Making History Even Worse

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Changing the Course of History

2. Making History Even Worse
2.1 Dystopian Characteristics in Making History
2.2 Narrative Structure and Style of Rewriting History in the Novel
2.3 The Essence of History and Responsibility in Alternate Holocausts

3. Conclusion: Accepting and Learning from History

Works Cited

1. Introduction: Changing the Course of History

The old world was now nothing more than a freak construct in my head and in my head alone, a possibility that never happened, a turning never taken. The subject of a horror novel.

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, Buchen- wald, Sobibór. What were they now? Small towns in Poland and Germany. Happy, silly little towns whose names were washed clean of sin and blame. (Fry 2004: 323)

Would it not be tempting to get the opportunity to erase past mistakes, to be able to make another, presumably better decision, to wash the past “clean of sin and blame” as the protagonist in Stephen Fry’s novel Making History phrases his sentiments after hav- ing changed history? In narrative and film, this wish can be fulfilled by means of alter- nate history, at least theoretically. The appeal of alternate history, of changing something that has already happened, is in fact both applicable to one’s personal life and to a whole people’s past. Considering the atrocities of the 20th century in Europe, the two World Wars and first and foremost the Holocaust, probably most of us would try to correct history if we got the chance. That is one of the reasons why such an amount of uchronian novels have been written about the Third Reich. Many of them intend to imagine a world in which Hitler had died during or before World War II or even a world into which he had never been born at all. However, all these thought ex- periments lead to very different results, some establish a preferable history and present - since history naturally shapes and affects the present age as well - while others assume that history would not have changed, in any case not for the better.

Stephen Fry’s novel Making History belongs to the latter group of alternate histo- ries about the Holocaust. It has been referred to as “the most pessimistic portrayal of the historical consequences of Hitler never becoming Führer” (Rosenfeld 2005: 298). Mak- ing History is a uchronian nightmare scenario in which the protagonist, postgraduate historian Michael Young, and physics professor Leo Zuckermann manage to prevent Adolf Hitler from being born with help of male contraceptive pills and a time machine; and thus, they change the course of history fatally. Why do we run such thought ex- periments about alternate histories or, in this case, “alternate Holocausts”, which, com- pared to real history, have been altered for the worse? Even though Making History is primarily entertainment-oriented, the author’s decision to create a dystopian instead of the expected utopian, better place also represents the essence of real history, namely its unpredictability. There are so many conditions, circumstances and personages which exert influence on the course of history and which have to be taken into account when imagining an alternate history. Against the background of dystopian elements in Stephen Fry’s novel Making History, I will demonstrate that altering history theoretically might provide a utilitarian means to analyse historical cause and effect while changing history for real - assumed that it were practically possible - could turn out disastrously, since history and life can hardly be calculated.

First of all, I will analyse Michael’s apparent failure in undoing the Holocaust, focusing on his attempt to build a better world - (e)utopia - and the dystopian outcome which he actually is responsible for. Second, the author’s particular style of rewriting history shall be examined briefly. The main attention will be paid to the juxtaposition of past and present, “reality” and alternate history as well as to the narrative structure and style, which both put emphasis on the rather satiric developments of fate. Finally, Fry’s novel is to be placed within the field of alternate history in general, so that the reasons, objectives and lessons of such dystopian tales about a world without Hitler can be estab- lished and evaluated. The last chapter is in a large part based on Gavriel Rosenfeld’s book The World Hitler Never Made, the first and so far only profound academic histori- ography about alternate histories of the Nazi regime in narrative and film. The literature Rosenfeld compiles mainly deals with the question of how the Third Reich could have been averted, overthrown or how it might have turned out differently if Germany had won the war. However, it has to be said that the focus of this essay is exclusively on the narrative representation of alternate history while the question of historical probability shall be reduced to a minimum, though treated briefly at the end of this essay.

2. Making History Even Worse

2.1 Dystopian Characteristics in Making History

Deriving from the concept of utopia, dystopia (from the Greek ‘dis topos’ for bad place) was coined by the politician John Stuart Mill in a parliament debate in 1868, though he referred to an exclusively political rather than to a literary phenomenon (Milner 2009: 827). Since then, the term has gained common currency in the field of literary studies as the counterpart of utopia. Due to the fact that utopia, eutopia and dystopia merely de- scribe better or worse, non-existent places which still “remain in the bounds of possibil- ity” (Claeys 2010: 109), they do not utterly conform to the genre of alternate history. Therefore, in the case of alternate history another distinction made by Milner generally proves worthier: uchronia, euchronia and dyschronia. Here, it is time instead of place which is altered; so euchronian and dyschronian accounts can be set in the historical past as well (Milner 2009: 827) and, thus, they stay out of the bounds of possibility. Nonetheless, Milner’s termination of dyschronia has not established itself academically yet. Another term for these stories used by Rosenfeld throughout his historiography is ‘nightmare scenario’. Nevertheless, regardless of whether these texts are named dysto- pia or dyschronia or nightmare scenario, the essential characteristic remains the same, namely the fictional portrayal of a society or political situation which has developed in a negative way (Claeys 2010: 107). That is why there will be no further discussion about the termination, but the world portrayed in Making History will just be contemplated as a form of “dystopia” and the novel synonymously referred to as a nightmare scenario.

Apart from displaying an undesirable society, dystopian novels can also serve as a “satire of utopian aspirations” (Claeys 2010: 107), a function that can be clearly seen in Making History. Leo and Michael invent a time machine and prevent Hitler from being conceived by sterilising his father with drugged water - with the best intentions. By this means, they aspire to undo the atrocities of the Holocaust and believe that they are cre- ating a better place, a eutopia, which never had to experience the inhumanity of the Third Reich:

(continuing) have to understand what we are trying to do here. MICHAEL

I understand.

I don’t believe that you do. Nothing will be the same. Nothing.

But that’s the point. (excited)

Everything will be better. We’re going to make a better world.

(Fry 2004: 162)

Hence, the dystopian turn of the narration criticises the naive and arrogant belief - as the protagonist himself assesses their behaviour later on (Fry 2004: 380) - that the world can be controlled and regulated so easily. Over and above, it is not only the pro- tagonist who is taken aback by the course of events, but the readership as well. Elimi- nating Hitler from world’s history commonly leads to the expectation that World War II and, leastwise, the Holocaust could have been prevented. Again, history is far too com- plex to be calculated, so that in Making History the “attempt to improve the course of history backfires completely” (Rosenfeld 2005: 302). It is therefore without doubt that the protagonists’ intention is to create a better world or, respectively, relieve German history of shame and disgrace. Turning this positive undertaking into a dystopia satiri- cally arouses the reader’s attention to the impossibility of changing the past for the bet- ter and to the naivety of us believing that we might have a hold on history.

For the purpose of making history worse, Fry invented another character who takes Hitler’s place: Rudolf Gloder. In the novel, Hauptmann Gloder is already smug- gled into “real” history, where he and Hitler purportedly served together during World War I. At that time, though, he got killed during a daring rescue operation of a soldier’s helmet, into which he was tricked by Hitler himself. In the alternate account, however, Gloder’s own malicious character is revealed and, without Hitler being around, he stays alive and is now the one to receive decorations for his military actions. On the whole, the new Führer is quite similar to Hitler, that is to say, he is equally ruthless but smarter. As Rosenfeld puts it, both are “war veteran[s], ardent nationalist[s], and fierce anti- Semite[s]”, but Gloder is “much more of a disciplined, rational, cold-hearted, real- politician than Hitler ever was” (Rosenfeld 2005: 301). Moreover, the two of them are rather charismatic: “Well, well, I’m sure this Gloder is a paragon of all the virtues. He’s obviously got you eating out of his hand, anyway.” (Fry 2004: 273). Beyond that, it is made clear that there were other high rank politicians and militaries apart from Hitler who contributed to the Holocaust. For example, the fictitious biography about Rudolf Gloder (Fry 2004: 356-65) mentions some personages from real history, like, for exam- ple, Anton Drexler, founder of the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, Josef Göbbels, Minister of Propaganda, Ernst Röhm and several more. Thus, it can be seen that eliminating one important person from past times will probably change the course of history, though, according to the novel, it can never be certain in which direction.

By replacing Hitler with the even more cold-hearted, anti-Semitic politician Gloder, history takes the same direction into National Socialism as before, yet it goes even further and results in the “Fall of Europe” (Fry 2004: 381-87). Unfortunately, Fry leaves out an explicit delineation of the “Third Reich” under Rudolf Gloder. In fact, the reader has to gradually find out fragments of the “truth”, and only fragments there are, together with the novel’s protagonist, who surprisingly awakens in the United States with no knowledge of the alternated history. Most of the details of the past are still only presented in note form of a leaflet belonging to the documentation Michael is watching in order to catch up on European history. Altogether, we learn that German physicists succeeded in developing the atomic bomb at Göttingen Institute already in 1938. Earlier in the novel, Leo already explained to Michael that “Hitler made a great mistake there”, referring to him openly attacking Jews and driving them out of the country; “Berlin University and the Göttingen Institute contained most of the men who invented modern physics and a large number of them fled to America. Germany could have had an atom bomb in 1939. Earlier maybe.” (Fry 2004: 170). Owing to the threat of a nuclear war, the surrounding countries were easily conquered and the Greater German Reich was created. The Jewish question was resolved even more drastically with the deportation of all European Jews to a Jewish Free State and their systematic extermination by sterilisa- tion, using the contraceptive medication which Michael and Leo had sent to Brunau with their time machine. Moreover, Germany and the United States have long been in a state of Cold War, though relations have become better since. In conclusion, it can al- ready been seen that the same ideology was pursued, but more adeptly and to a much worse outcome.

As a matter of fact, changing history also means changing the present, so it is es- pecially interesting to examine the present day situation presented in the novel. Usually, the desire for devising a utopia is based on a feeling of dissatisfaction concerning the respective political or social situation one currently lives in (Vieira 2010: 6). In the novel’s case, however, changing the present society is not one of the primary motives behind Leo’s and Michael’s decision to prevent Hitler from being born. Indeed, Michael affirms this assumption, eventually reflecting on his and Leo’s motivation:

What we had done [originated] more out of a desire to relieve Leo of his miserable inheritance of guilt1 than out of any altruism or high humani- tarian purpose [...]. Why had I agreed to help Leo in the first place? Cockiness? A desire to feel big? No, it was simpler than that, I decided. Stupidity [...], innocence. Maybe even cowardice. The world I lived in was too scary for me, so why not make another? (Fry 2004: 437-38)

According to this, changing the course of history was meant to ease Leo’s conscious- ness, while it was nothing more than a game for Michael. Nevertheless, even though they had no concrete intention to improve the current society, the world they created is quite unrecognizable. While, on the one hand, technology seems to be slightly more advanced (e. g. Fry 2004: 381), society in the United States is far more conservative: homosexuality is a crime (Fry 2004: 370), racial segregation is still common (Fry 2004: 452), and national health insurance does not exist at all (Fry 2004: 263). Evidently, since Europe had now been occupied by the Nazis until 1968, there was neither any upsurge of social liberalism nor any campaigns for racial equality or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Ironically, Michael at first only notices the absence of previously popular bands, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others (Fry 2004: 368). As men- tioned before, it can thus be said that their experiment “backfires completely” (Rosenfeld 2005: 302), so that not only history has been made worse, but the present age as well.

Unlike most other dystopias, Making History has a “happy ending” insofar as the change of history is undone and the “actual” course of history is (almost fully) re- established. Instead of trying to correct the alternate history by eliminating Gloder as well, Michael and Leo have learned their lesson and just aspire to reverse their action; even though they are aware of the fact that the actual present is far from perfect. It is indeed Steve who has to remind him of his responsibility for changing the course of history, when Michael begins to doubt whether the other, “real” world was really better: “‘Besides,’ he interrupted. ‘That’s just the present we’re talking about. You’re forget- ting history. You think you can just leave that?’” (Fry 2004: 543).


1 Leo’s father was a doctor at Auschwitz; though, ironically, both in the “real” and in the alternate world.

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Making History Even Worse
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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Doreen Klahold (Author), 2013, Making History Even Worse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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