Writing Portfolio

16.5.14

What if...

Theorising about what might have happened had certain historical events gone the other way has long been a popular subject-area for authors, with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a detective story set in the Berlin that Albert Speer would have built had the Germans won the Second World War, being the lead example in an increasingly crowded market.

Into this arena has stepped C.J. Sansom, author of the best-selling Shardlake series of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. These have cemented his reputation as an historical novelist par excellence, but now he has moved into the field of alternative history with Dominion, a thriller set in 1950s London – the twist being that this is an imagined London, in a world in which Hitler won.

Like Fatherland but unlike, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Sansom’s alternative world is not one in which Operation Sea Lion was successful – citing Richard Overy’s factual work The Battle of Britain in the historical notes at the end, he reckons it would’ve failed had Hitler tried it – but one in which Lord Halifax became Prime Minister in May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. Rather than fighting on as really happened under Churchill, in this alternative reality Halifax sued for peace after the fall of France, signed a humiliating peace treaty (referred to in Dominion as the Treaty, always with a capital ‘T’) and was replaced by an ageing David Lloyd George who took on the role of a British P├ętain. Britain got to keep the Empire, but otherwise became subservient to Nazi Germany.

The bulk of the novel is set in 1952, by which time the collaborationist government is headed by Lord Beaverbrook, with the likes of Oswald Mosley (whose fascist party has been the main beneficiary of rigged elections), R.A. Butler and Enoch Powell in the Cabinet. The Conservative and Labour parties have both split into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions – as has the Church of England. The police have become heavily politicised – the violent Special Branch Auxiliaries are for the most part little more than Blackshirts given official licence – and captured subversives are routinely handed over to the Germans for interrogation in the basement of Senate House (which has become the German Embassy). The press, radio and TV (the post-war reintroduction of the latter having happened much earlier than in the real world) are under tight government control. Britons of the Jewish faith have been increasingly persecuted, and the government has recently given in to German demands to have them deported. Among the collaborationist elements of this dystopian society are the Scottish nationalists, whose support has been ensured by vague promises of devolution and national revival.

Elsewhere, America has been isolationist for over a decade, there is mass unrest against British rule in India, Hitler is dying and the war against Russia, although initially successful (with Operation Barbarossa starting earlier than in reality, Moscow was captured and Stalin publicly executed), has become an unwinnable, drawn-out conflict on an unimaginably vast scale.

Churchill is on the run as the elderly figurehead of the Resistance – which, like the resistance movements of Occupied Europe, contains people of many political persuasions (from crusty retired colonels who would probably be more at home in an Agatha Christie whodunnit to ardent communists) whose only unifying factor is opposition to the Nazi-friendly government.

One Briton living in this world is David Fitzgerald, a civil servant at the Dominions Office who has for the past couple of years been covertly passing confidential information to the Resistance – and that’s not the only secret that he has been keeping from his wife. David, it turns out, is an old friend of Frank Muncaster, a timid geologist who unwittingly learns of a great and deadly secret that would be of vast benefit to the Germans – provided they can get hold of him. He has been committed to an asylum, and the main part of the plot concerns a plan by the Resistance to ensure his escape before he gets sent to Senate House for interrogation – while trying to stay ahead of the Gestapo’s top man-hunter Gunther Hoth, aided and abetted by a pro-fascist British police officer. As this cat-and-mouse sequence plays out, the Great Smog of ’52 envelopes London.

Sansom has done a fantastic job of imagining an alternative, terrifyingly dystopian version of 1950s Britain. It is a highly convincing account of the dark forces (most notably, anti-Semitism) that may have been unleashed had a key moment in British history gone another way, combined with a good, solid spy thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages. If you want my honest opinion, I reckon that, as far as alternative history thrillers go, this is actually better than Fatherland.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, no work of historical fiction can be truly detached from the time in which it is written, and the same is, I think, true of works of alternative history as well. The present always has an influence on those who are writing about the past, both the real and imagined versions of it. In Dominion, a key point that Sansom wants to make is of the dangers of nationalism as a force of division and potential destruction – now as well as in his reimagining of the recent past. 

Specifically, as a supporter of the Better Together campaign, the Edinburgh-born Sansom has a warning about the dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. It is no coincidence that the SNP is depicted as collaborationist in this novel (it had opposed conscription in 1939, and Sansom notes that in occupied Europe nationalist movements were encouraged by the Nazis in return for their support, with puppet governments being established in, for example, Slovakia and Croatia). In his historical notes at the end, Sansom states that: ‘A party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the National Movement should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have often meant in Europe.’

A warning from history...