Back in 1987, one of my favorite authors, David Brin, wrote an science fiction novella where the Nazis won World War II. Now this is one of my favorite themes in alternate history, my absolute favorite sub-genre of all sci-fi. You’d think this story, “Thor Meets Captain America,” would be my personal trifecta…and you’d be right! It even evokes comic books in the title…win!
I just picked it up again for $0.99 on my Kindle Fire and read it, whoosh, pretty quickly. It’s only 30-some pages. If you haven’t read it, I highly HIGHLY recommend that you do so. It’s really good…and it’s not just me that says so; it was a Hugo finalist for 1987 (losing out to Robert Silverberg’s “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, which I never read). Also, don’t read any further–spoilers, sweetie, to borrow a phrase.
Brin was asked to write this story for a book collecting stories about the Nazis winning WWII, Hitler Victorious. In his afterword, he complains that the whole concept is preposterous…”they were such schmucks,” as he points out, practically engineering the steps to their own defeat. Attacking Russia in winter, expanding too quickly, basing military strategy on the whims of a madman…any one of these things would be a weakness in any military campaign and they did ’em all. Of course, the one thing they did “well” is kill millions in concentration camps…we might not have known at the start, but thank God, we were well on the way to crushing them out of existence when we did know.
There, I think, lies the allure of the “What if the Nazis won?” sub-genre, to me, at least: not that it was a close call or that it wasn’t pretty much pre-ordained from the opening invasion of Poland…rather that the stakes were so very high. The very soul of humanity was at risk and that wasn’t even the cause of the war. If (a big “if”) they had won, there would be a large chunk of the human population, probably for generations, that would consider mass murder as simply another function of the State, like paving roads or raising taxes. I have to believe that would’ve poisoned us as a species, leading to a dark future I want no part of. The ultimate train wreck you can’t look away from. The Nazis needed eradicating…and thank God we did.
Brin solves his issue with the preposterousness of a victorious Hitler by providing an equally preposterous solution: the death camps weren’t merely institutionalized homicide factories but rather an attempt to raise up the Norse gods using necromancy. A novel approach…although I think it romanticizes the Holocaust a bit, attempting to give an understandable human motive (albeit a fantastical one) to an incomprehensible inhumanity. Bad motives (killing people for sick reasons) doesn’t always stay separate from good qualities (efficiency, competence).
Faced with superpowerful gods, the story’s hero ends up “winning,” not by blasting them away or blowing things up, but doing the only thing he can do: stand and be true. Sure, he has help (thanks, Loki!) but it is his defiance that will, eventually, defeat the death-gods. Very much a triumph of the human spirit…”Captain America”, indeed. Of course, like any good story (even/especially with a dark outcome like this one) you want to hear more…fast forward to the happy ending, please, you know, the one where good triumphs for all time. No such luck in the original story, I’m afraid, but I think it works pretty good this way. Hollywood could never make this a movie…but oh, what a great student film this would make (cheap and easy too, if you do it right)! There is a continuation of sorts…Brin expanded it in a graphic novel, The Life Eaters…but the reviews aren’t good so I think I’ll keep this small gem intact, in my own head, at least.