One of my main areas of interest, both in reading and writing is totalitarian governments, specifically though not exclusively Nazi Germany. I think I’m right in saying that we (Britain) are the only country in European that has not lived under a dictatorship in the last century. Why this is is a matter for debate, but it does encourage a tendency towards smugness, a sort of, well we wouldn’t allow it here.
I personally think it is more down to luck and circumstance rather than something inherently British. One of the reasons that Nazi Germany is so interesting to me and I think many of us is because German society was not so different from us prior to 1933. There is no solid reason why it couldn’t have happened here. It just didn’t.
Some years ago, my sister and I interrailed around Europe. For four days of this trip we stayed in Budapest and went to the Terrorhaza (Terror House):
This was the headquarters of first the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi Party, then the Stasi. The exhibits were uncompromising and vivid, and it made that whole period of history very current. Many people lived through Nazi Occupation and many people collaborated and the Terrorhaza made it clear that in Hungary at least, those who didn’t have neither forgotten nor forgiven those who did. It made a strong impression on me and I found myself looking at people on the streets of Budapest and wondering, ‘Did you or didn’t you?’. We in this country have luxury of assuming we wouldn’t because it has never been tested. Other people do not.
This brings me, (eventually!) to my newest acquisition, Dominion.
I am a big fan of C.J. Sansom. I love the Shardlakes, especially Revelation, and so I was very excited for this one. The premise is that instead of Churchill taking over from Chamberlain in 1940, it was Halifax. Britain promptly surrendered to Germany and twelve years later, in 1952, we are somewhat of a satellite state, with our current government in German control and Moseley a rising star.
I think Nazism is a popular subject for writers nowadays and it is a struggle to find a fresh take on it. A particular difficulty is keeping an element of surprise when the timeline is so familiar. Imagining how Britain would behave as a satellite nation avoids this potential pitfall. It is hard to remember now, with the ubiquity of the holocaust, but the Jewish policy was not common knowledge until after the war. It is not surprising therefore to think that perhaps people would have accepted Nazi occupation, relieved that the bombings and war was over. Perhaps Germany would have taken a soft approach and perhaps life did proceed as normal, with slight changes here and there. That is the world we are presented with, and it is chillingly possible. By going with this more realistic approach rather than a picture of an immediately devastated Britannia, Sansom is able to show the creeping hold of Nazism and convey the responses of ordinary citizens very effectively.
There is a Resistance of course, which we assume we would all have been part all. In reality it is not a universally popular organisation. The story focuses on one small cell, and one man within that cell, David Fitzgerald. David’s usual role is obtaining information from the government office in which he works. His wife Sarah is a pacifist, and her family are firm Hitler supporters. He works against the regime in a dogged stable way, well concealed and plodding.
The routine is shattered with the arrival of Frank Muncaster. Frank and David were university friends, but Frank is now in an asylum after attacking his brother Edgar. Frank has information valuable to the Germans, and David is thrust into an altogether more intense form of Resistance than he was previously used to.
I found the book slow at first and I was worried that I’d allowed myself to get too overexcited and in the process ruined it for myself. However, the slow opening pace allows you to find your feet in this new version of England. The tension increases gradually as the Resistance and the Nazis move in overlapping circles and the sense of claustrophobia grows, depicted in physical terms by a noxious fog that drowns London at the point where the action is becoming most intense. Sansom is concerned with the individuals rather than the bigger fight, and that makes for an engaging and compelling read. Once the playing field is established, the pace quickens and the story becomes an exciting spy thriller. It would make a fantastic film.