How would the course of history have changed if Adolf Hitler had never been born?
When I started this book I didn’t really know what to expect. I added it to the TBR last minute on recommendation alone. A work colleague of mine who writes short news articles, which are published weekly in a local newspaper also takes a bit of an interest in my blog. It’s nice to get some local feedback on what I am reading and the things I discuss on here. It was this work colleague that recommended Making History to me, following my review of Extracted by R R Haywood.
Prior to this book, I had never read anything written by Stephen Fry, so I went into this book with very little knowledge of what I was going to get out of it.
In Making History, Stephen Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason–and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf’s conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours–but in most ways even worse. Fry’s experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind’s darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.
Cambridge history graduate Michael Young and physicist Leo Zuckermann come together, quite by accident, when Michael’s thesis falls out of his briefcase and is scattered into the wind. Michael has studied the early life of one of the most famously horrific and anti-semitic figures in our history, Adolf Hitler. Despite the thesis not being his speciality, Leo takes a personal interest and requests to read a copy. Michael later discovers just why Leo has such an interest in Michael’s study and together they undertake a project in the hope of re-writing history, for the better. The narrative flits seamlessly between the present day and fictional scenes based on true events during both “halves” of the book – both realities are explored in the same way.
It was the explored concept of time travel that prompted Mark’s recommendation of the book to me. In particular, we talked about what is known as the grandfather paradox… to keep it simple – if you travelled back in time and killed your grandfather before your parents were born, you could never have existed to kill your grandfather. It boggles the mind to think too hard about it, so unless that’s really a subject of interest to you, I wouldn’t think any further than the general concept too much.
Michael Young and Leo Zuckermann, with the use of a machine built by Zuckermann, succeed in ensuring Adolf Hitler was never born – but their actions have disastrous consequences. Can they restore the course of history to its former self? Michael wakes up in this new alternate reality as a student studying Philosophy in Princeton, New Jersey. He has a full recollection of his life before the experiment and little recollection of the life he SHOULD now be living. With vague memories of being out drinking with friends and banging his head the night before, Michael, who now goes by Mikey struggles with his “amnesia” and eventually comes to terms with his new life and the consequences of his and Leo’s experiment.
The book suggests that people (both individually and as groups), despite various circumstances, have certain in-built reactions or behaviours – for example, in both versions of history – Leo Zuckermann invents the time machine in response to feelings of guilt over his ties in what happens during this dark period of history. In our alternate version of history, the unchanged socio-economic circumstances Germany experiences and the unchanged general public opinion is offered by way of explanation as to why history does not change radically in the way Michael and Leo had hoped.
As much as this book is based on a turbulent and sensitive part of our history, it was still a fun and enjoyable read. I loved history at school so I fell in love with this book pretty much straight away. Anyone who isn’t so interested would probably not enjoy this book as much as I did, being perfectly honest… but you never know!! Michael is a lovable character, despite his flaws. I actually find him quite relatable. Even though he is graduating from Cambridge, he is still a bit of an idiot so the reader doesn’t feel either patronised or alienated from the narrative.
One of my favourite elements of the book is that it both discusses and challenges our current history, yet in a fictional and humorous way. Even though historical and philosophical messages can be interpreted from the narrative, it also succeeds in being an entertaining read.
At 575 pages I wouldn’t suggest this was a light read, but to my mind, it’s an absolutely worthwhile one. Thank you for the recommendation Mark – this is high up on the list of favourite reads this year!