Leesfragment: Herr Ribbentrop requests

27 november 2015 , door Andrew Roberts
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5 februari spreekt Faber Finds-redacteur John Seaton in Spui25 over de reeks, en vanaf die dag zijn alle delen ook beschikbaar via Athenaeum.nl met een verlaagde prijs. Een ervan is If Hitler Comes. A Cautionary Tale, waarover we vandaag een stuk mogen publiceren van Andrew Roberts (TLS).

If Hitler Comes is een dystopische klassieker in het genre van de 'wat-als-geschiedenis', en werd in augustus 1940, slechts twee maanden na de val van Frankrijk, gepubliceerd. De Slag om Groot-Brittannië werd nog uitgevochten. Het boek verscheen toen als The Loss of Eden, en in maart 1941 als If Hitler Comes. Het had een duidelijk morele bedoeling, om de twijfelaars, de defaitisten tegen te spreken, die een verdrag tussen Duitsland en Groot-Brittannië overwogen.

‘To speculate on who would have collaborated if the Germans had invaded Britain,’ Sir Isaiah Berlin once told me, ‘is the most vicious game a Briton can play.’ If so, we love playing vicious games, because ‘Hitler’s Britain’ is easily the most revisited part of the entire counterfactual canon, which is itself so popular that it has its own section in the London Library (entitled ‘Imaginary History’). Scores of novels, plays, films, faux-histories, and even What If ‘documentaries’ have sought to examine what would have happened if Hitler had landed. Quite apart from their general entertainment value, some of them allow us an insight into Britons’ greatest hopes and fears, both during the war and after it. 

In August 1940, only two months after the Fall of France and while the Battle of Britain was being fought, Douglas Brown and Christopher Serpell published Loss of Eden, the best of all the invasion counterfactuals, which was republished the following year under the title If Hitler Comes: A Cautionary Tale. It took the form of a report written by a New Zealand journalist Charles Fenton, which had been unearthed by Maori archaeologists years into the future, after a volcano had destroyed the city of Wellington. Fenton had been the London correspondent of the Wellington Courier from the Munich Agreement to the point at which the censorship policies of the Nazi occupying power of Britain had rendered his job pointless.

Short, tersely written and utterly unsparing, If Hitler Comes paints an almost unrelentingly dystopian vision of life in Britain under the Nazis, and was dedicated ‘To Those Who Will Not Let This Happen.’ The authors argue in their Foreword that ‘This is no fanciful picture. It is painted from life, with England as the background instead of Bohemia or Poland or any other country now under the Nazi heel.’ The Times hailed the book as ‘an outstanding ... work of fiction’ and the TLS as ‘a cautionary tale with a ... frightful vengeance’. Republished for the first time in 68 years, it fully deserves to retake its place as the very best of this large and growing literary genre.

Although little is known of Douglas Brown - unless TLS readers can help - Christopher Serpell was born in Leeds in 1910, the son of the senior master of Leeds Grammar School. He read Classics at Merton College, Oxford, and, after working as a cub reporter on the Yorkshire Post, he joined The Times in the 1930s. During the war he served under Ian Fleming in Naval Intelligence, and afterwards rose to be the BBC’s foreign news editor. He died in 1991.

There was already a well established tradition of 'What If' invasion novels by 1940. In 1871 George Chesney had imagined a Prussian invasion of Britain in The Battle of Dorking, and in 1914 H. H. Munro (Saki) had posited a visit by Kaiser Wilhelm II to an occupied London in his novella When William Came. In 1937 the feminist writer Katherine Burdekin, writing under her nom de plume Murray Constantine, published Swastika Night, set in a Britain where worship of the Führer has replaced Christianity and all women were mere Üntermenschen child-breeders.   
Although Nevil Shute published What Happened to the Corbetts in 1939, envisaging the bombing of Southampton in cataclysmic terms, If Hitler Comes was the first wartime novel to posit a successful German invasion. It sought to explain how Britain had fallen under the heel of the jackboot, through the weakness of an ultra-appeasing British government that had attempted to sign a Treaty of Friendship with Germany after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The prime minister, a pathetic, pompous booby called Professor Evans, and his far more sinister Quisling home secretary Sir John Naker, initially hoped to preserve British independence by allying Britain with the Reich, which gradually managed to infiltrate first policemen and eventually soldiers into a country that had had its will to resist sapped away by propaganda and unrelenting Nazi pressure. The blame for the disaster was thus placed squarely on British refusal to fight back, and before long a tyrannical totalitarian state was established.

As well as some superb descriptions of the national scene as Britain slips into a new barbarism, the strength of the book derives from the way that liberty is seen to be extinguished in distinct stages, sometimes with the active participation of British collaborators.   
A real (or more likely staged) assassination attempt on Hitler at a rally at Lord’s cricket ground provides the excuse for the toughest of the crackdowns, with a concentration camp housing Winston Churchill, Alfred Duff Cooper, Anthony Eden and thousands of others established at Godalming, as well as an extermination camp at Stoke Poges. Fenton, a Rhodes Scholar, describes how Lord Haw-Haw broadcasted from Bush House - nicknamed Boche House by the few resisters - and State Emergency Courts handed down arbitrary sentences. He despises Reich Commissioner Ribbentrop’s ‘vulgar preference for the obvious which caused him to choose Buckingham Palace as his official residence’. With German spoken at Oxbridge high tables, sterling no longer legal tender, factory workers reduced to helotry or shipped off to slave-labour in Germany, the authors allow virtually no room for hope. Even the proto-resistance leaders Stephen Mallory and Patrick Rosse (leader of the Greyshirts) seem to have been based on Oswald Mosley, despite Brown and Serpell writing from an overall left/liberal perspective.

Since it was written in Britain in 1940, the authors were ignorant of the full horrors of the Holocaust, and thus describe Jewish businesses being boycotted and an Aryan law passed that ‘meant penury and sometimes starvation’ for Jews, but not genocide. Stalin gets overthrown and Japan emerges as an ally of America, which were obviously duff predictions too. Yet overall Brown and Serpell showed remarkable foresight, considering they did not have access to Field-Marshal  Walter von Brauchitsch’s ‘Orders Concerning the Organization and Function of Military Government in England’ of September 1940, many of the harsh provisions of which are uncannily mirrored in their prognostications.

‘It does not take many secret police to hold down England,’ Brown and Serpell wrote. ‘One in every factory, helped by a few spies; one in every group of villages; one for every block of streets. Each is protected by an invisible human screen - by the score or so men, women and children who would pay with their lives were any desperate attempt to be made on his. Each group knows how to corrupt still further the frightened little group he dominates. Each serves at once his own greedy ends and his Fuhrer’s.’ The authors’ psychological insights into the various declensions of collaboration are as penetrating as their insights into how, by adopting a gradualist approach over a generation, the Nazis would have replaced English with German as the language spoken in most homes.

Although If Hitler Comes is the best of them, there were plenty other such novels written during the war. In Strange Conflict (1941), Dennis Wheatley wrote of how the Germans in Poland ‘have injected the whole of the population so as to make them incapable of producing children,’ despite not knowing the reality of what was happening to the Poles and Jews at the time. Other counterfactual invasion novels, such as Graham Seton Hutchinson’s The V Plan (1941), David Divine’s Tunnel From Calais (1942), H. V. Morton’s I, James Blunt (1942), Anthony Armem and Bruce Graeme’s When the Bells Rang (1943) and Martin Hawkin’s When Adolf Came (1943) all posit more or less reassuring outcomes, with the Germans either being defeated on landing or Britain finally having a - however distant - hope of liberation through internal resistance and/or help from abroad. That is almost entirely lacking in Brown and Serpell’s far more pessimistic, and thus more haunting, work.

The use of the Continental experience for providing indications for what would have happened in Britain was superbly employed in Humphrey Jennings’ 1943 film The Silent Village, in which the Welsh villagers of Cwmgiedd were massacred by the SS in much the same way that the village of Lidice had been razed the previous year in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. The image of the British village as a microcosm for the occupation was also used by Graham Greene in his short story The Lieutenant Died Last, which was adapted in 1942 into the superb movie Went the Day Well, which told the story of Bramley End being captured by German paratroopers on a peaceful Whitsun Saturday morning. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, with music by William Walton and a screenplay by John Dighton, it shows how the otherwise gentle villagers had to harden their hearts to the self-sacrifices necessary in Total War after the advance guard of an invasion force landed on them. ‘They wanted England, the Germans did,’ says a gardener standing by the paratroopers’ graves in the churchyard, ‘but this is all they got.’

Post-war counterfactuals had the advantage of having the Brauchitsch blueprints for an occupied Britain. Non-novel ‘histories’ such as Comer Clarke’s England Under Hitler (1961), Norman Longmate’s If Britain Had Fallen (1972), Kenneth Mackesy’s Invasion (1990) and Adrian Gilbert’s Britain Invaded (1990) employ these to good effect. Noel Coward’s play Peace in Our Time - working title: Might Have Been - was based on his experiences of Paris after the Liberation and opened in Brighton in July 1947. As Coward’s biographer Sheridan Morley put it, ‘It was a curious drama, not strictly comparable to any other of Coward’s plays though it shared with This Happy Breed a belief in the unconquerable common sense, patriotism and ultimate imperturbability of the British middle class.’

Set in the saloon bar of a pub between Knightsbridge and Sloane Square called 'The Shy Gazelle', Coward’s eight scenes tell the story of the five years of the German occupation. It had an ambiguous ending, with the Americans, Free English and French liberating Dover, while the SS are smashing down the door of the publican-hero. It had mixed reviews, although it played for some time at the Lyric and Aldwych theatres, and as Coward had written to a friend the previous year: ‘If I had really cared about press notices, I would have shot myself in the Twenties.’ Perhaps the subject matter was too raw for Britons within two years of the end of the war, for when Coward read the first scene to his friend Natasha Wilson, her response was that ‘It was too horrible to put England in such a position, especially now, when everyone is so down.’
Yet nothing stopped the flow of post-war invasion counterfactuals, which also include John W. Wall’s The Sound of His Horn (1952), C. S. Forester’s three-part Daily Mail essay ‘If Hitler Had Invaded England’ (1960), the anonymously-written The Occupation (1960), Giles Cooper’s The Other Man (1964) and Ewan Butler’s Without Apology (1968), the last of which purported to be the memoirs of a British Laval figure, a Tory baronet MP called Sir George Maudesley. That role is usually filled by Oswald Mosley, with David Lloyd George as the British Pétain, and the Duke of Windsor returning to his Throne as the Nazis’ puppet king. In many novels Churchill, the Royal Navy and the Bank of England gold reserves tend to have been evacuated to Canada or the Bahamas, with a resistance movement, based on the real-life Auxiliary Units, continuing to fight on, albeit in the face of horrific German reprisals against civilians.

In 1964, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s movie It Happened Here chillingly investigated the question of British collaborationism. It follows the fortunes of an Irish nurse called Pauline who joins the Quisling group Immediate Action because, as she puts it, ‘We’ve fought a war and lost it. There’s been suffering on both sides. The only way to get back to normal is to support law and order and that’s what I’m doing.’ Certain distressing scenes that showed real-life former Blackshirts discussing Judaism had to be cut before general distribution, and were not reinserted until 1996.

With its capacity to provide insights into our attitudes towards several important aspects of the Second World War, the alternative history invasion genre has unsurprisingly attracted interest from some academics, and particularly from Tristram Hooley, whose 2002 Leicester University PhD thesis ‘Predictive Fiction in the Second World War’ is a fine tour d’horizon of the wartime works, and from Gavriel D. Rosenfeld of Fairfield University, Connecticut, whose 2005 book The World Hitler Never Made argues that the portrayal of events which never happened reflects the evolving memory of the Third Reich’s real historical legacy.
In 1978 the thriller-writer Len Deighton published the most commercially successful novel of the genre, SS-GB: Nazi-Occupied Britain, 1941, but that same year a far more subtle and thought-provoking three part mini-series, entitled 'An Englishman’s Castle', was broadcast on BBC2, which examined how a British TV screenwriter, played by Kenneth More, rediscovers his patriotism years after a successful Nazi invasion. In more recent years, Craig Raine’s play 1953 (staged 1992-95), Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) and Madeleine Bunting’s study of the Channel Islands under German rule, The Model Occupation (1995) forced us to re-examine the issue of how we - and in Fatherland’s case, the Germans themselves - might have reacted to a Nazi victory even decades later. As recently as 2007, Owen Sheers set his pacy but moving novel Resistance in a Welsh border valley after the failed D-Day landings had resulted in a German counter-attack.

‘The future was uncertain,’ wrote Douglas Brown and Christopher Serpell in If Hitler Comes, ‘but it was not the habit of Englishmen to peer far into the future.’ In fact we’ve been in exactly that habit for over seven decades now, yet it was never done better than right at the beginning, by Brown and Serpell themselves.

Faber & Faber publishers

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