Alternate history—an intellectual “parlor game” played by novelists, historians, and political scientists—envisions the world as it might have been had certain developments in history turned out differently. The late science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle and British novelist Robert Harris’s best-selling Fatherland both portray a world in the 1960’s two decades after Germany won World War II. Harry Turtledove has made a cottage industry out of alternate history by developing several “what might have been” scenarios into a string of books (including a thirteen-volume series on the uneasy relationship between the U.S. and the Confederate States of America for eighty years after the Civil War ended in a standoff).
One of Turtledove’s best-known devotees is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has himself dabbled in writing alternate history. In 1941, Gingrich and co-author William R. Fortschen portray a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that devastates the U.S fleet in the Pacific and makes it more difficult for America to come back.
The latest foray into this literary universe comes from British author Guy Saville. In his first-ever novel The Afrika Reich, Saville takes the reader to 1952—a dozen years after the successful German operation at Dunkirk embarrassed Great Britain and convinced the British to sue for peace, bring its prisoners-of-war home, and remain out of the European War (as did its natural ally, the United States). In the wake of the horrors of Europe’s Holocaust, the Jews are deported to the island of Madagascar off the coast of Mozambique. So Nazi Germany emerged from the war having neutralized Great Britain, defeated the Soviet Union, with control over much of Europe (from its new, post-war capital ‘Germania’) and parts of Africa, where “the swastika flies from the Sahara to the Indian Ocean.” In a truly frightening prospect of what might have been, the author takes note of Hitler’s aims quoting the Fuhrer’s speech to the SS on 22 February 1942: “On the day when we’ve solidly organized Europe, we shall look towards Africa.”
Back in Britain, we meet Burton Cole, a cynical veteran of Dunkirk who has made a postwar income as an occasional mercenary and seeks to buy a farm and marry the girl of his dreams (who happens to be in a loveless marriage with someone else). Cole is finally given the opportunity to make his dreams come true when a visitor offers him a substantial contract for one final mission: to assassinate Walter Hochburg, Germany’s amoral overseer of its colonial domain in Africa.
With the quicksilver pace of such popular thriller writers as Steven Berry and Phillip Kerr, Saville vividly portrays Cole assembling his old mercenary comrades, their mission coming unraveled, and their attempts to flee Nazi-ruled Kongo (that’s how they spell it) into British-run South Africa—all as the colonial clashes between Berlin and London are being played out on a grander scale.
Along with emotionally involving the reader in the breathless escapades of Cole and his comrades, author Saville actually brings to life what African capitals were like back in 1952.
It is also through the fiction that is alternate history that readers gain insight into real-life political questions that are significant in the real world of today. As Germany attempts to extend its control over Africa, one can see the growing resistance of native Africans—a clear signal of the restlessness that would finally end colonialism on the continent and that even today makes the durability of most African governments uncertain.
In Afrika Reich’s history, the British failure at Dunkirk forced Churchill out of the prime minister’s office and put in Lord Halifax, a politician far more inclined to deal with the Germans. In 1952, Halifax is still prime minister which means that an unelected member of the House of Lords is in power and a sign that British commitment to democratic institutions is not all that secure.
Having sold well and won good reviews throughout Europe, Guy Saville’s first novel is now available in the U.S. This reviewer’s best guess is that The Afrika Reich will get considerable readership and bouquets from critics on this side of the pond as well. And it will surely net some intense discussion among “alternative historians.”
John Gizzi is White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. See Book Reviews.