Harry Turtledove has written more than fifty alternate history novels, and has been described by one book critic as “the standard bearer” of the genre. For the uninitiated, his premises can sound absurd. One of his most popular works, The Guns of the South, imagines that time-traveling South Africans armed Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. His World War series finds the combatants of World War II forming uneasy alliances to repel invading aliens. It is thus no surprise that he doesn’t register on many professional historians’ radar. But those historians are missing out.
I’ve read his Great War series, a version of World War I where a wounded U.S.A. seeks revenge against a successful Confederacy, twice now: once as a freshly ABD student in German history, and again as I began a master’s program in public history with a concentration in American history. These three novels—American Front, Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs—are ambitious and, despite some awkward notes, engaging. I consider them as essential a part of my historical education as Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men or James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
Here is a quick synopsis. Roughly fifty years after winning the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate States of America are allied with Britain, France, and Russia. A bitter United States has entered an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination sparks the crisis of 1914, both sides eagerly march to war. England’s declaration of war against the United States also results in an invasion of Canada, and the eventual formation of an independent Quebec. Scenes of brutal trench combat in Virginia and Confederate submarines stalking U.S. convoys in the Atlantic serve plenty of red meat for military history buffs, but Turtledove doesn’t stop at the battlefield. Each side must deal with their own, turbulent internal conflicts as well. In the U.S., socialists and immigrants face nativist prejudices, manifested most clearly by a veterans’ group called the Soldiers’ Circle. The Confederacy, in one of the more problematic arcs, faces a Marxist uprising led by African-American plantation workers.
One of the largest plot points centers on a desperate plan hatched by Confederate politicians attempting to recruit African-American soldiers in exchange for eventual voting rights. Even this measure fails to stave off the United States’ ultimate advantage in manpower and resources; the two countries make an uneasy peace that very much resembles what actually transpired in 1918 Europe, with harsh reparations and not a few bitter Confederates lamenting a “stab in the back” from weak-willed politicians.
Turtledove’s portrayal of the C.S.A. is mostly believable, foremost because it is decidedly unsentimental. A reader seeking solace for the “lost cause” will be sorely disappointed. White supremacy is the law of the land, or, as one character states, “Nothing counts for more than country and race.” Slavery has been technically abolished in response to international pressures (a point that historians might wish to debate), but the change is functionally semantic. African-Americans in Turtledove’s imagined Confederacy have no rights to speak of. Literacy, but for a few rare exceptions, is strictly forbidden, and blacks must carry a passbook with them at all times. Plantation life is as grueling and demeaning as it was antebellum, and urban labor is not much better.
Turtledove’s skill lies in creating parallels to actual historical events, and he usually draws them without too much laboring. Anyone who has read C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow would recognize the experience of Cincinnatus, one of the major black characters in the series. In an early scene, a police officer points a revolver at him and demands to see his passbook. Cincinnatus responds to the officer’s hostile suspicion with reflexive deference, reasoning that “if you didn’t want to end up swinging from a lamppost, you did what you had to do to get by.” On the occasions where white men treat him more pleasantly, they do so with a “condescending sort of niceness” which Cincinnatus likens to “a lord being kind to a serf.” When U.S. forces occupy Kentucky, he quickly learns that whites from the north generally view blacks with equal disdain.
Turtledove’s most interesting parallels, however, occur when he juxtaposes elements of Europe’s first 20th century calamity with the wounds of America’s most bitter conflict. An early scene where Woodrow Wilson, as President of the Confederacy, declares war recalls the electrified crowds that gathered in London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg in August of 1914. It is a well-tailored picture that includes an imagined Confederacy in the momentous events that swept Europe that Summer, yet still retains certain particularities of American history. Wilson opens his speech by referencing George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements before describing the necessity of allying with France and England to guard against the “jealous” and “bitter” United States. The President of the Confederacy also cautions that the impending conflict “may prove the most disastrous and terrible of all wars.” In this fictitious scene, Turtledove takes care to acknowledge how entry into binding, overseas alliances marked a departure in American history, while also echoing Wilson’s actual views toward World War I.
“Right,” Wilson declares, “is more precious than peace,” and “the rights of the Confederate States and of the white men who live in them” form the guiding principle for entering the war. In essence, the C.S.A. is a racial community, and it is at this point where Turtledove draws a clever, deceptively obvious parallel with Imperial Germany and the promise of Volksgemeinschaft that spawned the Third Reich. The key commonality is not that both nations possessed a sense of racial unity but that volatile forces churned beneath their precarious social hierarchies.
While the slave-owners who drove southern secession were not quite an aristocracy in the European sense, they were still a landed elite not unlike the Prussian Junker class who dominated German politics until 1918. Historical research published roughly the same time as the Great War series argues that the nationalist yearnings of many Germans were left unfulfilled by the monarchy that ruled them. This dissatisfaction provided fertile soil for the Third Reich.
In 1998, the same year Turtledove published American Front, historian Peter Fritzsche argued that the heady German crowds of August 1914 marked “the precise moment when the Third Reich became possible.” With Wilhelm I’s coronation in 1871, the Kaiserreich had cobbled together a “troubled, incomplete sense of German identity in which state and nation, Kaiser and people, had yet to find a restful balance.” The war created a sense of German-ness that had heretofore been lacking, and this sense of racial community chafed at the confines of a rigid, aristocratic class system. A similar conflict exists in Turtledove’s imagining of the Confederacy.
One of the most penetrating statements about the nature of the U.S. Civil War occurs in James McPherson’s description of Grant and Lee at Appomattox in Battle Cry of Freedom. “There in [Wilmer] Mclean’s parlor,” McPherson observes, “the son of an Ohio tanner dictated surrender terms to the scion of a First Family of Virginia.” In other words, the leading soldiers of these opposing forces came from markedly different backgrounds and were shaped by disparate social and economic orders.
Slavery was a load-bearing pillar of southern civilization because it because the ruling, landed-elite depended on it. Eleven states threatened to dissolve a republic to protect slavery because, in part, no true counterpart to their socioeconomic order existed in the more industrialized north. Turtledove depicts a twentieth-century C.S.A. with burgeoning cities and a growing industrial base, but the basic social order is not too different from that of the antebellum world. One of the Great War series’ central arcs describes how, as the promise of victory sours in the face of prolonged, unprecedented bloodshed and deprivation, this order begins to show its seams.
Turtledove demonstrates this parallel most tellingly in the form a character named Jake Featherston, a confederate soldier and son of a field overseer. As a sergeant in the First Richmond Howitzers, Featherston serves under the command of J.E.B. Stuart III, a Scion of Virginia and grandson of the famed Civil War general. Stuart’s father is a high-ranking officer on the Confederate General Staff. When Jake suspects Stuart’s valet of sabotage, he reports it. Stuart protects his valet from investigation, though he is humiliated when Featherston’s suspicions bear out. Consequently, it is made clear that Featherston’s prospects of advancement are forever ruined. The incident births within him a “bloodless contempt . . . for the hidebound aristocrats who held so many important posts in Richmond.” These “hidebound aristocrats” are not unrecognizably different from the Prussian Junker class that dominated Imperial Germany’s politics and military.
Other parallels work almost as well, whereas others don’t. His depiction of a vibrant Socialist party in the United States feels a little contrived, though the notion itself is not wholly implausible. Marx once described Lincoln as “the single-minded son of the working class,” and Lincoln also famously declared that “capital is only the fruit of labor.” Lincoln also maintained ties with radicals who had fled Europe after the revolutions of 1848. But even an incarnation of Lincoln who was never assassinated would be long dead by 1914 (Turtledove dispatches him through natural causes), and the forces that could grow and sustain a robust socialist party, with sizeable representation in the House of Representatives, begs deeper explanation than the Great War series offers. Despite its flaws, though, Turtledove’s portrayal of northern Socialism is still thought provoking.
His portrayal of a rural-based revolutionary Marxism, on the other hand, is rather baffling. It is not that Russian peasants and Plantation laborers in South Carolina defy comparison, but the comparison actually undermines Turtledove’s scenario. Russian peasants often viewed Bolshevik cadres with suspicion. Likewise, one should not automatically assume that black plantation laborers, who had steeped for generations in a distinct and diverse brew of Christian doctrines and African heritages, would find a natural appeal in dialectical materialism. The leader of the uprising, Cassius, casually employs revolutionary jargon and quotes Marx verbatim alongside a thick, country vernacular. Lacking any explanation as to his ideological origins, such dialogue comes across as silly affectation.
What is most frustrating about Turtledove’s choice here is that he seems to have foregone some more exciting possibilities. Grafting a Marxist revolution onto southern plantations ignores what was unique about slave culture. Slaves, and their descendants, combined imposed European and remembered African elements to forge distinct identities. These acts, in themselves, were a form of resistance to white subjugation. Instead of an awkward-fitting Congaree Socialist Republic, Turtledove would have been better to imagine a movement for Gullah independence, perhaps led by a cadre of firebrand, black preachers.
What, overall, does the Great War series’ imagined past say about the present? The answer, I think, changes with the presents it inhabits. Its initial aim appears to be a defense of the status quo. In the three years the novels were first published, 1999, 2000, 2001, the United States housed bitter divisions. Republicans in Congress impeached Bill Clinton because he handled personal improprieties in a way that dismayed many of the President’s own supporters. The election of 2000, settled along partisan lines by the Supreme Court, also shed new light on the suppression of minority voters. In this context, the Great War series acknowledges that things were bad, but shows that they could be a lot worse. The Civil War may have scarred this country, but the scars could heal in relative peace.
In the dog days of 2016, Turtledove’s cautious optimism seems more like a gloomy metaphor. Race relations are more openly strained than they have been in years. The vitriol of many Trump supporters is one indicator; another is a poll that shows that some sixty percent of likely voters feel that race relations have worsened since Barack Obama took office. Obama’s election, which at first promised to heal America’s racial wounds, is now an unsettling reminder that diversity and aspirations of racial harmony are relatively new, and quite fragile, features of our polity. America is no longer ruled by “hidebound Aristocrats” but white populists, once assured by the southern strategy, feel elites have failed to protect their way of life. In this light, the Great War series may show that the Civil War spared us of greater bloodshed, for now. The fundamental conflicts, sown with framing of the Constitution, are nowhere close to resolution.
Will Greer is a student in the Master’s of Historic Preservation program at Georgia State University. Check out other entries in our annual Dog Days Classics series here.