View our feature on Stephen Baxter’s Weaver.The concluding volume of the acclaimed Time’s Tapestry series.
In the early days of WWII, the Nazis have a secret plan, far grander than simply subjugating an enemy. And three people are caught up in a conspiracy that threatens the fabric of the tapestry of time.
Essay on Stephen Baxter’s Weaver
Weaver, the fourth and last novel in my Time’s Tapestry series, is an alternate history in which Hitler invades Britain. It is the culmination of a series in which one constant theme has been invasion and conquest—a subject of compelling fascination to us Brits, for, like America, aside from pinprick raids the British homeland has never been invaded—or at least, not for nearly 1000 years.
Of course a German victory in the Second World War has been depicted before in fiction. The Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) has an entire entry dedicated to ‘Hitler Wins’. Even before the war Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night (1937) showed a nightmare future in which Hitler is deified and women are kept as breeding animals. And non-fiction books like the What If? series (ed. Robert Cowley, 1999 onwards) contain many essays on how the Nazis could have run their war differently.
Perhaps the most famous of the genre’s Hitler-wins works is Philip K Dick’s Hugo-winner The Man in the High Castle (1962). But the tradition has continued into the 21st century, with Christopher Priest’s justly lauded Clarke-award winner The Separation (2002).
So, more than sixty years later, is there anything left to say about the Nazis? As you might anticipate, my answer is ‘yes’.
How could Hitler have won?
My own turning point, in Weaver, is Dunkirk. On 24th May 1940 Panzer General Heinz Guderian was ordered to desist from a final assault on the exhausted British Expeditionary Force—the British Army, trapped in France by the Germans’ blitzkrieg advance. The reasons remain obscure: perhaps to do with the generals’ concerns that France was not yet defeated, or Hitler’s hope that Britain might yet make peace. Certainly the Dunkirk evacuation was a significant morale boost for Britain. Guderian himself (in his book Panzer Leader, 1952) believed that ‘only a capture of the BEF … could have created the conditions necessary for a successful German invasion of Britain’.
Even after Dunkirk the Germans could have won by sending over even a small force in early June 1940, when Britain was reeling. Some German generals argued for this at the time. But Hitler went on holiday.
Certainly a different Dunkirk would have boosted the chances of ‘Operation Sea Lion’, the Nazis’ planned invasion. Throughout the summer of 1940 Hitler had river barges assemble in the Channel ports, while the Wehrmacht practiced beach landings, and the Luftwaffe pounded British airfields and radar stations. ‘It seemed certain the man was going to try,’ Churchill wrote (in Their Finest Hour, 1949).
But the British always had overwhelming naval superiority, and the RAF, with many stations out of range of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts, could not have been defeated entirely. On the German side there was inter-service conflict, and Hitler was already turning east to his planned assault on the Soviet Union. In the end the Luftwaffe switched tactics by beginning the ‘blitz’ on London on 7th September 1940, thus allowing the RAF to recover, and the invasion was postponed and ultimately abandoned.
What if the Germans had made it over the Channel? In Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB (1978), the Battle of Britain went badly, and in November 1941 a British copper finds himself involved in a conspiracy to smuggle the ailing King George to America. Deighton is good on the detail of shabby, occupied London, the rationing, the fear, the reprisal executions.
Priest’s Separation springs from a different turning point: an armistice between Britain and Germany in 1941. The argument is similar to that developed in the 1990s by revisionist historians like Alan Clark and John Charmley. In early 1941 the German attack on Britain, while ferocious, was stalemated. Hitler had muttered sporadically of peace with Britain. The idea is that with a ceasefire then, Britain could have stood back as Germany and Russia destroyed each other, and emerged powerful and wealthy in a post-war world, rather than bankrupt. Personally I doubt that the British would have settled, having survived 1940; the British thought of themselves as a great power and expected to win wars, not lose them. Also there was genuine moral revulsion at the Nazis. Churchill told the Commons in 1938, ‘There can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that Power which spurns Christian ethics … [which] uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force’. And there is no guarantee the Nazis would have kept any pact. Hitler attacked Russia despite an accord with Stalin.
But if Britain had fallen, or if there had been an armistice, what about the rest of the war?
Hitler’s eventual defeat might have been less certain. Without a western front the German assault on Russia could have been launched earlier and with more resources. Later, without Britain as a launch platform for a D-Day, the American-led Allied invasion of Europe would have been much more problematical. Perhaps North Africa could have been used as a jumping-off point …
And if the Nazis had won, their various insanities would have been unleashed. In Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992), in a different 1964 after Hitler defeated Russia in 1943, an SS officer uncovers a conspiracy among the top Nazis to implement what we know as the Final Solution. Fatherland dramatises the Nazis’ grandiose plans for Europe: the monumental new Berlin, the racial cleansings, the vast colonisation pushes east into lebensraum. Brad Linaweaver’s Moon of Ice (1988), in which the Nazis got the atom bomb first, is an effective portrayal of the mad mysticism at the heart of the Nazi project, in which the Aryans were the product of a cosmogony in which successive falls of ice moons would eventually result in the return of a race of world-building giants. In Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) Hitler moved to the US to become a sf writer!—and the Soviet Union conquered Europe.
The most famous of all Hitler-wins books is surely Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the assassination of President Roosevelt leads to the defeat of America by Germany and Japan. This is a book of small lives and small humiliations, with Americans, ‘white barbarians’, unconsciously adopting the mannerisms of their conquerors. Dick writes of the Nazis in terms of insanity and violations of nature: ‘The madmen are in power … German totalitarian society resembles some faulty form of life, worse than [the] natural thing.’
It is easy to glamorise the Nazis—or to think of them as some kind of monster. Dick forces us to face the fact that the Nazis were human.