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by laurent binet
translated by sam taylor
farrar, straus and giroux, 
320 pages, $27

In 1980, the soldiers of the Third Reich took Bolivia. After the huge tank battles that had brought about the final victory in Europe, South America was something more like a police operation—in fact, the conquest of the country was led not by the ­Wehrmacht, but by a Hauptsturmführer of the Gestapo. Still, the campaign was swift and ­brutal: Panzers discreetly shipped over from factories in Vienna were suddenly rumbling through the streets and squares of La Paz; citizens who came out to oppose the invading armies were mercilessly gunned down. German-led forces went door to door through the cities—they had their lists. As they’d done in Chile and Argentina, the occupation forces dragged writers and intellectuals, trade unionists, journalists, anyone who might pose a threat to the new order, out of their homes to be shot. An implacable force was working its way up the body of the Americas: The Aryan countries of the Southern Cone had been pacified, and now the Nazis turned their gaze northwards, toward the United States.

This is not the history we know, yet it’s a familiar one. Bestselling novels describe life in a victorious Reich; films and TV shows drape swastika flags over the Houses of Parliament and the Statue of Liberty, or plant them on the surface of the moon. We can’t stop imagining worlds in which the Nazis won the war.

The term for this is alt-history, and it’s technically a subgenre of science fiction—but the Nazi victory scenario has a strange kind of legitimacy. Most of Philip K. Dick’s novels are published with trippy or pulpy illustrations on the cover, whereas my copy of 1962’s The Man in the High Castle—the first book to imagine an alternate America occupied by ­Nazis—is a very respectable Penguin Classics edition. When the journalist Robert Harris started writing fiction, he immediately made his career with Fatherland, in which Europe is occupied by Nazis. It’s hard to imagine Philip Roth writing anything involving a spaceship, but he did contribute to the genre with The Plot Against America, which depicts America occupied by Nazis (sort of). Dick’s novel was adapted for Amazon’s first prestige drama; Roth’s was given a similar treatment by HBO; Len Deighton’s SS-GB (in which Britain is occupied by Nazis) was worked over for the BBC. The cartoon Rick and Morty features a running gag in which our hero wakes up in a succession of parallel realities, all of them occupied by Nazis. “When did this become the norm?” We keep returning to the fictional world of Hitler’s triumph. It waits for us on the other side of every mirror. 

Historians have been considering counterfactuals for a very long time. Livy famously allowed himself to “deviate unduly from the order of events” and wonder what might have happened if Alexander the Great had lived to turn his armies west, toward Italy. But the idea of a multiverse, a set of worlds in which history goes otherwise, comes to us from Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710). God’s omniscience, Leibniz argues, means that he knows not only everything that exists, but everything that might exist as well. Human action is always contingent and produces infinite possibilities; out of every possible world, all of which God holds in his infinite cognition, he chooses the best.

In a kind of It’s A Wonderful Life–type episode, Leibniz has Athena show the Roman prince Sextus Tarquinius all his possible lives. In one, he buys a humble garden, finds treasure buried there, and “dies at a great age, beloved of the whole city.” In another, he goes to Thrace and “marries the daughter of the king, who had no other children; he succeeds [the king], and he is adored by his subjects.” The real Sextus Tarquinius did none of these things; instead he raped the noble­woman Lucretia, and in the revolt that followed he fled Rome and was murdered in exile. But this only seems like a bad outcome. Athena shows him a pyramid of worlds, with this one—in which he is “beaten, ­unhappy”—at its apex: the best of all possible worlds. “If Jupiter had placed here a Sextus happy at Corinth or King in Thrace, it would be no longer this world.” In ways Sextus ­Tarquinius can’t see, his crimes and his suffering built something radiant, “which surpasses in perfection all the others.” It is the luminous “real true world.”

The other worlds, the possible ones, exist in a kind of fuzzy ontology. On the one hand, they are there, fully realized in the mind of God, who simulates every tiny detail. They are part of the infinite pyramid crowned by the real world. In a certain sense there’s no difference in kind between a possible world and the real one. There is an answer to the question of what you had for breakfast this morning in a world in which the Nazis won the war, and that answer is meaningfully true. On the other hand, these timelines are imperfect creations; they are riddled with Nazis, and therefore they must not be allowed to exist. But what does it mean for God to create an entire universe in thought that, nonetheless, isn’t real?

Thanks to the actually existing Nazis, Leibniz’s theodicy is less persuasive than it might have been. Is this really the best of all possible worlds? This boring nightmare; porn, pop music that all sounds the same, whales dying in oceans full of plastic—is this what we bought with Auschwitz and Hiroshima? But his model is still around: Today, when philosophers want to say that something is necessarily true, they’ll say it’s “true in every possible world.” And I think most people have experienced, at some point in their lives, the lure of imagining things going otherwise than they have. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out, “We all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end having lived only one.” It’s hard to resist imagining some of those other thousands. There are friends I’ve lost. If I could, I’d go back, do things differently; I’d find a way, somehow, to save them. There are mistakes I’ve made; I imagine worlds in which I could unmake them. Sometimes, I have strange fantasies of waking up tomorrow morning, suddenly fifteen years old again: a chance to start over and this time do things properly. I’d make better decisions; it wouldn’t have to come to this.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Happy people—if there are any—tend not to think like this. What does this mean for alternate histories? After all, history itself is something like a life badly lived—one stupid empire after another, all the revolutions crushed or betrayed. I can’t find much to love in the optimism of Leibniz; or the theodicy of Hegel, for whom “the aim of philosophy is to defend reality against its detractors”; or even, these days, the theodicy carried down by some cruder versions of Marxism, in which all the horrors of the past are justified by the better society they’re inevitably leading us toward. No, the great current of history doesn’t feel like the stateliness of tradition or the grand march of human progress. It feels like a mistake, one error on top of another. And then there is the feeling of loss. What about beautiful and noble things that were never allowed to exist? What if Hannibal had beaten the Romans? What strange glories might have come out of a thousand years of Punic civilization? What would Shakespeare’s sonnets look like if Charles Martel had lost at the Battle of Tours, and all of Europe had had an early Renaissance under Islam? How would Mexican food taste if, instead of Cortés, it was Zheng He who crossed the causeway into Tenochtitlan?

My favorite scenario goes back further still. What if humans had never discovered fire? Could there ever have been a complex, literate, technological civilization if we’d never learned how to rub two sticks together? I think it can be imagined. Our fireless society would have to exist somewhere in the far north, somewhere without too much dry vegetation. Slopes of black soil fuzzed in dense, sodden moss, glaciers that roll perilously over the peaks, reindeer nuzzling the muck, seals groaning on swept-out floes. Between the mountains and the sea, a bubbling volcanic lake, and a city on its shores: huts, sealskin stretched over whale-ribs, temples and palaces in jagged blocks of stone. Hunters set out in walrus-skin canoes with stone harpoons; when they return the meat is carved, thrown into nets, and lowered into the lake to boil. Elsewhere, there are farmers, blubber-slathered, who tend to the forests of kelp. Fish are bred in shallow pools; every year the water foams with roe, and ledges heave long fillets curing for the winter. Nobody goes cold at night, as the geothermal waters are carried into every home. These people are master plumbers by necessity. Their epics and legends are about pipes and channels; instead of hearth-gods, they have the spirits of the soapstone radiator. Maybe saunas, hot and cold showers; maybe a hydraulic messaging system, with letters scratched in pumice. The great library is an ossuary: endless racks of antlers and whale-skulls, crowded with scrimshaw to record the deeds of gods and kings. The librarian gets her daily ration of sous-vide seal and salty kelp-porridge. She knows only about books and doesn’t think too much about where her food comes from. But the nights are long up here. How can she read without a candle? Well, the intestinal tracts of polar squid are full of bioluminescent bacteria. Leave a fresh squid in cold water for a few days and it will begin to glow. In the long, dark winter, the streets are lit by bowls of phosphorescent slime, steadily burning an unearthly blue. And above them, the aurora shines in long, lonely squid-gut strands . . .

Clearly, I find something exciting in these possible worlds; maybe you do too. In any case, I’m not alone. The purest form of alt-history is invented by various weirdos and obsessives online, spelled out on hundreds of forums and subreddits. Some of these scenarios have some fairly obvious political motivations. There are quite a few, for instance, in which the ­Byzantines have managed to limp on into the twenty-first century, and Constantinople never fell to the Turks. Many of these alt-histories seem to have been dreamed up by people with a distinctly hostile attitude to actual Muslims. Others express pure nationalist fantasy. What if Albania were a global superpower? Picture a map of Europe with a big, red blob swelling at the center, labeled GREAT ETERNAL EMPIRE OF SHQIPËRISË. A little box in the corner informs you that the Shqip Empire’s overseas possessions include all of South America, and its GDP is the highest in the world. Sure. But other alt-histories are magnificent. Hundreds of wiki pages detail histories that never happened, complete with footnotes pointing to books that were never written.

And sometimes, there are novels. But even here, Laurent Binet’s Civilizations is something relatively rare: a literary alt-­history with all the right credentials (it won the Académie Française’s Grand prix du roman) that has absolutely nothing to do with the Nazis.

The novel is, like the best alt-­histories online, made up of pseud­epigrapha. Binet presents a pastiche saga: fragments from Columbus’s journals, selections from correspondence between Erasmus and ­Thomas More, a biography of Miguel de ­Cervantes. The saga concerns a Norse princess named Freydis ­Eriksdottir, who crosses the sea to Vinland. While there, she murders her brothers and their wives. Fleeing her family’s revenge, she sets out south along the coast “with her husband, a few men, some cattle and horses.” First, they stop in a land where the natives cultivate a new crop, “like ears of yellow barley but with crunchy, juicy grain.” The next stop is an island, where the local Skraelings ­offer them “rolled leaves, which they burned and brought to their lips to inhale the smoke.” They come upon a city of “stone temples and tall ­pyramids” and “impressive ­sculpted serpent heads that reminded them of the prows of knarrs and longships, except that these serpents had feathers.” ­Everywhere the Norse princess and her entourage go, they teach the ­natives how to work iron and show them the uses of horses and cattle. At one point, Freydis lays an iron ­hammer on the statue of Chaac, the rain god. “She told the jarl that she knew this god by the name of Thor.” But all is not well. Everywhere the Vikings go, their hosts start dying in ­terrible numbers.

These early episodes are giddily exciting. The reader can see all the dominoes being lined up. When ­Columbus crosses the Ocean Sea a few centuries later, he finds that the Caribs have cavalry, iron weapons, and a hearty resistance to European diseases. Once they’re done with him, they have caravels and cannons too. His notes turn plaintive as he writes to the Spanish monarchs who will never see him again. “Your ­Highnesses should simply forget the poor madman who promised them the Indies.” And then, a few decades later, a small band of Quechua warriors fleeing a civil war make land in Lisbon in the aftermath of the 1531 earthquake. What follows is a neat inversion of actual history. In real life, the Spanish conquistadors, vastly outnumbered by the army of Tawantinsuyu, captured the Inca Atahualpa and kept him hostage while they played for time. In Binet’s novel, the Quechua kidnap Charles V and hold him in the Alhambra in Granada. The Spanish found allies among the peoples persecuted by the American empires; Atahualpa conquers Spain with an army of Moriscos and Jews.

Soon, Henry VIII in England is converting to the Inca religion. Writing from the Tower of London, More tells Erasmus that “throughout the kingdom of England, he is replacing monasteries and abbeys with Temples of the Sun, which are nothing more nor less than brothels.” In our world, More was imprisoned and executed for refusing to accept the break with Rome; in Binet’s, it’s for holding fast to Christianity in general. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Peasant Revolt succeeds, backed up by Inca steel. A new list of theses appears on the door of the church at Wittenberg:

48. Children know nothing of the nailed god until a Christian tells them his story. But they meet the Sun in their very first days upon the earth. That is why worshippers of the Sun do not need to be baptised, whether adults or ­children.

49. Paul worried that certain men might never know about the existence of his nailed god. “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” The Sun has no need of preachers because he shines in the sky and every ­evening he goes to sleep in the sea and every morning he rises above the mountains.

Later, when another tribe of Americans crosses the ocean, Binet recounts how Cervantes, El Greco, and Montaigne holed up together in Bordeaux, discussing the human-sacrifice pyramid that the Aztecs have built on the grounds of the Louvre. El Greco thinks the Mexica are savage heathens. Montaigne, the humanist, is more measured: “Who are we to say that their beliefs are not as worthy as ours?”

It’s all very clever and very fun, but in the end it’s unsatisfying. The alt-history doesn’t live up to the promise of its conceit. Binet hints at the arrival of a strange new fusion of Amerindian and European cultures, but we never see exactly what this looks like. His Montaigne still takes all his intellectual cues from Caesar and Sophocles, not Pachacutec or Nezahualcoyotl. There’s still a Battle of Lepanto, though this one has the Pope and the Sultan on the same side. One of the historical artifacts in the novel is an epic poem, the Incades

Has Heaven, indeed, such ­
     glorious lot ordain’d
By Atahualpa’s race such ­
     conquests to be gain’d
O’er warlike nations, and on ­
     Europe’s shore,
Where I, unrivall’d, claim’d the
     palm before?

But this is just the Lusiads with a few words changed. Strangely, much of the novel hews very closely to the actual historical narrative. It’s as if Binet had run a Ctrl+F through a history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas and swapped around all the proper nouns. Where things are different, it feels more like crossover fan fiction than a work of deep imagination. (What if Spiderman met Harry Potter? What if Lorenzo de Medici met Quispe Sisa?) Something’s missing: the sense of another world, not just a few sneaky edits to the canon. And you’re more likely to find the missing “something” in the other stories I mentioned above, the much less playful ones in which everything is drab and Hitler’s in charge. So, it’s worth asking: Why is it that we keep creating alternate Nazis? What are all these Hitlers for?

You could argue that these Nazi fantasies have a broadly ­Leibnizian function. Their job is to let the real world off the hook. Sure, things are bad. Sure, there were gas chambers. But at least the ­Nazis lost. Maybe this really is the best of all possible worlds. And in some cases, alt-history really is making this kind of conservative gesture. But very often, it’s doing something much more interesting.

There is a minor subgenre of the Planet of the Nazis literature, which involves scenarios in which the U.S. Civil War goes the other way, and the Confederates win. One of the more fertile examples is Kevin Willmott’s 2004 film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. This is supposedly a British documentary about the last century and a half of Confederate history. The scenario is faintly ridiculous. In this timeline, the South ends up annexing the entire United States, imposing slavery on the Northern states, and sets about spreading itself over every inch of the Americas south of Canada. The documentary is ­broken up by ads. One offers the viewer insurance from Confederate Family. Footage of a smiling, white suburban family: protecting a people . . . And panning to a smiling black man in a boiler suit, clipping the hedges: . . . and its property. Others advertise products. Darkie Toothpaste: “For a shine that’s jigaboo bright.” The Coon Chicken Inn: “Taste the love.” N*ggerhair: “An American cigarette.” And then, just before the closing credits, a brief gut-punch of a montage. All these products were real, and all of them were sold after the Civil War.

The Leibnizian function breaks down. The alternate history in which the Confederates won is the world we are trapped in. Ours is the world in which Reconstruction failed, in which slaves were made into sharecroppers on their old estates, and their descendants still labor on prison plantations. Our world is much lower down on Athena’s pyramid. The Civil Rights activists of the twentieth century had a glimpse of its summit, and so do their descendants now. It’s what makes action possible: the dream of a place better than the real world, and more real because it is better. 

There’s a sense, too, in which the Nazis did win the war. This notion was quite popular for a while after 2016. Millions of people who voted for Remain or Hillary Clinton found themselves suddenly catapulted along a bad timeline, one swarming with fascists. In the event, the Great Blackshirt Coup never materialized; the fascist victory was subtler than that, and it happened a long time ago. At the end of the war, German-Jewish intellectuals like Theodor Adorno refused to accept that fascism had really been defeated. ­Adorno saw the same barbarisms on the march in the triumph of American mass culture. Light music, astrology columns, movies, mass conformity, and the doctrine of the heroic individual—all of them carried an echo of the camps:

Individuation has been at the expense of the individuality in whose name it took place, leaving behind nothing except ­individuals’ determination to pursue their own purposes alone. The citizens whose lives are split ­between business and private life, their private life between ostentation and intimacy, their intimacy between the sullen community of marriage and the bitter solace of being entirely alone, at odds with themselves and with everyone, are virtually already Nazis, who are at once enthusiastic and fed up, or the city dwellers of today, who can imagine friendship only as “social contact” between the inwardly unconnected.

Was he entirely wrong?

The Nazi victory is real in even the grosser, more literal sense. When I was a child, I read a book of counterfactual essays by various pop-­historians: what if the Spanish Armada had succeeded, what if ­Lenin had been assassinated, and so on. None of the essays actually involved Nazis in space, but that was the cover: the faceless face of an astronaut, and the broken cross on an alien world. And this is what happened: The space program that led to the Apollo landings was the Nazi space program, the brainchild of the German rocket scientists snatched up in Operation Paperclip, hustled to ­Florida to continue their work. Or take the example at the top of this essay, the Nazi conquest of Bolivia. It actually happened. In 1980, the government of Bolivia was overthrown in a military coup, and one of its ringleaders was Klaus ­Barbie, the Gestapo war criminal. This coup was at the behest of some petty cocaine gangs and Cold War paranoiacs rather than the Nazi world-empire; but Barbie really did lead a unit of former Nazi mercenaries, he really did arrange for Bolivia to import Austrian tanks that were then sent out into the streets, and there really were lists of communists and intellectuals to be shot.

Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle understood very well the porous border between nightmare and reality. In the novel, America is split between a German-occupied East and the Japanese puppet states on the Pacific coast, with a small, demilitarized zone running along the Rocky Mountains.­ We never actually visit the German sphere. There are just whispers of its barbarisms: the entire population of Africa exterminated, the pointless, dying colonies on Mars and ­Venus, the secret plans for the ­­nuclear ­destruction of the entire planet. There’s no heroic, ­gun-toting American ­resistance against the occupiers. Much of the novel is a deft portrayal of the ­neuroses of white Californians under Japanese rule, their cringing self-effacement (“We’re barbarians compared to them”) mixed with bitter racism—but one that’s still, even inwardly, expressed in the clipped, disarticulated pidgin born of ­occupation. “Only the white ­races were endowed with creativity, he ­reflected. And yet I, blood member of same, must bump head to floor for these.”

Instead of a resistance movement, in Dick’s novel there’s another novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, banned in the Reich but circulating freely in the Pacific States, which describes an alternate history. In the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the Nazis and the Japanese lost the war. At the end of Dick’s narrative, our heroes track down the author, Hawthorne Abendsen, the man in the high castle. He reveals that he didn’t write the thing himself. Every detail was decided by the oracle of the I Ching, and the oracle wrote this particular novel because it is true.

In short, the fascist nightmare is, in a way its inhabitants can’t quite understand, a fiction. But the true world revealed by the oracle is not ours. In The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, racial segregation is abolished immediately after the German defeat. There is a Cold War, but it’s between the United States and Britain. In a sense, the America of 1962—when Dick was writing—had more in common with the world of The Man in the High Castle than with that of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Like Adorno, Dick was a man never quite convinced that he wasn’t living in a world where the Nazis had secretly won. In his later writings, he described our reality as a “black iron prison” and announced that “the Empire never ended.” We have been living in a fake world, a fictional construct: something diseased, whose symptoms we mistake for history.

One of Dick’s characters is a Gestapo agent. He’s been sent to San Francisco to leak German nuclear attack plans to the Japanese, in the hopes of preventing an even deadlier war. But the leak is part of a power-play between Nazi factions. The agent’s real purpose is to weaken Goebbels and shore up the equally monstrous Heydrich. Arriving home to Berlin, he thinks:

We go on, as we always have. From day to day. At this ­moment we work against Operation Dandelion. Later on, at another moment, we work to defeat the police. . . . An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step. . . .
On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the ­components.

We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.

The Gestapo agent’s condition is ours. (This is why Amazon’s adaptation is so awful. It offers viewers a heroic, antifascist resistance to root for rather than the bottomless ambiguities Dick so artfully presents.) We are living the wrong life, which cannot be lived rightly. We do not inhabit the ideal world, but nonetheless it exists. Dick saw something moving outside history, and every so often the ethical universe tries to break in. You might, like him, think it happened at B­ethlehem; you might think it ­happened at Petrograd. You might think it happens only in glimpses, instants when we sense the reality of another world. And these glimpses are what alternate history can provide. It finds moments in our past when the real world was budding, and it lets them bloom. 

Sam Kriss writes from London.