Blog Post

The Terror of the Unforeseen: Speculative Fiction and Cinema after 1989

On the sweltering Tuesday evening of September 15, 2009, an exuberant forty-six year old man stood on a stage in Tel-Aviv, Israel and asked a stirred audience, “Are you ready to kill some Nazis?” An enthusiastic “Yeah!” was the response. The name of the man, you may have guessed, is Quentin Tarantino. The question he posed was his way to conclude a very short introduction to his newest film, Inglorious Basterds (2009).

While it is possible to dismiss Tarantino’s question, “Are you ready to kill some Nazis?” as an adolescent gesture, I see in it something more significant. I take Tarantino’s question, in conjunction with the film it served to introduce, as a distilled expression of a significant tendency in the literature and culture of the decades following 1989. By this I mean the move away from speculative thinking about capital H History, its presumable course and trajectory, toward an interest in the meaning of human action. Speculative historical fiction and film after 1989 reflect a turning away from the tradition of Gesichtsphilosophie and from the need to justify our hopes for, say, a classless society through appeal to the “Essence of History.” What we see instead is a focus on human agency: films like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds do not only present Nazis on the screen, they also compel us to think of our capacity to act by imaginatively revisiting the past. By asking (directly or implicitly) questions such as “Are you ready to kill some Nazis?”

I believe we can trace the movement I just described across a variety of recent literary and cinematic narratives that engage modernity’s recent past. This, in fact, is one of the main claims in a book I am currently working on. In this post, however, I will locate this shift, specifically, in alternate histories. Alternate histories, by referring to historical circumstances that we have come to consider as factual, imagine what could have happened. They provide us with the narrative of the path not taken. By reshuffling the events of the past and altering their consequences, they offer us a new perspective on what actually took place.

Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, for example, imagines a group of Jewish soldiers fighting for the US army during the Second World War. No ordinary rank and file unit, Tarantino sends these young Jewish men to spread terror among the German army in occupied France by targeting German soldiers—guerilla style. To maximize the horror, the Jewish-American soldiers scalp their victims as did American frontiersmen and Native Americans during the Frontier Warfare. Tarantino’s blood-soaked alternate history peaks in an operatic scene, in which a Jewish woman hiding in Paris and the group of Jewish-American soldiers wipe out the Nazi elite by turning a Parisian cinema into a flaming inferno.

If this plot sounds like sheer lunacy, let us consider other alternate histories of the last two decades, beginning with Christoph Ransmayr’s 1995 novel Morbus Kitahara (English, The Dog King). Like Tarantino’s film, this novel too takes a factual set of circumstances as its point of departure and then allows imagination have free reign: towards the end of Second World War, Henry Morgenthau Jr., then the Jewish American Secretary of the Treasury and a key voice in convincing the American public to address the Holocaust at the time it was occurring, suggested ensuring postwar Germany would not launch another World War by stripping it of its heavy industry. Soon after the World War is over, imagines the novel, the allies send the defeated Nazi Reich, “Back to the Stone Age!” (32). During the following months, ‘nature’ takes over where once modernity’s wonders reigned supreme: the power stations are shut down; the turbines and transformers are carted off on Russian army trucks (33). “Only the bulletin board at headquarters [was] lit by erratically flickering circles of bulbs” (33). As the German Reich “slid inexorably back through the years” (33), a primordial order is reestablished: “people called those times the dog years…” (57).

The metaphor of the ‘dog years’ is telling: what Germans and Austrians are deprived of with the dawn of that era is what makes human history distinctive: like animals, they can no longer engage in political action. Ransmayr’s nightmarish scenario thus implicitly points to the human capacity to act. Because of political action, Nazi Germany was able to spread horror across the globe. But, it was also political action that determined the shape of postwar Germany and Europe. By imagining what the allies could have done but did not do in the end (the Morgenthau Plan), the novel, in fact, underlines the political choice the allies made: that they eventually, through the human capacity to choose and to act, implemented the Marshall Plan.

Like Ransmayr’s Morbus Kitahara, Phillip Roth’s 2005 The Plot Against America takes on a factual historical circumstance as it develops an alternate history. In Roth’s novel, Charles Lindbergh—flight pioneer, popular idol, and Nazi sympathizer—defeats FDR in the elections of November 5, 1940. Lindbergh’s America does not go to war with Nazi Germany. Rather, it turns its attention to its Jewish population with the intention of assimilating it: Jews should not be killed but rather lose their religious and cultural distinctiveness. The Lindbergh regime follows this policy by creating the “Office of American Absorption”—a Kafkaesque institution whose aim is to eliminate the Jews as a geographically concentrated minority.

This fantastic scenario unfolds in Phillip Roth’s novel through the figure of Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—a sleek, highly educated opportunist. In the face of the November 1938 Reichskristallnacht and the march of German troops into Poland Bengelsdorf remains firm in his commitment to peace: “This is not an American war,” he announces to a crowd gathered in Madison Square in the summer of 1940. This is “Europe’s war” (38). Opposing any intervention on the side of the Allies, the Rabbi asks, “what sort of America will the massive slaughter of innocent American boys leave in its wake?’” (39). Like in Morbus Kitahara, the fantasy of what did not happen underlines what, in fact, took place: that by the power of a political action FDR’s America joined a war far from its shores. That it did not only react to Japan’s attack but also engaged Nazi Germany on European soil and fought to defend its values.

If the figure of a Rabbi who sympathizes with a Fascist anti-Semite like Lindbergh sounds preposterous, how about the following alternate history: Israeli poet, author and critic Yitzchak Laor’s 1993 novel The People, Food Fit for a King (Hebrew, Am Maachal Melachim). In this novel, Laor returns to 1967 and the weeks preceding the Six Days War. It portrays a group of unassuming soldiers in a remote outpost. By a bizarre circumstance, the soldiers get their hands on a secret document, a memo from Lyndon Johnson to the Israeli premier, Levi Eshkol. From this they understand that “a war is about to break out… [A]lthough the document included a promise for a quick operation that would only last six days…the soldiers understood, due to their lack of trust in any promises, that the war would last many years, and would not have an end, and that in its course they would need to become real soldiers that is whoever will live will be a soldier until old age, and that their children and grandchildren might die before bringing children to world, and that their children might die before they would bring grandchildren. And so they decided…to prevent it, and to our great surprise they even succeeded in doing so.” (505)

Going back to the 1967 Six Days War, Laor’s alternate history imagines what would have happened had Israelis acted to avert the event that has arguably shaped the course of Middle Eastern politics for more than four decades. By giving the soldiers the insight to see what the war will bring about—numerous grandfathers and fathers who bury their grandchildren and children—Laor’s novel makes us aware that the soldiers (or other actors in the Middle Eastern political drama) could have, in fact, “prevent[ed] it.” More importantly, perhaps, by pointing to the soldiers’ capacity to act in the past, the novel also alludes to the ability of its readers to take political action in the present.

By imagining what the past would have looked like had the Allies implemented the Morgenthau Plan or by imaginatively circumnavigating the breakout of the Six Days War, the novels I mention above underline that what we retrospectively take to be the inevitable course of history is but the outcome of a series of choices and actions. The effect of this underlying current is to collapse the notion that decisive historical events follow some ‘law of history’, some principle or the movement of an ‘invisible hand’ behind the scenes. Instead we come to consider what actually happened—the implementation of the Marshall Plan, FDR’s victory or the Six Days War—as resulting from multiple choices, actions and given geo-political conditions. By turning away from the urge to hypothesize history, these novels thus shed light on the human capacity, on our capacity to take action.

Precisely this seems to be the point of Alexander Kluge’s 2006 volume, Tür an Tür mit einem anderen Leben, especially of such short prose pieces as “Kurzfristige Terminverlegung.” In this work, Kluge reconsiders the Wannsee Conference that sealed the fate of millions of Jews during the Holocaust by reflecting on the fact that this fateful gathering was delayed from December of 1941 to January 20, 1942. Asking what if the conference had not been deferred after all is significant since in December of 1941 the U.S. has not yet entered the war. It is thus not inconceivable that Nazi Germany would have sought a separate peace accord with America and that the scope of the Holocaust would have been substantially different. “This,” concludes the speaker in Kluge’s “Kurzfristige Terminverlegung”—an evolutionary biologist who studies “Artengeschichte des Bösen”—“translates into hope” (152). Here an expert on natural history underlines the distinctiveness of human history: the fact that humans, unlike creatures of the natural world, might entertain “hope” by speculating on what could have happened, on what they could have done. Even in the face of a factual occurrence such as the Wannsee Conference one should still reflect on what did not take place. It is through the consideration of an alternate history or a counterfactual that we realize that even in face of what appears utterly irreversible one can still gain a sense of the possible.

To be sure, speculative historical fiction—novels and stories that imagine what could have or what may happen—has been a fixture of modernist literature at least since H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, written or filmed after 1989 the works I mentioned above (and many others one could include) look back at what Hayden White calls “modernist events.” They revisit events of a scope which H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley could scarcely have imagined. They do so, furthermore, after we came to understand the impact of the utopian ideas that had captured the imaginations of both H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. “Modernist events,” Hayden White argues, are manmade disasters such as the Second World War, the implementation of weapons of mass destruction in warfare, or mass expulsions. [1] The unprecedented use of modern technology in mass killing, the degradation of millions of individuals into mere means for the creation of superior nations, and the dissemination of images that originate in these events through omnipresent media outlets, continues White, exceed what previous ages could have ever imagined. Given the dimension and impact of “modernist events” in all realms of our lives, they function in our collective consciousness in a manner similar to the working of trauma in the psyche of individuals (69). The industrial murder of human beings in the death camps or the detonation of nuclear devices over cities cannot be forgotten, White claims, without a significant impact on our ability to constructively engage with the present or “envision a future free of [these events’] debilitating effects” (69).

While agreeing with White, I would add that “modernist events” also undermine our faith in the effectiveness of human agency: they shake our openness to what Alexander Kluge calls “hope.” This is where speculative historical fiction, specifically alternate histories, becomes interesting. Given the magnitude of “modernist events” and their debilitating effect on our ability to imagine a future, alternate histories explore Kluge’s “hope” by examining the human capacity to act. They ask, what European Jewry or American politics could have done when faced with the murderous zeal of the Nazis. They consider what lethargic Israeli soldiers in a remote outpost may have been able to do to influence the century-long conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Until 1989 historical literature often reflected on these questions by alluding to Geschichtsphilosophie: by speculating on ‘history’s course’ and trajectory. Peter Weiss’s opus Ästhetic des Widerstands (1975-81, English The Aesthetics of Resistance ) could serve here as a case in point. Yet, with the demise, after 1989, of what Richard Rorty calls “the romance of history”—that is, the depletion of meta-historical narratives regarding ‘history’s course’, ‘laws’ and ‘trajectory’—historical literature in general and speculative historical fiction in particular no longer turns to Geschichtsphilosophie. [2] Capital H History has lost its utility in making a case for more progressive social politics. Alternate histories such as those I mentioned reflect the sense that our time—that is the era after the “modernist events” and following the demise of the grand utopias of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—no longer needs capital H History as a reified object that has “a shape and a movement” of the kind previously reserved to “God” or “Human Nature.” [3]

Novels such as Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America undo the tendency of Geschichtsphilosophie to collapse together natural and human history by asking ‘what if?’ The first lines of Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America indeed read: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course, no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” These three ‘ifs,’ right at the beginning of the novel, suggest the need to address the past by asking ‘what if?‘ As the novel asks, ‘what if’, it emphasizes that the election of FDR was, in fact, a political choice taken by political actors. What presents itself in hindsight as the inevitable appears through the prism of The Plot Against America as the outcome of the heated debate between ‘interventionists’ and ‘isolationists’—a debate that has never been quite settled, as the deliberations preceding the interventions in Kuwait, Kosovo and Iraq have shown. “History” has no set course. It does not follow any trajectory, Roth’s novel suggests. It is the result of numerous individual and collective choices made by human beings. As Roth’s narrator notes: “Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ’History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” (113-114) Roth's choice of words is revealing: “History” with a capital H is ”harmless history" since it is the thoroughly constructed narrative of presumably inevitable events. Roth discards capital H “History“ for presenting past occurrences as the manifestation of what was ”inevitable“ in the precise sense summarized for us by the OED: what is inherent (in) or naturally belongs to, that is what lies outside the realm of human power.

And herein, I would argue, lies the ”terror of the unforeseen.” For once we are deprived of the comforting belief in a meta-narrative that capital H History supposedly obeys, the question of our responsibility, of our ability to act, forces itself on us with renewed urgency. In probing the past as the unfolding of the inevitable, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Roth's The Plot Against America, or Ransmayr’s Morbus Kitahara expose us to the shock that we often sense in view of our actual ability to take action. They deprive us of what Isaiah Berlin calls “the machinery of history itself”: they make the notion that History is the direct outcome of such supra personal entities as collective consciousness, class, race, power, culture, technology, capitalism and the like seem obsolete. [4] According to the notion of “the machinery of history itself,” Isaiah Berlin reminds us, factors other than human will, choice and action are the determining causes in generating events for which individuals are only “ingredients”. While there is nothing wrong in referring to such “metaphors” (106) as ‘class’, ‘race’, ‘power’, and ‘culture’ in explaining certain aspects of choices made and courses taken, Berlin contends (and I agree), they are but one of the many possible “tunes” (106) that make the music. Based on the metaphysical idea that humans pursue a purpose drafted for them by a creator, every such factor is seen as an expression of an innate principle, and thus the human capacity to act is significantly undermined. The problem with this tendency, Berlin rightly points out, is that it prevents serious consideration of whatever amount of freedom humans might have. If we were to view such impersonal circumstances or entities as class, power, ideology, ‘the sovereign,’ etc. as the only determining factors driving the course of events, we would risk turning decisive events of the past into mere expressions of nature-like forces.

The fictional election of Lindbergh to president, the implementation of a Morgenthau Plan-like policy or the idea of a Jewish soldiers group that is after Nazi scalps is the poetic parodying of what Hannah Arendt calls the “invisible actor behind the scene” and Berlin “historical inevitability” in a moment of intellectual history in which it has become difficult to call upon “History” to deliver any prescription.

These and other contemporary works go, however, beyond the rejection of determinism. As they open up the past to the consideration of choice, they also establish our present and future as realms of the possible. What David Carr notes in regard to historiographic counterfactuals is significant also for alternate histories: both have the potential of making us aware that “the world need not be as it is” (161). [5] Tarantino’s film, for example, makes us painfully aware that the allies, in fact, did very little to stop the mass killing while it was taking place. Tarantino’s question, “Are you ready to kill some Nazis?” and the audience’s reply are but two sides of the same coin: the filmmaker makes his audience aware of the necessity to deprive the past of its appearance as the unfolding of the inevitable. He collapses together the past and the future and suggests that with the power of the imagination we can, indeed, re-imagine ourselves as capable of acting. Even in the face of paralyzing horror. The audience, in turn, by crying out “Yeah!” takes on this challenge, namely, to see the Holocaust both as a horrendous watershed of modernity and as an event that compels us to recognize our ability to affect our fates.

Accepting this challenge, the viewers of Tarantino’s movie will also need to ask themselves, however, if retaliation is a meaningful mode of political action; if there are expressions of human freedom that make brutal revenge obsolete. This can only be, though, the subject of a different film altogether.

1 Hayden White, “The Modernist Event,” in Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999), 66-86.

2 Richard Rorty, “The End of Leninism and History as Comic Frame,” in Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman (eds.), History and the Idea of Progress (Ithaca/London: Cornel University Press, 1995), 211-226. Hereafter quoted parenthetically.

3 Richard Rorty, “The End of Leninism and History as Comic Frame.”

4 Isaiah Berlin, “Historical inevitability,” in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 100-103). This classic essay was first printed in Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (1969).

5 David Carr, “Place and time: on the interplay of historical points of view,” In History and Theory 40, no. 4, (Theme Issue: Agency after Postmodernism, December 2001): 153-67.