Monday, 5 May 2014



meGeoff’s Guide to World War II Alternate History Novels


Nazis make the best bad guys. Theirs was a repulsive ideology marketed to the masses of a disenfranchised nation via the elevated art forms of propaganda, grandiose public works, graphic design and of course state-sanctioned thuggery and genocide. The title of Studs Terkel’s brilliant oral history of World War II “The Good War” is neither oxymoronic nor ironic. The Nazis needed their asses stomped but good.


But what if the hinge of fate had swung a little differently? What if the crucibles of the conflict had been well met by the other side? What if the Luftwaffe had won the Battle of Britain? What if the greatest seaborne invasion in history was Operation Sea Lion rather than Overlord? These works of alternate history, with the benefit of hindsight, imagine the triumph of the totalitarian will.


Alternate history requires craft; the new facts must be plausible enough to bid readers to suspend their sense of disbelief because we are looking back and not ahead into 1984. The latest addition to the genre is C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). The story is set in London in 1952. Britain since its surrender in 1940 is Germany’s closest ally. Churchill was passed over for prime minister in favour of Lord Halifax and is now in hiding. British Jews are being deported at Germany’s insistence. A Resistance cell is fighting back even as its members are being tracked and identified by a Gestapo manhunter.


The inconvenient corpse whose murder promises severe repercussions for high ranking Nazi officials figures prominently in two of the best alternate history novels. Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) unfolds in London during 1941. Britain has been successfully invaded and conquered; Scotland Yard is now an arm of the SS. Deighton is best known for his spy stories, but the research he’s conducted through the years for his nonfiction works on World War II, notably Blood, Tears and Folly, aid in portraying a particularly grim realism. Fatherland (1992) is Robert Harris’s first novel. Readers trace the steps of a police detective through the shining world capital that is post-war Berlin. It is 1964, a couple of weeks before the national celebration of Hitler’s 75th birthday.


Both of these works perhaps owe a debt to The Night of the Generals (1962). Though not alternate history, Hans Hellmut Kirst’s novel revolves around a particularly nasty sex crime committed in occupied Warsaw in 1940. There are three suspects and each is a Wehrmarcht general. While there is the darkly comic allusion that even some atrocities are verboten to Nazis, the plot explores the inherent conflict between pedestrian criminal investigators and the needs or desires of the party elite.


S-Day (1990) by James Stewart Thayer is Cornelius Ryan’s masterful The Longest Day through a hackneyed looking-glass. The novel, in the form of a memoir, is an episodic recounting of the never executed Operation Sea Lion. The premise here is that Hitler and Stalin play well together, that Germany opts to throw everything it has across the English Channel. Fortunately, plucky Americans await Jerry.

The granddaddy, godfather, and strangest of them all is The Man in the High Castle (1962) by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. Set in the year of its publication, the United States is occupied and has been partitioned by the three main Axis powers. However a cold war is evolving between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Like Dominion, it is an imagining of the humdrum and mundane, everyday life under the heel of the reviled jackboot, but mind-blowing.

The privileged reader is forced to wonder, what would I have done during the occupation? What would I have done if my friends and neighbours were being systematically harassed or rounded up by the authorities? Winners write history books and thus some tricky moral questions may remain unanswered or may be avoided altogether. We’ve alternate portraits at our fingertips of what could have gone down if the villains had won.

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