Review of THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY: WEST AND EAST by Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, July 2010
In Turtledove's alternate history universe, appeasement failed and World War II broke out in 1938 rather than 1939. Hitler's troops, equipped with less capable Panzer IIs, made their bid to conquer France, but fell short of Paris--as they did in World War I. Meanwhile, they've allied with Poland against the USSR, taking on the Russian giant well before the 1941 timeframe in our own universe. With France mounting offensives in the West, the Spanish Civil War still raging, and Russia pushing into Poland, Germany strikes back hard against Russia, sends out its submarine forces against Britain, and invades Denmark and Norway (as they did during the war in our timeline to keep their trade route open with Sweden and presumably to create new submarine bases with which to attack Britain. Meanwhile, Russia and Japan have gone to war following up on the difficulties the two nations were experiencing at the time.
That the west should have confronted Hitler early is a staple of American politics. Author Harry Turtledove (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of speculative fiction by Turtledove) turns to this question in THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY series. In 1938, Hitler lacked the modern tanks that led to his successes in Poland and France. Still, his generals had adopted blitzkrieg tactics that effectively used what he had. Turtledove plays around with history, allowing a German bomber pilot to suggest turning his Stuka divebomber into a tank-killer, letting a Czech infantryman become a sniper using an antitank rifle, creating a combined battleship/u-boat force for the Germans, and stretching out the Spanish Civil War thanks to greater French help to the Republican side.
Turtledove has developed an approach to alternate history that focuses on everyman rather than the generals and politicians. In his battles, it's the sergeants and privates rather than the senior officers who make up the action. On the civilian side, it's a young Jewish woman and an American refuge anxious to make her way home from a Czech vacation where she got caught in the war.
Turtledove's approach can work. It's valuable to see the world from the eyes of ordinary people. To see war in its horrors rather than its heroics. And certainly it's valuable and horrible to see Hitler's antisemite practices carried out. Unfortunately, most of the life of the ordinary soldier or refuge is boring and too many of Turtledove's scenes don't really move the war along, don't move character development forward, and don't really grab the reader. Even worse, because nothing his happening, and possibly because it's been fifty or so pages since we last visited with a character, we often get repeated information.
Turtledove is a capable author and he's hit on a really intriguing thought question in his THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY series. It's too easy to assume that Hitler would have failed if he'd been forced into war early--but Britain and France were no less prepared than Germany was, the potential for a more active alliance with Poland, Yugoslavia, Japan and Finland existed, and Hitler's regime depended on his showing continued strength--which would have made backing down virtually impossible. I wish Turtledove had let us see more of how the year-earlier opening of the war would have changed things, replacing some of the more boring scenes of people sitting around complaining about sergeants, worrying about ration cards, or exchanging poor-quality cigarettes.
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