Sunday, 23 October 2011


If you’re writing an alternative history sooner or later you have to settle on a ‘DIVERGENCE POINT’ – i.e. the moment when real, recorded history ends and a new, alternative one begins. In SS-GB it’s the successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis, in Fatherland when Hitler defeats the Soviet Union in 1943.

I settled upon Dunkirk and instead of giving the British a miraculous escape, I had them slaughtered on the beaches. Why did I choose this point?

One of the themes of the book is the myths we cling to (think of Burton and his mother) and I wanted to echo this in the larger structure of the narrative. Dunkirk is often seen as the epitome of British pluck; a defeat that has somehow morphed into a victory and is seen as one of the country’s finest hours. Indeed, newspapers still refer to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ in a whole variety of situations – from Brits abroad coping with crises to the dreary comebacks of our national soccer team.

I was intrigued by debunking this notion and having Dunkirk as a disaster. Instead of being a narrow escape it was a coup de grace that led Britain to negotiate with Nazi Germany, leaving us with peace but less national pride. Of course, once I had changed this, other aspects of the alternative history fell into place as a consequence. With Britain out of the war much earlier there was less need for American involvement; having to fight on only one front meant Germany could concentrate all its forces against the USSR and win (though as a nod to Harris, I kept the same date of 1943).

In reality, the reasons behind Hitler’s decision not to annihilate the British at Dunkirk remain a mystery. Some historians think it was down to incompetence, others that it would appeal to Britain’s sense of fair play, making them more amenable to negotiation. In my world there’s a very specific reason why Hitler doesn’t attack... though you’ll have to wait till the Prologue of Book 3 to find out!

D is also for DAMBE

In action adventure stories the hero often has some skill in martial arts. I wanted to give Burton the same but felt something like kung fu or karate would be impossibly crass. So I went looking to see if there was an African equivalent. As it turns out there were several including: kokawa, musangwe, ‘nuba’. In the end I opted for dambe, a West Africa form of boxing because a) I’d already place Burton’s upbringing in that part of the continent b) it just looked vicious and chimed with the character’s more violent streak.

You can see an example of dambe on this clip from CNN.

Curiously both I and Burton seem to have out-grown dambe... so it may not be back in Book 2. What does everyone else think?

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Followers of The Afrika Reich on Facebook will know that I’ve recently returned from a research trip to Germany. The main purpose was to visit a site that will play a key role in Book 2. I’ll tell you about that sometime next year as I gear up for the publication of the sequel. In the meantime (and before the A-Z resumes) I wanted to share some thoughts about my visit to Dachau – the first of the Nazis’ concentration camps, opened as soon as they came to power in 1933.

I had expected it to be a place of quiet reflection and reverence, but was surprised – you could even say shocked – at some of the behaviour I saw there. The first jolt came as I got off the train at Dachau station to find a McDonalds. Doubtless fearing bad publicity they have at least been tactful enough to make sure you can’t photograph the word ‘Dachau’ with the golden arches behind them, nevertheless it wasn’t quite the sombre arrival I expected.

From the station it’s fifteen minutes by bus to the camp itself. The entrance to the museum is tasteful and discreet – which is more than can be said about the groups of German school kids waiting to go inside. Again, to my utter surprise, they were laughing and joking; it could have been any ordinary school-trip. (In fairness I should add such behaviour wasn’t just the preserve of Germans: I also saw an American tourist posing for a thumbs-up photograph by the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign).

What should we make of this? Talking to other people who’ve visited the camp, mine is clearly not a unique experience. Perhaps it’s the laughter of nerves. Or a lack of empathy. Maybe just indifference. I know historians have written about this, calling it a process of ‘normalisation’: how events of the Third Reich have no more resonance to Generation Z than, say, the reign of Caligula. Perhaps as someone who has written an entertainment about the period, I’m in no position to criticise.

Enough of other people. How did I find the experience?

It was all relentlessly grim. An assault on the psyche. Not just in the broadest sense of man’s inhumanity to man but in the details of the daily degradations inmates were subjected to. It was that I felt the most: one’s privacy and dignity constantly assailed. And assailed by a group of inadequate, sadistic bullies. Touring the camp there was no respite. Even the memorials (including the extraordinary sculpture on the parade ground; detail pictured) had a harrowing quality to them.

I stayed for five hours and couldn’t face all of it; I gave the punishment block and crematorium a miss. And on my way back to Munich (and the security of a comfortable hotel and decent dinner) I kept thinking of a line by the Indian poet Tagore. Nothing sums up my visit better:

When I go home, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unimaginable’.