Saturday, 15 June 2013

He's back! Alternative history with a twist ....

The genre of alternative history remains a popular staple in literature. One of the most recent examples published which I read - but found only moderately interesting - is Dominion by C J Sansom. Another recent example - which by contrast, I still enjoy - is of course Robert Harris' Fatherland. Both feature alternative histories involving an undefeated Nazi Germany.

SS-GB was Len's contribution to the genre and that time period. It's still regarded as one of the premiers examples of the genre. The grim fascination with the period and the willingness to contemplate the awfulness of the 'what if' scenarios of a Nazi victory from the comfort of an armchair also explains why the Second World War, and the Nazis in particular, is one of the main themes of the alternative history genre.

Er is Wieder Da (He's back! in English) has a twist on this - it's not so much an alternative history of Nazi Germany as much as an alternative contemporary history of this decade, contemplating what would happen if the Nazis - more strictly, Hitler - returned to modern Germany.

It's a fascinating premise, one I was keen to explore. It's currently only published in the original German (but such has been its popularity in Germany that English-language rights have already been sold to MacLehose). Timur Vernes is the author; he's one of a new generation of German writers starting to explore their wartime history in a more open and arguably post-modern way, to the extent where the Nazizeit is now the potential source for a humorous novel.

The premise is simple, but clever. Hitler is discovered having somehow reawakened in Berlin of 2011 and, after finding his way in modern society, becomes a TV demagogue on a comedy show hosted by a Turkish immigrant having been mistaken for a never-out-of-character comic act, having had his potential as an act recognised by TV producers. Hitler - still convinced of his messianic role to save the German people - again uses all his rhetorical power and charm to begin to sway the Germans through his own website - the Fuhrer Headquarters - after a video of him leaks onto YouTube. His bigoted rants are interpreted as a satirical exposure of prejudice, leading him to decide to start his own political party.

It's as much a story about the contemporary Internet-soaked, celebrity-obsessed culture in the West, which allows someone as obviously evil as Hitler to, somehow, become an overnight celebrity and be courted because he's controversial, opinionated, charming and, clearly, dead! The book, which has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies has unsurprisingly sparked debate in a country that has grappled for decades with Hitler’s legacy.

But as fewer and fewer citizens from that time are alive in German society, it has created a real debate in the country. Some, unsurprisingly, are critical of what it represents: Stern wrote that the book was an “outgrowth of a Hitler commercialisation machine that breaks all taboos to make money. ” The author sees it differently, and contributing to a debate: “[Hitler] is always the monster, and we can be comforted by the fact that we’re different from him. He continues to spark real fascination in people, just as he did back then when people liked him enough to help him commit crimes.”

The Nazis will always make tremendous fodder for fiction writers and especially thriller writers, because of the nature of the crimes committed under the regime and because it was the war to end all wars. This book is the first to take this subject matter a wryly humorous twist. Worth investigating when it comes out in English.


  1. Hi Rob.

    Not to spam your site with blogposts. But, here's my take on the NSA-PRIME situation and a look at its historical precidents.
    You may feel it has a sufficient Deightonesque flavour to be worth a mention. If you don't I quite understand :)

    Relates to IBM and the Holocaust and DDR surveillance.

  2. There were three most important “what if scenarios”. The first, what if the brilliant German Nuclear Scientists- Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn and Max von Laue succeeded in their effort in a controlled nuclear fission which would have led quickly into the production of German Atomic Bomb? The second, what if Tiger tanks were produced in large numbers which would have wrecked such havoc on the army of allies right from the day of Normandy invasion that their advance in Caen was halted and the invading army was driven back to the sea? What if the young brilliant rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun had developed his V2 rockets an year earlier?

    My very first boss in early 1960s when I joined a German company after taking a university degree in engineering was a brilliant German engineer who was an ex-Luftwaffe pilot- not a Nazi , I hasten add. He used to tell me that Hitler had the vindictive nature born out of suspicion when it came to supporting the scientific effort of those who were not Nazis-like the above 3 nuclear scientists- Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn and Max von Laue as well as Wernher Von Braun. He would cut the funding of their experiments very often to make them aware of what it means to be not a Nazi. This, my boss said, above all constrained the nuclear research delayed the Tiger tank rolling out of factories in large numbers and support to rocket experiments ( the bombing raids by bombers of allies did not help), which in a way according to my boss was Providence ensuring that the 3 what if scenarios would never happen, and the end of Hitler and his coterie would be hastened.

  3. Interesting comments from Simon.

    I'm not sure how feasible a German 'Bomb' was, the American atomic bomb development required massive industrial resources. But Richard Fenyman, in his memoirs of his Los Almos days knew that the were building a 'bomb' to use against Hitler. Such a weapon would have neutralised many Tiger tanks.
    The V2 remains the wildcard, the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki weighed over 4,000 Kg and a V2 had a payload of 1000kg. Later nuclear weapons got much smaller.
    However, what might have been feasible would have been a V2 attack on London with chemical weapons. Sarin was invented by German scientists and, of course, the German chemical industry has long been very important. A V2 armed with a payload of Sarin could have been a very effective weapon against London.

  4. I took a course in quantum mechanics delivered by Richard Feynman in CA. I knew him better as he used to entertain us with his bonjo drum play as an extension to his lectures! I heard him say that the massive resources that Manhattan project used-(knowing Americans, they always think big) was to develop the fission approach further in the thermonuclear weapon direction (H-Bomb) as envisaged by Teller. It was perfectly possible to develop a smaller bomb which was what German scientists were thinking. Of course, Hitler could have bluffed that he will have A-bomb in his possession soon. Tiger tanks could not be neutralised by bombs without massive collateral damage to allies. No necessity to use chemical weapons at all in V2 rockets.. Well targeted v2s in numbers with traditional pay load was suffice-that is if they were guided well-needed the funding for improvement-that was what my boss an ex-Luftwaffe pilot said to me; he knew better than most historians!!

    My comments were collected from those who I heard in person who were saying about Hitler's approach to funding of scientific/technological experiments. Let us not forget that from D-day to VE-day it was one year, and it took the combined might of British and Commonwealth, the American and Russian forces to achieve the defeat of one country!!!

    1. I should have said: "Tiger tanks would not have been neutralised "

  5. I should have added that my boss-the ex-Luftwaffe fighter pilot also said that there were silly mistakes made by Germans at the Normandy front by the German Generals ( supported in the excellent book by Cornelius Ryan-The Longest Day), for example when the Panzer divisions were removed from there. Although allies gave false indication of Calais, Rommell was much wiser and was against these Panzer division removal from the Normandy region, but was overruled. Were these divisions present during the D-day in their original numbers, my boss said they would have inflicted much massive damage to the invading forces of allies which would have made Eisenhower to rethink of the strategy, and he said, he would have even withdrew the much depleted army then back to the sea. The invasion would have failed.

    1. Sorry Simon, I'm still not buying it.

      Working in Germany I probably have as much respect for German engineering as you do but I do feel that the claims are a little overstated.

      1) Heisenburg suggested that U235, if it could be produced in sufficient quantity, could be used for a bomb, yet by the end of the war they didn't have a sufficiently develped process to make enough U235 to make a bomb. They were also working on a reactor but by the end of the war but never achieved a sustained chain reaction.
      I suppose one might blame Hitler for their lack of progress, many of the top scientists who might have worked on the bomb having emigrated (being Jewish). Max Planck reportedly told Hitler as much in 1933.

      2) As far as Rommels tanks go, no doubt if they'd been nuked there would have been massive collatoral damage. But going nuclear in Europe was exactly the anti-tank strategy NATO planned for when the cold war was at its height. The German army would have been tasked with using nuclear artillary, on its own soil, against Soviet tanks.
      However, the Allies may well have had sufficient air superiority at D-Day to neutralise German tanks using conventional weapons.

      3) Regarding a more widespread use of the V2, most historians agree that the V2 was a very expensive way to deliver a 1000kg of conventional explosive. Each V2 cost 1/5th the cost of a Tiger tank. With all German manufacturing, not to mention that of the occupied countries, running flat it's hard to see how Germany could have produced more.
      Regarding the 'well targeted' the onboard guidance system was what it was, with a pretty low error of about 600m and the precursor of the guidance used in Polaris. Admittedly the Allies managed to fool the Germans by feeding 'misinformation' through German agents who were run by MI5. Arguably better Luftwaffe photo reconaisance would have seen through that.
      By the early 1950s Redstone Arsenal, where Von Braun found employment following Operation Paperclip, had produced a rather similar class American missile to the V2, the Honest John. Its two primary munitions were either the small nukes that had then been developed or Sarin nerve gas dispensors.

      Despite this I think Germany had, and has, great engineers. They were also capable of being innovative and responding quickly to new threats. The relative success, for example, of the Allies during the Hamburg campaign was largely do to the first use of Window or Chaff. For a few weeks German night fighter defence was pretty much useless. But German radar engineers were soon able to distinguish radar returns from Chaff (zero airspeed) from the bomber force. And so the German air defences became effective again and continued to inflict heavy losses on the Allied bombers.

  6. " Working in Germany I probably have as much respect for German engineering as you do but I do feel that the claims are a little overstated"

    It is not a claim, but heard from those who were thick into this, unlike some one trawling for historical evidence, and state it as fact. The living in Germany today makes no difference to what you have said as it was picked from history, not a first hand listening like me with two above in my post who knew well and another one like my classmate in my US days who worked in NASA under. Werner Von Braun, As for Hiesenberg, you cannot be more wrong as my professor Richard Feynman would say. The problem with looking back and reading into history is that one forms one's conclusion which can be factually wrong. By the way, I do not want to argue with you, but will simply say have it your way- knowing that you are wrong as like most who read from literature/document of that period and are puzzled about Germans in the 3 area mentioned by me.

  7. Well Simon, all I can say is that your ex-boss must have had some extraordinary contacts to have such knowledge of those disparate areas of the German war effort. Remarkable for a (non-Nazi) Luftwaffe pilot.

    Congratulations on meeting such a well informed individual.