Review of “Red Inferno”, Robert Conroy, SF Site 2010

My first SF Site review, and continuing the theme of alternate history. Conroy’s work is much more straightforwardly alternate history than Owen Sheers’ Resistance , and a much less impressive literary work, although an enjoyable pageturner in its way. I really didn’t like the Caleb Carr essay mentioned in the review.


Red Inferno: 1945
Robert Conroy
Ballantine Books, 360 pages

There is a famous anecdote about the British humourist Alan Coren. He was once told by a publisher at a party that the three categories of sure-fire bestsellers were books about golf, cats, and the Nazis. His next book was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a huge swastika on the cover. When we think of alternate history, it is likely that the first books that come to mind are those whose timelines derive from an altered World War II. We think of The Man In The High Castle, or Robert Harris’ Fatherland, two of the key texts in the genre. The spectre of Nazism does not only haunt literature of the actual Twentieth Century, but that of our attempts to imagine another way things might have happened.

It isn’t hard to work out why. Their meteoric rise to a fortunately brief continental dominance, their indulgence in a politics of theatricality, their commission of the gravest atrocities in history, Hitler’s near-official status as The Most Evil Man In History all conspire to give the Nazis a continued dark fascination. Add to this the neat, good-versus-evil narrative the conflict allows us (how different from most wars before and since), the lasting geopolitical effect of the conflict, and the twist that in order to defeat the Nazis another villain of history, Stalin, was required (and to defeat the Japanese two atomic bombs were dropped) — and it is no surprise that World War II exerts as much fascination today as ever before.

Furthermore, the lasting impact of the war can be traced to a few key military and political decisions. What if Britain and America has stood up to Stalin more about Poland? What if the atomic bomb had been developed in time to be used on Germany? What if the Allies had crossed the Rhine before the Winter of 1944?

Robert Conroy is now a veteran of alternate histories — his previous novels include 1942, in which the Japanese occupy the Hawaiian Islands after Pearl Harbor, and 1945, in which the Emperor Hirohito is kidnapped by diehards minutes before announcing unconditional surrender. In Red Inferno: 1945 he begins with the American advance troops whom, in the dying weeks of the war in Europe, crossed the Elbe in small numbers. The newly inaugurated President Truman decides, in the twist on what really happened that gives any alternate history its impetus, to send two divisions to Berlin to try and ensure that the liberation of the city is not entirely a Soviet Affair.

At first, one of my concerns was that this could decline into an exercise in American triumphalism, like Caleb Carr’s essay “VE Day — November 11th, 1944” in the collection of counterfactual essays What If? 2 which essentially blames Field Marshal Montgomery for the failure to allow General Patton to cross into Germany and therefore end the war. Carr’s essay is a textbook example of why counterfactual writing can get a bad name among historians. It’s crassly simplistic, and is a classic case of armchair generalship blind to the messy complications of combat and politics. Starting the book, and reading the early pages, I feared that Conroy might perhaps go down a similar route.

I should not have been so concerned. History is very different, but certainly war is no less hell, and the full complexity of the nightmare that ensues is fully conveyed by Conroy. I particularly liked his depiction of the agonising of Harry S Truman, whose decision it is to send the two divisions to Berlin, and whose agonising at the ramifications of this decision is convincingly depicted.

For the two divisions do not simply ride into Berlin, thus wowing the Soviets into abandoning their plans to dominate Eastern Europe. Hostilities break out, and quickly the USA and the USSR are at undeclared war. US troops are isolated in a pocket in the city of Potsdam, where they join forces with German refugees and settle into a state of siege.

Conroy adopts a classic technique of the sweeping historical blockbuster and focuses on a few key characters while introducing brief, poignant cameos of those whose function is more to advance the plot and get killed. The main protagonist is Steve Burke, a gangly academic who now advises the military on the Soviet mentality. We first meet Burke while he is experiencing post-date disappointment that things didn’t go better having “taken the lovely and amazingly sensuous Natalie Holt” out. Lovely and amazingly sensuous Natalie Holt is also a Russian emigré who loathes the Soviets for destroying her family. Along with a budding romance between and American officer and German refugee in Potsdam, Burke and Natalie provide the emotional ballast for the novel.

As may be obvious from the above epithet for Natalie, Conroy’s writing style sometimes strays into potboiler territory. I found him most convincing describing the conferences of the powerful, whether American, British, or Soviet. Stalin’s paranoia and ruthlessness is effectively captured. Conroy does not assume that a continuation of war in Europe with the Germans almost extinguished would enjoy public support — we read of riots in England and sabotage in France. The moral dilemmas of whether to link in with German forces on the one hand, and whether the elemental forces harnessed in Los Alamos should be used on the other, are also explored.

Despite what I said above about a potboiler tendency, Conroy does engage one’s feelings in his story. Somewhat despite myself, the final scene of reunion (I won’t tell you whose reunion exactly) left my eyes teary. I raced through Red Inferno: 1945, just as I devoured The Eagle Has Landed orFatherland or other tales of derring-do with a World War II setting. Badly done, alternate history can echo a famously cynical definition of history — “one damn thing after another,” except that the damn things aren’t even real. Well done, alternate history entertains and provokes thought in equal measure. Red Inferno: 1945 is alternate history of the latter school.

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