In April, we published an article by Deighton Dossier reader and tier-one level collector Robert 'Raki' Rakison on SS-GB and alternate histories. He's been kind enough to provide an update on his research and to suggest some further reading which blog readers may find of interest.
Over the summer, there’s been a lot of activity in literary Spyland, leading up to the launch of John Le Carré’s Legacy of Spies on 7 July (no doubt you’ve all got your signed copies!!). In particular Waterstones Gower Street London had a “Summer of Spies” series of events, culminating with the Legacy launch.
Anyway, there are a few more books, again in order of publication, that I’d like to draw to your attention in the WW2 alternate history arena – a mix of some earlier material and more recent novels – which I hope you’ll find interesting. Len really did start a modern trend!!
1. Dr Ewald Banse’s “Germany, Prepare for War!” (1934) (in German “Raum und Volk in Weltkriege” – literally “Space and People in the World War”). See 6 below.
2. Katharine Burdekin’s (writing as “Murray Constantine”) “Swastika Night” (1937).
This takes place in a world where the Nazis and Japan defeated their enemies and conquered the world (from a modern perspective, the novel is an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II, though at the time of its writing the war had not broken out and it was a work of speculative future fiction.)
It follows the protagonist, an Englishman in his 30s who works as a ground mechanic for the German Empire in Salisbury Aerodrome. He goes to Germany on a holy pilgrimage to see the holy sites of Hitlerism, the religion in this Nazi dominated world. These sites include the holy forest and the sacred aeroplane in Munich with which Hitler won the war by personally flying to Moscow, it is said. In this world Hitler is seen as a seven foot tall, long blonde haired, blue-eyed man who was “exploded” from the head of God the Thunderer and a god in his own right. He is preached about by "Knights" (a cross between the traditional, feudal knight and a priest) who pass this job down from father to son. Women are chattels, much as in Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It was reissued in 1985.
3. Peter Fleming’s “The Flying Visit” (1940).
A short satirical novel by Ian Fleming’s older brother, about an unintended visit (by parachute!) to Britain by Adolf Hilter, so really an alternate history!! This is a virtually forgotten gem of a book by PF. With incredibly wide-ranging interests, PF mostly wrote non-fiction, but this is one of his three novels, another of interest in the spy genre being “The Sixth Column: A Singular Tale of Our Times” (1951 – 2 years before “Casino Royale” was published) and supposed to be a “wry and insightful commentary on Post War/Cold War England; the book is a razor sharp send-up of the spy novel genre”; nothing to with alternate histories!!
4. H.V.Morton’s “I, James Blunt” (1942).
See Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below. Mike says this was the book that inspired Len to write SS-GB and that it was possibly the earliest alternate history, but we know now that’s not the case…..
5. Vita Sackville-West’s “Grand Canyon” (1942).
Again see Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below.
6. Peter Fleming’s “Invasion 1940” (1957), reissued as “Operation Sea Lion”.
Ian’s older brother wrote this excellent book about the invasion that never was 13 years after the end of WW2, so it’s almost contemporaneous. The invasion didn’t happen, mostly because Hitler was convinced the British would capitulate, air supremacy for the Luftwaffe could not be guaranteed as a result of the Battle of Britain and continued British Naval supremacy.
It takes over from where Len’s “Blitzkrieg” finishes. It’s worthwhile in the context of alternate histories because it discusses the fact that during WW1 there was a lot of British propaganda about what might happen if the Germans invaded, with stories and a play describing the “what-ifs”. Strangely there was virtually nothing before or during WW2 (but see “Swastika Night” above)– people just did not believe Hitler would invade! PF mentions that the only “what if” book he was aware of was a German book, published in the UK as “Germany, Prepare for War!” (1934) (in German “Raum und Volk in Weltkriege” – literally “Space and People in the World War”) by a German academic, Dr Ewald Banse. This book describes the invasion of Britain, though the Nazis tried to suppress it, because in 1934 they were not ready to show their war-mongering hand.
7. Niall Ferguson’s ”Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals” (1997).
Niall Ferguson is a Scottish historian who was the Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard Harvard University, and is currently a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution,Stanford University and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities. He writes and speaks about international history, economic and financial history and British and American imperialism.
He is known for his provocative, contrarian views. Ferguson's books include my favourite, War of the World (2006), as well as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008) and Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), the latter three which he has presented as Channel 4 television series. I’m just about to read his latest book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (2017).
Ferguson champions counterfactual history, and has edited this collection of essays (by leading historians from Andrew Roberts to Michael Burleigh, as well as himself), about nine of the most decisive moments in modern history, exploring what might have been if they had never happened. So what if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Germany had won the Second? How would England look if there had been no Cromwell? What would the world be like if Communism had never collapsed? And what if JFK had lived?
Ferguson likes to imagine alternative outcomes as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history. For Ferguson, great forces don't make history; individuals do, and nothing is predetermined. Thus, for Ferguson, there are no paths in history that will determine how things will work out. The world is neither progressing nor regressing; only the actions of individuals determine whether we will live in a better or worse world. His championing of the method has been controversial within the history field. In a 2011 review of Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the Rest, Noel Malcolm (Senior Research Fellow in History at All Souls College at Oxford University) stated that: "Students may find this an intriguing introduction to a wide range of human history; but they will get an odd idea of how historical argument is to be conducted, if they learn it from this book."
Ferguson’s book came before Robert Cowley’s collections What If? (1999) and More What If? (2001) cited in my first article, as well as Peter Tsouras’s collections, Hitler Triumphant (2006) and Third Reich Victorious, which are only about WW2.
8. Murray Davies’s “Collaborator” (2003).
The novel is premised on the successful German invasion of Britain in September 1940. The reason for this success is never clearly explained, but a major factor appears to have been the transfer of the French navy to the Germans after the fall of France. Battles were fought on British soil in London and Ashford, and the Irish Free State is also occupied. In the end, King George VI and the rest of the British Royal Family and government flee to Canada, where Winston Churchill leads a government in exile.
In London, Samuel Hoare leads a collaborating government, while the Duke of Windsor returns to become regent. The Germans are attempting to charm the British people into submission. Organisations sprout up promoting Anglo-German friendship. However there is a darker side to the occupation as one hundred people have been killed in Liverpool and Glasgow. Jewish people are beginning to be persecuted, whilst a resistance movement is steadily growing. The novel begins in December 1940 with the return of Sergeant Nick Penny, the “collaborator” of the title, to his home in an unnamed West Country port town. A former prisoner of war, he had been captured in the aftermath of the successful German invasion of Britain. A former schoolteacher, his ability to speak German had secured his release to work as a translator for the military governor of region, Generalleutnant Kurt von Glass.
Glass soon puts Penny to work in organizing the "Anglo-German Friendship League", which is designed to foster greater unity. Penny is uncomfortable with his current position, and is viewed with suspicion by much of the community. In March, however, the German invasion of the Soviet Union breathes new life into the resistance as Communists now join the effort. Becoming involved with the resistance, Penny assists in a number of their operations, informing them of an attempt by the IRA to assassinate Glass and helping to smuggle a Danish scientist and his wife out of the country. Yet these are isolated successes amidst a series of setbacks, as the Germans disrupt operations and shut down networks.
Glass himself soon leaves Britain to serve on the Eastern Front; his departure coincides with the roundup of foreign-born Jews by the authorities. Penny is surprised when the resistance suddenly contacts him in July with a new mission: to smuggle out Otto Frisch, who the Gestapo has discovered knows information which could be vital to the development of a "superbomb". Traveling to Liverpool, they succeed in persuading Frisch to agree to escape. Avoiding discovery, Penny hides Frisch among a family, where he poses as a visiting relative.
The Germans order a second round-up of the Jews, though, this time including native-born British citizens. Frisch is captured and Penny tries to stage his escape from the concentration camp the Germans have built. Pursued by the authorities, they make it to London and warn the resistance, but they are unable to stop a double agent using the credentials given to him by the Gestapo to get through security at the coronation and setting off a suicide bomb that kills the Regent and assembled German leadership. In the aftermath, the Germans retaliate by massacring over 100,000 people (including Penny's remaining family), triggering a nationwide rebellion that threatens the Germans' hold on their empire.
9. Harry Turtledove’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” (2003).
The title comes from the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm. The novel follows the struggles of a family of secret Jews in Berlin, nearly 70 years after a Nazi victory in World War II. The events in the story follow a common theme of Turtledove's work, transplanting one set of historical events into another setting. In this case, the decline of the Soviet Union in the 1990s (with characters based upon Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and others) is translated to the Third Reich in the current century (and the secret Jews, who survived the Holocaust by passing as Gentiles, are reminiscent of the Marranos who were Jews living in Iberia in the fourtheenth/fifteenth centuries who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret).
The novel depicts a world where the US remained isolationist and did not participate in WW2, allowing victory to the Axis Powers, who divided the world among themselves. WW3 occurred later, with the Axis Powers defeating the US and Canada. Gavriel David Rosenfeld, in his work The World Hitler Never Made, notes that unlike other alternate histories that deal with a Nazi victory, In the Presence humanizes the Nazis, which he believes would have been impossible in earlier years where the trend was to show the Nazis in alternate histories as the "incarnation of evil."
However, despite Turtledove's reputation as an acclaimed and skilled writer in alternate history, and being Jewish, he received a lot of criticism for the novel, because “most American audiences do not wish to humanize the Nazis.” Turtledove has also written The War That Came Early series, a hexalogy describing an alternate WW2 which begins in 1938 over Czechoslovakia: Hitler's War (2009); West and East (2010); The Big Switch (2011); Coup d'Etat(2012); Two Fronts (2013) and Last Orders (2014). Although I’m familiar with Turtledove’s work – mostly alternate history fantasy and SF – I haven’t read any: they were recommended by Mike Ripley.
10. Jo Walton’s “The Small Change Trilogy” (2006-2008).
Farthing (2006), Ha'penny (2007) and Half a Crown (2008) are set in a Europe where the UK leaves WW2 in 1941. The series begins in 1949, eight years after the "Peace with Honor" was negotiated between the UK and Nazi Germany by the Farthing Set, and England has completed its slide into fascist dictatorship. Then a bomb explodes in a London suburb investigated by Peter Carmichael, a Scotland Yard inspector The last book is set in 1960 with Carmichael now the commander of the Watch, Britain's distinctly British secret police. It's his job to warn the Prime Minister of treason, to arrest plotters, and to discover Jews.
The midnight knock of a Watchman is the most dreaded sound in the realm. A global peace conference is convening in London, where Britain, Germany, and Japan will oversee the final partition of the world. Hitler is once again on British soil. So is the long exiled Duke of Windsor, and the rising gangs of "British Power" streetfighters, who consider the Government "soft," may be the former King's bid to stage a coup d'état. Amidst all this, two of the most unlikely persons in the realm will join forces to oppose the fascists: a debutante whose greatest worry until now has been where to find the right string of pearls, and the Watch Commander himself. Another Ripley recommendation - see Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below.
11. Stephen Baxter’s “Weaver” (2008).
Weaver is the fourth book in his Time's Tapestry series, which features science-fictional interventions into our past from an alternate-history future; the four novels, which cover life in Britain are Emperor (2006) – 4BC-418AD, Conqueror (2007) – 607AD-1066AD, Navigator (2007) – 1070AD-1492AD, and Weaver, in which Adolf Hitler decided to launch Operation Sea Lion in 1940, shortly after a more devastating version of Dunkirk resulted in a shortage of British Army soldiers.
However, due to Winston Churchill's lobbying of President Franklin Roosevelt and his Congress, there is some US military assistance provided. As with France during WW1, there is only partial occupation of southeastern England, and a Nazi "Protectorate of Albion" (similar to Vichy France) is established. The Nazis occupy a band of territory that stretches from Portsmouth in the southwest, including communities like Tunbridge Wells, Horsham, Hastings, Pevensey, Dover, Folkestone and Gravesend. They establish a puppet regime in Canterbury led by renegade English Nazi collaborator Lord Haw Haw, and while London remains unoccupied, the adjacent occupation results in the evacuation of senior governmental personnel, politicians, King George VI and his royal family to elsewhere in Northern England. As in "our" timeline, Hitler still launches Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, but there are other divergences, as the Japanese Empire has sufficient manpower to invade Australia in this timeline as well, although no other details are forthcoming.The series ends in 1943 (in a different timeline than our own).
I hope you found these additional suggestions interesting.
Mike Ripley: Future Imperfect
"I recently found myself in a keen discussion with an erudite crime fiction fan on thrillers with settings which involved an alternative version of the history of World War II. The discussion was prompted by news of an American television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic The Man in the High Tower and that a script had been commissioned by the BBC for a film of Len Deighton’s marvellous thrillerSS-GB.
It was Len Deighton who told me of one of the earliest examples (possibly the earliest) I, James Blunt, a novella by travel-writer H.V. Morton published in 1942 and now really quite rare. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the popular heart-throb minstrel of the same name, of course. The James Blunt in question is a 61-year-old retired tradesman living in a Surrey village five months after ‘The Capitulation’ when Hitler won the war and leafy Surrey became part of ‘German England’.
The novella takes the form of a diary, written in secret by James Blunt, covering the period September 1944 to January 1945. Blunt is no action hero – in fact there is virtually no ‘action’ in this 56-page story, but there is suspense and a growing atmosphere of fear and suspicion generated by the fact that this most English piece of England is being “Germanised” – or rather Nazified as news is replaced by propaganda, rumours abound, people disappear or are deported to work in Europe, children attend kindergartens which follow a Nazi curriculum and when the postman delivers the mail he does so with a “Heil Hitler!”. Worst of all is the total paranoia of the consequences of being caught helping a fugitive from the occupying forces as in all probability it would involve being betrayed by one’s own neighbours.
I, James Blunt is, in effect, a patriotic rallying cry. The ‘diary’ ends suddenly and dramatically - just as Blunt, late one night, is considering destroying it as its very existence is now a crime, there is a knock on his door… And then comes a ‘dedication’ from the author reminding “all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers” that the war was (in mid-1942) still far from won and with warning that “the scientific extermination of British nationality would be the first act of a victorious Germany”.At about the same time as H.V. Morton (who had reputedly said in early 1941 that “Nazism has some fine qualities”!), an author who was to be better known as a poet and gardener, Vita Sackville-West, was also busy producing a cautionary ‘what if’ version of contemporary history.
Grand Canyon, which was also published in 1942 (and which I have seen in a Sackville-West bibliography described as “an awful novel”) is set in a world where Germany has defeated Britain and America has ‘satisfactorily concluded’ its own war with Japan and centres on the residents (emigres and refugees) of a hotel near the Grand Canyon, over which the US Air Force is conducting manoeuvres. The moral here is that the war is not over and, as the author attempts to show ‘the terrible consequences of an incomplete conclusion or indeed any peace signed by the Allies with an undefeated Germany…’
More recently, in 2014, Israeli-born sci-fi and fantasy author Lavie Tidhar produced A Man Lies Dreaming, which has been described as “a twisted classic” – and I think it is.
The alternative historical set-up here is that the Communists take power in Germany in 1933, dismantling the Nazi party and exiling the Nazi hierarchy, many of whom move to England, including its former leader, ‘Wolf’, who becomes, by 1939, a private detective! In a wonderfully clichéd noir plot which involves Jewish gangsters, white slavers, an American plan to destabilise communist Germany (and Russia) and a Nazi-inspired Jack the Ripper roaming the streets, this is dark, dark matter – and in places, caustically funny. Wolf, the detective who does good mostly by accident, is a repulsive figure and gets satisfyingly beaten up and graphically tortured on numerous occasions before facing a fate (for him) worse than death, and it is all done in the best/worst possible taste in the tradition of a classic pulp novel.
Which is the point, really, as the titular man who lies dreaming is Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp fiction in the 1930s (based on a real writer); a prisoner in Auschwitz and the misadventures of Wolf pounding the mean streets of London are his revenge.
For lovers of black literary humour, this book is a must, if only for the scenes where Wolf the penniless author of Mein Kampf rages at his agent (Curtis Brown) for not getting him a deal on the sequel and then has to be ejected from a literary soiree by Leslie Charteris and Evelyn Waugh!
A Man Lies Dreaming, I, James Blunt and Grand Canyon cannot really be classed as conventional thrillers, though more recent attempts to twist the tail of history certainly can and Robert Harris’Fatherland, Jo Walton’s Farthing series, Murray Davies’ Collaborator, C.J. Sansom’s Dominion, D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Guy Saville’s recent ‘Afrika Reich’ novels have all been thought-provoking and exciting additions to the genre.
Yet it is, as with The Man in the High Castle, to the field of science-fiction that I return to promote one of my favourite slices of alternative history, this time Nazi-free, the 1968 masterpiece Pavane by Keith Roberts, which depicts an England (specifically Dorset) where the Catholic Church has dominated life (restricting science, technology and progress) ever since the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588!
This is a novel of interlinked stories, almost a tapestry of stories, set in a 1968 where the main form of transport is a wagon train pulled by steam traction engines and crossbows are the favoured weapon. It is highly imaginative, exciting and almost certainly still in print somewhere."