Review of THE BIG SWITCH by Harry Turtledove
THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY
Del Rey, July 2011
In the earlier volumes in this series, Hitler's armies got bogged down in France. Without perfecting the blitzkreig in Poland, without the deployment of more modern panzers, Hitler simply could not complete the conquest he managed in our own timeline. Because he was already at war with the west, however, he didn't attack Poland--and Russia did. So Poland called on Germany to help it and Germany became involved in a two-front war, but a war with a Polish ally (and clearly a front that started farther east). Now, with Chamberlain still Prime Minister in Britain, Turtledove offers a startlingly different take on the Rudolf Hess incident. Suppose, rather than being arrested and imprissoned by Churchill, Hess and been greeted by Chamberlain. Suppose he persuaded France and Britain to join Hitler in a crusade against communism?
Turtledove's style is to tell history from the perspective of ordinary people--of privates, sergeants and civilians. Here, in THE BIG SWITCH, Turtledove gives us the perspective of a Czech sniper, Soviet and German bomber pilots, a British sergeant, a Jewish young woman in Germany, an International Brigade soldier in Spain (because the war came early, the Spanish civil war is ongoing, with French assistance to the Republic and a blocade of German and Italian assistance to the Nationalists helping hold back Nationalistic forces), a Panzer commander in Poland and a Japanese sergeant in Siberia (in this world, incidents between Japan and the Soviets led to war). Sometimes this approach works--we get to see the war from a personal perspective. Here, Turtledove pulls it off. The characters are often in places that matter, where we can see turning points in the battle. They're emotionally connected to the outcomes, which makes it better. (In contrast, I had serious problems with the earlier book in this series, EAST AND WEST).
In only one area did I find THE BIG SWITCH a bit hard to buy--specifically the switch itself. Would France and Britain really agree to end the war and throw in with their former allies? In France, especially, the left was extremely strong (the Popular Front won the 1936 elections). It might have agreed to peace with Germany, but I don't think Turtledove die enough to convince us that France would have actually switched from war against Germany to an outright alliance against the Soviet Union.
Although I had some problems, I found THE BIG SWITCH to be Turtledove's strongest alternate history offering in years. It's based on a fascinating historical twist (many politicians have argued for decades that Hitler could have been stopped easily if only the west had confronted him early in his expansionist days), and the character-based approach to alternate history works because he picks characters who are actually involved in the key activities of the day.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to email@example.com. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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