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12 February 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 2:09pm

Why thriller writers love to imagine Britain being invaded by Nazis

Len Deighton’s SS-GB and the lure of alternate histories. 

By Andrew Glazzard

The Nazis are back, on television at least. We will shortly be able to choose from two alternate history television thrillers in which Germany emerges victorious from the Second World War. Amazon Prime is showing the second season of its adaptation of Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, set in the 1960s in a United States divided between a Nazi-controlled east and Japanese-occupied west, with an anarchic neutral zone in the middle. The BBC is about to screen its version of Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller SS-GB, in which a Scotland Yard detective investigates a murder that leads him into plots and counterplots at the heart of the quisling state set up by Nazi Germany after Great Britain’s surrender in 1941. Both are major productions: SS-GB is adapted by the duo behind the recent James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, and stars Sam Riley (who played Ian Curtis of Joy Division in Control). It seems we can’t get enough of the Second World War – so much so, that we want to experience vicariously what it would have been like to have been on the losing side. But the persistence of the war in popular culture, and in British popular fiction in particular, is more than a means to titillate readers with swastika-laden fantasy: at the heart of Deighton’s novel, and of many other thrillers before and after it, is a political examination of what that war means for Britain’s society and place in the world.

The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB represent two traditions of the alternate history genre. Dick’s novel was influenced by Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), which considers the consequences in the 20th century of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War. As in Dick’s novel, however, this is only one possible reality; where Dick locates what really happened in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel within the novel, Moore’s hero time-travels back to 1863 and accidentally causes General Robert E Lee to lose the Battle of Gettysburg, thus guaranteeing victory to the Union and setting history back on its correct path. This science-fiction tradition derives from 19th-century fictions of alternate futures, notably Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), whose hero wakes after sleeping for 113 years to find that America has become a socialist utopia, but then experiences in a dream a capitalist dystopia in which the boons of collective ownership have never come to pass. Bellamy’s work prompted many imitators: William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and H G Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) are the most notable British examples; these in turn may have influenced Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a feminist science-fiction dystopia set at the end of the thousand-year Reich, which, astonishingly, was published in 1937 (under the pseudonym Murray Constantine). But Moore’s and Dick’s technical innovation was to place the alternate reality not in the future but in the present, and to make it a consequence of a chain of historical cause and effect, thus providing a means to explore the very nature of what we perceive to be reality.

SS-GB belongs to a different tradition that also has its origins in late-Victorian speculative fiction. What we now call “invasion-scare” or “future war” fiction enjoyed a considerable vogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its best-known (or perhaps most notorious) practitioner was William Le Queux, an eccentric professional writer who is now read only by a small cadre of specialists but who, in his lifetime, counted among his promoters the newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe and Lord Roberts, possibly Britain’s most decorated general. Queen Alexandra and Arthur Balfour were also said to be ardent fans. The novels of Le Queux and his imitators usually imagine the conquest of Britain, or its penetration by spies belonging to one of a range of geopolitical enemies – generally France, Germany or Russia, the choice of enemy depending on the state of diplomatic relations at the time. Satirising the genre in The Swoop! (1909), P G Wodehouse has Britain invaded simultaneously by Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Monaco, Morocco, China, Turkey, Somaliland and Bolygolla; on the day of the invasions, a newspaper poster reads:


German army lands in England

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Le Queux’s purpose in writing invasion novels – one of the most successful of which was serialised in the Daily Mail in 1906, so that lurid tales of German atrocities against British civilians became almost indistinguishable from the real-life news – was to create an image of Britain that was, paradoxically, both strong and weak. It was strong in overall military, human and cultural resources, but weak in its openness, tolerance and lack of preparedness, born of its failure to anticipate that it had implacable great-power rivals on the European continent waiting to pounce. Even one of the finest examples of the genre, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), communicates the same basic message: to prepare for the coming confrontation, Britain needs to rearm not only militarily, with warships and guns, citizen armies and programmes of national vigilance, but also morally, with a rediscovery of its civilising mission. Forcing us to imagine life under French or German dominion, and often set just three or four years hence, Edwardian invasion-scare fiction is rarely futuristic; it presents more a politically charged alternate present than a dystopian future.

Invasion fiction also produced another, more familiar genre. As well as invading armies, the novels are populated by spies: foreign agents (often German barbers or waiters), odious spymasters wreaking havoc from embassies or foreign capitals, or native ingénus, compromised into giving secrets to the enemy. Indeed, Le Queux’s most remarkable achievement was not that his novels sold so well, but that he was instrumental in persuading the British that German intelligence had indeed infiltrated the country with an army of spooks, busy cutting hair, trimming beards and waiting on tables while gathering information on troop dispositions and critical infrastructure. By feeding his paranoid fears to military intelligence, the popular press and the novel-reading public, Le Queux helped stoke the Edwardian “spy fever” that contributed to the creation in 1909 of the Secret Service Bureau (the forerunner of today’s MI5 and MI6), and the Official Secrets Act 1911.

For all his sloppy writing and dubious politics, Le Queux left his mark on the institutions of government as well as the development of popular fiction. What might be called the reactionary tradition of espionage fiction, from John Buchan to Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming, and on to Frederick Forsyth – what Alan Bennett described in Forty Years On as “that school of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through 20th-century literature” – is Le Queux’s legacy. Yet there is also a sceptical and progressive tradition of espionage fiction that rejected the genre’s right-wing politics and simplistic morality. It begins, improbably enough, with a politically conservative literary novelist, Joseph Conrad, and continues through Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, culminating in John le Carré, our modern-day herald of disillusioned ­liberalism. This tradition focuses on the morality of political action, and the enemies it identifies are often not foreign states but ideological systems – whether capitalist, imperialist, communist or fascist; our own or someone else’s. Instead of wrongs being righted by square-jawed clubland heroes, as in Buchan or Fleming, these novels occupy more uncertain moral territory, in which it is hard to tell apart heroes and villains.

Len Deighton emerged as one of the leading writers of espionage fiction in the 1960s, but his novels do not sit easily in either school. The faith in the established order so clearly signalled by Le Queux and Fleming is entirely absent from Deighton’s fiction – but nor does Deighton share the trenchant anti-capitalism of early Ambler, or le Carré’s gloomy insistence on British decline. Throughout Deighton’s work there is a suspicion of the aristocracy bordering on contempt, and most of his heroes are working-class men striving to improve their lot and the world around them in the face of obstruction or sabotage by the chinless wonders at the top. This is epitomised by Bernard Samson, the upwardly mobile hero of a nine-novel sequence beginning with Berlin Game (1983), whose upper-crust wife, Fiona, has decided from a position of privilege, like the Cambridge spies on whom she is loosely based, that she should work clandestinely for the KGB. But while Bernard often takes aim at what he calls “the public-school mafia” running his department, with “their Savile Row suits and handmade shirts and Jermyn Street shoes”, he is also ideologically opposed to the Soviets, the Communist Party and proponents of nuclear disarmament. Indeed, these late-Cold War novels are distinctly Thatcherite in outlook – distrustful of elites, confident in the rewards for hard work, implacably at odds with socialist utopias.

In placing an espionage plot into an alternate-historical, invasion-scare setting, SS-GB returns to the roots of the espionage genre. And like Deighton’s modern-day thrillers, this is a political novel, and not just in its use of the tropes of espionage fiction to explore the geopolitics of a new world order. Set in a recognisably authentic London in late 1941, SS-GB is a testament to the author’s historical imagination, evidently drawing on Norman Longmate’s counter-factual history If Britain Had Fallen: the Real Nazi Occupation Plans (1972) and doubtless other research Deighton carried out for his 1977 popular history, Fighter: the True Story of the Battle of Britain. While Dick’s alternate history is a means to explore the mind-bending possibilities of multiverses and subjective reality, Deighton uses the imagined German victory to explore British society. Indeed, his novel is much more interested in the class system than it is in the horrors of Nazism, something that troubled some of the reviewers: aside from a mass ­arrest at a school, and passing references to a concentration camp on Wenlock Edge, the occupation is more bureaucratic than brutal.


Rather than frightening us, SS-GB holds up a mirror to readers by exploring a range of responses to Nazi rule, from armed opposition to enthusiastic collaboration. We cannot help but wonder how we would have responded in the same position. The novel’s detective hero, Superintendent Douglas Archer, is dedicated to his task of maintaining law and order despite working in the bureaucracy of occupation and answering to an SS intelligence officer: he understands that, even after military defeat, British citizens are entitled to safety and ­security. Meanwhile, his deputy is secretly working for the resistance. The attitude of most ordinary people is sullen obedience, punctuated by occasional gestures of low-level defiance against the “Herberts”.

But the response of the upper class shows the novel at its most political, and unsettling. Although Winston Churchill has heroically refused to flee and thus been executed in Berlin, the class system has accommodated itself to Nazi rule with remarkably little friction. Archer attends a country-house party where he sees ministers “who had learned to play their role in the new Nazi superstate that covered most of Europe”, as well as “top-ranking bureaucrats whose departments continued to run . . . smoothly under the German flag”. That’s not to say that all of the same people are in charge: a super-rich class of hoteliers and black-marketeers has “emerged from the wreckage of defeat”. The royal family, for its part, is either weak – one of the most memorable scenes in the novel depicts the wheelchair-bound and possibly brain-damaged king, coughing and shivering in Pall Mall – or absent: the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret have fled to New Zealand, and (as was the case in real life) the Duke of Windsor is sunning himself in the Bahamas.

The resistance is led by those among the elite who have refused to accept defeat. Yet our expectations that these dissident aristocrats will become the novel’s heroes are confounded: they are also shown to be collaborators, exploiting rivalries among the Nazis to trick the United States into fighting Germany; and their plot to spring George VI from the Tower of London is nothing more than a Machiavellian deception.

The Second World War has exerted a strong hold on the imagination of British thriller writers. Whether these stories take the form of alternate history, as in SS-GB, Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) and C J Sansom’s Dominion (2012), or of the historical thriller, such as The Guns of Navarone (1957) by Alistair MacLean, the war has long been a favourite theme. Even thrillers with contemporary settings cannot abandon it. Deighton’s early novels, for instance, confront the legacies of Nazi rule in Cold War Europe: the drugs and treasure retrieved from the wreck of a U-boat in Horse Under Water (1963) turn out to be incidental to the novel’s real McGuffin, a list prepared by the Nazi high-command of likely British collaborators in the event of a successful invasion. Funeral in Berlin (1964) is partly told from the perspective of a concentration camp guard who has subsequently established himself in a Western intelligence network. The implication of this complexly plotted novel is that the politics of the Cold War, symbolised by the wall that has recently been erected across Berlin, is the product of unresolved questions from the Second World War.

The war persists, too, as a cultural memory, determining how we think about our society and place in the world – particularly in times like these, when the tectonic plates of Britain’s relationships with its neighbours are so mobile. The Yale scholar of espionage fiction Michael Denning sees thrillers like Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed (1975) and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978) as contesting the popular memory of the war, taking part in a bigger argument over whether it was won by technological innovation and a few great men, or by working-class men and women in uniforms or blue collars. He also highlights the work’s status as “secret history” suggesting that the Allied victory may have been closer than it seemed; in Higgins’s and Follett’s novels the Germans nearly succeed in killing Churchill and penetrating the D-Day deception operation, and their plots are foiled by chance, not fate. The writers ask us to imagine what might have been the consequence of even a minor change in the historical record.

In Altered Pasts (2014), Richard J Evans distinguishes between counterfactual history – a method employed by historians which is overwhelmingly concerned with cause and effect – and alternate history, which is usually overtly fictional and takes place in a kind of parallel universe. He positions counterfactual history as politically conservative, favoured by right-wing historians such as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, and not just because it usually makes sense only if confined to scenarios concerning great men and great events; they also advance it as an antidote to Marxist history, which sees outcomes as determined largely by social and economic forces. (Fittingly, one of the main events in SS-GB is an explosion at Highgate Cemetery caused by a bomb hidden in Karl Marx’s grave.)

But for all that alternate history novels sometimes pretend to the status of history and feature real characters (Himmler and George VI appear in SS-GB), there is a crucial distinction from counterfactual history. Alternate history fiction takes us into the minds of ordinary men and women, not just statesmen and generals, and its best examples inhabit social worlds depicted in quotidian detail. SS-GB is remarkable not for what it says about Hitler and Churchill or the turning points of the Second World War, but for its exploration of a society that did not exist, but that feels real and connects to our own lives and circumstances. Through alternate histories, we can experience the richness of life in alternate pasts, and sympathise with those forced to make choices we will probably – we hope – never have to make.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions” (Palgrave Macmillan)

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine