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The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism

by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld; Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, $30.

This is a deeply disturbing book— but not for the reasons one might suspect. It does not challenge one to look at historical issues differently, for example, or force one to examine unexamined assumptions. Instead, it reflects an outlook and associated assumptions that are disassociated, self-absorbed and fundamentally confused. It attributes motives to popular culture that it does not have, creates false dichotomies between history and alternate history, and assumes that something called “collective memory” exists, when it simply cannot.

It takes the author nearly 400 pages to argue that the historical fictions produced in movies, television shows, novels, plays and other works might confuse people about what “really happened” in the Third Reich. Of course, he’s right, isn’t he? Watching the old television series “Hogan’s Heroes” leads us to believe that things weren’t all that bad in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and that life in a POW compound was really a string of more or less well-meaning stunts and gags. Only toward the end of the book does the author admit that such normalization might lead to confusion about the past, not that it necessarily will do so. Indeed, it would have been better had the book been reduced to that single page.

The author presumes that there is, on the one hand, history, which is true, and there are alternate histories, on the other hand, which are not true but normalizing. To normalize something such as the Nazi era means removing or blunting its uniquely criminal or horrific features. The tendency to normalize something as horrible as the Holocaust must be resisted lest the pain and suffering of the victims be trivialized or forgotten. For some, this even means that Hitler’s atrocities cannot be compared to those of Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, each of whom was responsible for murdering tens of millions of innocent people. True or genuine history, in this case, is history that preserves Hitler’s Third Reich as a manifestation of absolute evil. Yet, as every history graduate student eventually learns, placing something in the category of absolute evil, as with any absolute, is self-defeating because it essentially puts that thing beyond human understanding. It becomes literally unfathomable, or untouchable, intellectually.

The threat of normalization is Rosenfeld’s primary concern with so-called alternate histories. Except that these alternate histories are not histories at all— history, as historian Sir Michael Howard said so eloquently in a 1981 Oxford University address, “is what historians write.” What Rosenfeld lumps together as histories may be narratives, or stories, and they are certainly fictions, but they are not history. They are not disciplined efforts (however imperfect) to understand the past. Rather, they are attempts to play with the past, to distort it for the sake of entertainment and, of course, for fiscal rewards.

Such fictions in many cases are deplorable. But do they really threaten our collective memory of the Nazi era? No. For one thing, they cannot threaten something that does not exist. Collective memory, in fact, cannot exist. Generations and societies do not remember—individuals do, and they cannot remember things they have not experienced. Individuals might collect the memories of those who have lived through such historical moments as the Holocaust. However, this collection is not collective; it’s personal. The impressions any collection makes are inescapably personal, even if they are only superficial; shared memories are also personal—unique—to each of the sharers. What academic discourse often refers to as memories, therefore, are really representations, conveyed through artifacts, words, pictures and other forms.

Can these representations somehow be diluted by alternate fictions? Especially considering the orientation of recent generations, which seem to be unburdened by historical awareness? Hardly. If viewing the ovens at Dachau fails to penetrate the very core of one’s being, an overweight and muddleheaded Sergeant Schultz is not going to leave much of a dent either.

This book is simply too flawed conceptually, too mired in its own untenable point of view, to be recommended to any reader. It’s not so much a history as it is an alternate present, one that rests squarely on the abstract realities created by academic discourse. For only in abstract discourse can such things as collective memory have any existence. And that is what is most disturbing about the book.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.