Book List! Alternate History about Fascist Europe
Updated: Feb 3
‘What if’ the Fascists had won WWII? Writers of Alternate History dared facing the chilling prospect. In fact, reacting to part of Donald Trump’s MAGA movement storming the Capitol in order to protest a democratic outcome, I recently offered a list of fiction books tackling the issue. The post had focused on the USA only. Many of you had then messaged me: what about Europe?
It’s a fair point. What about Europe?
Unlike in the USA, freedom of speech in Europe usually doesn’t allow hate speech. Unlike in the USA, then, there are limit to what a politician can voice. As a result, you will rarely see even an alt-Right political leader rely on far-Right activists, some with clear Fascist tendencies, to help contesting a lost election. If anything, we haven’t seen a democratic institution being stormed as the Capitol was (in a clownish yet deadly event) since the failed Francoist 1981 coup d’état in Spain, or, the failed 1923 Nazi Beer Hall Putsch in Germany previous to that.
Don't get me wrong! I am not claiming that Europe is stranger to adept of street violence getting into politics under the veneer of democratic parties! The fact is, however, that when it does happen, their criminal deeds ultimately catch up and lead them in front of the tribunals, with prison sentences being handed down upon those involved (see, for example, the relatively recent case of Golden Dawn in Greece…). Will the American justice system similarly catch up with Donald Trump and his rioting troop, for encouraging and resorting to violence in order to prevent a democratic process? Time will tell. There is no denying, though, that in Europe too some of the far-Right ideological tenets still linger, especially a similar populist appeal tapping into xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Of course, Europe is a patchwork of various countries each with their own particularism, and so it’s difficult to make a general assessment. As a French immigrant living in Britain, for the sake of clarity, I will therefore give here the example of Britain.
Following Brexit, the case of Britain is obviously rather peculiar. This is not to say that the Leave movement has been embodied only by racists and the far-Right (I should know, I am a Leaver myself!) but that the passion surrounding Brexit did trigger ugly feelings when it comes to immigration and the place of Britain in the world. A Pandora box has been opened, and discourse in politics (let alone how we do politics) has changed drastically.
The issue goes beyond your expected beer-fuelled hooligan pissing on memorial, or the likes of Tommy Robinson (the Islamophobic anti-immigrant now turned immigrant himself). The issue is about islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism not being as reprehensible as they used to be, especially in the political sphere.
There used to be a Rubicon that politicians didn’t cross unless risking their reputation (remember what happened to Enoch Powell for his poorly worded ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech?). That Rubicon has been crossed, and the die is now truly cast as has been reflected even in a recent rise of hate crimes. In Britain, you could in fact name one man responsible not only for such triumphing xenophobia, but, also, the overall hijacking of the Leave campaign by playing the scarecrow-immigrant-trump-card (‘trump’ is not a pun, although the man is also, unsurprisingly, a great friend of that Trump-from-across-the-pond…): Nigel Farage, leader of a political party called UKIP.
There is a cruel irony here. If a decade ago a Conservative PM could clearly denounce and dismiss the far-Right UKIP as a bunch of ’fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists, mostly’, the Conservative party since then had to accommodate to some of UKIP’s stances, illustrating how pervasive their prejudices came to be. Racism and xenophobia might have made Enoch Powell infamous; these days, though, such prejudice don’t even stand in one’s way to political success. Our current PM, Boris Johnson, is no stranger to racist comments (which had no consequences upon his career); his predecessor had no qualm dabbling in slander anti-immigrant (with no consequences upon her career); and, even their main opponent at the time, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, had seen himself deeply embroiled in accusation of antisemitism (with no consequence upon his career either).
Where is this going to take us? It’s difficult to say, but one thing is for sure: if Fascism as iron-fist military regimes is dead (our politicians are not Fascists, it would be crass to claim otherwise) some of the murky ideas that had sustained it (an overall complacency to antisemitism, xenophobia and racism across the whole political spectrum) are popping their ugly heads again. ‘What if’?
Well, here are my views on 10 ALTERNATE HISTORY BOOKS taking place in a Fascist Europe. Enjoy!
10- HARRY TURTLEDOVE, ‘IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES’
Harry Turtledove is a must-read author when it comes to Alternate History, and, so, I had to feature him here. I confess, ‘In The Presence of Mine Enemies’ is the only book I have read from him, and I wasn’t impressed. What is it all about?
First and foremost, a deeply naïve and unrealistic idea: Jews not only surviving decades of Nazism right at the heart of the Third Reich, but, also, holding important posts! Even more unbelievable: children are entrusted by their whole families to help assure such survival! It’s a shaky foundation to a whole novel, but it manages to get worst thanks to its appalling Manichaeism reflecting poor characterisations -all Germans are bad vs all Jews are good. In fact, consciously or not, the whole novel is loaded with scenes drawing simplistic and ridiculous contrasts that would be laughable if Turtledove was not here ambitious; an ambition which shows for example in his annoying descriptions of bridge games (yes, bridge games!) feeding the story. We can guess what he is getting at (bridge as a metaphor to life under dictatorship…) but, considering its naivety, appalling dualism and all in all blatant lack of depth and bad understanding and handling of human psychology in extreme circumstances, Turtledove's ambition just falls flat with a big crash. A terrible miss. It also annoyingly leads to an improbable finale. The author might be a classic in the genre, but as far I was concerned this was a bad book.
9- SARBAN, ‘THE SOUND OF HIS HORN'
Here’s the story of a British naval officer, WWII prisoner of war, finding himself hunted like a fox by hounds in a future where the Third Reich triumphed. What else to say?
The Nazis victorious makes for a nice background re-writing of history (e.g. WWII renamed 'War of German Rights', Adolf Hitler hailed as the 'Immortal Spirit of Germanism'...) but, the book being nearly all about a human hunt, don't expect too much food for thought! It's vivid and thrilling; and the brutality and sheer cruelty of the Nazis after him is terrifying and chilling. There are a few over-the-top details which I personally found hard to believe (although, considering the behaviours of some Gauleiters and Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Europe one may wonder if reality wouldn't have surpassed fiction...). All in all, though, 'The Sound of His Horn' remains tense and edgy enough to grip you for a nice read. Not bad, but that's pretty much it.
8- JAMES HERBERT, '48'
What if Hitler's V2 rockets that felt upon London had been equipped with a biological device? Simple: the horror writer James Herbert imagines that all the population would have perished, apart from those having a blood-type predisposing them against certain death. Hoke, an American pilot, is lucky enough to have such blood-type... less so for being thus the target of the Black Shirts, whose leader doesn't and therefore is after him for a hopeful transfusion!
Like ‘The Sound of His Horn’, here’s another tale of a savage hunt. It won’t make you think, but it's entertaining enough as a fast-paced and full packed action novel. ‘48’ will please anyone in love with London (starting in a deserted Buckingham Palace and ending at full speed in Tower Hill then Tower Bridge, after a long errand in the labyrinths of the capital's underground). It will also ravish those enjoying graphic descriptions of gore scenes (there’s a load of corpses, and the brutal deaths of infected people are told in lurid details throughout!). If you fancy a bloody read…
7- STEPHEN FRY, 'MAKING HISTORY'
What if Hitler had never been born?
I like Stephen Fry as an intellectual (he wrote a fantastic book on poetry), less so as a humourist. Unsurprisingly, then, most of his jokes here completely washed over me. Besides, I couldn't get my head around his writing style -the mix between prose and screenplay is just... well!
Apart from that, 'Making History', all rooted in the crazy idea of travelling back and forth in time to sterilize Adolf Hitler's father remains intelligent, skilfully built and, most importantly, crafted with an irony so cruel that it makes it a compelling read.
This, definitely, is worthy of a shot!
6- KATHARINE BURDEKIN, 'SWASTIKA NIGHT'
In a book which had been branded as a masterpiece of ‘feminist science-fiction’, Burdekin tells of a chilling world hundreds of years after the triumph of Nazism, when Europe is plunged into a new dark age, ruled by a brutal elite, and, above all, where men are celebrated for their tough violence and women reduced to breeders. Here lies in fact 'Swastika Night's core interest: no matter how striking and clever such an alternate history is (the tabula rasa, the violence, Hitlerism having turned into a cult, and the whole society having collapsed to the level of that new feudal-like and chaotic system Hitler would have relished) it is, mostly, a powerful and haunting look at the relationships between genders. This book is particularly unsettling since it goes beyond masculinity and femininity as defined by fascistic ideologies to question our more often than not own views about such gender identities.
If the warning against the ultimate triumph of the Third Reich turned obsolete (it was defeated, after all), 'Swastika Night' remains nevertheless a terrifying illustration of where certain views regarding manhood and womanhood, taken to their extreme, can lead to. That it was written by a woman (an unknown fact until decades after its publication) makes it even more compelling.
Here’s a powerful dystopia, going beyond ultra-conservative ideologies and feminism to address us all. Brilliant!
5- GUY WALTERS, 'THE LEADER'
What if Edward VIII had not abdicated, but, still marrying Wallis Simpson, had become king of England? Guy Walters imagines here such an ensuing political crisis that Oswald Mosley would have ended up Prime Minister, opposed by a rebel Conservative MP who will have to associate with leftists to fight his regime.
The plot and characters are alright. What I really liked here is that 'The Leader' is an enthrallingly credible alternate Britain. Describing a brutal regime which is as terrifying as it is believable, Guy Walters's fascist kingdom is also darker and more violent than any other book I have read playing with the same ideas.
A nice take on history, 'The Leader' is a pleasant though chilling read, both entertaining and persuasive.
4- MURRAY DAVIS, 'COLLABORATOR'
In a defeated Britain occupied by the Nazis, Nick Penny, the main character, finds himself employed as interpreter for the German provincial governor, while being recruited by a Resistance movement those leaders are on the brink of being betrayed.
If the description of day-to-day life under Occupation is well rendered, and the plot quite well thought throughout (with dramas following each others, even if quite predictably) it's the moral dilemmas faced by a wide array of people under such extremes circumstances that makes 'Collaborator' appealing. Nick Penny's internal battles, for example (whenever collaborator or resistant) offer no simple Manichaeism but are, on the contrary, a window open unto human value and moral when put in front of the unthinkable and/ or impossible choices.
A nice read, which is a good look at human nature on top of being an entertaining Alternate History.
3- LEN DEIGHTON, 'SS GB’
A really cool thriller, again set in a Britain occupied by the Nazis.
Len Deighton is not only good at building a sharp plot -a murder investigation linked to one of the most crucial scientific discovery of the time- he also displays a great understanding of how was the Nazi system, using the rivalries between Wehrmacht, SD and SS to fit them all like magic in his very clever story. The puzzle thus being built is a thrilling achievement, that his constant play with human psychology and motivations in such a context makes even more remarkable.
I am not usually keen about detective and spy stories, but, such an intelligent and intricate plot truly deserves a hat off.
2- JO WALTON, 'THE SMALL CHANGE TRILOGY'
'The Small Change Trilogy' is a set of thriller/ detective stories following the investigations of inspector Carmichael, working for The Watch (a British equivalent of the Gestapo). Taking place indeed in a Britain which made peace with Nazi Germany, Jo Walton's books not only tackle twisted political intrigues, but, also, question why individuals can act the way they do, supporting evil even against their own morale in such extreme circumstances.
Taking place among the aristocracy and social elite back in the 1940s, ‘Farthing’, the first tome, may seem like a ‘country house’ detective story slightly reminding of Agatha Christie’s novels. As it turns out, it’s far from that. Darker and chilling, it involves a group of pro-fascist politicians battling for Britain's government at the times where Europe is plunged into Nazism. What starts as a basic murder investigation will in fact lead the reader to witness the descent of the country into totalitarianism. 'Farthing' may be slow paced, but the political plot behind it all is shocking.
The follow-up, 'Ha'penny', takes political intrigues even further. Here, while England is about to welcome Hitler and some of his henchmen, lurks an underground and terrorist plot involving a mismatch of idealists that inspector Carmichael is assigned to uncover. Sure, Walton takes here some easy liberty (e.g. the sister of one of the main plotters is married to Himmler, another to a physicist working on the atom...). It's therefore a bit disappointing, because too obvious a thing to do, but, by contrast, her main protagonist -inspector Carmichael, the real hero of the trilogy- takes on a new depth which is absorbing for being so relatable. 'Ha'penny' is not as twisted as 'Farthing'; yet, because more fast-paced and focused, it is, I think, a better read. Haunting, it surely is a smart and gripping page-turner.
The trilogy ends with ‘Half A Crown’, centred around a peace conference due to take place in London and involving not only the British PM, but, also, an ageing Hitler and the Duke of Windsor, while divided fascist factions are plotting against each other as background subplots. Contrary to the two previous tome, this one is getting flimsy. In fact, the abrupt and simplistic ending has disappointed many readers who had been glued to the whole trilogy as I had. Nevertheless, smart plots and good characterisation (inspector Carmichael battling with his own dilemma) the Small Change trilogy remains a must read, thrilling and riveting!
1-ROBERT HARRIS, 'FATHERLAND'
'What do you do (...) if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for?'
Number One!! A fantastic page-turner, 'Fatherland' is a fine piece of work of which every single layer is chiselled to near perfection. As a thriller, it's tense and highly suspenseful up to an astonishing denouement. As Alternate History, it's not only a terrifying yet very believable account of what life might have been in a society where Nazism had triumphed, but, it's also packed with great attention to minute details that are a regal for whose interested in the period (from a striking and vivid reconstructed Berlin exactly as Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler had envisioned it, to a chilling but how plausible and haunting rewriting of history as we know it). As for it as a work of fiction, the depth, intricacies and complex psychology of the characters -and how they reveal themselves as we read along- clearly are the mark of a great writer!
The story line itself is brilliant and clever. Starting with a single murder and ending with one of the most crucial event in Nazism's history, all rendered through some of these twists and turns only Alternate History could provide, ‘Fatherland’ is intelligently thought and crafted from beginning to end. Complex, deep, detailed, well-researched... Here’s a must read, impossible to put down, striking, and, even, haunting. Brilliant!
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