Nightmares and Hope
J. N. Stroyar, The Children's War (Pocket Books, 2001)
Of all historical nightmares, none has a greater emotional impact than a Nazi victory in World War II. Within living memory, that nightmare was a possibility that might be only years or months away. Moreover, when the Hitler regime fell, it did so in the full light of day. Its intentions for the post-war era are not matters of speculation. Documents and eye witnesses and death camps spell them out. No rational human being believes today that National Socialism was unfairly “demonized” or fundamentally well-intentioned or capable of “convergence” with the democratic West.
J. N. Stroyar, a German physicist, is not the first writer to explore the contours of the Hitlerian nightmare, but she is unquestionably the most thorough. Over 1,100 pages long, The Children’s War is a painfully detailed depiction of a Nazi-controlled Europe at the start of the 21st Century. Germany rules, directly or through puppet states, the entire continent from Poland to the Atlantic. East of the Nazi domain lies a sealed-off Soviet Union. Across the ocean is a comfortable, democratic North American Union that is at heart hostile to the totalitarian powers but would just as soon ignore their brutalities. (One odd touch is that this U.S.-Canadian combine is fanatically anti-smoking – more so than even Mayor Bloomberg – a deviation from our reality that isn’t explained but plays a role in the plot.)
The narrative is arranged, at some cost in plausibility, to give the protagonist a grand tour of Greater German society, with an excursion to the NUA. We meet him first as a prisoner subjected to conditioning intended to turn him into a loyal Zwangsarbeiter (from “compulsion” and “worker”), then as the slave of two successive German families of considerably different ranks within the stratified social order. After escaping servitude, he stumbles into an enclave of the Polish “Home Army”, which has maintained a sophisticated rebellion for sixty years and recruits him for Resistance work that takes him to America and his native England. Also glimpsed, through the eyes of related characters, is the inner sanctum of the Führer (a successor to the long-deceased Hitler) and his retinue.
The verisimilitude of the Nazi practices and institutions is unmistakable, even without an after-note describing the author’s extensive research. It is easy to believe in the world that she portrays and likewise easy, though disconcerting, to believe that most people would adjust to it with only twinges of uneasiness. The ordinary Germans whom the hero encounters are, by and large, not devils. Some feel vague sympathy for his plight, and a few give him active, if casual, assistance in this efforts to escape from slavery. Unfortunately, it takes only a small number of devils to create and perpetuate Hell.
It is much to author’s credit – particularly considering that this is her first novel – that her grim subject matter does not turn into a dreary story. Her main character, a young Englishman called Peter Halifax, keeps the tale alive by refusing to acquiesce in his fate, whether he is in a prison for political dissidents or toiling for his German owners or trying to prove his value to the Resistance or seeking to regain the sense of identity that the Nazis have stripped from his soul. Without being superhuman, he displays the endurance, bravery and ingenuity that we all hope for, but probably would not possess, in comparable circumstances.
Surrounding Peter are a profusion of friends, enemies and neutrals. Most of the lesser characters are well-drawn and believable: the elderly, demoralized German couple who are his first “owners”; the browbeaten, sexually frustrated wife of his sadistic second owner; the female Zwangsarbeiter for whom promiscuity is a substitute for freedom; the hero-worshipping resistance co-worker whose puppy love goes sour; an African video star whom he meets in America; his precocious five-year-old adopted daughter; and many more.
A few of the more important figures strain credulity. Peter’s love-of-life Zosia and her brother Richard, pillars of the Polish Resistance, display a tendency toward superhuman competence that far overmatches the run-of-the-mill Reich security. Of course, if the hugely outnumbered Resistance were not supremely capable, it would not have lasted from 1939 to 2001, so one implausibility counteracts another.
Writing about one of the classic Nazi dystopias, Sarban’s “The Sound of His Horn” (1952), Kingsley Amis observed that a difference between SF and mainstream writers is that the former are not content with just describing societies; they also want to show how they can be changed. If “The Sound of His Horn” had been genre science fiction, it would have ended with the peasants taking up arms against their overlords.
By that definition, Miss Stroyar is definitely in the “mainstream”. By the end of the novel, the Resistance has penetrated the highest level of government and has good prospects of placing one its own as Führer. If, say, Harry Turtledove were devising the plot, the overthrow of tyranny would be at hand. J. N. Stroyar’s oppressed peoples have no such luck. The Resistance has no more ambitious goals than gaining a degree of cultural autonomy for the imprisoned nations and making the regime moderately less inhumane. Hitlerism with a human face, one might call it. The totalitarian mindset is too entrenched, all realistic freedom fighters agree, to make freedom an attainable ideal.
Peter’s own struggle likewise ends with his settling for limited success. He finds peace of mind through revenge on the worst of his past tormentors, while realizing that his acceptance of revenge as a satisfactory atonement confirms the Nazis’ success in reducing him to subhumanity.
The somewhat downbeat ending leads one to suspect that the author is trying to make a larger statement about the human propensity to succumb to totalitarianism, a version of George Orwell’s grim vision of a boot stamping a human face – forever. If so, she contradicts the main thrust of her story. The Children’s War is not light reading, nor is it always pleasant, but no one can read it and despair. Hitlers and Stalins come and go. The human spirit lives on.