When the World Held Its Breath: First Lightning

For Germans awaking on the Sunday morning of June 22, 1941, the news that their country was at war with the Soviet Union was delivered to them with the usual bombast and lies of Nazi propaganda. They were told that this new war was not an invasion but a preemptive strike, one necessary to deal with the “Soviet Russian-Anglo-Saxon plot” to destroy Germany that was nearing completion. In his statement that morning, Adolf Hitler spoke with great indignation at fictional border violations by Soviet aircraft and scuffles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht prompted by Soviet aggression and how, as he always claimed, he had done everything to try to preserve peace.

The German people were used to rolling their eyes at this sort of fabrication and, although it has unfortunately endured in some corners of conspiracy theory and the far right, the “Soviet offensive plans controversy” has been universally dismissed by all credible historians. Germany had been actively preparing to invade the Soviet Union since December 1940, it had been a dream of Hitler’s for decades. The notion of the German attack being a preemptive strike is rather easily debunked.

Likewise, there’s no real evidence that the Soviet Union was preparing to attack Germany in the late June of 1941. Indeed, their preparations for a defensive war were being hobbled by a leadership that was desperate to try and avoid any military build-up that could be construed as a “provocation”.

But it’s hard not to wonder whether or not they should have.

If the Soviets had struck before the Germans were ready to launch their own invasion, might they have managed to destroy the German threat and end the Second World War before it had reached its crescendo?

The Red Army’s most famous general seemed to think so.

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The Balero Affair

The Balero Affair

The best way to describe The Balero Affair by Aaron McQueen is dieselpunk meets Mission Impossible in the far future. With a lot of airships. Of various kinds.

The plot reads a bit like a Mission Impossible movie: against near-impossible odds, a small crew of heroes needs to get hold of weapons that can destroy the world as they know it from a terrorist cell. It’s fast-paced like the movies, too.

The Balero Affair might not have the most original plot, but it has good characters and a good pace. Which is excellent if you’re looking for some fun, light reading without too many twists and turns to wrap your head around. Character development is kept to a minimum, as is worldbuilding.

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In and Out of the Reich

In and Out of the Reich

One of the most compelling things about any Axis victory alternate history, when done well, is the all-consuming sense of dread that pervades the entire enterprise. How could it not be? The very conceit is the triumph of one of the most bloodthirsty, sadistic regimes this world has ever known. There is something that sends a chill down my spine when reading the details of Generalplan Ost, the plan that made the bloodshed of the war look like small pickings in comparison.

That’s the hurdle all Axis victory works need to reckon with: the sheer, unrelenting, nauseating horror that is inherent to the very premise.

Many alternate histories have done this well. I consider Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) some of the best dystopian fiction ever written, even beyond their allohistorical content. C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012) is a more subdued portrayal, but no less haunting for it. Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003) has a silent terror lurking in the background as a German color revolution seems to take root.

So it has been proven, quite conclusively, that this genre can be done well. Which brings us to Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich.

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The Man with the Iron Heart

The Man with the Iron Heart

One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history,” he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre.

It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after The Guns of the South (1992), alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.

Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner.

Whatever the reason, The Man with the Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.

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When the World Held Its Breath: Fixed Bayonets

As Barbarossa began, Soviet troops at the front were often asleep.

When the Germans struck, their stocks of ammunition and fuel were low without any preparation for a fight and the stockpiles available were often either destroyed or captured within the first days of the conflict. The Red Air Force planes were arranged in neat rows for the Luftwaffe to destroy, leading to over a thousand planes lost on the ground. For the first week of the war, the Soviets lacked any form of centralized high command; a situation further exacerbated by lines of communication having been disrupted by the invasion and often non-existent with a lack of access to adequate codes meaning that the railway telephone was often the only link between the troops on the ground and the leaders of the Soviet state.

It was in this environment that desperate counterattacks were ordered up and down the front, all of which inevitably failed. Soviet formations instructed to attack were often unable to discern which direction they were supposed to be attacking toward, or, in the words Red Army Captain Anotoli Kruzhin,

Not [able] to find where the enemy was positioned, but Soviet units, — their own army!

The Red Army was like a blindfolded boxer with one arm tied his back, flailing around and desperately throwing punches at an experienced opponent, unable to land a significant blow or even to see where he should be aiming.

These failures made a catastrophe in the first weeks of the German-Soviet war an inevitability for the Red Army, but to what extent could their performance have been improved had they been allowed to prepare?

The answer, ironically, lies in the reason for their lack of preparedness.

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Everyday Fashions, 1909-1920s

Everyday Fashions, 1909-1920, as Pictured in Sears Catalogs

Next in our series of catalogue book reviews is not one but two books, covering the Jazz Age.

First up: Sears of the late steam and early diesel eras, during which fashion evolved from late Edwardian and Art Nouveau era into flapper styles and Art Deco.

It’s pretty amazing to see how these styles evolved fairly rapidly and then stuck to that typical 1920s silhouette for quite some time.

This book gives you a wide perspective of the evolution into typical Jazz Age fashions, which is great if you want a nuanced look at the sartorial evolution or an era-specific outfit.

The book contains styles for different body types (although not as many as it should, in my opinion) as well as a variety of children’s, women’s and men’s clothing.

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Year Zero in The Man in the High Castle

To the student of history, the premise of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-19, our review here)based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, isn’t easy to accept. The United States, in the real world an industrial titan and the “Arsenal of Democracy”, is defeated in World War II and replaced by two Axis puppet states. The show justifies its alternate history with a favorite dieselpunk trope: Nazi superscience. Specifically, the “Heisenberg device” atomic bomb, which is used to decapitate the American leadership in Washington DC in December 1945.

The “history” of Nazi-ruled America is more credible. Institutions like the FBI neatly fold into the New Order. Former soldiers, like John Smith (Rufus Sewell), join the SS. Jews and other undesirables, including the mentally and physically disabled, are exterminated with little resistance.

One political aspect of the show which was very much on-point came late in Season 3, when (spoilers ahead!) the recently crowned Reichsf├╝hrer, Heinrich Himmler, observes the celebrations of a Jahr Null, or Year Zero, in an alternate 1963.

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When the World Held Its Breath: Divide and Conquer

“We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crumbling down” was Adolf Hitler’s reassurance to his followers as he chose to embark on the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German dictator was confident that his mortal enemy was as weak as it was degenerate, the pseudoscience of Nazi ideology and racial theory providing the justifications for their leader’s optimism rather than any basis in reality.

Hitler’s optimism has since become one of the most famous examples of hubris in history with his deluded boast coming back to haunt him four years later as his regime fell apart in the face of the Red Army moving ever closer to Berlin.

But did the Germans miss a chance to destroy the Soviet Union from within? In the early days of Operation Barbarossa the Germans were often welcomed as liberators by local populations in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltic states had only recently been annexed into the Soviet Union, against the will of the majority of their populations. In Belarus, the totalitarian nature of Stalinism had been particularly hard felt. Nationalist and religious sympathies were heavily repressed. Ukraine had suffered one of the worst famines in their history in the 30s. Many blamed the Soviet system for the Holodomor, directly or indirectly. How could the Germans be worse?

The brutality and scale of the German crimes within the occupied territories were worse than anything in human history. Tens of thousands of villages and entire cities were burned to the ground, often with few of the local population escaping alive. Millions were rendered homeless. Food from the occupied territories was siphoned off deliberately to engineer a famine, the so-called Hunger Plan that would aid the planned genocide of the Slavic peoples in order for them to make way for German colonists. Within a short period of time, the traditional offerings of bread and salt many German soldiers had received from Soviet peasants had morphed into partisan insurgency of unrivaled fury that would play a major part in the Red Army’s ability to eventually throw the Germans back.

If the Germans had embraced the anticipations of many within the occupied Soviet Union that the Wehrmacht had arrived to restore independence to their nations and revive Christianity, or at least held off on their genocidal occupations until their final victory, might they have been able to succeed in disuniting and ultimately unraveling the Soviet war effort?

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