BOOKS: If Reinhard Heydrich had lived
THE MAN WITH THE IRON HEART
Ballantine Books, $27, 532 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF
The military campaign was a total victory: American tank columns crushed the evil fascist dictator and occupied his cities, liberating his people. The long reign of terror was over at last. And even when a handful of U.S. soldiers fell victim to guerrilla ambushes, it was clear only a few malcontents could be responsible. But the attacks kept growing in scale, number, frequency and sheer viciousness, and then prominent international peacekeepers started getting slaughtered as well …
No, this is not yet another history of everything that has gone wrong in Iraq over the past five and a half years. It is, rather, a gripping alternative history of what might have happened if the Nazis had planned ahead and prepared an ambitious underground Werewolf organization to torment the Allies and the Soviet occupiers of Germany after World War II.
Harry Turtledove is not a nationally known figure but he deserves to be. The scope, depth and thoughtfulness of his alternative history constructions over the past two decades are quite extraordinary and unparalleled. I know of nothing like them for quality and quantity in modern literature.
Mr. Turtledove, of course, is no critical favorite, like the vastly overhyped and obsessively narcissistic Philip Roth. But there is more original thought, philosophy and historical understanding in any chapter of a Turtledove novel than in Mr. Roth’s entire oeuvre.
Mr. Turtledove recently finished an astonishing 11-volume (by my count) history of an alternative America that started with Confederate victory and independence in the Civil War, or War Between the States, and continued through a meticulously recreated working of how World Wars I and II would have been fought across the North American continent if the Union and the Confederacy had fought on either side in both global conflicts.
Mr. Turtledove was capable of remarkably tight and effective prose in his early works. The scale of his efforts over the past decade has reduced his literary style to stripped-down, pedestrian efficiency. But that does not matter. The meat of any Turtledove novel is in the extraordinarily convincing worlds — social, psychological, religious and political — that he creates for his host of utterly normal people taking for granted worlds that are, for us, quite extraordinary. His latest work is no exception.
As he usually likes to do, Mr. Turtledove starts by tweaking a single, fateful incident of history that could so easily have gone the other way, and then watches as a steadily widening and intensifying sequence of events generates a complete transformation of the history we comfortably think we know. Here, he asks what might have happened if the sinister Reinhard Heydrich, boss of Adolf Eichmann and architect of the genocide of the Jews of Europe, had not been assassinated by British and Czech commandos in 1942.
Mr. Turtledove simply has the fateful Sten gun jam at the crucial moment — as such weapons all too often did — so Heydrich lives. And the following year, after Germany has lost 300,000 of its finest infantry soldiers in the cauldron at Stalingrad, Heydrich is still alive and prescient enough to ask how the Third Reich can keep fighting the war after it has been inevitably conquered.
The result is the guerrilla war against Western occupiers in Germany that Mr. Turtledove creates in this chilling novel: American casualties rise; the war continues with no end in sight. Fierce and even barbarous U.S. counter-insurgency measures only serve to bind the occupied German population more tightly behind Heydrich and his Werewolves. Famous, even legendary American leaders are cut down before their time, and in Washington the search to find a workable exit strategy assumes passionate and even agonized dimensions. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
The analogies can be taken too far, of course. Germany in 1945 was not Iraq in 2003. Germany had been bombed, bombarded and - as far as the Soviet Red Army forces went - raped to a melted-down mass of rubble before the Allied occupation ever got started.
Nevertheless, Mr. Turtledove, at the very minimum, has written another gripping and profoundly thought-provoking work of alternative history. And the questions he discusses about how far hostile occupation of a belligerent nation by a Western democratic power can and ought to go, certainly remain exceptionally relevant to the dilemmas we face today.