We're Not Like Them
To my generation, the Second World War was an event that our grandparents were too old to fight in and that our parents experienced as children. It happened, we won, and to prove it, one of Hitler's balls is on display in the Albert Hall. We grew up believing that our victory was inevitable and easy. Some people died but well, our family survived to parent us and we can hardly miss the uncles that didn't come back from the fighting as we never knew them. Subsequent generations, including my children, study WWII in primary school in the same way they study the Tudors or the Anglo Saxons. The only difference being that my parents and aunt are available to be interviewed and quoted as primary sources of research into what it was like to be evacuated from the East End of London, but not what life was like during the Sacking of the Monasteries.
How well it all turned out. How safe we are. How comforting it is to know that nothing like the Nazis could ever come to power in Britain and that even if we had been occupied, our leaders would never have collaborated in the way that Pétain and Quisling did.
Now read C J Sansom's novel Dominion.
Few books have set me thinking quite as much. Quick history lesson folks:
- March 1938, Hitler annexes the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia.
- September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returns from Munich where UK, France and Germany had agreed that Germany could keep Czechoslovakia in return for leaving us alone. He famously stops at the bottom of the aircraft steps and holds up a piece of paper signed by Herr Hitler offering us peace in our time.
- September 1939, Hitler invades Poland, Chamberlain, by now fully aware of what's really going on, declares war on Germany.
- Spring 1940, Hitler invades Denmark and Norway; through ineffective leadership so far, Chamberlain loses the confidence of his party and Parliament.
We've reached May 1940. Who will take over from Chamberlain? The obvious candidate is the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. The less likely candidate, thorn in the side of the establishment for many years, is Winston Churchill. As we know, the latter took over. But what if he hadn't? What if Halifax had taken over?
That's not an unlikely scenario. And if he had, would he have conducted the war more or less as Churchill did or would he have sued for peace? It's the latter course of action that is taken in Dominion. A peace treaty is signed, Britain enjoys friendly relations with our German allies – but in reality we're a puppet nation as many others were forced to be in the reality of Nazi rule.
One the surface, the book is about the (plucky) British resistance to the evil occupation, but what I found most thought provoking was the utterly credible way Sansom describes British acquiescence to German authority. "Let's not have any trouble, move along now please." and "Oh yes, well I've never liked the Jews, must be terribly cold for them in those camps, still, mustn't grumble."
Imagine the scene. It's a cold Sunday morning. The (armed) police turn up at 7am, arrest your neighbour and take them away. Do you: a) wonder what's going on but do nothing for fear you and your children will be taken away too; or, b) stand in the street and risk your own immediate death by trying to stop them. Do you want to stand with the strong and powerful or risk everything and fight them?
There are many British characters in Sansom's alternative history who are supportive of the regime one way or another. Some through ideology, others through the perverted pleasure of being the one wielding the cosh but all of them, all of them, I found utterly credible. The story is told through the eyes of pacifists, resistance operatives, British police thugs and Nazi military men, all struggling with their own ideologies and motivations.
The mindset that took power in Germany in 1933 was that German nationalism and the purity of the Aryan race were superior to everyone else and that peace and harmony would follow if we could just get rid of all the others. It's an extreme view shared, thankfully, by few people but there are many, many people in Britain and everywhere else who do argue that we are different from them and define we in a variety of terms.
To take an obvious example, more than half of Tory MPs recently voted against equal marriage. We are straight, we are normal, we can have children, therefore we can be married. You are gay, you are not normal, you can't have children, therefore you can't be married. That's just homophobic bigotry pure and simple. Oh and the Catholic bishop, so forceful in his pronouncements about the grotesque nature of gay marriage turns out to be at the centre of accusations of sexual harassment. Quelle surprise.
But what really worries me when reading C J Sansom's book is how easily it fits in with today's ever more forthright and popular condemnation of other nations. Today's bogey men and women are the people of Romania and Bulgaria, all of whom according to the BNP/UKIP mouthpieces (Daily Mail and Daily Express) are massing on their borders waiting to come here to sign on and commit crime. Remember when it was the Poles? And before that the Indians and Bangladeshis? Or was it the West Indians I can't remember… Take a look at these vox pops from UKIP voters in this week's Eastleigh byelection. The first one sums it up rather well:
One of the reasons I voted for Ukip is immigration. I'm worried about the dropping of the barrier in January. I fully expect 2-4 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come over. What's it going to be like? We're a small island.
That is a common view. They are a problem, they are coming over here, they are not us. Substitute the word 'Romanian' with the word 'Jew' and see how that quote reads.
The demonisation of 'other' couldn't happen here? I dearly wish it were true but C J Sansom's Dominion shows how easily it could and Eastleigh shows that, in some respects, it's happened already.