By Alexander Wallace
We alternate historians, and the broader popular culture more generally, rightfully think of Nazi Germany as being an incredibly violent place. You had Jewish shops being smashed on Kristallnacht after the Reichstag was set ablaze. You had bloody street brawls between Nazis and Nationalists and Social Democrats and Communists. You had political dissidents tortured in Dachau. All of this was before they manufactured a fraudulent casus belli at Gleiwitz and sent the tanks rolling into Poland, the blitzkrieg that brought France to heel, the rampage through the Soviet Union, and the opening of the death factories for Jews and other ‘undesirables.’
In our world, such a regime was put down with bombers and tanks and bullets; few would disagree with the notion that such a heinous regime deserved to be put down. When we alternate historians write about other worlds where the Nazi regime lasts longer, we usually project it as either falling apart into a bloody civil war, its imperial adventures causing the whole regime to unravel (often in a form of aforementioned bloody civil war), or another war between it and the other great powers that ends in something even worse than the war in our world (think the ending to Festung Europa, available from Sea Lion Press).
However, it is widely considered bigoted at least when we call any society inherently violent; in recent decades, the targets of choice are Muslims and African-Americans, and calling either inherently violent is rightly tarred as extremely racist. However, we are also generally willing to say that certain governments and methods of governing are inherently violent. Which those are is often a hotly debated concept.
That tensions between society and government, and their respective tolerances for violence, is the core narrative thrust of Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies. This is a world where Nazi Germany is the world’s hegemon, rivalling the Japanese, having conquered Europe and occupied America. But not all is well for Germany (at least the ethnic Germans); there is a rising discontent with the authoritarian nature of their society. Perhaps it is the tendency for middle classes to demand democracy when things are going well enough for them materially; it does appear that in this world the Nazis have delivered for those who they have deemed racially acceptable.
The entire plot bears a very clear resemblance to the fall of the Soviet Union in our world (another example of Turtledove’s notorious parallelism). Some would call him unoriginal, and understandably so, but I think there’s an interesting philosophical point being made here. During the Cold War, Americans (and to a lesser extent Western Europeans) believed that Soviet society top to bottom was an irrevocably violent entity dedicated to the destruction of liberty via world revolution. Given how they brutalized Hungary and Poland and Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, this is understandable but unjustifiable. The entire open-air prison that was the Eastern Bloc fell in what was mostly a peaceful affair, contrary to the expectations of just about every Kremlinologist in Washington; the anticlimactic end of the foremost vanguard of global Communism serves as potent counterexample to those who think that cultures are inherently violent.
The Nazi Germany in this novel, one not at all beholden to the Sonderweg thesis, is seen mostly through middle class Jews (hiding their Jewishness, of course) in Berlin, seeing the entire enterprise of National Socialism be challenged from within and without. The Wehrmacht presence in America is being reduced, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia is protesting against German rule while their population still exists. Ethnic Germans are demanding that the Reichstag have actual democratic elections, and the panzers are not pulverizing them to paste. In this alternate 2009, the German state has run into crises of legitimacy that seem to afflict every government, using any system, ones that violence would only exacerbate.
Turtledove’s selection of Jewish protagonists in hiding is a dramatically compelling one; you are not blinded by the unrestrained optimism that an ethnically German liberal protagonist would doubtlessly have. By the selection of these leading characters, Turtledove shows how there have always been losers for even historical events generally deemed good for a universalist liberal view of human progress. The fall of the Soviet Union left in its wake frozen conflicts, some of which heated up decades down the line; within my lifetime, there has been the war in the Donbass and the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The end of World War II in Europe and the destruction of Nazi Germany led to decades of authoritarian rule for those east of Stettin on the Baltic and Trieste on the Adriatic, and brought catastrophe to the Palestinians. The American Revolution proved to the world that liberalism was a solid foundation for a functional state, but it is widely agreed that it spelled disaster for the indigenous peoples of the land that would end up ruled by the United States. The French Revolution threw off the yoke of the Bourbons, it let slip the dogs of war upon much of Europe, and brought great strife (but eventual independence) to Haiti. These characters are a very potent reminder of the unintended consequences of what we may consider ‘good,’ for they have great trepidation regarding what this whole revolution might mean.
The use of these characters also shows how so much of what we call ‘peace’ is in fact a desert we have decided to call by that name. I’m reminded of a part of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that said that the most vocal white opponents of taking land from the indigenous peoples of the American West were from New England, where the same process had been successfully finished centuries before. The ‘peace’ that would come from a liberalized Nazi Germany would still have been something forged in the gas chambers. For the Jewish families in his novel, this Reich is anything but peaceful; the same could be said for many modern states. As I said in a review of another book about victorious Nazis, some things are easier to see in the mirror.
The key philosophical takeaway from this novel is to avoid characterizing entire peoples as inherently one thing, and to avoid characterizing revolutionary events as being universally good. Here, the German state is violent, but the German people have gotten fed up with it. Germans aren’t inherently violent. The Nazis would have been prone to the same laws of power and the same logistical limitations that left Britain’s empire and the Soviet Union in the ash heaps of history. On the one hand, In the Presence of Mine Enemies shows that all nations can be peaceful (as the Southern Victory series shows that all nations can be barbarous); on the other hand, it shows that what is peaceful for some is not peaceful for all. In this regard, it has a quiet boldness that few alternate history works can match.