What If?  The World of Alternate History

Recently, I’ve been watching The Man in the High Castle.  It’s certainly a phenomenal work of television (if, indeed, that is yet the correct term for shows on Amazon and Netflix), but on a deeper level it really sets the viewer to thinking, “What if?”

What if the Axis powers had, indeed, won the Second World War?  How would our civilization have progressed from there?  What would a world dominated by two militaristic, racially-stratified empires have looked like decades after the fact?

Welcome all to the weird and wonderful world of alternate history.  Essentially a subgenre of science fiction, alternate history offers a fictional account of history as it could have been.  What if the US and the Soviet Union had annihilated each other during the Cold War?  What if the Soviets had beaten us to The moon?  What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or the Roman Empire had never fallen?

Of course there will always be those who view works of alternate history sentimentally, as well as those who regard it as an object of historical fascination.  However, the true value of the genre lies in its power to question our modern society, by drawing parallels between a world where everything went wrong and one in which we’d like to think that most of it went right.

Perhaps the most powerful statement I’ve seen in the show thus far came in the most recent episode, where the female protagonist flees the Japanese-controlled Pacific States and requests asylum in the Nazi-controlled area of the country.

By this point the character, Juliana, has lived most of her life under Japanese rule.  In the Pacific States, Americans are treated as second-class citizens in their own nation, considered racially inferior to Japanese.  Juliana’s family and friends all live impoverished, in filthy streets rife with crime.  

When she first arrives in what is known as the “Greater Nazi Reich”, she seems almost relieved. It’s easy to see why: the prim houses, manicured lawns, the well-dressed people with smiling faces.  At first, she seems to forget the ugliness lurking beneath the bucolic exterior of the genocidal regime.

It was a powerful message.  In my experience, I’ve found that we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures.  When faced with terrible circumstances, we have a way of normalizing the unthinkable, learning to accept the otherwise unacceptable (or at least ignore it) so long is we, personally, are not affected.

Yet, while we may be capable of looking over the ugliness, it does not simply go away.  Even Hitler had some good ideas…yet behind the clean streets and smiling faces and new Volkswagens in every garage lurked an unspeakable ugliness.  Nazi Germany prospered, but this prosperity was not for everyone, and it was paid for in blood.

In the end, every civilization will ultimately be remembered for its greatest work…good or bad.  As such, today Nazi Germany conjures images not of gleaming cities and new cars but of tanks and gas chambers and mountains of emaciated corpses.  Hitler, and by extension his Nazi regime, may have done some good for their people, but that good is vastly outweighed by the depth of their evil.

It is an important lesson for us now, as we face an uncertain future.  We must learn to live in these strange times, but before we allow hatred and inequality to become the norm, we would do well to ask: how will history remember us?

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