The Adolf Hitler of Israeli-born author Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, “A Man Lies Dreaming,” has shorn his mustache, goes by the name Wolf and likes being sexually humiliated by women – even Jewish women. The year is 1939 and the Nazis have lost the election of 1933, bringing the communists to power in Germany and sending Hitler and his cronies into exile in London, where he works as a gumshoe detective. He’s bitter and poor and hates the Jews as much as ever.
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That scenario, brazen and bizarre as it may be, follows in the tradition of the alternative history novel, a genre that often gets slapped with a “science fiction” label but is something a bit blurrier: part fantasy, part mystery, part dystopian fiction that’s also often deeply researched, allowing historical figures to make believable cameos as slightly altered versions of themselves. (In his novel, Tidhar draws extensively from research into Hitler’s childhood, artistic ambitions and romantic relationships, as well as from biographies of other Nazi personalities.)
Examples of alternative history stories can be found as far back as the first century B.C.E. but the genre hit a boom in the early 20th century with the rise of pulp magazines and a newfound enthusiasm for science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s.
Also known as counterfactual history, it examines a broad range of historical events (“The Rebel” considers if James Dean had survived the car crash; “The Execution Channel” imagines if Al Gore had won the 2000 election) but revisions of World War II are particularly abundant – perhaps because it’s a relatively recent event that feels both distant and tangible; perhaps because it was so globally impactful. Or perhaps because there’s something particularly chilling and compelling in tracing a catastrophic world conflict to the anger and actions of one strange man. The “what ifs” and “if onlys” become endless, and endlessly fascinating.
Philip K. Dick mined that war and the question of “what if the Allies had lost it?” in his award-winning novel “The Man in the High Castle,” published in 1962 and recently adapted into a television series. More contemporary classics include Robert Harris’ “Fatherland” (1992), in which Hitler won the war and the Holocaust remains undiscovered, and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” (2004), which wonders what America would look like had an anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Each is an exercise in literary escapism in one sense, but they also grapple seriously with history by asking: Why did it unfold this way, and not that way? And what might we learn from that?
Some argue that the genre can have a numbing effect. In his book “The World Hitler Never Made,” history professor Gavriel D. Rosenfeld looks at the variety of fictional depictions of the Nazis in Western popular culture, from novels to comic books and film, and argues that they ultimately normalize the barbarity of the Third Reich.
In some instances, that is certainly the case. But perhaps alternative histories – precisely because they envision what could have happened (usually for the worse) – can serve as warnings for modern societies that threaten to repeat history.
In “A Man Lies Dreaming,” which came out in England in 2014 and was just recently published in the United States (Melville House), Tidhar, who writes in English, mixes his political intrigue with noir-ish characters and scenarios – dark alleys and femmes fatales.
We follow Wolf, most often through diary entries, as he searches for a missing German Jewish refugee who may be involved in underground efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine; as he’s framed for the murder of several prostitutes; as he licks his wounds from his political defeat and literary failure (“Mein Kampf” was not a hit); and as he’s courted by U.S. intelligence to return to Germany and stage a coup against the communists.
It’s unsettling but admittedly amusing to enter a fictional Hitler’s brain, explore his vulnerabilities and imagine him with all the same prejudices and malice, but none of the power to inflict harm. In Tidhar’s telling, he’s pathetic and pitiable: “I once had faith, and a destiny, but I had lost both and I guess I’d never recovered either,” Wolf explains early in the novel. And you can’t help but register a delighted shock when a Jewish banker (the father of the missing woman) and a few thugs graphically circumcise Wolf, forcibly including him in the covenant of the people he despises.
But to cozy up to Hitler in this way feels icky, too – not just the gratuitous scenes, but as a way of engaging with the history of the Holocaust in general. What is to be gained by turning the horror into pulp fiction?
Tidhar makes a case for this method through a surreal framing device: We soon understand that the story we’re reading is actually in the mind of Shomer, a writer of Yiddish shund, so-called “trash” novels, conjuring the story of a fugitive führer while inside the barbed wires of Auschwitz.
At one point, a new prisoner enters the camp, “an Italian, Levi by name,” so we are to understand him as Primo Levi, the chemist who wrote with bald clarity about his time in Auschwitz. This prisoner, No. 174517, argues for a detached precision in writing about the camp.
“Only by science, by using a language as accurate and dispassionate as possible can we describe the atrocities, for it is a scientific genocide we are subject to,” Tidhar imagines Levi saying. Another prisoner, No. 135633, standing in as Tidhar’s avatar, challenges this and argues for an alternative method:
“To write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.”
It is this philosophy that seems to inform another recent, fantastical alternative history of the Holocaust: Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comic and almost disturbingly stylish film “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), in which a team of Jewish vigilantes plot, and ultimately succeed, in killing Hitler. Audiences cheered. Critics called it a “Jewish revenge fantasy.” Star Eli Roth called it “Jewish porn.” And to his point: It is titillating to imagine the flipped roles of victim and oppressor.
Thus the Holocaust, Tarantino and Tidhar seem to say, need not be handled with latex gloves in a sterile room under fluorescent lights. Rather, there is something cathartic, necessary and even natural in wanting to roll around with it in the gutter.
History is recycled
Aside from stylistically allowing us to face the past from a new angle, alternative histories challenge the fatalistic sense we have looking back that history happened the only way it could possibly have happened. As John Mullan wrote in The Guardian in a discussion of Philip Roth and Robert Harris, the chilling effectiveness of their alternative histories of World War II is that they ask us “to believe that the defeat of fascism was not inevitable.”
In “The Plot Against America,” Roth lays out a plausible scenario of how such a fascist leader might have taken power in the United States as well, detailing a contested convention that brings Lindbergh to power and ultimately places the United States on the side of Germany.
Tidhar makes this point as well by shining a spotlight on the figure of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, who oversaw a paramilitary militia called the Blackshirts that harassed Jews and communists. The real Mosley was eventually booted from British politics but in this fictional account, he is poised to become prime minister in 1940, flipping the historical tables to posit that England might have slipped into Fascism just as easily as Germany did.
In a victory speech, Mosley denounces the communists and “the bankers behind it all,” who have “flooded our country” and are “draining our country of its resources.” Britain, he says in triumph, “belongs to the British people once again.”
Nigel Farage, the nationalist British politician who was a longtime champion of leaving the European Union, said much the same following his shocking victory last week.
Such language sounds eerily familiar in our current American presidential election cycle, particularly in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and frequent demonization of immigrants and Muslims. A recent, widely read editorial by Robert Kagan in The Washington Post even announced “This is How Fascism Comes to America,” which is essentially a predictive alternative history that draws from the past to imagine a believable, but as yet still fictional, future.
The genre of alternative history literature is always trying to make that case: Nothing was inevitable, everything is possible – the happy ending as well as the catastrophic one. Each is just the culmination of small and sometimes arbitrary events and compromises along the way that prey on recognizable social vulnerabilities. In frustration people are seduced by empty promises; in defiance they justify hateful rhetoric; in disbelief they tolerate violence and in fear they ultimately cast a dangerous vote. Suddenly, history is recycled.
Of course, history never actually turns out the same way twice, but there are patterns and precedents. Power born of intimidation, fear and hatred always eventually scorches societies. In light of that, these fantastical fictions serve a sobering purpose: They remind us that we keep forgetting this.
Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York.