It Couldn’t Happen Here

I read a ridiculous amount of Michael Moorcock when I was a teenager. With a certain unjustified embarrassment I realize today that I still like him. I can’t see myself rereading the sword and sorcery stuff, except maybe Elric, who always had a lot more character than the iron-hewed knights populating most of the “eternal champion” mythos… it’s Jerry Cornelius, his comic version Jerry Cornell, and the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy that still exert a pull.

So I was glad to pick up England Invaded, which I must have seen listed on some Moorcock bibliography — in his heyday he always occupied an entire man-long shelf at the Science Fiction Bookshop (“only fifty yards from this cinema”) — without knowing what it was. An anthology of early sci-fi dealing with invasions of the UK (generally not just England, but I admit Moorcock’s title sounds better). What got me most interested was the novel by Saki which eats up most of the pages, When William Came.

There’s a whole school of fiction dealing with “What if the Germans won WWII?” — I’ve read Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (I’m a dedicated Dickhead), and even “Sarban’s” The Sound of His Horn, a trashy, pervy alternative history set a thousand years in the future and with the distinction of having been written while the outcome of the war was still in dispute. I haven’t bothered with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, too mainstream for me, but maybe I should. I also haven’t seen Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (I definitely should) or the TV adaptation of the Dickand Deighton books.

(My brother, a bit of a scholar of military history, convincingly explained to my why a German occupation was never a realistic short-term danger — the Reich were surprised at their success in France and had prepared no scheme to effect mass landings overseas. And Dick’s postulate, of America conquered, was never on the cards.)

Anyway, Saki’s book isn’t one of those. It’s the only example I know of a “What if the Germans won WWI?” novel. But not quite, since Saki doesn’t predict depict conflagration, just a face-off between Germany and Britain in which the superior German airforce sinks our fleet and we’re swiftly blockaded into submission. The other thing about it that’s unusual is that it came out in 1913, so it’s not an alternative history, it’s a wrong prediction. (I like old sci-fi best, the stuff that hasn’t come true — there’s nothing cosier than an apocalypse diverted.)

Jemand für Tennis?

One trouble with this is, Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany isn’t as horrifying a baddie as Hitler’s Third Reich. But that makes the book rather fascinating, as the disaffected hero, who missed the whole thing due to a bout of swamp fever in Norway, wanders around looking at the street signs now printed in both languages, bemoaning the fact that London has become, horror of horrors, “cosmopolitan.”

Another trouble is that “cosmopolitan” is in this context a synonym for Jewish. Though an antisemitic doctor tending to the impotent antihero admits that “some of them have behaved well,” both Saki and his protagonist seem obsessed with their repugnance at Jewish social climbers taking a preeminent place in society. It seems weird at this historical distance for an invading German force to be considered less antisemitic than the British, but it may for all I know not be completely inaccurate. And so you get sentences like, “Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground.”

Saki also wrote The Unrest-Cure, a short story in which one of his placid young male protagonists, Clovis, I think, overhears a country gent on a train bemoaning the rut his existence has settled into, and so resolves to liven things up a bit, by impersonating an emissary from the new vicar, intent upon enacting a pogrom in the village. “And your house has been selected as the venue!” I always thought of this story as the product of pre-WWII insensitivity, its shocking premise adding a dash of discomfort to the hazy salad days setting, and I found it very funny in an appalling way — but now it seems much more sinister and malign. As it always should have.

There was a sadism to Saki that sets him decisively apart from P.G. Wodehouse, whom he influences and whose characters move in recognizably the same story world. This malice found its healthiest outlet when his stories slipped without warning from drawing room comedy to horror, and sometimes but not always back again (The Open Window).

The horror at a German Britain may well have motivated Saki — in reality a Scotsman called Hector Hugh Munro — to enlist when WWI broke out, even though he was 43 and officially over-age. He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916. Famous last words, supposedly: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”

Saki was also homosexual, which throws the novel’s homophobia, a recurrent sub-theme along with its antisemitism, into a different and more tragic relief. “In what way, he asked himself in such moments, would his life be better than the life of that parody of manhood who upholstered his rooms with art hangings and rosewood furniture and babbled over the effect?” Of course these are the thoughts of the painfully straight, rather sexless hero. It’s notable that the best lines in the book always belong to, or are aimed at, the languid aesthetes his wife hangs around with. “Larry’s father had been a brilliantly clever man who had married a brilliantly handsome woman; the Fates had not had the least intention that Larry should take after both parents.”

Moorcock in his short intro doesn’t address any of this, calling the work “a sophisticated moral fiction.” Um.

25 Responses to “It Couldn’t Happen Here”

  1. Ever read Wodehouse’s THE SWOOP? It’s a parody of the late 19th/early 20th “England Invaded” stories. By turns incredibly racist and very funny. Basically all of England’s foes invade on the same day, and are defeated by a Boy Scout.

  2. Kevin Brownlow’s IHH does a superb job of showing how elements of the British character would slip just fine into collaborating with Nazi invaders – I wonder how much of that was in Saki’s mind as well? In 1913, apart from the growing political schisms, Germany and England were as close culturally as they would ever be until modern times.

  3. Saki himself was an aesthete – he stitched tapestries (did he know Ernest Thesiger, I wonder?), spoke Russian and several other languages, was a ballet devotee… as well as an ex-Burmese policeman and a journalist and war correspondent in eastern Europe, so his attitude is even more complicated than it seems at first.
    Until WWI Germany was probably the most philosemitic country in Europe. Its only rival was the Habsburg Empire. One of the “justifications” for British antisemitism was a belief that jews were pro-German, especially given Britain’s alliances with antisemitic Russia and post-Dreyfus France.
    Antisemitism is a curious trope in English literature, a rather nasty game that its players didn’t take seriously, often an unthinking assumption. Orwell was probably right when he said that the test was whether people kept saying the same things after the rise of Hitler. See the blog by George Simmers – greatwarfiction – for some interesting discussions. In The Thirty Nine Steps one character has an obsessive belief in antisemitic conspiracy theories, but no-one else takes him seriously and in The Three Hostages the villain has all the traits of the criminal jewish mastermind, except that he is an English conservative MP.

  4. The “hero” of When William Came finds himself sympathising more with the Germans than the English upper-class, neil775Neil Brand.

    If I remember rightly, there isn’t “a face-off between Germany and Britain in which the superior German airforce sinks our fleet and we’re swiftly blockaded into submission” in WWC. we’re just presented with a German occupation and the assumption that it came about because no-one was really interested enough to fight it.

  5. jwarthen Says:

    In Ken Burn’s documentary series THE WAR, an American vet from Connecticut recalls his interviewing a German POW who spoke idiomatic English; the German also demonstrated a detailed knowledge of minor Connecticut waterways. When the GI asked how he learned about them, the German said he had taken a course:
    in “administration of a colonized USA”.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    What a significant post as well as comments here. I think Roger and Neil775 are really on the ball here, especially in redcognizing the relevance of IT HAPPENED HERE with its Celia Johnson type heroine adapting to appalling circumstances and unwittingly “doing her bit” by aiding the Nazi cause, The biography VERA BRITTAIN: A LIFE that I’m currently reading mentions that the V.A.D which Brittain joined during WW1 was an auxiliary group set up in 1910 to aid professional nurses of a war broke out.

    British WW2 propaganda prided itself on the premise that occuoied collaboration would not happen on British soil. But it did in the Channel Islands and Churchill suppressed this fact. The implicit horror of the Saki tale is that occupation happened without any opposition.

    Finally, in 1962 Granada TV produced an 8 part series dramatizing Saki’s tales with William Mervyn, Mark Burns as Clovis and Fenella Fielding. According to wiki. this series has survived. Any chance of providing a link, David C?

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    P.S. I’d also like to that FATHERLAND is worth seeing as well as reading the novel. This interesting TV movie with Rutger Hauer has a poster of the Beatles playing in Germany and a chilling performance by Jean Marsh (Rose from UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS) who comments on the survival of Jews in America and delivers the devastating line, “We knew how to deal with our Jews here.”

  8. Mark Fuller Says:

    I’m not sure Tony’s right about British WW2 propaganda being in such utter denial; I would cite I, James Blunt by HV Morton, a diary- structured novella of the German Occupation written and running to many editions from 1942. Collaboration is mentioned as an inevitable part of the process….

  9. Great to see such interesting comments!

    I can confirm that we do get details of the German air victory in Saki’s book, though it’s all just backstory. Though the populace falls in line with the occupiers, the novel ends on a note of defiance.

    I’m not sure when Aldous Huxley’s antisemitic essay on early talking pictures stems from… hopefully before the rise of that other AH.

  10. Also from the early ’60s there’s Giles Cooper’s – lost, unfortunately – The Other Man, another It Happened Here type film. As about 60,00 people remained in the Channel Islands in WWII and the German garrison was 45,000 strong, along with starving slave labourers building fortifications, the astonishing thing was that there was any attempt at resistance at all.
    An interesting aspect of WWC is that the only person very bothered about defeat and occupation is someone who hasn’t been in Britain very often before the war and the defiance doesn’t come from the upper classes.
    Saki’s racism is also odd – he doesn’t seem to have the assumption of white superiority to other races more-or-less standard at the time, and though he was conservative he seems to regard the empire as rather absurd and its administrators are the people who have the stuffing knocked out of them by his irresponsible young heroes.

  11. bensondonald Says:

    There’s a C.S. Forester piece, “If Hitler Had Invaded England”, written well after the war. Framed as a piece of alternative history, Forester argues that such an effort would have failed for logistic reasons.

    Some of the discussion her brings to mind a Ray Bradbury story, “The Cement Mixer”. As Martians prepare to invade Earth, a conscientious objector argues that the Earthlings have an invincible psychological advantage: They were raised on pulps and movies in which a solitary Earth man, usually of Irish descent, whips entire Martian armies.

    It plays out a little differently. Earth — specifically, America — welcomes the invaders and promptly surrenders, eager to do business with their conquerers. The result is the opposite of “Mars Attacks”.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, I remember seeing THE OTHER MAN now completely lost.Michael Caine was very good in the title role. Gaps remain in this narrative and Mark makes a good point. So many sources of material either fall through the gaps awaiting re-discovery or suffer poor sales as a result of denial. Thanks for the Saki TV link, DC

  13. The Forester piece sounds very interesting.

    My post on Huxley’s racism was quite a while ago, but here it is:

    GK Chesterton was also deplorably antisemitic. But I recall Kinglsey Amis describing his “mild antisemitism” to his son: “If you see one of those names in the credits of an arts programme, you say, Ahe yes, there’s another one. But you wouldn’t want anybody to DO anything about it. You’d be horrified by THAT.”

  14. The general opinion among military experts is that an invasion in 1940 couldn’t succeed and there probably wouldn’t even be a landing, even if the Germans had air superiority over southern England. The Royal Navy – over ten times as large as the German Navy – was in the way. Hitler had succeeded so often by sheer bluff and superb – and lucky – generalship that some people didn’t think of it then. The main argument for a “compromise” peace was the need to hold India and far eastern colonies. Apart from allowing the transfer of ships, aircraft and troops, there’d probably be no need to follow the USA’s example in boycotting Japanese oil supplies, so need for a wat there anyway.

  15. Yes, and they didn’t have the ships to transport troops over for an invasion — if they’d somehow rounded them up, Dunkirk fashion, then they’d have run into the Royal Navy.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    Yet, the invasion was taken very seriously. I remember growing up in Swansea that concrete block were erected along the Mumbles Bay area to make craft landings very difficult. They were not removed until the early 1950s.

  17. The Scottish coast is still dotted with “tank traps” and pillboxes. Mostly built early in the war, I think, before an assessment of their likely need had been made. They always excited my imagination as a kid.

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, they resembled cubist art. A shame they were removed. Also I see that the University of Aberdeen is following this absurd trend now.

  19. Fiona Watson Says:

    You didn’t mention Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night which is absolutely stunning and should be made into a movie or tv series immediately.

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    Thanks for the reference, Fipna. It just happens to be in our Library due to the fact that it used to attempt to get everything before cutbacks and lack of use occurred. Will read after I finish Wilkie Collins’s theatrically influenced THE NEW MAGDALENE

  21. Simon Kane Says:

    A tangentially really interesting read is “Wilde’s Last Stand” by Philip Hoare, detailing the libel trial of Pemberton Billing, a charismatic virulently homophobic MP and inventor, who predicted Germany Victory in WW1 because of their superior air power. If he’d been right, he had the military backing to become the British Hitler. But he was wrong, and when the war ended he was quite literally thrown out of Parliament, before going on to make the silent Science Fiction classic “High Treason”.

  22. Simon Kane Says:

    (One of P. B.’s inventions was a car shaped like a bullet. Bulldog Drummond can be seen piloting it in an issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

  23. Anticipating Snub Pollard!

  24. Simon Kane Says:


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