Most people learn about history from books and articles with facts on historical events. However, learning about history from the truth isn’t exactly necessary. There’s a whole genre dedicated to alternate history, with actual historical events but typically fictionalized outcomes and details. Some are easy to identify as fictional, such as Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, with its complete 180 on WWII.
However, others are less easy to identify as fictional, like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, with its typically-accurate but detailed retelling of the Himmler assassination. Both of these books have degrees of historical truth to them, with real historical figures and a basis of historical events that really happened. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a combination of both of these types of alternate history, with lots of facts about historical events but also obvious fiction as well. These alternate histories, although they have fictional details, still help people learn about WWII – and often in ways that nonfictional resources can’t.
Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle is the farthest-stretching alternate history out of the three. The book takes WWII and flips it – with the takeover of the U.S. by Japan and Germany. However, there are some parts of historical truth in this alternate world. The same major players of Germany, Japan and Italy are involved in the war on the Axis side and the Allied powers are the same as well – save for Italy’s betrayal.
The outcome of the war is actually the same we come to learn – that Japan and Germany actually lost the war – although they still took over the U.S. The same people are involved on the Nazi side, such as Goebbels and Heydrich and Hitler himself, and even Himmler is referred to as “the late Reichsführer Himmler,” showing that even in this alternate history Himmler has died, possibly assassinated like in real life.
However, the historical facts are few and far between in Dick’s work of fiction, and readers most likely do not read the novel to learn about WWII. But works like these – meant for entertainment – usually capture a larger scope of readers than your typical multi-volume history book, so these historical facts can reach a lot more readers than some nonfiction history books do, and can also help pique readers’ interests in what actually happened.
For instance, a particular historical point in the novel is when Juliana discovers in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that in Abdensen’s version of the war, Italy betrayed the Axis powers and joined the Allies. This is something that happened in real life, and when the reader is trying to consider how truly ‘alternate’ Dick’s version of postwar America actually is, it may be something that sparks further reading on the subject.
The Man in the High Castle as a whole has lots of room for historical learning as well, not just in these particular details that match up with real-life facts. The novel revolves around the supposed-fact that Japan and Germany won the war, and that is why they’ve taken over the U.S. However, that fact comes to be unraveled in the end of the novel when consultation of the I-Ching proves that the U.S. actually won, which poses a question: Why does everyone believe the U.S. lost?
Further, why does everyone take the false truth that the Germans won at face-value, and what do those details of the loss to the takeover look like? These questions teach a sort of historical lesson to the reader – to understand and research the historical past, and not just assume the historical pathway to the present based on the easiest explanation.
The I-Ching as a predictor of fate in The Man in the High Castle also can provide the perspective of a predetermined outcome of the war, which readers would not get with a simple dissection of the war itself. Similar to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the I-Ching portrays the future as something that is set in stone – something that can’t be changed and is predetermined, like how Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians.
This nihilistic theme in both novels is not something that appears necessarily at face value, but provides an important notion for readers to consider about WWII: would the war have turned out the way it did, no matter what? In the context of The Man in the High Castle, the answer to that is no, since in the novel the Americans are revealed to have won the war – but the Germans still took over. It was only the perfect combination of real-life president FDR’s dominant leadership that “makes America strong,” (since he wasn’t assassinated) and Italy’s betrayal of the Axis powers that led to an allied win, and no takeover by Germany and Japan.
The aspect of the war as something predetermined is something The Man in The High Castle and Slaughterhouse Five bring up for their readers to consider in context of the real facts and alternate history of the novel, a more in-depth consideration than what a straight telling of the facts of the war and its consequences would bring up.
HHhH is less alternate history than it is semi-historical fiction. The descriptions of the lead-up and assassination of Himmler are extremely fact-based and accurate, with most of the inaccuracies being the storytelling aspects of the book – like what Gabcik and Kubis were thinking or saying at specific moments, which Binet would not know. HHhH’s depiction of a WWII event through a detailed narrative – with the only ‘alternate history’ portion of the novel being the detailed scenes – provides such a deeper insight into the event than a nonfiction book would.
Although the depiction may not be 100% accurate due to the artistic license Binet takes with the dialogue or specific scene descriptions – such as the imagery in the last scene of the book with Gabcik and Kubis on a steamboat – bringing the reader to the exact scene keeps them more historically engaged, with the heightened sense of realism and personal connection that a historical description just does not give the audience.
HHhH is the best novel of the three for understanding a historical event through the lens of alternate history. Putting the reader in an accurate historical situation – albeit with some narrative details that no historian would be able to prove or put in a nonfiction work – is extremely effective to make the reader actually understand the event.
Putting the reader there in situations like when Gabcik’s gun stops working closes some of the distance between an event that happened decades ago and someone reading about the event in the present. The other aspect of fiction the book provides that a nonfiction work might not is the narrator’s telling of the ways he learned about the event, with what sources he got information from and what scenes in his retelling he actually visited.
Although this isn’t necessarily alternate history, since it isn’t fictionalizing an actual historical event but fictionalizing the process of learning the information to retell the event, is helpful for contextualize the author’s retelling. For example, when the narrator retells a scene of Gabcik on the bus from Zilina, the author goes back a few paragraphs later and explains why that made-up scene would not make sense after rereading a primary source he’d based much of the research for the novel on.
The inclusion of the incorrect scene demonstrates how the book is an alternate history, and the inclusion of the paragraph explaining its fallacies are a point back to how the book is helpful historically – although there are some aspects of an alternative remembrance of this historical event, the novel explains the way in which this paragraph is misleading. This is more confusing than a typical history of the Himmler assassination would be written, but it gives readers more context to how the historian – or in this case the narrator – found the information, and what primary sources exactly were used to help him find out the actual truth.
HHhH is more similar to Slaughterhouse Five than to The Man in The High Castle when it comes to the historical relevance of these alternate histories. HHhH has its basis on a factual event, and tells it with some accuracy but also artistic license for the benefit of the reader. The Man in The High Castle’s principle plot point is based on something that didn’t happen – the Axis takeover of America. Slaughterhouse Five, however, is based on something that very well could have happened – a man goes off to war, is present during the bombing of Dresden (a factual event), and comes back forever changed.
HHhH has lot of those ‘could’ve happened’ moments that the character of Billy Pilgrim exemplifies – minus Pilgrim’s experiences with the Tralfamadorians. HHhH also has a more reliable/factual narrator than The Man in The High Castle, as the narrator provides context for how he writes each scene on Himmler’s assassination and Vonnegut is fairly credible since he lived through the majority of the events he described. These more factual sources add to the historical use of the novels, also maintaining the immersive nature they provide to readers as ‘retellings’ of the event that nonfiction historical works often can’t.
Slaughterhouse Five is in the middle on the scale of alternate histories, more of a historical fiction novel like HHhH was but with some completely false aspects like The Man in The High Castle. The aspects of historical truth that Slaughterhouse Five provides are specifically related to the bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut actually lived through during his service in WWII.
Although readers don’t know for sure what aspects are actually based on Vonnegut’s experience and what are made up for the sake of artistic license, lots of the situations Vonnegut describes could plausibly be something Vonnegut went through, or something one of his fellow captives went through. For example, when Vonnegut describes his experience “marching with a lot of other prisoners,” and how when they were traveling in the boxcars “human beings in there took turns standing or lying down.” These experiences are what make the alternate-history novel helpful for a reader, since they are things that actually happened during the war – although they may be edited a bit from what Vonnegut himself experienced.
The Tralfamadorians, although obviously fictional, bring up the question of fate in the war – similar to The Man in the High Castle. These aliens tell him how “only on Earth is there any talk of free will,” and this sentiment of a free will’s nonexistence is brought up repeatedly throughout the novel.
Slaughterhouse Five is more similar to HHhH on the basis of how useful the alternate history novels are in a truthful retelling of the WWII events. Slaughterhouse Five retells some events like the bombing of Dresden with a degree of accuracy to where it could have been true, and based on Vonnegut’s own experience with Dresden, he is a very credible source on the subject. However, the Tralfamadorians are what make the book similar to The Man in the High Castle.
The Man in the High Castle helps readers learn about the war by bringing up the question of how its outcome resulted in the dominant American superpower that emerged, and the question of how ‘fated’ was the war and how easily the war’s outcome could’ve been different. The Tralfamadorians also bring up the latter question of the fate of the war – although Vonnegut’s answer is different.
The Tralfamadorians relay to Billy Pilgrim that free will isn’t something that exists in their experience – that everything is predetermined. This attitude is something the whole novel takes on, with a definite nihilistic angle represented by a conversation that an American has with a German guard when he asks “Why me?” and the guard responds “Vhy anybody?”
The Man in the High Castle, HHhH and Slaughterhouse Five are all novels not meant to simply teach about WWII – they are alternate histories, more oriented towards entertainment and sometimes underlying lessons than conveying historical events in an accurate fashion. Although three of the novels have factual components – whether they be real figures, events or historical outcomes – they aren’t based in fact. However, they provide a different perspective of historical events than a simple history book, with all three novels immersing the reader in a story.
This helps provide a deeper look into some of the events that occur, minus all of the dates and numbers a history book may have, and provide a deeper understanding of one specific historical event by putting the readers there in the specific moment that the narrator is in. HHhH does this most effectively by having the reader essentially as an omniscient presence, with some details artistically edited, but the plot as a whole fairly accurate. The Man in the High Castle is more of a deeper look at the meaning of WWII rather than an event, leaving readers to consider some of the hard questions the I-Ching and ending of the novel bring up in comparison to the real war.
Slaughterhouse Five incorporates both of these elements, with a deeper look at the bombing of Dresden and the effect it had on Billy Pilgrim (and possibly Vonnegut himself) and also asks readers to consider what kind of impact the war really had, and if it really was the ‘Good War’ at all. Historical books are meant to leave readers with answers, not questions, so these alternate histories inspire more discussion on the real histories they’re based on, continuing the discussion on WWII in more in-depth ways than your standard fact-based novel would leave them with.