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Sixth in an alternative history series: what if WW2 had started in 1938?
on 1 August 2014
This is the sixth book in a series which speculates about what might have happened if World War II had started in 1938 after a different outcome to the Munich peace. Like the previous books in the series this is very much a "marmite" book which some people will like and others hate.
The books in the series to date and planned are:
1) "Hitler's War"
2) "West and East (War That Came Early)"
3) "The Big Switch: The War That Came Early"
4) "Coup D'Etat (War That Came Early (Del Rey Paperback))"
5) "Two Fronts (the War That Came Early, Book Five)"
6) This book, "Last Orders: The War That Came Early."
This book reads like the conclusion to this particular group of novels in that it reaches a possible finishing point for most, though not quite all, of the plotlines affecting the viewpoint characters. It also gives a pretty clear idea of how the world of this group of novels would be left at the end of a series of wars between 1938 and 1944 which were similar in many ways to the historical World War II but quite different in others.
After apparently completing a series of books, Harry Turtledove has frequently come back and written a further book or series about what happened next. I assume from the fact that there is a gigantic loose end at the close of this book, and a surprise twist in the last few pages, that he is leaving open the option of a "what happened next" story here too.
"The War that came early" is yet another alternative version of World War II from Harry Turtledove. It is quite astonishing that he can still find new perspectives from which to write about that war, but he does.
Nothing in this review is a spoiler for "Last Orders" but it is difficult to describe this sixth and apparently final book in the series without major spoilers for the third, fourth and fifth books in the middle. I shall try to avoid completely giving away the major plotlines for "The Big Switch" and "Coup D'Etat" here but if you have not read the third and fourth books, might wish to do so and you don't want to know what happens in them, I recommend that you don't read further here or any other reviews or descriptions of the fourth and subsequent books. There is also a minor spoiler for the fifth book a few paragraphs down.
In the opening of the first book Turtledove made two changes in real history, and the first two volumes in the series work from there. First, in 1936 General Jose Sanjuro wasn't killed in a plane crash and consequently Sanjuro rather than Franco becomes leader of the Nationalist side in the Spanish civil war. Secondly, during the Munich negotiations, Henlein (leader of the Sudeten Germans) was assassinated, giving Hitler an excuse to press for even more punitive terms against Czechoslovakia.
In this history Chamberlain and Daladier finally recognised that Hitler was determined on war, and suspected that he had actually ordered Henlein's murder himself. They found the spine to tell Hitler that if he invaded Czechoslovakia Britain and France would honour their obligations to the Czechs. Hitler did order the invasion of Czechoslovakia on the spot, and the war started a year earlier than in real history.
There was (and is) a commonly held view, at the time of Munich and subsequently, that the democracies were not ready for war in 1938 while Germany was. Many years ago my late father summarised this view in seven words when I asked him why Chamberlain failed to stand up to Hitler at Munich: he answered "We would have lost the war then." My dad was ten at the time of Munich and his view reflected that of his elders, but he was faithfully repeating a very common view among my grandfather's generation.
This series is entertainment rather than a serious academic study, but the first two books tried to address the question of whether that view is right, by projecting through what might have happened, taking account of the fact that the lineup of countries on each side would not have been identical, of the state of preparedness of various nations, and of the military and naval kit which would have been available to the combatants in a war which began in 1938.
Both Britain and Germany would have been forced to make more use of armoured vehicles armed only with machine guns (Bren carriers and the Panzer I), or very light tanks such as the Panzer II: biplane fighters and bombers would have been used much more by all sides.
In real history, German war plans in 1938 for war against France were based on a slightly updated version of the Schlieffen plan which had been tried and failed in 1914. However, at the start of the war a copy of those plans fell into British hands. Knowing this, the Germans changed their strategy to the "Manstein Plan" for a punch through the Ardennes, a strategy which succeeded brilliantly and knocked France out of the war in 1940. In "Hitler's war" the Schlieffen plan is tried again with pretty much the results which most military historians think would have resulted if the Germans had been daft enough to stick with it.
By the start of the third book the Germans had clearly failed to secure the rapid victory against France which they actually achieved in 1940, and are slowly and painfully being driven back, though their armies are well inside French territory: in the East the Germans and Poles are gradually driving the Russians back.
At this point Turtledove posits a further "What if" change in events from the real World War II - what if there were a change around in the pattern of alliances? Hence the title of the third book.
Now if asked whether such an event would have been remotely likely I'd say definately not. Particularly in the timeline proposed in this series, because some of the same people who showed more spine in the first book "Hitler's War" than they did in reality, and were actually more willing to stand up to the evils of Nazism in 1938, diverge from historical events in precisely the opposite direction in the third book. Furthermore, some of the events in real history which reinforced Western hatred of Soviet communism and nearly did lead to British and Soviet troops fighting one another - such as Stalin's invasion of Finland - were in this timeline forestalled by the earlier start to the war against Germany.
Having said that, there was an element within Britain and France, small minority though they were, who hated communism more than nazism and argued for a course of action similar to the way in which the third book diverges from real history. Which makes it a legitimate "what if" to ask provided you don't pretend it is a likely one.
Turtledove went out of his way to recognise that there would also have been many people in Britain and France who strongly opposed any rapprochement with Hitler, and indeed, by the start of the fifth book, the pattern of alliances had switched back to something similar to that in real history.
Two final major differences between this series and real history is that in the latter Pearl Harbour came at a moment when Hitler thought he was winning the war and was overconfident enough to declare war on the United States. I'm not going to give the details, let's just say that in this history the timing is rather different. And finally, the Manhattan project was suspended in a previous book, so the reader who has read up to the start of this one knows that however the war ends, it's not going to be terminated by a US nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or anywhere else.
If there are any exact dates given in the fifth or sixth book I didn't spot them, but "Two Fronts" included a US mid-term election which has to be that of 1942, and in this book there are references to the series of wars which Hitler began in 1938 having dragged on for nearly six years, so the year must be 1944.
Different aspects of the harm done by various regimes in this history, particularly Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Imperial Japan, are sometimes even worse, sometimes slightly less so than in real history. In particular, although Hitler's regime in the books is absolutely abominable to Jewish people throughout the area if controls, the Nazis do not appear to have made any attempt to implement complete genocide in the way that the "Final Solution" was attempted in real history.
This is presumably because, in one of the greatest ironies of the series, Poland has remained allied to Hitler in all six books since he came to their aid against a Soviet attack. About half the Jews who were murdered in the real Holocaust were citizens of Poland. In this story the Nazis are not in a position to take millions of citizens of one of their few important allies to death camps and kill them, so the idea of wiping out the entire Jewish population of Europe is not just mad and evil but so obviously impossible that even Hitler and Himmler do not attempt it.
In most respects other than this, however, the war is developing in a way which is as brutal and destructive as the real one if not even more so: The Germans cause havoc everywhere they go, the RAF knocks hell out of German cities, and the Japanese army, who in real history were outclassed in barbarism and murder only by the Holocaust, manage to do even more damage than they did in real history including a campaign of bacteriologial warfare.
As usual for a Harry Turtledove book, the war is seen through the eyes of a large number of fictional viewpoint characters, one or more from each of the countries involved. These include an American woman caught in Prague by the outbreak of war who finally got home in the third book, a Jewish family in Munster, a German panzer wireless operator, infantryman, stuka pilot, and U-Boat skipper, French, British and Japanese infantrymen, a Czech corporal who found himself fighting in the Spanish civil war when the free Czech forces in France were allowed to escape there when France changed sides, two Russian Air Force pilots one of whom is now leading troops on the ground, and an American Marine.
The brother of the Jewish girl viewpoint character is hiding from the Nazis by having enlisted in the Wehrmacht under a false name. Turtledove kept us guessing for a while about this, but it was clear by book five that he is the driver of the Panzer in which a Wehrmacht viewpoint character is radio operator. In most of the books including this one major historical figures like Hitler, Hess, Churchill Roosevelt and Donitz appear very occasionally as they impact on the lives of the viewpoint characters or vice versa. But for most of the books the story is told from the viewpoint of ordinary people and their main interaction with major historical figures is when they experience the results of what those people have done, or when they hear them on the radio.
Turtledove's homework on the tactical capabilities of equipment available to the armed forces of all sides between 1938 and 1944 is mostly pretty good. Having previously depicted the problems the germans had in dealing with soviet tank designs, such as the T34 and KV1, which reflected the problems those machines actually caused the Germans during the first year of Operation Barbarossa, Turtledove depicts in the fifth book how Germany hit back with machines like the later Panzer IV variants and the Tiger. In this one the Allied and Russian characters are working out how to deal with the Tiger and not enjoying it any more than they did in real life, thought they have a few nasty surprises of their own for the Germans.
Wanting to see what will happen to the viewpoint characters is one of the things which holds my interest in this series: killing the occasional viewpoint character is one of the ways Turtledove brings home the cost of war, especially how an action which is the work of seconds and then forgotten for one person can be a complete change or the end of everything for another. There was a particularly poignant example in the fourth book when Turtledove described in a couple of sentences how one viewpoint character, noting someone doing an effective job for the other side, quickly and effectively gunned him down as one might swat an insect. At the start of the next paragraph Turtledove introduced a character by his full name who had previously been described only by his ranks and surname. The individual concerned had been the comrade and boss of a previous viewpoint character throughout the four books up to this point, but that viewpoint character turns out to have been the man who the soldier on the other side shot and killed in the previous paragraph.
There is a similar instances in both "Two Fronts" and "Last Orders."
This is the fifth alternative version of World War II which Turtledove has written. He has previously done a series with aliens from Tau Ceti invading in 1942 (the "Worldwar" series which starts with Worldwar: In the Balance (New English library)). He's also done a parallel history following pretty much the real track, in a world where technology uses magic rather than engineering (known variously as the Darkness, Derlavi, or 'World at War' series) which starts with Into the Darkness. There is an alternative World War II in his massive ten volume history of a Confederate States of America which survives for nearly a century following a Rebel victory in the US Civil War, and in which the same roles as in the historical WWII are carried out by different people - this is the "Settling Accounts" quartet. Finally there is a pair of novels, "Days of Infamy" and "End of the Beginning" which explore the possibility that Japan might have followed up the Pearl Harbour attack with an invasion of Hawaii.
Turtledove has a few annoying weaknesses, particularly his bad habit of repeating the same information time after time, and there is some of that in this series, such as instances of him repeatedly introducing characters and reminding the reader who they are with details about their past history which anyone with an attention span longer than a gnat's will already remember. To be fair, there was not nearly as much of that in "Last Orders" as in some of the preceding books. Overall the writing and characterisation in this series is good.
Overall I have enjoyed enjoyed reading all six books in this series and I think many Turtledove fans will likewise enjoy them, though there will undoubtedly be some who do not.