The Appeal of Alternate History

HIstory Lesson

By Gavriel Rosenfeld

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Few subgenres of literature have been subjected to such longstanding critical scorn as alternate history. Despite the occasional publication of such masterpieces as Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” the more frequent appearance of duds like Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen’s much-maligned 1995 novel, “1945,” has reinforced alternate history’s reputation as the domain of armchair historians and literary hacks.

Of late, however, alternate history’s appeal has begun to grow. Historian Niall Ferguson’s 1997 edited volume of counterfactual essays, “Virtual History,” lent the genre new credibility within the field of history, while Philip Roth’s best-selling 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” greatly enhanced its reputation within the American literary establishment. Now, Michael Chabon’s provocative new novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins), promises to help the genre of alternate history take yet another important step toward mainstream legitimacy. But while Chabon’s novel is an intricately plotted, wonderfully imaginative and ultimately successful work of literature, it is a weaker exercise in counterfactual speculation. Indeed, the novel resembles a “lite” version of alternate history that may leave connoisseurs of the real thing less than satisfied.

The best literary examples of alternate history — like Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, “Bring the Jubilee” (where the South wins the Civil War), or Robert Harris’s 1992 best-seller, “Fatherland” (where the Nazis win World War II) — combine a variety of elements: a clear point of divergence from the established historical record; clever and well-paced exposition of the reasons for history’s altered course; a convincing degree of plausibility, and a discernible stance on the question of whether the altered past is better or worse than the course of real history.

But whereas the most convincing works of alternate history tend to concentrate on a single point of divergence (the South wins the Civil War; JFK survives his assassination attempt), “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” features several: The United States decides in 1940 to establish a territorial home for European Jewish refugees in Alaska; the Russians are defeated by the Nazis in World War II (though the Nazis ultimately lose to the Americans anyway); the Cold War never ensues, and the state of Israel is never created, as the Jews lose the 1948 War of Independence and are “driven into the sea.” Aficionados of alternate history will probably carp at the implausibility of the United States staying in the war for very long against a victorious Nazi Germany without the Soviet Union doing most of the heavy lifting on the eastern front. Others will view with skepticism the ideologically fanatical Nazis permitting millions of Jews to leave Europe, unmolested, for their Alaskan refuge.

But perhaps the most telling weakness about “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” as a work of alternate history is the fact that arguably, its basic plot could have unfolded in nearly the same way as a conventional work of historical fiction. While Chabon’s basic allohistorical premise certainly lends the novel its distinctive mood, it is inessential to its basic plot — a noirish, detective-drama-cum-political-thriller whose fundamental contours (as most readers will deduce) have been inspired by today’s real historical headlines.

Few of these criticisms will bother Chabon’s many devoted fans (I remain an enthusiastic one). Most will be absorbed by the book’s engrossing narrative and won’t be bothered much by its diluted allohistorical dimensions. But devotees of alternate history will probably dissent. However much they may welcome the fact that some of America’s most celebrated writers are beginning to appreciate alternate history’s allure, they will likely insist that the genre still awaits its contemporary masterpiece.

Gavriel Rosenfeld is an associate professor of history at Fairfield University and is the author of “The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism” (Cambridge University Press, 2005).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.