Thursday 3 September 2009


Seventy years ago today, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany, thus triggering the Second World War (although various other countries, most notably China, dispute this date rather heavily). Six years and somewhere in the region of 70 million lives later, the war ended with Germany's defeat but the outcome was not entirely positive: in its counter-attack against Germany, Soviet Russia had overrun most of Eastern Europe and was in no particular hurry to leave, thus setting the scene for half a century of the Cold War.

"You may indeed be victorious in war, Winston, but only one of us shall live on as a YouTube video phenomenon. The greater glory is mine!"

As always tends to happen when the anniversary rolls round, 'revisionist' commentators like to start spouting opinions about how the war was avoidable, how it was a disaster for the West because it empowered the expansion of the Soviet Union (which was clearly inevitable anyway) and so on. Pat Buchanan and Peter Hitchens are the latest armchair politicians trying to suggest that Hitler was actually telling the truth in 1939 when he said all he wanted was Danzig and the Polish Corridor, and if he'd gotten that the war would never happened, the USSR wouldn't have rolled halfway across the continent, the British Empire would never have collapsed (when even in 1939 it was clearly doomed) and (especially ludicrously) even the Holocaust would never have taken place. Since Hitler was a compulsive liar and a sociopath, I am sceptical about taking his word for anything, especially when his true ambitions of expanding Germany to the east and eliminating the Slavs and Jews are clearly set out in Mein Kampf (a book clearly neither of the aforementioned journalists have read). War was inevitable, maybe not when and where it happened, but certainly with Hitler in power and with Germany resentful of the terms of the ending of WWI, it was always going to happen. Fortunately for us, it happened in a way and at time that led to Nazi Germany's defeat.

The war's impact on speculative fiction (trying to tie in the anniversary and the point of the blog ;-) ) was colossal. Many of our formative writers fought in the war. Arthur C. Clarke was working on radar technology for the RAF, whilst Isaac Asimov worked as a civilian contractor for the Philadelphia Naval Air Experimental Station (alongside Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp). J.G. Ballard grew up as a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp near Singapore, whilst Brian Aldiss fought in Burma as part of the Royal Signals regiment. J.R.R. Tolkien was too old to fight, but his lighter workload (the result of Oxford University's normal curriculum being suspended for the duration of hostilities) allowed him to complete the bulk of The Lord of the Rings by the end of the conflict. Jack Vance penned several of the stories in The Dying Earth to alleviate boredom whilst sailing back and forth across the Pacific as a member of the US Merchant Marine.

The conflict has played a significant role in the content of spec fic as well. Christopher Priest's astonishing The Separation is set during the war, and famously the Earth-bound portions of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia also take place during the conflict. Refighting the war with a different outcome is a favourite past-time of alternate history writers : Harry Turtledove's Worldwar saga is set in a world invaded by a powerful alien race in 1942, whilst John Birmingham's recent Axis of Time trilogy has a 21st Century naval battle-group accidentally transported to the Battle of Midway, radically altering the outcome of events. Robert Harris' Fatherland and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle are the standard-bearers for alt history, although they do take rather different viewpoints (Harris' vision of a victorious Germany fighting an insurgency in Russia and locked in a cold war with the US being more grimly persuasive than Dick's rather fanciful notion of a Japanese-occupied North America).

As the anniversary proceeds, it will be interesting to see what other pieces of spec fic about the conflict I can find.


Elijah said...

Much as I hate Christopher Hitchens (and ohhhh, do I ever) I have to point out that this is by his brother, Peter, who is generally more right wing.

Also, since when is keeping the British Empire a good thing? I thought most people at least paid lip-service to colonialism being a terrible thing, these days.

ak-Haru said...

In Finland, the war began on November 30th with Soviet invasion. We have our own anniversary then.

In most Eastern European countries, Soviet Union was the main enemy, not Germany. Hitler was considered by many as "the lesser evil" compared to Stalin and the bolsheviks. Probably not by the Jews...

Liviu said...

Actually Hitler's intentions were spelled in detail in his Mein Kampf so all the armchair historians with their revisionist histories mis-understand the nature of the Nazis - personally I believe that if France and England would not have fought in 1939, they both would have become satellites of Germany in a way or another, while the coming Nazi-Soviet war winner would have dominated the whole continent since America would have found it hard to get involved in Europe with England hostile, or there would have been a stalemate and Cold War between the Reich's Europe and the USSR

The USSR was a huge country and even if Moscow would have fallen - which may have meant the end of Stalin - I doubt Germany could have outright defeated it fast

As it happens C. Evans Omega has precisely this scenario - a bit of a different beginning, in so far Hitler dies in a plane accident and the military takes power while England and France ally with the military de-nazified Reich, take Moscow but still cannot defeat the USSR, while later there is a triple cold war between America, the Euro Union above and Russia

Also H. turtledove just started a new alt-hist story in which WW2 starts at Munich with the invasion of Czechoslovakia - and while Chamberlain was pathetic with his public assurances, the so-called appeasement may have been necessary since Hitler really wanted to break the Czechs as it was shown later by his appointment of Heydrich to run the Czech slave state, so he was really disappointed he found no reason to fight then...

Adam Whitehead said...

Yeah, the Christopher/Peter thing was a cock-up. And I agree, the British Empire needed to fall and colonialism needed to end. It's Peter's article which suggests that this is apparently a bad thing. Exactly why is left unexplained.

For a few barmy weeks at the end of 1939 the British and French considered declaring war on Russia (a technical ally of Germany at that point) and aiding Finland, but they couldn't square that with Finland being a non-belligerent ally of Germany. Us declaring war on Russia and Germany simultaneously would have been totally insane at that stage.

As for the rest, yes. France was mentioned in Mein Kampf as needing to be pacified, so the invasion would have happened regardless, just maybe a bit later. Hitler was scared of an Anglo-French invasion of Germany whilst they were busy in Poland, which could have been a good idea. Cutting off the Ruhr from the rest of Germany would have been disastrous for the German war machine. Unfortunately the Brits and French were too timid to go on the offensive.

FATHERLAND suggests that Germany could have defeated Russia by playing the same game it did in WWI: adopting a slowly-moving wide-front closer to the German border (thus shortening supply lines) and inviting the Russians to smash themselves senseless on the defences for 2-3 years before finally advancing just as the Russian war machine is exhausted. Whether that would have been as effective against a USSR armed with T-34s and MiG fighters I'm not sure, but if it worked in 1917 it could have worked again. Hitler, of course, wanted his quick-fix blitzkrieg on the eastern front, which was really not as effective in Russia as it was in France.

Swainson said...

James P Hogan's The Proteus Operation
is an excellent example for a ww2 and spec fiction cross over. Time travel alternate universes etc. His other stuff is good too.

Dean Koontz did a time travelling Nazi in one of his books, can't remember off hand which one though.

Star Trek had had an episode with Nazis in. Return to castle Wolfenstein. The Twilight Zone. Now I think about it there is a lot out there.

I do find reading books like Barbarossa to be more facinating than spec fiction.

Longasc said...

There are even people saying the whole genre of fantasy literature is a wartime spawned genre of the fight of good vs evil, usually citing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as prime example.

I recently read Baxter's "Time Tapestry" series which went from the early Roman period in Britain to an alternate reality where Germany occupied half of southern Britain.

Adam Whitehead said...

It's an interesting idea and may be applicable to post-war fantasy, but for Tolkien it's pretty unsupported. Tolkien had thrashed out the storyline of LORD OF THE RINGS by the end of 1939 (two years after he started writing it) and it was almost the same as its finished state, it was just a lot of the details that changed. Tolkien himself always said that, whilst loathing "That ruddy little ignoramus," Hitler, he always felt more pity than loathing for the German people and felt that the 'true' enemy was Russia (whilst angrily denying Mordor being in the east was a reflection of that).

Anonymous said...

It's kind of hard to see how Tolkien's stuff could be taken any other way. Mordor in the East, the evil, dark skinned Southrons, the valiant men of the West and yeah. I just tried to ignore that when I read it.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, in the Silmarillion, the story of which he came up with much earlier, evil was in the NORTH (Angband, Utumno) rather than the East. And dark-skinned southrons really don't have anything to do with Russians.

Anonymous said...

Two minor points: first, I think Chamberlain is treated very unfairly. We didn't just sit on our hands after Munich - we built the RAF! If you look at the British situation at that time, we were simply not ready to go to war with Germany - we were too demilitarised, our armour was far too sparse, and in particular our airforce was nowhere near what would be necessary to fight the Luftwaffe. Munich wasn't 'timidity' - it was an admixture of genuine idealism (Chamberlain remembered WWI, and at the time it was not impossible that Hitler could be contained passively) and caution (buying us time to build up an army big enough, having completely missed the firing gun before). Given that we still weren't ready when war started, I think that extra time may well have been essential.

Secondly, we tend to overlook a massive feature of the eastern front in wwi - cryptography. Russian codes/ciphers were fifty years or more behind the rest of Europe, while Germany was on the front line of progress in that field. Very soon, the Germans could read Russian transmissions faster than the Russians themselves. Aside from the incalculable strategic gains from this, this information advantage was key in several major battles.

It's not impossible that Germany could have repeated it, but the loss of the cryptographic advantage would be a big, perhaps fatal, change between the two wars. (And I suspect Stalin's russia was more stable politically than the Tsar's had been - though it's eay to say that in hindsight)

Jeff said...

There is a very nice article by Eric Margolis (an excellent journalist from the United States) this week that touches on the 70th anniversary as well and delves into the controversial topic of whether or not Nazi Germany saved the rest of Europe from Stalin.

In the article he mentions the book The Chief Culprit by Viktor Suvorov, a former Soviet intelligence agent, who contends that Stalin was massing his entire army to march on all of Europe in 1941. Hitler apparently seeing this launched a preemptive attack (Operation Barbarossa) and the rest is history. After the war the Soviets then launched a massive propaganda campaign to cover this up. So in a way Hitler saved Europe from an even worse threat than himself.

I am going to order this book from Amazon as soon as I can as this whole topic sounds very interesting. I've never heard this theory before.

Also, hasn't updated yet with the WW2 article but it should be there any day.

Adam Whitehead said...

'Timidity' was the wrong word. In addition, and it's easy to forget this, but Russia could only attack Germany if Poland allowed its armies to cross their territory, and Poland 'politely declined' the Red Army permission to cross the border (on the very likely grounds that they would never leave afterwards). And without Russia to attack Germany from the east, France and Britain were unwilling to go at it by themselves, memories of WWI (when their combined might only barely stopped the German advance when Germany was divided on two fronts) still very strong in their minds. So the opportunity vanished and Stalin shrugged and went and made friends with Hitler instead.

"There is a very nice article by Eric Margolis (an excellent journalist from the United States) this week that touches on the 70th anniversary as well and delves into the controversial topic of whether or not Nazi Germany saved the rest of Europe from Stalin."

This is actually a long-established theory that a number of historians have looked at. What it comes down to is that the Russians 'knew' that at some point there was going to be war between them and Nazi Germany. The Nazi-Soviet Pact did not, as has been occasionally suggested, lure Stalin into a dream-world where he and Hitler would conquer the world together, but Stalin believed that it would buy him much more time than it did.

The reason for this is that Stalin's spies in Tokyo and Rome had reported that Hitler was intent on finishing off France and Britain before turning on Russia, and Hitler had very publicly and on multiple occasions (and I think in Mein Kampf as well) said it was unthinkable that Germany should ever fight a two-front war again. So with Germany still engaged in a ferocious aerial and naval campaign over and around Britain and in the deserts of North Africa, Russia appeared to be save from attack. Mussolini in fact was reported as saying he didn't anticipate a German attack on the Soviet Union until around 1943 or even later.

So when Germany turned round and attacked Russia in June 1941, taking even Tokyo and Rome by surprise, Stalin went into a near-catatonic shock lasting several days. Stalin knew all about treachery but Hitler's act literally blew his mind, and it was several days before he could recover and get back in the saddle.

That suggests that Russia was not inclined to go on the offensive against anyone, not Germany or the 'rest of Europe', in 1941. Russia was expecting a war for several years later. At that point it is possible Russia would have attempted to overwhelm the rest of the continent (under the guise of liberating it from Germany, pretty much what happened in 1944-45 anyway), but certainly not in 1941.

Remove Nazi Germany from the picture altogether (i.e. have Einstein time travel back and kill him - wait, that sounds like it could be a good plot for a computer game ;-) ) and yes, I think it is quite likely that the USSR would have invaded at least Poland and Eastern Europe at some point in the 1940s. Give the death toll unleashed, I certainly would not have said that the Nazis 'saved' Europe from a worse fate.

Mimouille said...

This discussion is very interesting. The one thing I strongly disagree on, is that Nazi Germany could be considered the lesser evil of anything. The casualties are a good argument for that as Adam mentions, but according to me, it is the invention of industrialized grand scale genocide that makes it so.

In terms of influences on literature, a very good one was Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons.

AF said...

With all due respect, Adam: To consider September 3rd as the beginning of World War II is a rather irritating and narcissistic quirk of the (western) allies. Great Britain and France declared war on the German Reich, "thus triggering the Second World War"? That sounds absurd...
World War II (at least in Europe and even though there were some 'misunderstandings' in the days before) began on September 1st 1939 at 4.45 am with 'Case White' and the airstrikes against (mainly civilian) targets by the Luftwaffe as well as the Schleswig Holstein's attak on the Westerplatte.

On another note: Only a brainwashed (and possibly American) moron could believe something as ludicrous and offensive as the notion that "Nazi Germany saved the rest of Europe from Stalin". The Präventivkriegsthese (thesis of preemptive war) is scientifically sound in neither of its phrasings and can not be taken seriously. Any historian (German or Russian) who actually holds the thesis to be true does so for (questionable) political reasons and not because of any historical merit.

- AF

Arthur said...

Hullo there,

I do think you're giving The Man In the High Castle short shrift there, because it doesn't actually imagine that the US actually got taken over entirely by the Japanese; I believe the timeline goes something like this:

- FDR is assassinated in 1933, leading to two weak Presidencies which fail to bring in the New Deal reforms. The Depression and an isolationist foreign policy means that the US is in a complete shambles when the war starts.

- Hitler wins the war in Europe comfortably - I think prior even to Pearl Harbour, since he needn't fear US intervention, and the UK and other forces aren't getting any US aid under the table to help them. Oh, and he doesn't hesitate when launching the invasion of mainland Britain.

- The US capitulates fairly early on after being invaded by the Japanese and the Nazis simultaneously, with the result that there's an ostensibly neutral US remaining around the Rocky Mountains and midwest, whilst the eastern states are dominated by a Nazi puppet state and the western states are dominated by the Japanese. I always figured that the Japanese states were pretty much equivalent to today's West Coast and not much more than that - and that the Japanese were happy enough with that, since their main goal out of WWII was domination of the Pacific.

Then again, it's not really meant to be a historically accurate experiment so much as it's meant to be an exploration of what would happen to the American psyche under occupation.

Adam Whitehead said...

"World War II (at least in Europe and even though there were some 'misunderstandings' in the days before) began on September 1st 1939 at 4.45 am with 'Case White' and the airstrikes against (mainly civilian) targets by the Luftwaffe as well as the Schleswig Holstein's attak on the Westerplatte."

Arguably, but as far as the Germans were concerned, they did not believe France and Britain would declare war, and a lot of the rest of the world (including Poland) had severe doubts they would do it. As such, 1-3 September was purely a two-state war between Germany and Poland before Britain and France entered the conflict, shifting the war onto a global level as a war of the world's dominant powers.

Possibly semantic, but as of September 3rd Hitler didn't think it was going to be a global war and as of the same date Britain and France were hopeful that Germany would halt their advance and withdraw. The failure of both and the resulting conflict gives that date legitimacy as the start of WW2.

Obviously in hindsight we know both sides were intransigent and weren't going to back down, so a global conflict was inevitable from 1 September.