The WWII thriller and alternate history set in the same period are small time machines. If Walter Benjamin’s famous quote is taken into account, “History is written by the victors,” then it is rewritten as we come to terms with the past.
Alternate histories concerning World War II appeared almost immediately following the war, and they may be with us for some time to come. The same can be predicted with regard to thrillers set during that era or stemming directly from its circumstances.
The modern thriller owes much to Ian Fleming. His creation—James Bond—owes almost everything to Mr. Fleming’s experience as a naval intelligence officer during the War. Fleming was the organizer and supervisor of special units that served as spies and later secured Nazi assets before the retreating forces could destroy them.
Films based on Mr. Fleming’s novels have been almost continuously in production since the third phase of the Cold War (both the release of Dr. No and the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in October of 1962). James Bond is not the beginning of the thriller, but he’s moved ever closer to the core ever since.
There is undeniable fascination for the period, and the 75th anniversary is relatively just around the corner. The interest has many factors, not the least of which being that most of us cannot imagine the worlds or espionage, extreme warfare, and complete sacrifice. Nothing prevents us from trying—in genre fiction.
In researching my own secret history WWII, which takes place between the Blitz and D-Day, I have regularly been confronted with truly baffling examples of genuine heroism.
When I learned about WWII in detail, it seemed like it happened very long ago. It has been that long—again—since then.
During the signing of the peace treaty following World War I, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France said of it, “This is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” While he may not have intended his warning to be an actual prediction, his estimate was only off by two months.
The state of the world, in political terms, including today’s conflicts, stem in part from decisions made in 1919 as part of that armistice. Marshal Foch’s warning did nothing to prevent WWII for becoming an eventuality, and the unsatisfactory resolutions of that war led directly to the Cold War.
Soviet posturing and resulting tensions played a significant role in their invasion of Afghanistan. In some respects, the 1980s were an incredible decade for America, but we can’t turn a blind eye to the consequences. Without being too controversial, this cycle does keep repeating.
The Kübler-Ross model, better known as the “Five Stages of Grief,” would show society, globally, remains chiefly angry about World War II—in some unfortunate ways still in denial. Acceptance in this case would not mean believing that the events and loss of that era are in any way okay. Coming to terms is, however, demonstrably a work-in-progress. The world was traumatized. We know somewhat instinctively that we’re still living with the consequences. We’re still traumatized and adjusting—worldwide.
At some point after the end of a war, observers and commentators will begin trying to determine who “won the peace.” This tendency characterizes the end of armed hostilities as a change in the character of an on-going state of war.
The now ubiquitous variations on a meme of “Keep Calm and…” originally derive from a 1939 Ministry of Information effort to help with morale in England. An argument could be made that the resurgence, even when lightly intended, addresses a collective need for the same emotional support. We may, in fact, need it. Or we at least think we do.
If this picture can be used as an example—
—carry on they did. It was this sort of determination that gave rise to the courage to fight. But what if that hadn’t been enough.
The possibility that Hitler might have won is perhaps the most frightening question World War II still poses. This possibility is what drives the obsession, which is worthily examined in The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, released on New Year’s Day of 1962. This work has been reinvented as a very recent example of this sort of alternate history—thanks to Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz (and Amazon Studios).
The popularity of the WWII thriller and alternate history explorations of the same grow out of two aspects of our modern culture. The first is Foch’s curse, if it may be called that. The second is that we have built being hero warriors into our ideology. We admire the astonishing sacrifice and achievement of the “Greatest Generation.”
It is, however, a profound disservice to their having faced the highest stakes and the full scope of their accomplishments by treating it as idealized glory days. Doing so risks viewing the times of the Greatest Generation as a high-water mark.
It can become a dangerous fantasy. Nazis are probably histories easiest villains. They have become shorthand for evil because we react reflexively. We can demonize and hate the Nazi in good conscience. This is not exclusive to alternate histories and thrillers. Even in the case of the “Harry Potter” universe, J. K. Rowling admitted parallels.
Some part of us desires to continue fighting the war—to win it better and/or more thoroughly. This is completely understandable given the atrocities and meaningless costs. We’re universally haunted by questions of whether WWII had to happen at all. The thriller and the alternate histories are not necessarily only wish fulfillment; they may be therapy.
Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds is a very good example of the irresponsible road (fun, on some level, though it may be). There are no proper heroes in the story, with the possible exception of Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus. Brutality is shown as an acceptable response to brutality. The central message is force is an answer. A retelling of might makes right.
In contrast, and from personal experience, I admire my great uncle. He quit a professional football team during practice. When asked where he was going, he replied, “To serve my country.” During his experience in the European Theater, he was part of the unit that stole Goering’s car. There has been some supposition it may have actually belonged to Hitler.
In a very real sense, I knew a real “Captain America.” It is largely due to him that I expected to pursue a career in military service. I think I wanted to impress him—the symbol of the Greatest Generation within my own family.
The greater portion of my respect for him is based on my great uncle’s action after the war. He founded orphanages while still overseas.
The fictional Captain America is a lasting symbol for all of these observations. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created him one year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The title ran, first with Timely Comics and then with Marvel, for a decade. The first attempt at reviving Steve Rogers was made in 1953, and it didn’t stick. Since 1964, Cap’s been fighting injustice and WWII ever since. It is not the battles that make him a hero; it’s the effort to avoid the fight beforehand and to assist during the aftermath.
Those among the Greatest Generation who served did not do so because they wanted to. The objective was to end the injustice and brutality of the Axis Powers and preserve their way of life—our way of life. They would not be impressed by us if we sought opportunities to fight their battles “better.” Rather, they’d want to see us replicate their efforts in the aftermath.
We are all Captain America. Whether that’s in a real peace or a lasting war of mutable character is up to us.
Thom Truelove is the co-founder of Psych Wing (a group developing short films set primarily in the sci fi genre) and a collaborating partner on future sci fi/fantasy novels with gothic Victorian fantasy author Leanna Renee Hieber (Tor Books).
As an essayist, his work has been picked up by such anthologies as the forthcoming “The Book of Starry Wisdom: Apocrypha of Lovecraft's Cthulhu” (edited and produced by Simon Berman). You are invited to visit Thom's blog, “Surfing the Zeitgeist” at thomtruelove.com.