What We All Escaped

The World Hitler Never Made by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld (Cambridge University Press, 536 pages, $30.00)

Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State by Götz Aly (Metropolitan Books, 431 pages, $32.50)

Viewed as an outcome of all history, our reality has a gossamer-like fragility. It is a set of rarities stacked atop freak occurrences, inset with both miracles and catastrophes. Things had to turn out some way, of course, and this way may be as likely as any other. But that is a distressingly unsatisfactory explanation, for both its insinuation of a capricious world and its blithe disregard for human agency. How much for the better if we could rewind the tape, cut a little here, reshoot that scene there. We need not live in that reality -- just see it, learn from it, derive or disprove the constants that we hope or fear exert some overarching influence and that make history more than the product of infinite probabilities endlessly multiplying against one other.

Such ruminations are all the more acute around epochal moments that threatened radical shifts in history's trajectory. Foremost among these, at least in modern times, is World War II. Hitler could have won by virtue of a technological breakthrough or different tactics, but what sort of world would have resulted? What sort of world would we -- the occupied, the defeated -- have been forced to accept? Would we have accommodated evil or overcome it?

These are the questions explored in "allohistorical," or alternate history, fiction. What was once the province of Marvel Comics' beloved "What If?" series ("What if Captain America ran for president?") is now a sprawling genre encompassing works from authors as varied as Philip Roth and Philip K. Dick -- writers who imagine our world, just as it is, until a crucial juncture where the road not taken becomes the path history barrels down.

Gavriel Rosenfeld's The World Hitler Never Made is the first scholarly examination of allohistorical fiction about World War II, and it's an adept effort. Rosenfeld is right to deem the literature worthy of study, as many of the books in this genre offer rich insights into the psychological and intellectual conditions of the times when they were written. He takes as his guiding principle that speculation about the past "really [expresses] our feelings about the present," and with that in mind, constructs a detailed chronology of the waxing and waning self-images revealed by the allohistories published during the postwar decades in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States.

But speculating about the past isn't merely a commentary about the present; it's also an inquiry into human nature and history. The works revolving around visions of Nazi occupation show this most clearly, as in the books of Roth and Dick, which reflect the writers' dark views of the human capacity to normalize tyranny. Indeed, the literature that Rosenfeld interprets as making veiled judgments about nationalism or Western exceptionalism often hinges not on national character but on individual grace, as in Noël Coward's Peace in Our Time, which explores the experience of conquered Britons through the reactions of a handful of pub-goers, and where salvation comes from the willingness of individuals to recognize and destroy evil disguised as lawful authority.

Such uplifting visions, however, do not account for Nazism's existence in the first place. What reason for optimism is there, given that Hitler was democratically elected and widely supported? What makes the British or the Americans so different that under similar circumstances they would not countenance the same evil? Within counterfactual fiction, the attempts to explain how the German people could have accepted Hitler's ascent have been largely unsatisfactory, amounting to little more than buck-passing. Allohistorical fiction by German writers tends to underscore Hitler's role as the unique, vile force that set Germany down its path; Rosenfeld interprets this literature as an attempt to "de-emphasize [Germans'] own historical culpability for Nazism." Anglo-American portrayals, conversely, tend to blame the German people, thus circumscribing the moral significance of his rise.

A more compelling account of the Nazi regime, based on new historical research, comes from the German historian Götz Aly's book Hitler's Beneficiaries. German complicity in Nazism, he argues, was driven by self-interest. The Nazis engaged in "a state-sponsored campaign of grand larceny," channeling the resources of murdered Jews and conquered lands into the German welfare state.

Under the final prewar budget of Germany, the Jewish emigration tax and other anti-Jewish measures accounted for more than 9 percent of the country's total revenues. The genocide against the Jews involved the liquidation of their properties and possessions, which were classified by the state as "abandoned assets" and became "property of the general government." And beyond assets such as businesses and homes, stolen goods of all kinds were redirected back to the German marketplace, creating a surplus of high-demand consumer items that stabilized prices during an economically uncertain moment of the war. The state, moreover, sold the confiscated possessions at bargain prices, creating a direct benefit for vast swaths of the German populace.

Vanquished lands were forced to finance not only the war but the living standards of Germans back home. As one stern government communiqué to an overly lenient occupation official warned, "Our fundamental standpoint [is] that the costs of occupying a given area are to be borne by the area itself." Conquered countries were forced to pay a yearly "contribution for military protection," as well as monthly bills for the services of the soldiers who were so kindly guarding their lands.

Here, too, the scale of the thievery astonishes. One Reichsbank study esti-mated that the first year of occupation cost Holland 180 percent of its normal state revenues, Belgium 200 percent, France 211 percent, and Norway 242 percent. When this extortion proved insufficient, and fears of inflation emerged, the Germans began liquidating the assets of Jews in the occupied countries as well.

Indeed, Aly suggests that this murderous redistribution became not merely an effect of the war but a driving force behind it. In his telling, Germany's living standards were built atop a Ponzi scheme of sorts. Writes Aly:

After every military victory, no matter how quick and relatively painless for German forces, the same problems with finances and food supplies kept cropping up ... [this] meant that the Nazi leaders had to push ahead with further military expansionism. Any hesitancy would have led to the end of the regime.

The picture Aly paints is unsettling, because it suggests that the Nazis were able to buy popular acceptance of evil for a low price. As he concludes:

The Nazi leadership did not transform the majority of Germans into ideological fanatics who were convinced they were part of the master race ... [Rather], as the state was transformed into a gigantic apparatus for plundering others, average Germans became unscrupulous profiteers and passive recipients of bribes. Soldiers became armed couriers of butter.

To be sure, Aly thinks that Nazism would have exhausted itself as it ran up against the limits of what it could conquer, and as its debts came due. But that is to say it would have failed not because the Germans would have rediscovered their innate aversion to evil but because they would no longer receive its fruits. What a dispiriting conclusion if the human constant is not goodness or empathy but selfishness, and if the relative harmony of the current era is nothing more than a byproduct of capitalism proving itself more profitable than world war.