C J Sansom’s latest, Dominion, is an object-lesson in how to get alternative history wrong.
Sansom is very good at representing lousy times. His long sequence of Shardlake novels which may be summed up as “Ooo, aren’t the Tudors ‘orrible!” certainly makes nobody want to live under Henry VIII’s rule (in the unlikely event of Bluff King Hal returning to office). And his representation of wartime Spain in Winter In Madrid reassures us that he can be rude about Catholics too. As a result, Sansom’s portrait of Britain in 1952 under the Coalition government is . . .
Well, it’s not too bad. The Coalition is, broadly speaking, the big parties who have sold out to foul ideology and become a bit odious, plus a small party which turns out to be odious from the ground up. So, a bit as if New Labour were to join Cameron’s Tories and then they were all to be Cleggulated.
But, in truth, everything bad is happening elsewhere. There’s trouble in Asia, where the British Army is crushing resistance, and there’s rumours of trouble in Central Africa, where the settlers are raising Cain, but no trouble at all in South Africa, where the apartheid regime is rock-solid in charge. So, actually, not very different from the way it actually was in 1952. At home, the kids are listening to American pop music and ripping it up and rocking it up, and otherwise the pipes are liable to burst sometimes, but everyone has a TV set – so in a way it’s rather like Britain in the late 50s rather than the early 50s.
So, what’s the difference? Basically, the difference is traceable back to Chamberlain’s resignation in May 1940; Lord Halifax has a rush of blood to the head and decides to accept the PM-ship, whereas in the real world he turned it down (probably because after the Norway fiasco he thought it would be a poisoned chalice), appointing Churchill as Minister of Defence and Lloyd George as Minister for Treason and Surrender. And, of course, after Dunkirk this government does indeed jack it all in, accepting Hitler’s generous peace terms.
So, basically, 1941-45 never happen, and Britain is – well, not immensely richer, because by June 1940 the Brits had bankrupted themselves. But they don’t spend four years devoting all their energies to weaponry instead of to infrastructure, and therefore British cities are a lot better off, it would seem. Also, they aren’t allied to America, so they don’t have to send troops all over the place pulling American chestnuts out of American-lit fires. On the other hand there’s no Attlee government, no National Health, no nationalized coal mines, so the working class is worse off.
But, frankly, Sansom doesn’t do this very well. Things are shabby, of course, and brutal in many ways, but he doesn’t make Britain in a Nazi world look either much worse or much better than Britain in the actual American world. Maybe he’s right to do this, but the whole point of an alternative history should be that things ought to look different, and frankly they don’t, so it’s a bit of a waste of space.
Sansom says he owes a good deal to Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Well, OK, but it’s worth pondering whether Fatherland was as good as Sansom thinks it is. Harris is always a good read, and it’s entirely possible that by 1963 the Nazi regime would indeed be breaking up under the stresses of its own contradictions. On the other hand, Harris’ work does fall under the spell of the notion that genocide is widely viewed as a bad thing. We are supposed to believe that once people discover, to their shock and horror, that the Nazis have exterminated the Jews, there would be this massive revulsion against them and the Nazis would be overthrown.
Yeah. Right. Just like once people discovered that the Americans had exterminated the Native Americans, the US government would be overthrown. It’s far more likely that by 1963 the kids all over Europe would be playing “Cops And Kikes”, with the cry “This time I get to run the gas chamber!”.
Sansom is pretty much aware that in the twenty-first century, morally speaking, the Western world seems to have suffered a renascence of Nazi attitudes. Exterminist attitudes towards political opponents are on the rise everywhere, almost invariably based in right-wing doctrines. Understandably, he doesn’t like this. But it’s far from clear that he is able to represent it in his book – although something he certainly gets right is the way in which, once the British government decides to round up the Jews, hardly anybody objects and most Britons either shrug their shoulders or murmur “Well, frankly, those people asked for it”.
A somewhat more relevant book, which Sansom doesn’t mention, is Deighton’s SS-GB, set only a few months after the British defeat (in Deighton, Britain is conquered rather than just surrendering to superior force) and in which Deighton manages to make things feel a lot grittier and scarier than Sansom manages. If Sansom’s book is like having a tooth out under anaesthetic, Deighton’s is more like the local vet coming in with a pair of pliers. Deighton, like Sansom and unlike Harris, sees the key to the future being nuclear weapons; in Deighton, the Germans have (implausibly) decided to set up their nuclear reactor on the English South Coast and the Americans must obtain the data in order to get anywhere (a notion which is not wholly implausible once one compares the primitive weaponry which the Americans came up with at the end of World War II, and the quantum leap they enjoyed once they made use of Nazi technology in the late 1940s).
Sansom’s thesis is that the Nazis wouldn’t have got nukes. This is implausible, however; by the end of World War II the Nazis had a working nuclear reactor, ironically run by the Post Office. With a reactor they would at once have noticed that their understanding of neutron cross-sections (basically, the way in which atoms absorb neutrons, which determines how much fissionable material you must assemble for a critical mass) was wrong, because only a relatively tiny amount of uranium was needed to get a reactor boiling. Once you knew that it would be only a matter of time before you figured out how to calculate the size of a uranium A-bomb, and once you knew that your uranium details were wrong you’d probably figure out that you had your plutonium details wrong too, and lo, you’d start working on your bomb.
German engineering was always superior to American, so probably the Germans would have had the bomb at the same time as the Americans, and would also have been able to deliver it more effectively. (Incidentally, if the British had jacked it in in June 1940, the Americans wouldn’t have received British theoretical tech – particularly radar and nuclear tech – and the Americans might not even have been able to develop the bomb without the British “Tube Alloys” research on which it was based.) So that part of Sansom’s book rings false.
Another part which rings false is the idea that the USSR would have been able to hold off the Germans if the British had jacked it in. The grim fact is that if the British had surrendered, the Germans would have been able to deploy far more troops against the USSR and enormously more aircraft. As a result, they would certainly have taken both Moscow and Leningrad in 1941, which means, incidentally, that Stalin would probably have been killed, leading to immense factionalism in the Soviet capital of Kuibyshev. Which also means there wouldn’t have been the vast losses around Moscow that winter, and in 1942 they would have taken the Caucasus and the White Sea, cutting Russia off from the outside world except via the Trans-Siberian railway. And that means the USSR would have had no oil and the Germans would have been able to push on to the Urals in 1943 and take out what remained of Russia’s manufacturing industry, and the war would have been over bar counter-insurgency. Which would have been unpleasant, certainly, but nothing like what Sansom suggests.
The last thing which rings a little false is the idea that the Nazi state would simply disintegrate in the absence of Hitler. It’s impossible to be sure of this, but the Nazis would almost certainly have been very pleased with themselves after conquering Europe. It’s hard to believe that they would have fought among themselves on Hitler’s death, to the extent of allowing everybody to conquer them right back; that certainly didn’t happen in the Second Reich when Bismarck got the push, nor did it happen in the USSR when Stalin popped his clogs. It is true that there was utter chaos in the NSDAP in April 1945, but that was very largely because Hitler’s policies had turned to utter disaster, the national economy and society was in ruins, everybody was doomed and therefore there was nothing holding the state together other than Party loyalty. In Sansom’s world, the Nazis are on top of everything, they rule the universe, they have all the money and power that could be conceived of. Yet somehow at this point they begin slaughtering each other and the Russians swarm into Europe while Mussolini and Franco are deposed and butchered for no apparent reason.
Yeah, right. The problem with this vision is that the Bad Guys are perceived of as being necessarily unsustainable. They supposedly cannot do anything right, and nothing they create can last.
In which case, how the hell did they take over in the first place? Sansom can’t answer that. Perhaps the implications are too scary for him. And also for Harris, and also for Deighton. In reality, the most plausible answer is that the Bad Guys, given half a chance, would rule for a thousand years. Since Sansom seems to be dimly aware that the Good Guys have their Bad Side too – not that the war against the Nazis was worthless, but rather that the victors had a Nazi element which has periodically surfaced and become dominant. And maybe this is why everybody has so much difficulty coping with the period, and why even Sansom, possibly the best of the three writers, (although less of a historian than even Harris, let alone Deighton) can’t make it work.