A historical novel that imagines an alternative ending to World War II.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler boldly ordered the invasion of Western Germany—an undertaking so risky that even his own army’s general staff strongly opposed it. At the time, the German military was in a diminished state and vulnerable to attack by superior forces, but the British and French were caught unaware when the invasion order was given. Many historians have wondered whether much of the bloodshed of World War II could have been avoided if the Allied powers had swiftly responded to this act of aggression. Wurtenbaugh (Newton in the New Age, 2012, etc.) explores precisely this possibility in the novel, in which a young German officer, Lt. Karl von Haydenreich, contacts Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a major in the U.S. Army and a long-standing friend of the family, with stolen documents containing classified military information. The author not only tells the story of the war, but also of von Haydenreich’s life, entirely through excerpted books, journals, correspondence, and periodicals, all fictional—a quilt of information that, stitched together, forms a fully coherent, if unsettled, narrative. Von Haydenreich’s mother died when he was young, and he was raised by a stepmother whose relationship with his father was scandalous. His family were Bavarian nobility and rabid anti-Semites, and as a young man, Von Haydenreich was impressed by Hitler. His father disabused him of his infatuation, and he went on to become a serious student of music, but he eventually quit his studies and joined the Reichswehr.
Wurtenbaugh’s account is stunningly original, and he plausibly conjures a remarkably full vision of alternative history. Haydenreich is a beautifully drawn character, rich and complex, and the author allows readers considerable latitude in interpreting his motives. Some of the excerpts presented depict Haydenreich as a hero, some as a traitor, and the author wisely shows great restraint by refusing to offer any narrative commentary that definitively nudges readers toward one option or the other. Wurtenbaugh not only conjures a new historical universe, but also a contentious world of scholarship about it, and he invites readers to join in the dispute. His effort is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, as both are wildly imaginative and historically grounded. Most importantly, this book humanizes a global tragedy, making its main character’s inner conflict a microcosm of a nation’s intramural disputes. The entire Von Haydenreich family is memorably, fascinatingly dysfunctional, and the author slowly unfurls his protagonist’s plight in a way that seems fragilely contingent and inexorably fated. One minor criticism is that it would have been better if the author didn’t begin the novel with a prefatory note in his own name, and a concluding historical one. The power of the novel is in the immersive experience it offers, and these two invitations to stand outside the fictional cosmos feel unnecessary and diminishing. Nevertheless, this is an impressive work, as bold as it is meticulous.
A masterful exercise in historical hypothesis.