Monday, 23 January 2012

Z is for ZIEGE

I mentioned in the last blog entry how I would make up details and later, during my research, discover I’d alighted upon fact. The Ziege is a case in point.

I assumed the Nazis would need some kind of jeep to allow them to negotiate Africa’s terrain – especially in places like Congo where muddy roads and the rainy season would make travel difficult, so it wasn’t too big a leap of imagination to assume they’d have some kind of four-wheel drive. So I put this imagined vehicle into the book in one of the earliest scenes where Burton escapes from the Schädelplatz. Months later, when I read the Wehrmacht’s 1940 plans for the occupation of Central Africa, I came across a reference about developing a ‘multi-terrain automobile’.

Zieges were partly inspired by the Kübelwagen (pictured), a military car designed by Porsche, built by Volkswagen and in which Hitler took a personal interest. Crucially, although over 50 000 ‘Kübels’ were built during the war they were not four-wheel drive (even those deployed in the Sahara for the North Africa campaign). That would have been the innovation that saw the Ziege become the Nazis’ vehicle of choice in the equatorial regions. ‘Ziege’ itself means ‘goat’ an animal well known for its ability to navigate tricky terrain.

One purely speculative idea I had was that this vehicle would eventually be adopted by the civilian car market as happened in America with the Jeep. So I had an image of the avenues of Germania thronging with Volkswagens and BMWs and cutting through them the hulking shapes of Zieges. A Chelsea-tractor or Hummer for the Nazi age – with all the corresponding grumbles. Alternative history or not, some things never change!

Sunday, 8 January 2012


The very first RESEARCH question I had to ask was: did the Nazis ever have any plans for Africa? If I’d drawn a complete blank here it’s unlikely I would have continued with the book. As it happens (and as you’ll know from reading the book) they did. Lots. My initial investigations mostly provided details about the Nazis’ schemes for Madagascar – perhaps the best known aspect of their ambitions for Africa. This is the setting and subject for Book 2. Looking beyond the Indian Ocean, however, I also discovered plenty of information for the continent itself.

Although I continued to do research throughout the writing of the book, the main work was done in two blocks: before I began to write, and after I’d finished the fourth draft. The initial research was to get the overall structure of the Nazis’ plans – the big picture, if you will. The second phase involved a lot more detailed research to tease out specifics, everything from Himmler’s recommendation for breakfast in Africa to the thickness of the tarmac on the autobahn.

The actual process of research was akin to mining: going through deeper and deeper layers to find riches. I began with general texts about the period and then using the page notes and bibliographies was able to source more specialised works of history which in turn revealed ever more obscure books eventually leading back to specific archive documents. For instance, Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich has only five references to Africa in over 800 pages – but each of those was listed in the endnotes offering an array of secondary, often more academic works and so on. I tracked down the latter in various libraries and universities around the world. The British Library was a particularly helpful source of information as was a compendious report on Congo written by British Naval Intelligence – I got hold of a declassified copy.

People often ask me how many books I read to research The Afrika Reich. To be honest I lost count – but it must have been in excess of 50-60. Here's a photo of just some of the volumes I ploughed through. (NB – you might not be able to read the spine of the top book. It’s a 1940s guide to military demolition which I got for Dolan’s character!)

Perhaps the most curious thing about the research – doubtless a consequence of spending so much time immured in Nazi Africa – was that I’d invent certain details only to find later that they were true. The best example of this is how the Nazis planned to redraw the map of Africa. In various texts I read about a map that Kriegsmarine (the navy) and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had drawn up for Africa, yet despite spending years trying to locate a copy I never could; so in the end the map you see at the beginning of the book was speculative. Then, in the summer of 2009, after I’d finished writing and the book was being to submitted to publishers I finally got hold of the map. To my amazement it was almost exactly how I had envisioned it. All that was needed to get it 100% accurate was the inclusion of a few details, such as naval bases in Dakar and Conakry, and a little bit of tweaking along certain borders.

How is this possible? I once heard an interview with Sarah Waters and she said something similar about her research. The explanation she offered is that when you start doing a lot of it you end up with the mindset of the period/people you’re writing about – and the details flow from that. Without wanting to suggest I think like a Nazi, I couldn’t agree more.

R is also for REVENGE

If the book has a central theme it’s REVENGE. Indeed this is a theme that is explored over the narrative of all three books. Although I never intended too obvious a parallel, I certainly see The Afrika Reich as a post-9/11 book. In the weeks after the World Trade Centre was attacked there was definitely a mood for revenge in America, a mood that led to the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Iraq. Burton’s journey can be seen as a critique of that.

On a lighter note, if – as the old Klingon proverb goes – revenge is a dish best served cold then it’s worth noting that Burton swears he never kills in cold blood; indeed when he comes to avenge himself he does so in the oppressive heat of Kongo.

Happy New Year to everybody!