My summer in Hitler’s Britain

For light summer reading in the Moravian countryside I grabbed an old copy of Len Deighton’s 1970s alternate history thriller SS-GB – a tale of cops and spies set in an alternative 1941, where a Nazi occupation regime is bedding in following a successful invasion in 1940 (warning: spoilers follow) and C.J. Sansom’s variation on  the same theme, Dominion, set in a parallel 1950s Britain where Churchill never made it to number ten and a government headed by Lord Halifax made a fateful peace deal with Hitler after the Fall of France.

To take the history first, the counter-factual premise of Deighton’s SS-GB is clearly the weaker. Most military historians – as well as German military planners of the period – agree that the projected Operation Sea Lion would have been impossible to successfully carry without both RAF and the Royal Navy being decisively knocked out – a task well beyond the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. A 1974 wargame played between British and West German staff officers suggested that, if attempted in September 1940, Sea Lion would have been a military disaster with German invading forces being forced back from their bridgeheads in little over a week, resulting in a Nazi ‘reverse Dunkirk’.

But, suspending disbelief, the picture of a down-beat and defeated occupation London and complex web of occupation institutions that detective Douglas Archer (‘Archer of the Yard’) finds himself is convincingly sketched with carefully deployed detail, as the murder-and-espionage plot centring on the atomic secrets and the fate of an imprisoned (and as it turns out rather gaga) George VI rattles along to a hectic and violent conclusion. A firefight on the Devon sands leaves the US ahead with the Bomb, the Wehrmacht and SS still firmly in control and in uneasy alliance; and Britain without a King.

 The toffs and louche aristocrats running the British resistance have it turns out engineered things so that the US is pushed into nuclear rivalry with Nazi Germany and Princess Elizabeth can take over as figurehead for a De Gaullish-government in Canadian exile. (The USSR gets only a brief mention – with the Nazi-Soviet Pact still in force with Nazi-Soviet friendship is celebrated with a ceremony in Highgate Ceremony to transfer the remains of Karl Marx to Moscow for reburial with SS and Red Army bands in attendance (things do not go to plan)).

A fateful imagined peace

Sansom’s 2012 novel Dominion sets off from real events at a more plausible counter factual point of departure: that Lord Halifax, rather than Churchill took over as prime minister in May 1940 and that and that Britain sought an accommodation with Germany leaving Hitler a free hand in Europe and Britain its Empire.

The book, set in parallel 1952 imagines something close to the scenario Churchill impassionedly warned his cabinet of in a May 1940: accommodation with Nazi Germany presages a slide into authoritarianism and vassal status with a continuation wartime emergency regulations and of the Conservative ‘National Government’ which took office in 1935 stifling pluralism and resulting in a ‘managed democracy’ with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists getting growing political look-in (and opportunity to press for anti-Semitic policies) they never got in reality. Mainstream establishment figures like Beaverbrook and RAB Butler are clearly re-imagined as pragmatically accommodating and implementing a Nazi aligned conservative post-war settlement.

The politics and culture of a counterfactual Retreat into Empire – the civil servant hero David works in the Dominions Office –  as combination of the prim social conservatism of the real 1950s and a continuation without the post-war boom or the welfare state. As in Robert Harris’s Berlin-based Axis victory counter-factual Fatherland (1992), the wider world is seen in terms a Nazi-dominated European Empire, where the Holocaust is an open secret for regime insiders, which having avoided Stalingrad has conquered and colonised European  Russia and the Western Soviet republics, is now  engaged into a protracted guerrilla war in the East with a rump Soviet state beyond the Urals and of Nazi-US Cold War complicated by an emerging succession crisis ailing and reclusive Hitler (Heydrich is lined up to take over by Harris, Sansom makes Goebbels the new Fuehrer) and the election of a new US president (the liberal Adelai Stevenson in Dominion, the more pro-Nazi, détente-minded Joseph P. Kennedy in Fatherland).

Both see Stalin disappearing quickly from picture Saddam Hussain.  Sansom, interestingly – and with an obvious eye to the Putin era – conjectures the accelerated development of the rump trans-Ural Soviet republic into a Russian nationalist mafia state, although given his surprising post-Stalin pragmatism in international affairs, fearsome Soviet secret police boss Lavrentiy Beria might be a better candidate to head it than Khrushchev or Zhukov.

A lumbering plot

As a thriller, Dominion is a good deal less accomplished than Deighton’s pacier and more  economically written SS-GB: Sansom’s plot lumbers along slowly – and predictably- over several hundred pages with the key action consisting of implausible shootout and comic-book skin-of-their-teeth escapes from pursuing SS/Special Branch combo.

Characterisation is also weaker than Deighton’s artfully sketched (if not always well rounded) protagonists, with long dull chunks of backstory dumped along the way for the reader to wade through.  This also allows Sansom’s plot holes to gap through. As with Deighton, the McGuffin driving Dominion’s plot is nuclear secrets that might make a Nazi A-bomb, but while I can believe in a hearth full of burned papers and a hidden film (the case Archer unravels in SS-GB), I honestly doubt  that much useful information on nuclear fission could be divulged by  a drunk US nuclear scientist to his brother during a family row – or that odd-ball brother’s long-lost best friend from university should just happen to be  our civil service hero turned resistance spy David.

Sansom’s geo-political happy ending, whereby SS-Wehrmacht infighting leads to the implosion of Nazi Empire (giving to more benevolent Army rule?); the belated victory of the Red Army in the East (odd indeed considering the small population and limited industrial potential of Siberian and far-East USSR); and the collapse of Britain’s pro-Nazi regime under popular pressure and Churchill, Attlee and the Resistance taking over and restoring free elections.

Is alt-history about history?

The empty mirror

Image: Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite their genre limitations, there is an odd poignancy to both books. Both have well executed imagined regimes evoked through imagined everyday life within them. The thriller format is in many ways just a convenient, not to say conventional, way of exploring them – and the world of cops, spies and secret policemen gives us an inside view of imaginary politics and power structures. In many ways, as with much SF and fantasy, it is the alternative social and political universes that are the real ‘character’. Even the best drawn protagonists like the curiously elusive and initially morally rather ambiguous Inspector Archer (where did he learn such good German – and why?) have a slightly two-dimensional feel.

And, unsurprisingly given that authors’ alternate history settings are partly a mash-up and transposition of real experiences elsewhere, for readers with an interest in the period Deighton’s vivid description of Gestapo round-ups in the streets of the imaginary London of SS-GB or Sansom’s the dismantling of democracy by stealth in the name of national unity in time of crisis recounted Dominion have uncomfortable echoes of reality. The mechanisms through which seemingly robust democratic institutions morph overnight into semi-authoritarian forms and mainstream democratic politicians and liberal journalists could similarly (and sometimes all too enthusiastically) reconcile themselves to fashioning a semi-authoritarian political system and political culture made me think of Jan Rataj’s fine book on democratic interwar Czechoslovakia’s metamorphosis into an authoritarian corporate state after the Munich Crisis of 1938.

But it not just what alternate histories offer an accessible and scarifying well imagined set of ‘what if’ scenarios – helping us working out where the ‘hinge of history’ lies (to borrow Churchill’s phrase) or where and how structure and agency interact to product outcomes (to put it in social science terms –  there is an academic literature about the use of counter-factuals both in history and political science).

Brexit anxiety?

Paradoxically, what alt-history thrillers really seem to offer us are ways of engaging with the here and now. Both Sansom’s book which, he tells us in a post-script, was written in response to rise of nationalism in our own time (he also adds an over-the-top polemic against the SNP) and the soon-to-be-adapted for TV SS-GB capture is the emotional and psychological sense national political direction suddenly, joltingly and shockingly changed overnight. A sense of the ground shifting without warning under your feet and all the old long-term certainties gone, although everyday life goes on, for the moment recognisable and surprisingly unchanged.

In the alt-history thrillers of Deighton and Sansom it is the sudden shock of defeat in war that never actually happened, uncovering a societies of the imagination that are weaker, less heroic and more inclined to collaboration, anti-semitism and authoritarian government.

In the here-and-now the sudden unexpected event, suddenly switching the country’s long-term political direction and heading for an uncertain future is, of course, not national military defeat to an external foe, but the political defeat of country’s political and economic establishment at the hands of voters in the EU referendum. Brexit, of course – whatever the illiberal sentiments of some of its supporters – will not mean jackboots tramping down Whitehall. Indeed, some Axis Victory alt-history genre can be read as warnings against European integration. Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example, when first published in 1992, the year of the Maastricht Treaty can be seen as having a distinctly Eurosceptic subtext (Harris cheekily named the imagined (but historically planned) German-dominated trading bloc is the European Community) – a point hammered home by the cover design of the first edition.

But the historian and cultural critic Gavriel D. Rosenfeld notes in his book on the subject The World Hitler Never Made, as cultural phenomenon, alt-history genres enjoy an upswing in times of crisis and anxiety. It is perhaps no coincidence that Amazon’s big budget screen adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man In The High Castle (Nazi/ Imperial Japanese carve up of the US) has coincided with the era of Donald Trump.

Liberal 48%-er (and others) who want to indulge (or relieve) their angst about Britain as an internally diminished, isolated and disoriented country could do worse than tune in to the BBC adaption of SS-GB when it airs later this year.


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