- Hitler Wins Now:New Nazi Alternate Histories in British Popular Fiction
A 2017 headline in the Independent asked, "Why the renewed obsession with alternative Nazi histories?" The resurgence of the "Hitler wins plot" queried by that headline registers a renewed cultural investment in counterfactual history, one currently in progress in twenty-first-century British popular fiction—this essay's focus. Catherine Gallagher's recent book on the counterfactual imagination links the phenomenon to national identity formation, arguing that alternate histories are so "focused on changes in collectives" that entities such as peoples and nations often "emerge as the protagonists" (Telling 14); thus, a major character in tales of Nazi Britain ends up being "the nation-state of Great Britain" itself (237). By implicitly juxtaposing alternative nation-states with actual ones, Gallagher continues, these fictions are effectively state-of-the-nation novels. From this cue, my essay turns to Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy—Farthing, Ha'Penny, and Half a Crown—for its representative, counterfactual diagnosis of Britain's condition. Despite its relevant differences from similar novels, Small Change serves as an index for the current wave. This reading of Walton's series bears on the wider meaning of the Hitler wins plot as a popular vehicle for commentaries on contemporary Britain.
Walton's trilogy, more than a decade after its publication, now reads as an eerily prophetic parable for the past decade in Britain, [End Page 308] for it subtly narrativizes an organic link across a globalizing capitalism and a xenophobic neofascism. Put another way, Small Change can be appreciated as a prescient, displaced meditation on the political circumstances, tensions, and crises of present-day neoliberal austerity. At the core of Walton's allegory are the perils of inequality and questions of complicity. This essay examines these themes, identifying how they are leveraged toward today's prevailing (if beleaguered) neoliberal order. Scholarship on alternate history narratives, like Gallagher's work on counterfactual thinking and Gavriel Rosenfeld's historiographies of the Hitler wins plot, attests to the genre's flexible ideological coordinates and presentist tendencies. Drawing on that work, I make a case for taking new Hitler wins texts as reflections on the present that parallel neoliberalism with mid-twentieth-century fascism.
Following its initial alignment of alternate fascist pasts with actual neoliberal presents, the essay shifts to Walton's allusions to George Orwell, whose novel 1984 has become paradigmatic for an ascendant political rationality based in alternative facts. Small Change's references to Orwell put the trilogy in conversation with 1984; yet this essay posits that the dialogue between Orwell and other Hitler wins texts recognizes that Orwell the antitotalitarian prophet is also Orwell the critic of inequality, a socialist who wrote idiosyncratically and inconsistently but scathingly and perceptively against austerity, empire, and persistent class hierarchies. In Orwell, these novels find a critic of authoritarianism and an unofficial theorist of democratic socialism, a tension that animates his political fables and structures new Hitler wins novels.
Along these lines, I argue that as a reference point, Orwell telegraphs the weight the novels place on what follows from their alternate history's departure from actuality. Much of Orwell's political writing, 1984 included, attends to the consequences or aftermath of war; as the protagonist in Coming Up for Air (1939) declares, "But it isn't the war that matters, it's the after-war" (176). Likewise, Hitler wins stories dramatize how a different outcome to World War II necessarily deforms the trajectory and shape of its postwar period, the temporal space where the outcomes of the historical divergence unfold. In actual British history, this moment is largely defined by a broadly social democratic consensus instantiated in the institutions [End Page 309] and cultural ethics of the welfare state. Hitler wins tales make extrapolations of a postwar period minus the welfare state due to fascism and render a society resonant with a contemporary neoliberal moment in which, not incidentally, the welfare state is being systematically dismantled or undermined.
These novels, then, seem to contend that a neoliberal Britain in which the welfare state is lost is comparable to a fascist Britain in which the welfare state never had the...