Friday, June 20, 2014

If The World Wars Had Never Happened: C.J. Sansom’s Dominion and Richard Ned Lebow's Franz Ferdinand Lives!

The alternate history genre shows no sign of abating as writers and academics continue to play with the what-if concept of history turning out differently. Two recent books take provocative new looks at our world wars, mostly to good literary effect.

On the surface, C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (Random House Canada 2014, but published in the U.K. in 2012) would seem to be tilling old ground. After Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Jo Walton’s Small Change Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown) and others, what more can do with the science fiction trope of a Fascist Britain and a victorious Nazi Germany? Lots, actually, as Sansom’s Dominion is a far superior novel to many of the most lauded in the genre. It’s an atmospheric, tense and well-drawn portrait of a world that fortunately did not come into existence but, as the British writer makes clear, could easily have done so if the political developments of the time had deviated just a bit from the historical record. (Like a snowball rolling down a hill, that deviation would result, finally, in a vastly altered world from our own).

Set in Britain, circa 1952, twelve years after the U.K. has surrendered to the Germans – in this timeline Winston Churchill lost out to the appeasers – Dominion posits a grim, down-on-its-luck world where everyone, occupied countries and quasi-independent ones (like Britain and France, which sued for peace before it was invaded), suffers economically as the unrelenting war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union drags on into its second decade. Japan is involved in a similarly protracted war against China. (In Dominion, World War Two was basically a one-year conflict that ran from 1939-1940.) The English are now governed by Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born media baron who is in a coalition with Oswald Mosley’s Fascist party British Union, after a 1950 election which saw Churchill, until then in robust opposition, exit Parliament as he leveled accusations of a ‘rigged’ election. And England’s Jews – along with the French ones, the only Jewish communities left in Europe – live under severe restrictions, barred from most professions and forced to wear the yellow star identifying them as such (more of a small Star of David lapel badge, “very British and discreet”, as Samson sarcastically puts it). Yet the idea of the Resistance lives on, with Churchill, reportedly in hiding though also feared dead, still a revered figure in some circles. One member of that resistance is David Fitzgerald, whose mother was Jewish but who passes as Catholic. He’s a civil servant spying for a small cell but also hiding that involvement from his pacifist wife Sarah. But it’s his connection to a former classmate, a disturbed scientist named Frank Muncaster, that holds out the possibility of change for the better.

The strengths of Dominion lie particularly in the details of its imagined world and the novel’s characterizations. It’s completely believable that Britain and France, out of national pride and a refusal to be dictated to by the Germans, would insist on retaining ‘their’ native-born Jews, while blithely turning over to the Germans the foreign-born Jews who came to their countries. And Sansom’s portrait of the general populace’s attitude towards the Jews is a nuanced one, with some citizens virulently anti-Semitic (including David’s brother-in-law Steve), others tolerating it (England’s version of Good Germans) and just a few standing up against the racism. A scene which reveals Beaverbrook’s and Mosley's ominous plans for England’s Jews encompasses all three reactions; it’s a visceral, unforgettable moment which demonstrates Sansom’s stirring, descriptive abilities as a writer.

Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists
Dominion also gains from Sansom’s light touch as he reveals what’s going on outside the country, from rumours of Hitler’s dire illness (his Parkinson’s would have been quite advanced by 1952) to speculation as to what newly-elected (and liberal) American President Adlai Stevenson plans to do in regards to dealing with Nazi Germany. (The isolationist Americans had stayed out of Europe after Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost the Presidency to the Republicans in 1940 nor did they go to war with Japan. I’ve always felt the latter was an inevitability, no matter what world you posit, but it’s hardly a flaw in this excellent novel to argue otherwise.) Convincingly, the British citizenry only know as much as would be feasible in a tightly-controlled dictatorship. Sansom’s take on the political factions, namely the SS and army jockeying for power in a possible post-Hitler Germany – something generally not contemplated in our own real world since Hitler was all the Allies knew at the helm of Nazi Germany – is both thoughtful and smart. There is a tendency in many alternate history tales to impart too much information just to show off one’s created knowledge of the counterfactual world but Sansom wisely resists this approach.

None of the incidental elements of Dominion would have worked if the novel’s protagonists hadn’t been equally well put to paper. (Robert Harris’s 1992 book Fatherland, which Sansom cites as “the best alternate history novel ever written” was well plotted but its depiction of a post-World War Two Germany in 1964 lacked a thought out background and not much of its characterization was memorable). From David, kindly but angry, too (he lost a son in an accident which has put a strain on his marriage), to his fellow resistance fighters – tough Scottish communist Ben, the mysterious East European Natalia and David’s old (damaged) friend Geoff, also a civil servant – Dominion’s protagonists seem utterly real and fleshed out. David’s mistrusting wife Sarah and the implacable and dangerous German investigator Guther Hoth, who is determined to find out what secrets Muncaster may hold, also stand out realistically. But it’s the sad, pathetic character of Muncaster, a tormented, crippled and lonely man caught up in circumstances not of his choosing, who makes the strongest impression in the book. He could easily have been a stereotypical stick figure of a ‘mentally ill’ individual of that time but Sansom brings him to vivid life and has the reader care about him and root for him and the other Resistance folk to survive. Yet that is not nearly a sure a thing in the brutal environment of Dominion, ensuring the pages will be eagerly turned until the climactic outcome.

In a postscript to the book, which discusses the genesis of Dominion and his feelings regarding Winston Churchill’s political career and stances, Sansom also expresses his deep concerns about the fascist tendencies and similarities of England’s anti-European Union UKIP party, which made significant gains in the recent European Parliamentary elections and the Scottish Independency party (SNP). If they’re not checked, he feels, what happened in Dominion and was avoided in real life, could still come to pass. It’s a mark of how fine and convincing Dominion is, that if you’ve felt that worries about the success of those political parties to have been somewhat exaggerated, Sansom’s superbly crafted fictional world will make you take heed of current warning signs and developments and ponder – could it happen here?

Just in time for the 100th anniversary of the outset of the First World War in 1914, also called The War to End All Wars, comes Richard Ned Lebow’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War 1 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) His premise is simple enough: without the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist while on a visit to Sarajevo, WWI would not have occurred as it did in our timeline. He bases that on well documented facts, including the bellicosity of key figures in the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian governments who were geared towards wanting war to occur as well the simple revenge for the assassination felt necessary by the Austro-Hungarian empire against Serbia, which then meant various allies of that country would have to have rallied to her side and thus provoked a European wide war. I hadn’t remembered that there had been a failed try to kill the Archduke not much earlier the same day as the successful attempt and Lebow puzzles out why the Archduke (who could have refused to visit Sarajevo in the first place because of threats emanating from there against him or left right after a planned visit to City Hall, thus avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time) didn’t then cancel his visit or why he then changed his entourages’ route, which allowed his assassin, who happened to be there when it passed him by, to succeed in killing him.

The book’s main point, of course, is that an excuse for war, the Archduke’s assassination, would have been nullified if he hadn’t been murdered, and war in general would have soon disappeared as an option, because of political developments among all the key countries involved in World War One. The most interesting element of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! is thus Lebow’s counterfactual imaginings of two worlds utterly different from the one we know now. Lebow labels those The Best Plausible World and The Worst Plausible World and also examines lives of the famous and infamous in both. (I like the fact that rather than integrating his ‘characters’ into his alternate worlds, he devotes chapters to them. It’s a novel approach to that sort of speculation.)

Fascinatingly, though both World Wars and the Holocaust, too, are avoided in The Best Plausible World, it is backward in other ways as the research into military weapons that had the side effect of allowing all sorts of other scientific discoveries to come to light in the process never happened. Without that research everything from antibiotics to computers would have developed much later for common usage. Similarly, the United States, which does not become the economic powerhouse and superpower it still is today, is retarded in its advancement, too, partly because it does not come into contact with progressive European currents, reflected in the mainly Jewish immigrants who were forced to leave the continent because of World War Two and ended up positively influencing American society in the arts and sciences particularly, and also because African Americans don’t get to go fight in Europe or leave the Deep South to work in war-driven industries and thus don’t come to see the better options available to them in terms of civil rights. Baseball is integrated much later, the progress of women’s rights and gay rights are equivalent, even in the 21st century, to that of the 50s in our world and quotas still exist for Jewish students wishing to study in universities. However with fewer liberal attitudes among the American populace and no perceived Big Government to rail against, the Tea party does not come into existence nor does Islamic fundamentalism become prominent, as there is no state of Israel and thus no heightened Jewish-Arab tensions nor Arab secular dictators oppressing their people.

In this ‘best’’ world, major black artists, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, leave the U.S. permanently for greener pastures in Europe with the two ending up sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. Other lives in The Best Plausible World change, too – from Adolf Hitler who becomes a (successful) snake oil salesman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, still President but an undistinguished one. (Winston Churchill’s political career is also less stellar than it might have been with the two world wars). The upside of this world is a hundred-year worldwide peace (with the odd small conflict for time to time), a more vibrant European culture, including input from the six million Jews who didn’t die in the Holocaust and who contribute enormously to Western Europe (Eastern Europe is more problematic for them as anti-Semitism is still virulent there) and a more economically and politically unified system among the countries of the world. (No WWI or WWII also means no Communist revolution in Russia, hence no Soviet Union, no rise of Mao, not to mention no Vietnam war and no Pol Pot either). And the Catholic Church looks to Latin America and Africa much earlier for its adherents resulting in the election of the first black pope in 1980, a Nigerian named Isaac Obufame. A mixed blessing overall in this ‘best' world.

A scene from the Worst Plausible World?
The Worst Plausible World is a little closer to ours – Lebow considers that our timeline is somewhere in the middle of his created worlds – with the Cold War taking place between England and Germany, resulting in a nuclear conflagration that devastates Europe, which is largely authoritarian, in the 70s. The lives of those we know in that grim world are powerfully different, from Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz who never leaves Europe for Hollywood and, without a World War Two to draw on, never makes Casablanca, to Humphrey Bogart who ends up on another career trajectory when that iconic movie is never made. The absence of the Second World War also means that Joseph Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s older brother who died in that conflict and was groomed to be President by his father, achieves his country’s highest office (in the ‘best’ possible world in 1952) but cannot, due to continuing anti-Catholic prejudice, aspire to more than a cabinet post in a Democratic administration in the ‘worst’ world. (The lives of the other Kennedy brothers have other outcomes, too). And one Heinz Alfred Kissinger, known to us as Henry Kissinger, never immigrates to America but is up to his usual war mongering tricks in Europe instead. By comparison, the life of the alternate Richard M. Nixon is a little more obvious and not all that interesting.

The most imaginatively laid out alternate lives in the book: acclaimed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who replicates his career but as SF writer Isaak Yudovits Osimov in a Russia he never left in the best world, and Barack Obama, who could never hope to be President in either of Lebow’s invented worlds but, nonetheless, has a fascinating and influential political career in the worst world. (I don’t know and Lebow doesn’t say if the British rock group that took its name from the murdered archduke would have done so in the other worlds.)

I’m only touching on some of the book’s most enticing observations – I’ll leave many other ‘facts’ for you to discover when you read it – but it’s clear that Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! is quite ambitious for the alternate history genre. It doesn’t just take one fixed point in history that is changed and goes forward from there, which is generally the norm in alternative SF, but uses its historical deviation to effectively examine any number of ensuing changes in history, and how everything from religion to politics to the arts would have turned out so unlike those in our world if, from that one Earth-shattering event, the first world war was never birthed.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. There are some sloppy elements – towards the end, Lebow describes a horrifying nuclear incident which seems similar to the earlier one mentioned in the worst world but taking place in a different year. Is that an error in chronology or has he added a third counterfactual world to the mix? And since he’s also a professor, teaching politics at King’s College London – he is an American – and Dartmouth College in the States, the book is overly academic in tone. Lebow also has the unnecessary tendency to summarize his observations at the end of his chapters as if we’re in a classroom digesting his theories, an aspect of the book which becomes annoying very fast.

Truth be told, if you’re in it simply for a good read, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! is likely not for you. But if you enjoy alternate histories because they prompt you to look at historical events in a new way, then, like Dominion, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! offers much food for thought.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema. He is currently teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9 at Ryerson.

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