Hitler’s War: The War That Came Early by Harry Turtledove
Published by Hodder, UK: January 2010; Bantam USA, 2009
Review by Mark Yon
Harry is the king of the ‘What if’ scenario. His alternate history books, published with astounding frequency, usually look at key events in history and then the consequences of one or two changes. What, for example, if the Japanese continued the invasion of the US after Pearl Harbour? The Germans develop nuclear weapons in World War 2 first? Aliens invaded Earth at the same time as WW2 was beginning? Dragons existed and were used as combat weapons in World War One?
Hitler’s War, the first in an ongoing series, is one whereby the origins of World War Two are altered. In this scenario, there are two major changes. The first is that José Sanjurjo, a general in exile in Portugal returns to lead Spain’s Nationalist fascists in 1936 (during their Civil War) surviving a plane crash. The second is when, during the Munich Conference in 1938, Konrad Henlein, a political leader of Sudetenland Germans is assassinated by a Czech.
From these two events new situations arise: Hitler uses Henlein’s death as a means of beginning war with Czechoslovakia. On October 1, German tanks cross the Czech frontier. With Sanjurjo returned to Spain and leading the Fascists instead of General Franco, the Spanish Nationalists are less isolated than they really were and in this scenario side with Hitler. The upshot of this is that Britain, France, and the Soviet Union are all forced to declare war on Germany a year earlier than in real life.
There are other changes as a result of these actions. Poland sides with Germany against the USSR. Fascist Spain attacks Gibraltar. The Japanese army, seeking expansion, crosses the Manchurian frontier into Siberia and begins skirmishes with the USSR in Mongolia. The British Army, unprepared even less than they were in real life, sets off for France, which has launched a pre-emptive attack on the Rhineland.
Interestingly, whilst Spain and Japan take a more active role here, the United States in these proceedings moves from the foreground to the background of global events. Though part of the tale is told through American troops in China, and volunteers participating in the Spanish Civil War, the story is mainly based on events in Europe.
This is one based on the historical goings-on at the time. There are no aliens, no dragons this time around, but we do have real people – Hitler, Chamberlain, and Stalin – intermixed with our fictional ones. This tale, as is usual, is told not so much through the actions of the well known people, but through the civilians, the grunts, and the populace at the front edge.
Against these global backdrops, Harry tells the tale through a broad range of people, from a variety of different backgrounds. The range is broad, the characterisation shallow, though there’s a nice variety of viewpoints from characters as diverse as Czech soldier Vaclav Jezek, Russian bomber pilot Sergei Yaroslavsky, German Panzer Sergeant Ludwig Rothe, stranded American civilian Peggy Druce, Japanese soldier in Mongolia Hideki Fujita, and American mercenary soldier in China Corporal Pete McGill. The list is lengthy! Some survive all manner of awful events, whilst others don’t make it. Part of the fun of these broad sweeps is working out who lives and who doesn’t, as well as realising the difficulties and hardships the author puts the characters through.
After 500 pages we get to Spring 1939: which is where the next book in the series will continue.
This is a solidly written, entertaining novel, where the plot is the thing and the characters are there to propel it. There’s not any real depth, but then that’s not the point. The key amusement is the working out, in a sensible and logical manner, of the consequences of those changes put into action and their impact on the characters involved. To enjoy these books you have to buy into the multitude of rather flimsy characters and go with it in order to get pleasure from them fully.
What comes across most strongly through all of these viewpoints is that for most of those directly involved war is hell, people suffer, and at the same time others thrive on adversity. The human spirit is indomitable, despite whatever is thrown at it.
I must admit that I have to be in the right mood to read these – I suspect reading lots of them together would no doubt show their repetitive nature and weaknesses – but when I want a widescreen, action-packed block of a novel, then these are as good as they get.
Mark Yon, August 2011