The world of espionage is one of secrets, of things that are deemed by one group or another to be worth killing over. They can be weapons or pieces of information or research facilities or other things of that nature. What they have in common is their vital importance to somebody’s security.
The world of mysticism is also filled with secrets. There are fraternities and orders and other religious organizations that swear their members to secrecy. Oftentimes this is of primarily theological interest. But there have always been those who wondered if something far more consequential wasn’t going on.
It is natural then to combine the cloak and dagger with the supernatural and the occult. This is what Tim Powers has done with his novel Declare, released in 2001. It reads like a combination of a World War II or early-Cold War spy novel and something along the lines of Dan Brown or maybe Umberto Eco. You have the globetrotting exploits, but also the sense that there is something beyond our comprehension afoot.
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Germany has the Thirty Years’ War. Britain has the Somme. America has Vietnam. Israel has Lebanon. Many countries have their battles or wars that forever imprint within the minds of their populations that armed conflict is a putrid slaughterhouse where nothing is gained but a pile of bones.
Australia has Gallipoli, that peninsula on the north of the Dardanelles, guarding the way to Istanbul (or Constantinople) where so many of its young men were sent to die in the name of an island thousands of miles away from their home.
This human tragedy is chronicled in Gallipoli, the 1981 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It is a film that retreads many films about World War I: that war is a pointless, bloody mess not worth fighting. It’s an understandable position, given how little it seemed to accomplish and how it set the stage for the unrestrained carnage after what Ferdinand Foch called “not a peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”
But Gallipoli does not aspire to be so grand. History is not just the story of kings and presidents and prime ministers. It is also a story of little people who have, for good reasons or bad, been thrown into the maelstrom that kings and presidents and prime ministers created.
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I finished my review of Overlord, the fantastic 2018 World War II zombie movie, with a call on Hollywood to be so bold as to green-light more movies like it. I was greatly pleased when I encountered Ghosts of War, a 2020 World War II horror film that seemed to be following in Overlord‘s footsteps. I’m an alternate historian, and so I’m a sucker for anything that mashes up history and the supernatural like this.
The film revolves around five American soldiers after D-Day who are tasked with holding a chateau in the French countryside from the Germans until a relief force comes. It’s a simple plot, at first, and a natural way of combining two wildly different genres.
The vast majority of actors here are people you’ve likely never heard of, with the exception of Theo Rossi, who you may recognize from Luke Cage on Netflix.
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The 1973 Yom Kippur War was short and pointless, lasting under three weeks. It was, however, a war that changed the Middle East. It was another attempt by the Egyptians and Syrians to humiliate the Israeli titan, and ended with the Arabs emboldened, even though they lost.
The Egyptians had successfully crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai. This was a war Egypt and Syria could not blame on Israel, the way they did in 1948 and 1956 and 1967. It paved the way for peace between Egypt and Israel, which in turn led to Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
In 2002, Amos Gitai interrogated the heroic myths of the first Arab-Israeli war in Kedma (review here). Two years earlier, in Kippur, he interrogated the myths of the Yom Kippur War.
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We alternate historians, and the broader popular culture more generally, rightfully think of Nazi Germany as being an incredibly violent place. You had Jewish shops being smashed on Kristallnacht after the Reichstag was set ablaze. You had bloody street brawls between Nazis and Nationalists and Social Democrats and Communists. You had political dissidents tortured in Dachau. All of this was before they manufactured a fraudulent casus belli at Gleiwitz and sent the tanks rolling into Poland, the blitzkrieg that brought France to heel, the rampage through the Soviet Union and the opening of the death factories for Jews and other “undesirables.”
In our world, such a regime was put down with bombers and tanks and bullets. Few would disagree with the notion that such a heinous regime deserved to be put down. When we alternate historians write about other worlds where the Nazi regime lasts longer, we usually project it as either falling apart into a bloody civil war, its imperial adventures causing the whole regime to unravel (often in a form of aforementioned bloody civil war), or another war between it and the other great powers that ends in something even worse than the war in our world (think the ending to Festung Europa, available from Sea Lion Press).
However, it is widely considered bigoted at least when we call any society inherently violent; in recent decades, the targets of choice are Muslims and African Americans, and calling either inherently violent is rightly tarred as extremely racist. However, we are also generally willing to say that certain governments and methods of governing are inherently violent. Which those are is often a hotly debated concept.
That tensions between society and government, and their respective tolerances for violence, is the core narrative thrust of Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
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The 1980s were a tense time in the United Kingdom. There was the bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA that almost succeeded in assassinating Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who brought neoliberalism to the shores of Great Britain. There are two other things from that period that linger in the memory: the miners’ strikes and the burgeoning gay rights movement.
Those last two are more connected than you might think. To make a long story short, one of the reasons that the gay rights movement in the country got as big as it did was due to a campaign by London-based gay and lesbian activists to support the miners, who were being targeted by the Thatcher government. This became Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which raised money for those on strike. The National Union of Mineworkers reciprocated by using its clout in the Labour Party to bring about support for gay rights.
This struggle is dramatized in the 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus. It’s a film that starts among the gay community of London, revolving around a number of activists who take the bold move of finding solidarity with those who are unlike them. One of its central characters is Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), the firebrand of our set of characters who brings with him a fuming rage against societal injustice. He is the sort of activist that brings about real change, one who is willing to get his hands dirty and speak truth to power.
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The very conceit of a German victory in World War II is in and of itself a cliché in our online alternate-history communities. However, mainstream published authors have an annoying tendency (speaking as someone with approaching ten years in the online community) to not realize that fact. It feels like every few years, some mainstream author comes out with a new take on the subject that non-genre critics will fawn over briefly and at which those in my circles will roll their eyes in disdain. I think this is a manifestation of a problem that for many writers, alternate history is but one literary toy to play with rather than a dedicated genre to be explored in its own right. As a result of this, many dilettantes in the genre have little idea of the conventions thereof.
In that light, I was quite satisfied to know that C.J. Sansom had at least dipped his toes in the genre and the subject matter before writing Dominion. In his afterword, he says that he came to the conclusion that Operation Sea Lion was absolutely impossible on his own when doing research for his book. Likewise, he explicitly praises Robert Harris’ Fatherland, which is widely lauded as an alternate-history classic by the community.
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George W. Bush once told John Kerry, “You forgot Poland!” when the Democrat listed the few countries that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We history buffs can use a similar reminder that Poland is, in fact, not lost. World War II in Europe began when German tanks stormed across Poland’s border after a flagrant false-flag at Gleiwitz (or Gliwice). The Red Army came not long afterward. Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death factories, is remembered by many, but we sometimes forget it was built in the Polish town of Oświęcim.
When the Poles feature in (alternate) history, they are often reduced to victims of German and Soviet armies. This does them a disservice: the Polish fought, and fought hard. There was the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish forces under Władysław Anders that fought in Italy.
The movie Hurricane, released as Mission of Honor in the United States, is about some of those Polish warriors, specifically those who served as foreign pilots in the Battle of Britain. These were men who had escaped Poland, often served in the French Army of the Air, and then made their way to the UK after the Fall of France. At a time when Poland as a country could not do much, her sons were doing everything they could to defeat her enemies abroad.
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Under the Bright Saharan Sky is Lyssa Medana’s sequel to her fantastic debut novel, Out of the London Mist. We return to the characters of that novel as they go on a new adventure. I finished my review of Out of the London Mist with a wish that these characters would make the Saharan expedition mentioned in the book. To my great pleasure, they do just that in Under the Bright Saharan Sky.
Think of this book as a cross between Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with a dash of steampunk fantasy. A third or so of the book is traveling through Europe en route to the Sahara (with a good bit set in Cairo), and you get a feel of all these different cities. It resembles something of a fantastic Baedeker.
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Cold War Germany is often reduced to the playground of the colossi of the postwar order jostling above the abyss that was nuclear annihilation. As the old joke goes, “a tactical nuke is one that goes off in Germany.” In many ways, the two German states were the foremost pawns in a great geopolitical game, but just as much they were their own countries, contemporary incarnations of a culture that can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of Roman times. They had their own business during the Cold War, and some of it was violent.
West Germany in the 1960s and 70s was subjected to much of the same social unrest that happened in other Western countries during those years. This was over Vietnam in the United States and Algeria in France. The period was a violent one. There were bombings by left-wing radicals in both countries.
In West Germany, that violence took the form of the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group), named for their leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They caused great chaos in the West Germany of the Cold War. Their actions are dramatized in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.
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