alastair Campbell explains why he’s joined The New European

Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence: If not now, when?

Theresa May is right that now is not the time for a referendum on Scottish independence. But if she disagrees with our timeframe, she must set out her own alternative

London attacks: how do you protect people from terrorism through urban design?

Westminster attack raises spectre of new ‘rings of steel’ to boost security in urban centres

Alastair Campbell joins The New European as editor-at-large

The New European has announced that Alastair Campbell is joining its editorial board as Editor-at-Large.

Bonnie Greer: With Brexit we have turned our back on the world – and our values

Not everyone who voted leave is a racist or a xenophobe but the campaign and its aftermath has attracted some dubious supporters

Brexit timeline: What happens next once Article 50 is triggered?

When Article 50 is triggered on March 29 there is a two-year deadline for Britain and the EU to complete the hugely complex negotiations

Downing Street tussles with Brussels over £50bn divorce bill as PM names date for Article 50

Article 50: The Government and Brussels have squared up after the PM signalled a date to trigger the formal process to quit the EU

Tory MP’s Hard Brexit warning

Tory MP issues a warning to party colleagues of the dangers of Hard Brexit, as he launches a new initiative to build bridges with Europe

Don’t send Ireland back to division

A family story of the close family bonds between Ireland and the UK, and what Brexit might mean for Ireland.

Dear Mr Gove, we appreciate how our values could be deeply irritating to you

For the avoidance of doubt, Michael, we hold you in contempt.

Indy Ref 2 is coming: the UK is no longer fit for purpose

Scottish nationalist Hardeep Singh Kohli is feeling confident about the prospect of independence for his beloved country

Jack Monroe on trolls, mental breakdown and that libel victory over Katie Hopkins

EXCLUSIVE: A libel victory over Katie Hopkins, a suicide attempt and the hope that we might all finally learn to be a little kinder to one another online

No green Brexit: why the implications look sinister for wildlife

The sinister implications of Brexit for wildlife have rather gone under the radar thus far. But it is likely that we will all see the impact soon enough

How spa culture is taking over Europe (and the 5 best places to join in)

There are few ways to relax that are more European than a trip to a spa. But there are also few things more fraught with potential embarrassment. Here, we provide a guide to the etiquette expected

Why we need a second Brexit vote: First law of politics is people can change their minds

People can, and regularly do, change their minds. The public should be given that option once the Brexit deal is done.

Higher education reforms and Brexit have become inextricably linked

The Brexit Bill is not the only one to have suffered a rough ride in the Lords in recent months.

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter