When it comes to alternate histories, there’s no vein so thoroughly mined as World War II. Is it because of that war's relatively recent vintage? The fact that it was America’s last “good war” — a war that we not only won, but fought from a perceived moral high ground due to the unambiguous evil of the Nazis? Maybe the reason is Hitler himself, a figure so simultaneously evil and ridiculous that he appeals to fiction writers who would never dare create such a character for fear of not being taken seriously. Whatever the cause, a lot of weird takes on history spring from this conflict, including Quentin Tarantino’s excellent Inglourious Basterds — about a team of elite Jewish commandos who set out to kill Hitler — which kicks off the Alamo Drafthouse’s The Hateful Great series this Monday, January 11. With Basterds on my mind, I got to thinking about some of my other favorite WWII what-ifs, and I couldn’t resist sharing them with you.
Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High Castle
We'll start with possibly the greatest alt-history WWII of all time, Philip K. Dick’s masterful The Man in the High Castle, which takes the most obvious of alt-history scenarios — what if Germany and Japan won the war? — as its starting point. The results are a lot less obvious than the genesis, though, tying in everything from horrific predictions about how the Nazis would continue and expand the Holocaust to unsettling philosophical questions about what it means to “win” such a war. There’s a recent Amazon series adapted from the book, but don’t let that keep you from the real thing, which is not just one of Dick’s best, but also one of the great science-fiction novels of all time.
The Wolfenstein series
After tackling Dick’s deeply melancholy and dark take on Nazis in alt-history, you’re going to need a palate cleanser, and nothing cleanses the palate like mowing down steampunk Nazi abominations with a Gatling gun. Starting way back in the ‘90s with Wolfenstein 3D and continuing up to the current gaming generation, the Wolfenstein series has always been a fun take on these what-ifs that sticks to the clearly ridiculous, like “What if the Nazis had zombies and Hitler drove around a Metal Gear-style mech?” Pretty much the epitome of dumb fun, with an admittedly dark edge (somehow, Nazis always end up on the dark side), Wolfenstein is alt-history for people who always fell asleep in history class.
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Various Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove is widely considered the top dog in the alt-history game, and he’s got not one, but two completely different takes on what-if WWIIs. In his Worldwar series, aliens invade just as WWII is heating up, forcing the powers of Earth to set aside their differences to fight for the planet. If you ever wanted to see FDR team up with Hitler to take down lizard men, this is your jam. His other alt-WWII is actually a continuation of that other great alt-history mainstay, whereby the Confederacy wins the Civil War. He continues the series through the first world war and, when we get to the Settling Accounts series (and, no, you don’t have to have read all seven books that come before it to enjoy the WWII series), we get a World War II fought between the U.S. and the Confederacy, complete with a Southern Hitler analog who’s just as nasty as the real thing, right down to engineering his own version of the Holocaust on the black population. Turtledove could probably make a fair living as an honest-to-god historian, so if you want your alt-WWII simultaneously as weird and as realistic as possible, he’s your man.
Norman Spinrad - The Iron Dream
Hey, speaking of weird, how about this metafictional narrative that posits itself as a Hugo-award winning science-fiction novel by Adolf Hitler himself? The framing story suggests that Hitler bailed on Germany after the Great War (what you and I consider WWI) to immigrate to America and become a sci-fi illustrator and author. In this world, Hitler writes a crazy, fucked-up Nazi wet dream of a sci-fi novel about a post-apocalyptic Earth brought to order and cleansed of “impure” mutants by a superman with a fondness for swastikas and unquestioned power, which makes up most of The Iron Dream. The rest of it is a supposed analysis by an academic from this alt-history, which offers a glimpse of the world that exists as a result of Hitler’s decision to become a sci-fi writer, as well as some amusing commentary on the story itself. This was once a pretty famous science-fiction classic, but it’s fallen into obscurity a bit as of late. It’s still great, though.
This movie dares to ask the question, “What if the Nazis, on the verge of defeat, packed up all the important scientists, soldiers and such into flying saucers and headed for the dark side of the moon?” The answer is a somewhat silly, lightweight but fun space opera set in the near future. The moon Nazis sport some impressive steampunk — or perhaps more accurately, dieselpunk — sci-fi tech, but no computers. When they get their hands on a cell phone, courtesy of an astronaut visiting the moon, they plan to head to Earth to get a few more to power up their biggest space cruiser so they can wage war on the home planet and get that whole Fourth Reich thing going. Let me reiterate, this is space opera at its silliest, but come on, who can resist space Nazis?