The original inspiration was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, arguably the most famous alternative history of them all. There’s a throw-away line towards the beginning about Africa and the ‘Nazi experiment there’. That line stuck in my head and I began speculating about what Hitler might have done if he had conquered Africa.
A lot has been written about what a Nazi superstate in Europe would have been like, but almost nothing about a Nazi Africa. This afforded me the chance not only to write something original but also a big adventure story set in Africa. And although the Nazis made detailed plans for the continent, there were also a lot of gaps in those plans. This combination of historical, if hypothetical, fact and lacunae gave me the freedom to create a world of ‘fantastic realism’, as in the work of Sergio Leone, a life-long influence on my writing.
My main purpose with The Madagaskar Plan was to write a page-turner, something to thrill and hopefully move readers. But I also believe alternative histories can do more. They are thought-provoking by definition. In my book, for example, there has been no Holocaust. What are the implications for history? Have things turned out better, worse or the same for Jews? And what does the answer tell us? Counterfactuals can also offer a moral justification for real events. My world has the United States remaining staunchly isolationist… and we can see the consequences. But this is not just about looking back to the 1940s; it has significance with America’s role in the world today as the US becomes wary of engaging in conflicts which could potentially benefit from its involvement.
It was the contradiction at the heart of their plans. On the one hand these were incredibly detailed, with things as specific as a department to take tourists on safari (Section B, Dept IX-c, if you want to know). On the other, there was utter chaos with multiple organisations and individuals vying for control. The conquest of Africa would have required a guiding figure, but no such person emerged. Despite the frenzy of planning for the continent, Hitler was only intermittently interested.
The Madagaskar Plan is about the Nazi scheme to deport the entire Jewish population of Europe to Madagascar, a remote island off the coast of Africa. Prior to the Holocaust this was to be their fate. My primary sources for this plan were a series of top-secret memoranda that passed back and forth between the German Foreign Office and SS. These circulated at the highest level and were overseen by Reinhard Heydrich (Himmler’s deputy) and Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution. The memoranda discuss everything from the number of Jews needed to be shipped from Europe each month to the establishment of an internal Jewish police force to help the SS control the island.
This is a complex and fraught question, but if you make two big assumptions – Hitler secures peace with Britain and defeats the USSR with relative ease – my view is that the Nazis would have implemented the Madagascar Plan and started deporting Jews to Africa. Considering the logistical difficulties, however, I suspect at some point they would have ditched the project – abandoning those Jews already on the island, exiling those still in Europe to Siberia. We tend to think of the Holocaust as the raison d’être of the Third Reich but if you go back to the contemporary record, the reality is more ambiguous. Although the Nazis’ plans for the Jews were always malign that doesn’t mean they were always genocidal. Hitler repeatedly said that if he secured victory he would ‘banish’ rather than eliminate them; their systematic annihilation was a consequence of the war turning against the Nazis.
I suspect that if you live in Syria or Iraq or any of the forgotten countries in Africa currently ravaged by war you won’t hold that view. However, from a statistical (and relative) point of view, it’s true. That doesn’t mean I believe humanity is progressive by nature, that peace and security are the inevitable destination of society. All it takes is for the fanatics to get power, or resources to become scarce, and violence rapidly returns. The brutality I depict in my fiction is a warning against ever being complacent.
The original Afrika Reich was turned down by every publisher in Germany. Whether this was because they simply didn’t like the book or because the subject matter remains too sensitive, I can’t say. Though when my agent first pitched the idea to German publishers he said it made them blanch.
Not in any literal sense. My Greek grandfather raised me on tales from Homer and there’s more than a little of Odysseus in Cole. To me Odysseus has always been the archetypal hero: buffeted by fate, tested to the limits of endurance, but with a determination to persevere no matter what the odds. It was one of the things that surprised me with the first book, that people took Cole’s ability to survive so literally. He was always intended as a more ‘mythic’ character than some readers allowed.
Many readers think that Dunkirk is the point of divergence, and although it’s true in the geo-political sense to me it’s a symptom of a much earlier deviation from history. The true divergence is more subtle and comes before the Nazis have even taken power, pivoting round a single moment in the narrative: the illicit use of the word ‘butterscotch’. The point I’m trying to make is that history is not decided by headline events or the outcomes of battles but in the obscure moments of our personal psychology. We make seemingly unimportant choices and these ripple through time in ways we can never imagine, informing much later decisions that can have profound effects on the world. Though I should add, you don’t have to read the book that way!
Personally, I’m uncomfortable describing the Nazis’ crimes as exceptional. Many specific events of the period may have been unique, but sadly those years seem part of the litany of human history. The Nazis were not the first to unleash barbarism, war and genocide on the world; they won’t be the last. My concern is that by describing the Nazis as exceptional rather than universal, it fosters a complacency that what happened between 1933-45 was the product of its time and place and could never happen again. One only has to consider the mass murders since World War II – Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda; Islamic State’s current reign of terror etc – to see that isn’t true.