This is a witty, clever piece of what if historical sci-fi. In parts, this is Stephen Fry at his very comic best, as good as his General Melchit from Black Adder Goes Forth fame. In other parts it fades away to little more than irritating public school boy humour. But rising above the ebbs and flows of Frys humour is a deadly serious underlying theme, one that deserves much consideration. The plot revolves around a simple sci-fi plot to remove Hitler from the historical landscape. Not just the adult, genocidal Hitler, but any trace of the person.
Fry thus poses the question: what if Hitler had never been born? This raises a much broader historical question; what role the individual in history? Fry deals with this intelligently and for me comes out on the right side of this intriguing dialectical dilemma. Without giving too much of the plot away, some of the more familiar barbaric features of the twentieth century are removed but only to be replaced by a set of circumstances perhaps even more chilling.
I suspect most people with a fascination for history and contemporary politics would at some time muse at the prospect of a world without certain historical figures. I often ponder what might have become of the Soviet Union had Lenin, an altogether more cultured man than Stalin, survived another couple of decades. Similarly, how might Russian and world events have differed had Trotsky rather than Stalin won the post-Lenin power struggle. Karl Marx, who was at pains to stress that material conditions are the ultimate arbiter in human affairs, never dismissed the role of the individual in the final outcome of history. Being a profound exponent of the dialectical method, Marx understood only too well the never-ending tussle between the individual player and the wider socio-economic landscape. To paraphrase the old man, men make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Accordingly, we can conclude that Adolf Hitler certainly brought his own unique stamp to the historical table but not, as Fry cleverly points out, as unique as some historians would like to imagine.
In Fry’s novel it was not Adolf Hitler but a certain Rudolf Gloder who comes to prominence in Fry’s parallel universe. Presenting this fictional Gloder to his readers in the fictional encyclopaedias of the day, Fry is careful to remain true to the prevailing world conditions and it is these material conditions that are shown to have the decisive influence on events.
An element of prosperity was entering German life and the Social Democrats were riding high in public opinion. It was far better to exercise patience and wait. A few months later, the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression was to prove the acumen of this political judgement. Hjalmar Schacht, Fritz Thyssen, Gustav Krupp, Friedrich Flick and other wealthy German industrial magnates quickly gauged the incompetence of the Social Democrats in the face of this unprecedented world slump and began to pour money into the coffers of Gloder’s Nazi Party, by now convinced that only he processed the necessary combination of sophisticated statecraft and popular backing to lead Germany out of its spiralling economic crisis. P365
So we see that Fry is most insistent that neither Hitler nor the fictional Gloder nor any other historical figure, real or imagined, could operate outside of the prevailing economic circumstances. Yes, each leader would bring their own personal imprint to the making of history but that individual imprint would not, could not, make events so very different. The prevailing material conditions are always, in the end, determinate.
Fascism was on the rise across the world with or without Hitler. It emerged first in Italy and Japan, and then later triumphed in Germany and Spain. Britain, France and even the US had strong fascistic tendencies. What was the common ingredient in this world wide tide of brutal authoritarianism? Quite obviously, the global crisis of Capital. Fascism was the authoritarian face of Capital in crisis. In fact we could go as far as to say that fascism is the true face of capital stripped of its democratic fa√ßade. Fry hammers home the point via his leading protagonist, Michael Young:
I thought if Hitler wasn’t born, the century would have less to be ashamed of. I suppose I should have known better. The circumstances were still the same in Europe. There was still a vacuum in Germany waiting to be filled. There was still fifty years of anti-Semitism and nationalism ready to be exploited. There was still the Versailles Treaty and a Wall Street Crash and a Great Depression. P380
Fry gets it spot on. All the toxic ingredients were there. Had Hitler been killed in the trench warfare of the First Great War, Germany would almost certainly still have fallen to some form of authoritarianism after the banking collapse of 1929. Nothing of course is set in stone. Human history is not preordained. The German communists may have prevailed or the Social Democrats might have limped on. A Franco type figure may have emerged who did not have the same pathological hatred of European Jews. The leading industrial, financial and scientific Jewish minds might have been co-opted to the task of German national expansion rather than to be expropriated and slaughtered. All these, and many other scenarios, remain open to individual human intervention. But when the historical dust has finally settled, we cannot help but conclude that the greatest player in the affairs of man is the material conditions that surround him. Steven Fry, sometimes comic genius, is in no doubt about this at all.