Added 8 October 2006.

Books and Writers



Perhaps no area of human history has been so mined for alternative history as the Second World War.

This may be due to the horrors that took place in that conflict, although the campaigns of Tamburlaine were just as ghastly in their bloodshed and deliberate slaughter, or to the fact that some of the participants are still alive to tell their tale. Maybe too the steady stream of fresh revelations about the decisions and plans of the war, from Nazi archives to the more recent Soviet records, have kept the war fresh in our memory while providing new insights into the aspirations of the decision makers. Maybe it is simply the scale of the war, and its diverse character.

The motives for alternative histories of the war, however, are a little less clear, particularly in those stories where Hitler and the Nazis triumph. Is it a sort of catharsis for the underlying dread of what might have been, in much the same way as people tell jokes about celebrity deaths? Or is it even a secret wish on the part of some parties? I find this latter unlikely in all honesty, since no sane person would probably wish such horrors on their society, although the Soviets had to endure Stalin for several years afterwards and some still hanker after "the good old days". Perhaps at the end of the day it is simply the age-old human reflection on "what if....".

The following is a selection of alternative histories of the Second World War, no means exhaustive but hopefully enough to give a broad flavour.

Nightmare, Bruce Quarrie

Quarrie's very readable book hinges on a German decision to force the issue in the Mediterranean before invading the USSR by capturing Malta. This successful campaign allows German reinforcements and supplies to Rommel's troops, which in turn causes British failure in North Africa and the Middle East and a deepening crisis for Commonwealth. Quarrie's narrative switches between the historical figures (Hitler, Churchill and Stalin) and the men on the ground (German panzer crews and the like).

Although an entertaining read, Nightmare contains rather too many historical changes and sometimes ahistorical conclusions, including a more enlightened racial policy (thanks to a different high-ranking Nazi being assassinated) and coordination of offensive efforts with the Japanese. The the pace of technical change in the later part of the book seems rather forced and the ending of the book somewhat abrupt.

The Moscow Option, David Downing

Although Downing's book has some similar premises to Nightmare it appears to be more carefully thought out. The author allows the Axis just two ahistorical events (Hitler's incapacitation for several crucial months, and the Japanese discovery that the US have broken their codes) but builds on these carefully. Thus without Hitler's interference in Barbarossa the German generals are free to concentrate on Moscow, taking the city before winter and forcing Stalin and the surviving Red Army back towards the Urals. For their part the Japanese turn the tables at Midway by altering their original plan (the one that historically was followed by Yamamoto, with disastrous results for the Japanese) and sink four US aircraft carriers. Downing's book nevertheless reflects the true philosophies and behaviour of the major participants better than Nightmare, inasmuch as there remains residual distrust and self-aggrandisement between the Axis, while the Allies are forced to hang together in order not to hang separately. Tantalisingly the narrative ends inconclusively before the historical ending of the war, but Downing gives compelling reasons for his arguments.

WorldWar series, Harry Turtledove

To be honest I was unsure whether to include Harry Turtledove's series here, given that it might be considered more properly to belong to the area of science fiction. Nevertheless, it is an interesting amalgam of sci-fi and alternative history, so read on.

The tetralogy (four books) begins in mid-1942, with the war in full swing having followed a historical pattern and with all the major powers involved in a life and death struggle. Then RAF radar crews start noticing unusual traces at impossibly high altitudes. They write these off as "pixies" or unexplained phenomenon, until destruction rains down from the skies in the forms of electromagnetic pulses, missiles, supersonic flying machines and helicopters, hitting Axis and Allied forces and neutrals with impartiality. The astonished survivors discover that their assailants are not the human foes they had expected but a race of lizard-like aliens who simply call themselves "The Race" and who have come to claim the planet for the Empire.

Having read the series a few times, I am still not quite sure whether the whole thing is a satire. Part of this is down to Turtledove's habit of running as many characters and threads as possible, which makes for a large canvas but can get overwhelming at times, and part of it is due to his style which is entertaining if unlikely to win any Nobel prizes for literature. The books are well researched and some of the historical figures do seem true to life. One of the chief (and no doubt intentional) ironies is that the "Lizards" (as the humans, themselves nicknamed "Big Uglies", call their enemies) are stiff-necked imperialists but still morally less reprehensible than the Nazis, Stalinists and Japanese militarists whom the human race needs in order to maintain its freedom. I enjoyed the books, but they may not be everybody's cup of tea: Turtledove's style can grate at times and there is some padding in the later books. Borrow WorldWar: In the Balance from the library to test the series before you commit money. A second trilogy, Colonisation, took the series twenty years forward into the sixties, and finally Homeward Bound seems to have finished the whole story off, for the time being at least.

See also: Erwin Rommel; Burning Mountain

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