For Want of a Nail…
World War II films are easy targets for discussion for us here, but I would much rather continue the dialogue on how certain stories such as those in Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds set up the potential for alternate timelines that inherently welcome factors of dieselpunk into their folds. WARNING: Spoilers! Not on a grand scale, but enough to diminish enjoying these movies for the first time.
One of the biggest factors for moving into the jet/atomic age was the need of advancement in the vicious years of the late 30s and 40s. As awful as the War was for those involved, the economic and technological benefits that came from the wartime efforts in those few short years are unquestionably grand in their proportions. But as we are a folk enamored by some of the things deemed obsolete by said changes, a logical route to take for creating dieselpunk mythology is to conceive of a history where (rather when) World War II ended sooner than 1945, or didn’t occur in the first place.
As dieselpunk is all but nonexistent to the minds that created such circumstances in their films (Mutant Chronicles notwithstanding), it will likely be long before we see a properly displayed world in film and literature, but this does not mean that we cannot seize these stories as a springboard for our own ideas and concepts into how a diesel world can be developed from already existing points in history.
Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is based on a true story of the July 20th (1944) plot to assassinate Hitler by high ranking officials in the German army. It follows through with its accurate depiction of the events that occurred, but this is one of the many instances of history in which we can fray from the true story and make it our own as dieselpunkers (note: we’ll need to think of a good term for that. Petrollers? I’m sure those steam kids have one).
What if this assassination and subsequent government takeover had succeeded? A plan to surrender to the Allies by those partaking in the mutiny would have been put into play almost immediately, ending the war in Europe a full year earlier. This could have likely led to a much bloodier war in the Pacific, as the atomic bomb would not have likely been invented any earlier than it already was. Would Russia have pushed its recent march through Eastern Europe into a continental conquest? Or perhaps Stalin would have become impatient with the U.S and entered the war in Manchuria and other Japanese territories? In this potential alternative to history, the politics of the world would greatly differ from the Cold War and post-Cold War world that we know.
Inglourious Basterds takes this idea one step further in being a work of fiction through and through. It is seemingly based on our World War II circa 1941 and 1944, and for the most part is. However by the end of this movie, it is apparent that the world after this movie takes place is not the one in which we live by any indication. Riding along the heels of the entertaining Aldo the Apache and the Jew Bear, one can see the obvious – yet rarely taken – merit in simply changing history in order to better fit a story. Despite its initial bastardization of what truly happened, it excites the mind with possibilities of what could have happened to our world. What would be different, what remains the same? A World War II with no Truman alone could have had untold consequences on the history of America if not the world.
One can only imagine how the world would have been had such events occurred even earlier! Had Hitler died in prison in 1924 or perished as a soldier from a mustard gas attack in 1918, perhaps the entire War would not have occurred. Such repercussions are endless in their impact. For example, it is only in 1940 that Albert Einstein made his way to America. With no Einstein, would America have never perfected atomic weapons? Or what if the Russians, British, or even Germans acquired his services and became the first atomic power in the world? Granted there were others aside from Einstein critical to the process, but as these are only hypothetical situations, it’s okay to be loose and adventurous with them. It may be easy to dismiss such notions and say that every invention would have been made regardless of history due to the industriousness and creativity of humankind, but I contest that the past could have led us in directions difficult to properly conceive.
This is not to say that a universe of dieselpunk needs a backstory seeded in truth. Dieselpunk can just as easily exist alongside mutants, robots, Hellboy, aliens, and more with a variable attachment to history. Think of this more as a way to envision how a mere truncation of World War II by a year could have changed the face of history and how that might have made anything from zoot suits and mechanical watches to propeller-based flight and Zionism alter their durations in the limelight.