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Science fiction—case in point, alternate history—is a genre that seems specifically built to play “what-if” scenarios about Adolf Hitler. What if Hitler had won the war (The Man in the High Castle)? What if he was assassinated before he became Führer (Elleander Morning)?  What if they Nazis had been invaded by aliens (Marching Through Georgia)? What if he hadn’t done this or that—not invading Russia but finishing off England first, or waiting several more years before starting the war to develop more weapons? What if the Nazis had developed the first atomic bomb?

Or, here’s one. What if Hitler had been a failed politician, leaving Germany for America in 1919 to become another European immigrant, then followed up on his dream to become an artist? What if he’d sold illustrations to fellow European migrant Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories, and been enthralled by the possibilities of science fiction? If Adolf Hitler lived in this alternate world and was not a man who’d lead millions into death and misery, what kind of science fiction would he write—would his dreams of conquest, his belief in eugenics and genetic purity, would those become “harmless” works of pulp fiction instead of reality? Norman Spinrad took that idea and ran with it, building an extensive alternate history and, in an act of metafictional brilliance, wrote one of Hitler’s pulp novels. For those who loved such classics as The Thousand Year Rule, The Master Race, or Triumph of the Will, here’s the 1954 Hugo-winning classic whose vivid future and iconic uniforms still inspire cosplayers of today: Lord of the Swastikas.

Avon #N448 - 1972 - artist unknown, but they did a great job capturing the crazed elements of the novel.

Avon #N448 – 1972 – artist unknown, but they did a great job capturing the crazed elements of the novel: Feric wields the Great Truncheon of Held above the heads of ignoble mutants.

Lord of the Swastikas forms the novel-within-a-novel, and aside from the scholarly introduction and afterward, is pretty much the extent of The Iron Dream. Feric Jaggar, Trueman, journeys to his ancestral Heldor (Not Germany), last bastion of genetically pure humans in the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse. Most of the surrounding nations are full of “pure mutants and mongrelized crosses and human-mutant hybrids” and others of genetic impurity. But Feric is disgusted to find Heldor in a state of disarray, allowing mutants into its borders to do manual labor. He even finds a Dominator (Not Jews), a mutant with psychic powers who corrupt and control the minds of others and an affront to Truemen. Feric sets forth to right these wrongs, first joining and gaining control of the Human Renaissance Party (Not NSDAP), then becoming the leader to a motorcycle gang that forms the basis of his Knights of the Swastika (Not Sturmabteilung). As he gains power and influence, he leads his Swastika Squad troops (Not Schutzstaffel) to invade the Dominator-controlled Zind (Not Russia).

Thus, Feric Jaggar is a stand-in for the real-world Adolf Hitler, and the apocalyptic future of impure mutants sets the stage to mirror Hitler’s rise to power. Spinrad takes some liberties in the plotting—the Beer Hall Putsch and Night of the Long Knives occur at the same time, after the Heldor equivalent of a “March on Rome” (which Hitler much admired) and just before the invasion of Russia—and as this is a fictional Hitler’s fantasy, it stops being a mirror of reality and provides an alternate ending for our genetic Trueman heroes to get the victory they so desire.

Spinrad’s inclusion of an afterword by fictional New York University professor Homer Whipple, a scholarly analysis “spelled out by a tendentious pedant in words of one syllable.” Indeed, Whipple seems more interested in pointing out the homoerotic undertones and pointing out every phallic symbol in the story, though it’s through him that we see the world in which Lord of the Swastikas was written—the Iron Curtain has fallen across the globe, with only North America and the Imperial Japanese Empire standing strong against international Communism. What gives this entire novel punch is this afterword, especially when it ponders if this work could have really happened. In the grimmest of black humor Whipple calls Jaggar’s rise to power and crusade against the eastern untermensch ludicrous, declaring “it can’t happen here.” If only it were an alternate history… though as Whipple’s alternate world points out, “different” does not necessarily mean “better.” That’s the satire right there, a pretty damning indictment of both humanity and pulp adventure SF.

The writing is a spot-on jibe at all types of SF, a send-up to: simplistic pulp adventure stories from the olden age; the sword-and-sorcery narrative of a brutal male undertaking an epic quest and rising from nothing with the aid of a magical weapon; the faux-Tolkien fantasy industry featuring heroes cutting a swath through “sub-human” species (ethically acceptable because they’re called Orcs and not Jews); the Hard SF fetishism of machines and devices (the countours and grace of which are lovingly described by Feric). It’s a kind of rebuttal to Heinlein’s oligarchic tendancies, and Hubbard’s pulps’ lurid prose and outdated views on gender and culture. It’s a slam against old stories like Armageddon 2419, the first “Buck Rogers” tale, as much a work about the “yellow peril” as it is a work of adventure SF. It also suggests the use of ancient races and ethnic stereotypes in Lovecraftian fiction. The use of “genetic” reminded me of Dickson’s The Genetic General—variant title of Dorsai!, speaking of militaristic alpha-male fantasies. John Norman’s atrocious Gor series is about the type of SF this is satirizing; perhaps it’s best Hitler/Spinrad doesn’t include any female characters, avoiding any rape or torture thereof.

Still, despite the brilliance of its idea The Iron Dream is imperfect. Le Guin touches on the novel’s high points and failings in her analysis, and for the most part I found her opinion spot-on. Hitler was not a very good artist, and doesn’t make for a very good pulp author either; while I appreciate what Spinrad was doing, the Nazi wish-fulfillment/wet-dream male fantasy joke starts to drag after a few chapters, and I wish it’d been a punchy novella instead of a dense novel—it feels twice as long as it needs to be. (To be fair, it did seem to pick up later on, but that could be because I was skimming.) The reader gets the joke early on, but still the novel continues; the high points crest as memorable bits of satire, but between them are troughs of tedious polemic. The bad writing is part of the point, as is the retelling of alt-Hitler’s fictional rise to power through his Gary Stu stand-in Feric Jaggar, but just because Spinrad was being smart by writing tedious prose doesn’t make that prose any better or more readable. It becomes cloying after a while; reading “genetic” as often as Asimov would use “atomic” as verb, noun, and prefix—or as often as any of Lovecraft’s unspeakable, cyclopean, non-Euclidean repetitions—can make it disturbing and uncomfortable.

The Iron Dream takes an absurd idea and turns it into great satire. Lord of the Swastikas is a dreadful read, dreadful by intent but dreadful nonetheless. Perhaps it isn’t as bad for readers who can disconnect themselves from the repugnant ideology it faux-promotes, and read it with less arms-length detachment than I could. And some readers do miss the point, per Spinrad, finding it a rousing adventure story soiled by “all this muck about Hitler.” As an experimental and very metafictional novel, I think its success depends on the reader’s tolerance and taste: Lord of the Swastikas lacks believable, sympathetic characters, avoids tension and drama, and is a mess of repetition and bad plotting. That’s the joke, but I don’t think it carries for 255 pages. If you enjoy the metafictional satire of alpha-male fantasies, you’ll be able to slog through it; otherwise, you’re probably better off skimming through to the afterword, rather than slog through one long and tedious joke just to arrive at an 11-page punchline. While I applaud the idea, I found the execution tiring.