ALTERNATIVE histories are like “alternative facts” at the moment: seemingly everyone is peddling them. First, Amazon gave us “The Man in the High Castle”, a loose take on Philip K. Dick’s novel envisioning America under Nazi and Japanese imperialist rule. Then the BBC, hungry for a piece of the alternate-history pie, responded with “SS-GB”, an adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel envisioning—what else—Britain under Nazi rule. “The Man in the High Castle” has just been recommissioned for a third season; “SS-GB”, midway through its five-episode run, looks set to be a handsomely mounted flop.

The shows have prompted the inevitable onslaught of think-pieces proclaiming the value of such stories at a time when even the Washington Post, not normally excitable, feels compelled to change its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. But the genre is hardly new. Nazi-themed alternate histories date back to the months after the second world war. The latest instalments under this pulpy premise explore, with mixed results, what it means to resist—or collaborate with—an occupier.

But what if “SS-GB” and “The Man in the High Castle”, far from illuminating the ongoing threat to democracy, achieve the opposite? “The lurid mass movements of the 20th century—communist, fascist, and other—have bequeathed to our imaginations an outdated image of what 21st-century authoritarianism might look like,” wrote David Frum recently for the Atlantic. This gets to the heart of the problem with so many Nazi-themed alternate histories. Fixating on the iconography of Nazism—the jackboots, the swastikas, the fastidious SS officers twirling brightly polished canes (thanks, “SS-GB”)—risks fencing off fascism to a corner of central Europe in the middle of the 20th century. This runs the risk of obscuring a basic point about authoritarianism: it can happen to the best of us.

“If you believe that democracies can only be destroyed by the epitome of all evil, which is the Nazis, then certainly, that can blind us to some of the dangers,” says Gavriel David Rosenfeld, a history professor at Fairfield University and author of “The World Hitler Never Built: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism”. “Because there are anti-democratic traditions in America that by themselves are threatening enough. We had Huey Long, we had Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s—there was a domestic fascist scene here in the US.”

For all their nuance, both “SS-GB” and “The Man in the Castle” are, at root, hero narratives whose protagonists attempt to overthrow a foreign invading force. (The heroine of “The Man in the High Castle”, Juliana Crain, first appears on-screen practicing aikido; by the end of episode two, she’s putting her moves to use on a Nazi bounty hunter.) And yet, for those wishing to draw parallels with today, wouldn’t the Nazis’ rise be a more ripe area for exploration? As Jochem Bittner wrote in the New York Times last May, “Some people today imagine that Hitler sneaked up on Germany, that too few people understood the threat. In fact, many mainstream politicians recognised the danger but they failed to stop him. Some didn’t want to: The conservative parties and the nobility believed the little hothead could serve as their useful idiot…” The parallels many viewers see in today’s Washington are almost too obvious. Meanwhile on British shores, the unravelling mess that is the Labour Party is testimony to the dangers of having a divided and useless opposition. 

Certainly, there is precedent for the “homegrown fascism” narrative in the history of alternate-history: CJ Sansom’s 2012 novel “Dominion” takes as its historical point of divergence the appointment of Lord Halifax, rather than Winston Churchill, as prime minister in 1940. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” takes a similar tack in replacing Roosevelt in the White House with an isolationist president, as does “It Can’t Happen Here”, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel intended as a wake-up call to American complacency in the face of fascism. (Sales of Lewis’s novel soared after Trump’s election in November.)

For Mr Rosenfeld, who nonetheless thinks that now is a “good time to be engaged in counterfactual history”, invoking the Nazis can be a form of attention-seeking in a culture increasingly drawn to political absolutes. “Some people would argue unless you invoke Nazis to highlight a new danger, no one will pay attention,” he says. “Like if it’s less than Nazi-grade in terms of threateningness, then it’s not worth paying attention.” Certainly, some of the parallels currently being drawn between Trump and Nazi Germany are overdone—for one, Trump is scary “not because he’s got some demonic agenda, but because he’s so unpredictable and unbalanced”. But this in turn raises another question: if the new authoritarianism comes in a different guise from its 20th-century predecessors, is it too much to hope for a dystopian fiction to match?