Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Man with the Iron Heart

The Man with the Iron Heart
© 2008 Harry Turtledove
532 pages

On 27 May 1942, Reinhard Heydrich barely escapes death at the hands of a Czech hitman, his life being saved by the assassin's weapon jamming.  Although the misfire does not much alter the course of the war, it changes the peace dramatically, for Heydrich refuses to stop fighting even after the death of Hitler, the destruction of Berlin, the total occupation of Germany, and the formal surrender of Nazi officials. As early as 1943, Heydrich began storing munitions and training troops discreetly to carry on the fight in the event that the Reich lost, and no sooner has the dust settled over the bombed cities of Europe than do Heydrich's Werewolves begin the Resistance. Their goal is to force the Allies and Russians to end their occupation through whatever means possible.

What follows is a clear allusion to the Iraq War and resulting insurgency: the tactics are the same, as are the arguments from either side of American politics in arguing for or against staying in Germany. Heydrich' tactics mirror those of al-Queda terrorists, including the propaganda use of captured Allied soldiers. While most of his warfare is attritive -- targeting groups of soldiers with car bombs and the like -- his German Freedom Front occasionally launches larger operations to poison large crowds, destroy symbolic buildings, and obtain supplies. In the US, a Cindy Sheehan stand-in leads an anti-war movement, tacitly supported by ambitious Republicans who see the Heyrich insurgency as a good club to beat the Democratic administration over the head and gain political power. President "Give `em Hell" Harry Truman insists on finishing the job in Germany, although he's not one to hide away in the White House or a ranch in Texas: Truman dishes out abuse as good as he gets it and speaks personally to protesters marching in D.C. While the United States grapples with unpredictable German tactics, the Soviet Union merely shrugs as it shoots or deports hundreds of Germans with every attack.

The book uses Turtledove's typical approach of relying on a panel of viewpoint characters: a housewife turned political activist, Heydrich himself, and various American or Russian soldiers. Also typical of Turtledove is the generous use of Russian, German, and Yiddish phrases, particularly profanity. The book also abounds in historical, cultural, and political in-jokes.

"Well, if that don't beat all," Benton said disgustedly. "If I do me a crappy job, I get my sorry ass blown up. If I do me a great job, they make me stick around -- so's I can get my sorry ass blown up." He spat on the filthy floor. "Ought to be a name for somethin' like that, where you get fucked over comin' an' goin'."
"Yeah, it's a heller, all right. One of these days, I bet there will." Lou got a strange kick out of thinking like an English teacher instead of a counterintelligence officer. "A guy who's been through the mill will write a story or a book about it. He'll hang some kind of handle on it, and from then on everybody'll call it that."

The book's connection to the Iraq War is obvious enough to be mentioned on the inside cover as a selling point for people who are interested in Turtledove's "profound insight into contemporary affairs". Although I  am aware of war weariness at the end of the Second World War, I doubt that events concerning Iraq since 2003 would repeat themselves so neatly in 1945-1948 Germany. Although Turtledove's villains are much more effective than al-Queda or related groups, the development of the anti-war movement and the stances of American characters are taken too directly from contemporary newspapers: the occupation of Nazi Germany, which declared war upon the United States after savaging its commercial shipping cannot be so easily equated to the invasion and occupation of Iraq,  which lacked consistent explanation for motive. In addition, the novel lacks a German perspective beyond Heydrich's, which isn't exactly nuanced. Turtledove might've used a German citizen turned insurgent to explore the effects of Soviet tactics in polarizing civilians to take up arms.

For whatever its weaknesses, I enjoyed this bit of alternate history. Throughout, I wondered what the Nazis would try next -- and what the end result would be. Would Soviet-occupied Germany become completely void of Germans? If the Americans did leave, as Republican congressmen urged, would Russia try to annex the vacated portion and instigate a war between itself and the western democracies? The beginning of the end had me on the edge of my seat.  I can recommend this to Turtledove fans specifically, and cautiously to alt-history readers or those interested in the premise.

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