Saturday 22 April 2017

[Guest contributor] SS-GB and its place in the alternative history landscape

Fritz Kellerman, from BBC1's SS-GB

[Friend of the Deighton Dossier and noted Deighton collector Robert "Raki" Rakison provides his thoughts on Len Deighton's classic of alternative history - recently shown on BBC1 in a five-part series - and considers other speculative fiction novels and books from the same period which readers may wish to consider.]

The recent TV series for SS-GB and The Man In The High Castle have sparked a lot of interest about what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War Two. This interest in alternate histories is not new, even on film or TV.

Len Deighton wrote SS-GB (published in 1978) when he’d just finished researching, writing and publishing his military history book Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain and was about to do the same for Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1979) – both very readable, really excellent military histories. (In 1993 Len also wrote Blood, Tears and Folly: The Darkest Hour of the Second World War (to misquote Winston Churchill), a highly critical review of the period, up to the US coming into World War Two, with a reminder of how close to defeat the Allies were.

According to Len's "What if...?" article in the 18-24 February 2017 edition of the Radio Times, published to coincide with the recent SS-GB TV mini-series, in the mid-1970s, discussing the research for Fighter and Blitzkrieg, his editor made a comment to the effect that nobody knew what would have happened if Hitler had won the war. Len said that we did “to some extent” and Ray Hawkey (a close friend of Len’s, famously the dust jacket designer for SS-GB and most of Len’s books and producer of the British Hitler-head postage stamps, developed as a promotion for SS-GB) asked if it would make a book, an “alternative world story.”

It took Len a few years to decide to write the book – he’d “avoided anything in the nature of science fiction or fantasy” – but when he did, SS-GB was the result and the World War Two theme carried on into his next novel, “XPD” (1981), with a wartime back story.

Of course, alternative or alternate histories are very popular speculative fiction (not science fiction) topics: what if the Roman Empire had not fallen; if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo (“a near run thing”); if the South had won the American Civil War; the Nazis had won World War Two; and the like. Additionally, military historians also play the game - but as counterfactual histories, not novels. The difference with alternates and counterfactuals is that counterfactuals have to be based on historical events that could have actually changed, and are read as history, not fiction, even if they are! So, for the Second World War, Lord Halifax becoming Prime Minister and not Winston Churchill would be permissible; or, the Germans winning the Battle of Britain; or a successful invasion of Britain; or D-Day failing, etc. It’s not enough just to say the Germans won the war. There’s a terrific reminder in Robert Cowley’s “What If?” anthology, which I mention below, that in 1931 Winston Churchill was knocked down and injured in New York by a cab while crossing 5th Avenue. He suffered a head wound and some broken ribs – what if he’d been killed?

SS-GB fits right into this speculative fiction genre, but is more than just an alternate fiction book because the backstory is based on the counterfactual successful invasion of Britain and benefits from Len’s background as a military historian of some note. It is, therefore, a really superior example, definitely my number one alternate history; but there are other novels which merit a further look, though, of course, any list is going to be very subjective.

So to provide an insight into this fascinating genre, even though not all Nazi victory books are as good as SS-GB, I’m listing six other alternate novels and five counterfactual histories which I recommend; the list of alternates is in date order of publication.

My first two alternates are famous and iconic SF (science fiction rather than simply speculative) examples, but without a strong UK content:-

Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952). Believed to be the first example of a novel positing a Nazi victory, its story is time-travel based 100 years in the future with the Thousand Year Reich well established after winning World War Two, now renamed the War of German Rights, with hunting parks where Reich Master Foresters hunt genetically modified humans.

Sarban was the nom de plume of British diplomat and author John William Wall. The first US paperback edition in 1960 has an introduction from Kingsley Amis (a big SF fan – see his New Maps of Hell (1960) SF survey – as well as a friend of Ian Fleming, supposed final editor of The Man With The Golden Gun, writer of the first 007 continuation novel Colonel Sun as Robert Markham, and other Bondiana).

Generally regarded as an SF classic, it has appeared in several top 100 SF/Horror lists. Amis regarded it as a fantasy, rather than hard SF, but nevertheless believed “in the literary qualities of the book.” He finishes by saying “So compelling is it that I shall always feel a slight twinge whenever I am reminded of the innocent English hunting song from which the title is taken.” (“D'ye ken John Peel….. For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed..…”).

Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962). Recently shown as a TV mini-series (with some significant differences from the book) it is set in a world 15 years after the end of WW2, where President Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933 and the Nazis and Japanese won the war, invaded the US and occupied it, partitioning it between them. Of course, most of Europe and the Soviet Union were also conquered/occupied by the Nazis. A complex plot involving a shop selling Americana antiques and their forgery, Martin Bormann as the German Chancellor, Nazi defectors, a Nazi invasion of Japan, the “I Ching” and a counterfactual book within the book – “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” - about the Allies winning World War Two!

Philip Dick is generally acknowledged to be one of SF’s finest writers, and High Castle his finest novel, being the 1963 Best Novel Hugo Award winner (these were the SF Oscars). He also wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. Dick said that his inspiration was Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee (1960), an alternate based on the South winning the American Civil War, as well as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) and The Goebbels Diaries translated in 1948, amongst others.

The next four alternates are all by mainstream writers:

Frederic Mullally's Hitler Has Won (1975). Set in 1942/3 when Germany has won the war in Europe by defeating Russia, with the Japanese striking north, the US not entering the war and Britain still fighting on hopelessly in the Middle East. Hitler is writing the sequel to Mein Kampf - Mein Sieg! (My Victory).

Hitler is obsessed with controlling the Catholic Church and having himself declared Pope! Alternate History (a now defunct but once highly regarded blog) in its review said, “Overall, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wider readership. One may quibble with the outcome, or parts of the plot, but it is a good representation of Nazi Germany and just what being part of such a nation means for its people.”

Mullally was a major anti-fascist political journalist/non-fiction author, taking an active role in opposing Oswald Mosley’s post-war fascist revival - see his Fascism Inside England (1946). He became a successful novelist with the publication of worldwide crime bestseller Danse Macabre (1958), having another major bestseller with Clancy (1971).

Robert Harris's "Fatherland" (1992). In 1964, in the week leading up to Hitler’s 75th birthday, the suspicious death of a Nazi official, once a participant in the Wannsee Conference, is being investigated, only to lead to the other participants are also being targeted.

The murders are taking place so that the planning of the Final Solution and the fate of Europe’s Jews which will never be revealed, against the backdrop of a forthcoming meeting between Hitler and US President, Joseph Kennedy. The back story posits that Reinhard Heydrich was not assassinated in 1942 and instead became head of the SS; that Germany defeated Russia in 1943; that Britain had broken the Enigma code was discovered, and Britain brought to its knees, surrendering in 1944. Edward VIII was back on the throne. The US, however, still defeats Japan.

Harris is one of our most popular authors and another journalist/non-fiction writer turned novelist. This was Harris’s first novel, which became a worldwide bestseller, followed by Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998) – all three were filmed, with Archangel turned into a TV mini-series starring our current James Bond, Daniel Craig. Harris has written many others, including notably the Cicero Trilogy and most recently Conclave (2016). All are bestsellers.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). The novel’s prime focus is the treatment of the Jews (particularly Philip Roth’s own family) in this alternate, anti-Semitic 1940s United States. The backstory is that Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 US Presidential election by famous aviator and Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh.

The US does not enter the War, signing treaties with Nazi Germany and Japan not to interfere in Europe and Asia. Legislation is passed relocating Jewish families to the western US. Broadcaster Walter Winchell stands for President, causing anti-Semitic rioting and is assassinated. Lindbergh’s plane goes missing, which together with his son’s disappearance, according to German State Radio, is part of a Jewish conspiracy to take control of the US. Roosevelt stands again and is elected. Japan later attacks Pearl Harbour and the US enters World War Two.

Roth is one of America’s most famous and most awarded writers, starting with his first novel Goodbye, Columbus (1959).According to Wikipedia, his work is “known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction,….. and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity. His profile rose significantly in 1969 after the publication of (the notorious) Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).”

CJ Sansom's Dominion (2012). In 1952, the resistance fights on. In a mental hospital, a scientist holds a secret that could alter the balance of the global struggle. A spy for the resistance is given the mission to rescue the scientist and get him out of the country while being chased by the Gestapo!! 

The backstory explains that in 1940, Britain under Lord Halifax surrendered to Nazi Germany. Now, in 1952, Lord Beaverbrook is PM with Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary. Churchill is the leader of the resistance.

Sansom, a former lawyer, is the author of the bestselling Shardlake crime novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and to be set in the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth I, with lawyer Shardlake working on commissions variously from Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and Catherine Parr.

Counterfactuals are usually great fun. Mostly they are short essays, so you can dip in and out of the books. Amongst the counterfactuals I particularly like, are:-

What If? (1999) and More What If? (2001), with US military historian Robert Cowley acting as editor. Two anthologies of marvellous essays from different military historians, ranging from what would have happened if the Assyrians took Jerusalem (they didn’t!), to the Korean War. There are some very engaging sections on World War Two and one about the Americans taking Berlin, not the Russians, and the consequences on the Cold War, aptly called “Funeral in Berlin” - no doubt a homage to Len Deighton. What If? contains the Churchill anecdote I refer to above.

Disaster At D-Day – The Germans Defeat the Allies (1994) by US military historian Peter Tsouras (Len Deighton is acknowledged in the blurb on the front dust jacket flap) and two anthologies of essays from different military historians Hitler Triumphant (2006) (SS-GB is included in the Introduction as part of a review of alternates/counterfactuals) and Third Reich Victorious (2007), edited by Tsouras. 

More uneven than the Cowley books, the last two were possibly jumping on the Cowley bandwagon, but are nevertheless still interesting.


  1. A great article.

    Worth an honorary mention I think would be what is arguably the best ever Star Trek episode. The City on the Edge of Forever. This episode, written by Harlan Ellison and the Star Trek staff writers also stars Joan Collins.

    Rather than showing us the consequences in the 20th century it uniquely proposes the far consequences of a Nazi victory which leaves Kirk and Spock stranded on a planet with no Enterprise and no Federation of Planets to beam back to!

    A crew member has time travelled back to the prewar New York and inadvertently changed history.

    This created the situation where the USA never entered the Second World War. This leads to a world that eventually descends into barbarism following a Nazi victory. All this exposition is revealed via the delightful device of an add on to Mr Spock's Tricorder which he creates out of radio valves.

    A very different tale to SS-GB and the novels that Robert mentions above but wrapped up in less than an hour. An ingenious and skilful bit of story telling done on a relatively slim budget.

    best regards
    Terry Kidd

  2. Perhaps a waste of time reading these "What if" anthologies. However, the only two What if" speculations that are worth thinking about a bit, were: "What if Winston Churchill did not become the Prime Minister" and "What if D-day landings failed".
    When I was a student in an university in early 1970s, there was a debate in our university's political science department about the "What if" speculation of "What if John Kennedy was not assassinated, but was able to serve his first term, and was defeated by Barry Goldwater when standing for the second term". Well, at the end of this interesting debate, one historian in the audience remarked that events tend to pull back from the edge of precipice at various times in history, pointing out at the defeat of Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson. I tend to agree with this.

    1. I hasten to add that I was a postgraduate student in computer science, and hence as a neutral was able to enjoy that debate.

  3. "The backstory explains that in 1940, Britain under Lord Halifax surrendered to Nazi Germany. Now, in 1952, Lord Beaverbrook is PM with Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary. Churchill is the leader of the resistance"

    Never thought Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, was an appeaser or the British Marshall Petain! Mosley the Home Secretary? This is the kind of delirium that is plausible when one is suffering from very high temperature caused by an extreme Flu variant!
    But , I can still believe the French President "agreeing" always with the German Chancellor even today on matters of the EU, despite Macron elected as the French president, following the tradition from the days of WWII, now, with a different name of German-French solidarity in respect of the EU!
    No need for the "What if" conjectures any more today, the German Chancellor is running the EU, now, for Germans, which means most of Europe!!

  4. Jim/Simon
    Thanks for your comments. I used to be a huge SF fan, particularly time travel and its idea of paradoxes, but never a Trekkie. The City on the Edge of Forever story sounds good though. For other Nazi alternate histories, that by controversial SF author Norman Spinrad, The Iron Dream, a real peculiarity about Hitler emigrating to the US and becoming a pulp fiction writer, may be worth a look. Also the very prolific Harry Turtledove, king of alternate histories, has written 7 books in his The War That Came Early series and a few other alternate WW2 novels, though I haven't read them. The problem with books like Turtledove's (and Sarban's) is that the further you get from the epicentre of the event, the more events diverge from probability. This is now called the Butterfly Effect, after Ray Bradbury's excellent 1953 time travel story A Sound of Thunder. So, Simon, that's why the What If? essays are not a waste of time and are good to read, because their speculation is kept to a minimum. Of course they cover much more than WW2.
    On the back story to Dominion, I agree it's farfetched, though Sansom has made a good effort at a detailed alternate.