Lost Cause: Genre Trope to Avoid

Now that monuments to the Confederacy have been torn across the United States, non-Americans may be wondering why the country honored a rebellion in the first place.

The reason is the “Lost Cause”: an extensive mythology developed in the aftermath of the Civil War by Southern artists, authors and politicians, which denied the true cause of the conflict (slavery) and idealized the Antebellum South.

Gone with the Wind

The best-known example is the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind, which was based on a 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. But there were many more books, magazines, poems, songs and statues that promoted the Lost Cause. Cities, streets and military forts were named after Confederate leaders. The Confederate battle flag was incorporated into the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi.

The goal was to give defeated white Southerners a new sense of pride and purpose and roll back the emancipation of freed slaves.

Given how omnipresent the Lost Cause was in Southern art and literature, and how widespread Confederate nostalgia remains, it can seep into our alternate histories if we aren’t careful. So let’s take a look at what the Lost Cause is and how it can work, so we know what to avoid.

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Airships of War

In the real world, airships weren’t successful weapons of war. Zeppelins were terrifying but inaccurate. Navigation, target selection and bomb aiming were difficult under the best of circumstances. In darkness, at high altitude and amid the English clouds, accuracy was too much to ask for.

British propaganda poster
1916 British propaganda poster depicts a German zeppelin being shot down

German zeppelins were initially immune to attack by aeroplane and anti-aircraft guns. As the pressure in their envelopes was only just higher than ambient, holes had little effect. But once incendiary bullets were developed and used against them, their flammable hydrogen lifting gas made them vulnerable at low altitudes. Several zeppelins were shot down in flames by British defenders. Others crashed on the way to England. The Germans started flying higher and higher, but this only made their airships even less effective.

The zeppelin campaign proved to be a disaster in terms of morale, men and material. Many pioneers of the German airship service were lost.

But why let such facts stand in the way of a good story?

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Ostalgie in Cinema

From Deutschland 83 to HBO’s Chernobyl, “Ostalgie” — which is what the Germans call nostalgia for the communist era — has become a trend in period and alternate-history fiction.

There are many variations of this. There is “Yugo-nostalgia” in the former Yugoslavia, Soviet nostalgia in Russia, and “Communist chic” in the West.

Here is an overview of the best productions.

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Nazis Survive

Rumors that the Nazis survived the fall of the Third Reich started to circulate almost as soon as the war in Europe ended in May 1945. There were stories that Adolf Hitler had escaped to Spain or South America. Some of his top lieutenants, notably Martin Bormann, were missing.

The speculation had some basis in reality. There really were efforts to smuggle Nazis out of Europe, but not on the scale Allied intelligence feared in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nor did anyone make serious preparations for a Fourth Reich.

Don’t tell diesel- and atomicpunk authors, who tend the exaggerate this history to spin wild tales of Nazi conspiracy.

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Wonder Weapons of the Third Reich

As the Allies closed in on Hitler’s Germany in late 1944 and early 1945, a desperate Nazi regime turned to “wonder weapons” in a final effort to turn the tide in the war.

The best-known as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, which rained down on London by the hundreds but failed to demoralize the British. Others, such as the V-3 cannon and Schwerer Gustav railway gun, were barely used. Others yet, like the German atomic bomb and Die Glocke, either barely advanced beyond the drawing board or never existed at all.

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Lost Cities and Civilizations

Cities lost to time and half-remembered civilizations, discovered deep in the mountains of the Himalayas, the Amazonian rainforest or at the bottom of the sea, are a familiar trope in steam- and dieselpunk fiction.

Drawing on the expeditions of Percy H. Fawcett and Heinrich Schliemann, the writings of James Churchward and Theodore Illion and the esotericism of Helena Blavatsky, W. Scott-Elliot and Rudolph Steiner, both genres exploit the half-real and fully imagined tales of ancient races that supposedly roamed the Earth millennia ago.

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Strange Aircraft of the Third Reich: Real and Imagined

Did you know many of the strange German warplanes we see in dieselpunk are based on real designs?

As World War II drew to a close in Europe, Nazi Germany rushed the development of advanced bombers and fighter jets in a final effort to stop the Allies. From the world’s first operational turbojet fighter to a flying wing, some of these technologies were so far ahead of their time that Allied commanders speculated the Germans could have turned the tide of the war if only they had managed to prolong it by a few months.

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