Friday, November 13, 2015

Why Are World War II Alternate Histories So Popular?

A map of the world based on historical proposals if there was an Axis victory in WWII.
World War II alternate histories have been on my mind a lot lately. I recently reviewed The British Lion by Tony Schumacher, Amazon is premiering the new season of The Man in the High Castle a week from today and even politicians (and not just Republican presidential candidates) are openly discussing WWII what ifs. This isn't a recent phenomenon either. World War II alternate histories have always been popular...but why is that?

At the science fiction convention Boskone 28, Mark Keller first stated that the most common points of divergence (POD) in English language alternate histories are World War II and the American Civil War. Although American Civil War alternate histories are certainly popular, they pale in comparison to the number of World War II alternate histories, especially those that focus on timelines where the Axis Powers are victorious. According to Evelyn C. Leeper in 1999, there was twice as many published World War II alternate histories than American Civil War alternate histories. These timelines were popular enough to receive its own article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 1992.

There are various reasons why World War II alternate histories dominate the genre. One could argue its simply because that in grand scheme of history, the events of World War II are still new. There are still people around who experienced first hand the events we read about in books. Thus World War II is still alive in our minds. Nevertheless, there is a lot of history between then and now, and yet other events of the late half of the 20th century and the early 21st don't demand as much attention.

Perhaps there are other reason why the era is so popular with alternate historians? For example, Matthew Schnider-Mayerson suggested it was because most alternate historians hold military battles as the most influential historical events and thus make for the best points of divergence. While alternate history certainly has been criticized for its excessive focus on military history, there are still plenty of wars that don't get as much attention as World War II.

In my opinion Richard Evans came the closest in figuring out the real reason why World War II alternate histories are so popular in his criticism of counterfactual history, Altered Pasts. Evans believed that the Nazis, with their embrace of everything Western civilization rejects and their terrifying aesthetic, makes them in Western minds the embodiment of everything that is evil. The melodramatic intensity of how we view the war also sparks the imagination of people who feel just how close we came to entering a new dark age if Hitler and the Nazis won.

Of course this only really applies to people in the United States, Britain and other parts of the English speaking world. For the rest of the world, “Hitler Wins” scenarios are not as popular. A reason for this could be that the United States and Britain were not only on the victorious side of World War II, but were never occupied by hostile powers and thus are left to their own imagination about what life would be like under Nazi domination. Europeans on the other hand don’t have to imagine what it would be like because Nazi occupation is a historical fact and they know firsthand what it was like to experience their brutality. Perhaps that is also why Anglo-American alternate histories tend to be dystopian, while other cultures favor utopias as Fredic Smoler suggested. History went pretty well for the United States and Britain, but not for the rest of the world thus when Anglo-Americans create World War II alternate history they are simply playing out a dark fantasy in their minds.

I personally feel, however, that Evans argument is incomplete, and thus we need to hear what the master of alternate history has to say. Harry Turtledove considered World War II one of the great choke-point of the 20th century, although he thought World War I was more important because it set up everything that followed. Still Turtledove may be on to something when he highlighted how Anglo-Americans view the war against Hitler as an important moment in their shared history, but that doesn't mean other cultures agree. For example, Mark Keller also pointed out that in France alternate histories involving Napoleon are the most popular. Mark Olson joking agreed by saying “we look at this as the best of all possible worlds, but the French know it isn't, because most people speak English." Joking aside, we can take this to mean the French don't see World War II as influential on their history as much as Napoleon was.

Thus we start to get a clear picture about why World War II alternate histories are so popular in the English-speaking community. On one hand it leaves ample room for imagination, while at the same time we recognize it as major turning (or choke) point in our history. Those two factors combined propel World War II what ifs to the center stage, while other areas of history are left in the wings waiting their turn, if it will come at all. Of course, other reasons I mentioned above (like recent history and the prevalence of battles in alternate history) certainly help, but I feel those two reasons more than any others are what makes World War II alternate histories so popular.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judgeWhen not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.


  1. The mean reason is for sure that many in the English speaking world don't give a toss for 'non speaking English' heroes - but since the Second World War is should an important turning point, there were real heroes and villians that they like to 'write stories of all English speaking heroes - even those who were in the French, Polish, Belgian etc.' resistance - they simply can't deal with 'non speaking heroes' that's why!!! Just saying ---

  2. Going further into the reasons: for many people, World War II is one of the few moments in history you can count on people having both heard of and knowing something about (though that knowledge is highly colorful and influenced more by fiction/propaganda than actual facts, as becomes clear with the number of scenarios that involve little to know involvement of the USSR). You don't have to include a lot of exposition explaining actual history versus contrahistory in these scenarios: just show some Nazis walking around New York and people get the picture.


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