Sunday, August 16, 2015

This Show Imagines What Life Would Be Like if the Nazis Had Won World War II

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, is an acknowledged classic of the alternative-history genre — the sort of books that imagine a world in which something important had gone differently. (In this case, it’s if the Axis powers had won World War II.) The TV show of the same title, whose pilot is currently streaming on Amazon, is unlikely to meet as much success, not least because the alternative-history genre of TV isn’t something that exists. In general, TV has been uniquely bad at conveying dystopian fantasies. So far, The Man in the High Castle is worse than it could be — but it’s hard to call it a disappointment, given how low expectations should have been.

The power of books that imagine the apocalypse (or a far worse alternate present) is their power to parcel out information about the state of the world we’re witnessing through context. When television attempts to do the same, it feels sledgehammer-level unsubtle. In a book, a mention of a popular current movie or song, or a quick description of a poster or work of art, can be easily absorbed in the flow of information. In Amazon’s Man in the High Castle pilot, when the camera pauses on a movie theater marquee or poster of a Third Reich soldier, it feels as though we’re being nudged in the ribs: This will be important later! The important stuff that’s actually interesting gets withheld to a frustrating degree, in favor of fairly dull characters who are on quests we don’t get enough information about to care. What would it really be like to live under Nazi rule in America? We don’t get a strong sense, aside from a vague feeling that the police would be far more aggressive.

Subtlety isn’t television’s strongest trait, but shows like The Man in the High Castle, which exist in a wildly different universe than our own, only exacerbate the medium’s problems with obviousness. We want to know how America ended up overrun with German and Japanese soldiers — just as how, in Under the Dome, we want to know how the town ended up under a dome, or how in the late ABC reboot of V we wanted to know the alien’s plots. Those last two shows are but two easy examples of an irritating phenomenon: when they did parcel out information about the world in which their characters found themselves, it was heavy-handed in a way that only emphasized how much the rest of the show was wheel-spinning.

In The Man in the High Castle, the popular movies and songs of Nazi-controlled America are lingered upon, as though they’ll be important later. The mechanics of a bus trip to a free zone are straightforwardly stated by a character whose function is largely pure exposition. But the mechanics of how the Germans and Japanese conquered and then divided America are easily hopscotched over. TV can give very obvious information very quickly, through exposition. What it can only do far more effortfully and over a longer period of time is convey a complex society very different from our own. With characters as schematic as the ones in High Castle and a plot so reliant on shoulder-tapping obviousness, it’s hard to imagine tuning in for that long.

What would make the show more watchable in the long run? The twist at the end of the pilot is a good sign: Prior to that, the characters had behaved exactly as we might expect them to. The central question of this show hinges upon a collision between American and Third Reich ways of life, so giving us characters who are morally compromised or hazily in-between — rather than, as many are, firmly situated on one side or the other in an intractable war — will allow the ideas of the show to reach their potential.

Only the first episode is available, so far, which is exactly the wrong amount; those characters who are on one or the other side seem just like chess pieces waiting to play their part in the drama, thanks to how little we know. The lack of information about the most interesting aspect of High Castle, its bizarre geopolitical setting, isn’t tantalizing. It’s a reminder that the show isn’t, yet, getting down to the business of showing us what its world is really like and how it got that way.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A more realistic look at what the Greater Germanic Reich might have looked like. Map by Hayden120 via Wikimedia
While Nazi Germany winning World War Two makes for great literary fiction, how plausible was it really? Here are a few facts to consider before making your own judgement. Nazi Germany had four main weaknesses, namely:
1. Geography: Nazi Germany was 633,786 km2 in 1939. In contrast, the British Empire in 1939 was 33.7 million km2, the United States was roughly 8 million km2 and the Soviet Union would grow to be be 22,402,200 km2 in 1945. Even at its maximum height in 1942, Nazi Germany was still only 3.6 million km2.
The German military relied on Blitzkrieg tactics, which became increasingly difficult to implement as distances increased. Plus, every new area they conquered required occupying forces. Therefore, without knockout victories, Germany in many ways became increasingly weak as it grew.
2. Population: In 1939 Nazi Germany had a population of roughly 70 million people, more than either Britain (46 million) or France (41 million), but far less than the Soviet Union (nearly 170 million), United States (130 million) or the British Empire as a whole (450+ million).
Even with the occupation of France and large sections of the USSR, it was never able to achieve anything close to parity in numbers compared to those allied against it. Moreover, its racial policies meant that it ended up murdering huge numbers of people who might otherwise have been able to help Germany’s war effort.
3. Economy: In 1938, it’s estimated that Nazi Germany’s GDP was $375.6 billion. However, that same year the British Empire’s economy was estimated to be $918.7 billion. At the height of the war, all three Axis countries (Germany, Italy and Japan) had a combined a GDP of $911 billion, still smaller that of the United States alone, which had a GDP of $1,094 billion.
To compound matters, Hitler was afraid of unrest at home, so did not put Germany on a total war production economy until 1944, when the war was all but lost. The Allies, in contrast (especially the Soviet Union), had shifted far more resources into military production far earlier, which gave them an even bigger edge than raw GDP numbers indicate.
4. Oil Production: Finally, a modern military requires oil, and lots of it, to function. Nazi Germany was always woefully under-supplied compared to the Allies. By 1941, Germany was able to extract 9.5 million barrels of crude oil per year and produce an additional 31 million barrels per year of synthetic fuel products.
However, this pales in comparison to the oil resources of the Allies. The British controlled the Middle East, which while not the oil powerhouse it is today, was still important in the 1930s and 40s. The Soviet Union had the Caucasus and Sakhalin oil fields which were estimated to have produced 242 million barrels in 1941, nearly 6 times Germany’s combined production.
Finally, and most importantly, you have the United States. In 1941, it may have been producing as much as 2/3rds of the world’s oil, roughly 4.5 million barrels per day. This meant that 10 days’ worth of US production was greater than what Germany could produce in a year. While greater allied oil production capacity alone did not lead to victory, Germany’s lack of oil resources meant that it was always in a precarious situation.
On top of these 4 weaknesses, Hitler also had an incredible string of luck that lasted until the end of 1941. Here are just a few occasions where Hitler seemed to defy the odds:
  • March 7th, 1936: Remilitarization of the Rhineland, in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles and Locarno Treaties, with no real consequences.
  • March 12th, 1938: Austrian Anschluss, yet again it was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but yet again there were no real consequences.
  • March 16th, 1939: Annexation of Czechoslovakia, violated the Munich Agreement which had been signed 6 months before, but yet again no one stood up to Hitler.
  • August 23rd, 1939: Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed, which had a secret clause that split Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. More importantly, it included a non-aggression pact that allowed Germany to focus all its resources against France and Great Britain during the first phase of the war in Europe.
  • June 22nd, 1940: Fall of France complete, with 157,621 German casualties and taking just six weeks, it was a much faster victory at a much lower cost than what was expected.
  • June 22nd, 1941: Operation Barbarossa took Soviet forces completely by surprise, which meant German armies were able to advance far faster and inflict far more damage than initially expected. However, this proved to be a hollow victory as it decidedly shifted the balance of power against the Nazis.
  • Finally, Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s left the Red Army with very weak leaders. Moreover, Stalin’s mistrust of the British meant he didn’t believe reports that Hitler was likely to invade. Thus, the Red Army that Hitler faced in 1941 was in as bad a shape and as ill-prepared as it was ever likely to be.
So, based on the above, could Nazi Germany have realistically won World War II? I think to answer that you have to look at the various powers it was facing after the Fall of France in 1940 and whether or not it could have defeated them.
Britain (including the British Empire): The British Empire always had a sizable population advantage over the Axis powers. Moreover, the fact that Great Britain itself is an island nation meant that invasion would have been difficult, without air and sea superiority. While neither were achieved in our timeline, a Nazi victory in the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk might have shifted the odds of success.
Being an island, Britain could also in theory have been cut off from the rest of its Empire through the use of U-boats. While an outright invasion seems somewhat unlikely to have been realistically feasible, I think cutting Britain off could have potentially forced them to seek a negotiated peace.
Soviet Union: The invasion of the Soviet Union was the number one factor leading to Hitler’s downfall. And, it’s difficult to see how things could have gone any better for the Germans during the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa. Geography, population and oil production were all firmly against the Germans, yet they still managed to capture an enormous swath of territory.
The only things Germany could have done better would have been to bring winter clothing and supplies, made better use of so-called “racially inferior” people in captured areas who also happened to hate the Soviet Union and finally made the taking of the Caucasus oil fields a top priority target.
However, even if they had done all three, they still would have faced the obstacle of trying to wage a Blitzkrieg-style war in a country several times its own size and faced the Russian Winter of 1941-42. Thus, while it’s possible to see ways the Nazis may have been able to win based on all the things working for them, it seems far more likely that the Soviet Union was always going to win the war against Germany.
United States: With the exception of the Nazis developing atomic weapons before them, there is no way Germany could have ever realistically defeated the United Sates. The US had an industrial base that was well beyond the reach of even the longest range bombers in the 1940s. It had an economy that was larger than that of all the Axis powers combined at their height. It had a much larger population base than Germany. And it had more than enough oil to supply its own army, navy and air force.
Therefore, the best case scenario for Germany would have been a stalemate situation that resembled the Cold War. In reality, declaring war on the United States was the final nail in the Nazi coffin.
In summary, Nazi Germany and Hitler may have been able to defeat and invade Britain (although a negotiated peace looks far more likely), but was extremely unlikely to be able to defeat the Soviet Union and/or the United States once those powers joined the Allies.
If you’d like to read more about how historians think the Nazis could have won, you’ll want to read these books:
Do you think Germany could have won World War II? If so, how? Please leave your thoughts below: