In The Presence Of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove

New American Library, 2003, 454 p.

Germany won the Second World War and twenty years later a Third. In 2009, the US, like most of Europe, is a vassal state, paying reparations to avoid the panzers rolling out from their bases in US cities. The British Union of Fascists holds sway in a Britain also in thrall to Germany.

In Berlin, the Gimpel family lets its eldest daughter into a secret. They are Jews, and must keep their origins hidden, speaking of it only to those in their immediate circle. Meanwhile the old Führer, a character whose real world model is only thinly disguised by the name Kurt Haldweim, has died and the new one, Heinz Buckliger, starts to loosen the strings of dictatorship. This strand of the plot hinges on textual differences between the first and subsequent editions of Mein Kampf, a subject on which I have to take Turtledove on trust.

Parallels with our world are one of the delights of altered histories. Nice touches here are a stage production featuring the baddies Churchill and Stalin which is so awful that it’s a smash hit and a delegation from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, asking for autonomy for the region, being led by a grey-haired Czech playwright.

(Slight spoiler alert:-

The thousand year Reich (had it survived World War II) would no doubt have collapsed under its internal contradictions at some point long before a millennium had passed but perhaps not quite so quickly and easily as portrayed here. The parallel with the Soviet Union of our own world which Turtledove implicitly outlines by having the Gauleiter of Berlin face down SS tanks in front of his residence does not really hold. In the world of the novel there was no Cold War to sap and counter its ideology – Japan is not presented as too great a rival to Germany – and hence any decay would likely have been much slower.)

This may be the story Turtledove always wanted to tell – Jewishness has unsurprisingly featured prominently in his altered worlds and this is the ultimate scenario to deploy in order to explore it. I’m afraid his writing does not do this particular theme justice, though. It has his usual multiple viewpoints, but all are Jewish here. Other familiar traits are too prevalent; the tendency to reiterate characters’ thoughts or peccadilloes, to labour a point, and here he doesn’t so much foreshadow future events as telegraph them. Plus he is too kind to his viewpoint characters and the book’s Nazis are cardboard – all the really evil deeds are in the novel’s past – which is a shame because this could have been a powerful indictment of man’s inhumanity to man.

The idea for In The Presence Of Mine Enemies worked much better at the short story length in which it first appeared in 1992.

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