Britain under Nazi rule in ‘what if’ BBC drama
SS-GB depicts Britain in 1941, with a twist: the Nazis have taken over. Alternative histories are increasingly popular among both artists and historians — but can they teach us much?
The King is in prison in the Tower of London. Winston Churchill has been executed. Buckingham Palace is covered in swastikas.
It is 1941. Germany has won the Battle of Britain, and the Nazis have taken control of southern England.
This is the premise of SS-GB, a five-part thriller which began on the BBC last night. It tells the fictional story of an officer in the Metropolitan Police, after the force has become subservient to the SS. He faces several dilemmas. Should he collaborate with the Nazis or resist them? What should he say to his son, who asks him if he worked for the Gestapo?
Literature and art based on counterfactual history — where real-life events have been given a small but significant tweak — have long had an appeal. Even in the 19th century, the French writer Louis Geoffroy imagined that Napoleon had defeated Russia and invaded England. SS-GB has echoes of It Happened Here, a hit film about England under Hitler from the 1960s.
But such stories have become more popular in recent years. In his novel 11/22/63, Stephen King imagined an attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Robert Harris’s book Fatherland and Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle have been set after fictional Nazi victories. And SS-GB producer Robert Wade says the show is more relevant in the era of Donald Trump, as ‘Trump uses the expression America First a lot’.
And there has been a parallel process among historians since the mid-1990s. Series of counterfactuals have appeared in publications such as the New Statesman and Prospect. On the first world war’s centenary in 2014, TV documentaries by acclaimed historians considered how the 20th century might have gone differently.
But the author Richard Evans thinks the genre teaches us little. ‘This fantasising threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past,’ he says. ‘In the effort to understand, counterfactuals are not any real use at all.’ So how much can we learn by asking ‘what if’?
Plenty, say some. Historians who study counterfactuals can make us think about an event or person in a unique way. And perhaps SS-GB is more informative than most historical fiction. Its creators can use both their imaginations and understanding of reality — such as the Nazis’ policies in France or the Channel Islands — to weave a compelling tale.
Nonsense, others reply. We may enjoy these stories, but they have little educational value. Historians have to speculate wildly; artists allow their imaginations to run away from them. Counterfactual history teaches us much more about ourselves — the eras or people we consider important, and the stories we wish to tell — than about the past.
- Would you like to watch SS-GB?
- Can counter-factual history teach us much of value?
- In pairs, write down 10 questions about historical events or people which begin ‘What if…?’ (eg ‘What if the Nazis had won the war?’). Discuss as a class which would be most interesting to answer.
- Think of an event or person in history. Prepare a short talk to your class on what you think would have happened if one small but important detail had changed. Then discuss: is this just speculation?
Some People Say...
“No one person or event changes history very much.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- It’s not 1941 any more. So why does it matter?
- History is not just about abstract details from the past — it is the study of people’s behaviour. It helps us to understand how the world of today took shape and the forces which guide human decisions. This is why it is a highly-valued discipline which can give you a deeper understanding of the world around you.
- But this didn’t even happen — how can it be worthwhile?
- Alternative histories provide a new perspective on events. Perhaps they can help to develop your brain in new ways — or perhaps you consider them a distraction. You may also simply enjoy watching or reading good stories. And any form of art can be a valuable way of passing on observations or perspectives on the world — meaning it can expand your mind and make you a better person.
- It is based on a novel of the same name by Len Deighton.
- A crack military unit in Nazi Germany and a major instrument of Hitler’s control. It took primary responsibility for security, identifying ethnicity, settlement and population policy, and intelligence collection and analysis.
- The official secret police in Europe under Nazi rule.
- This was set in a victorious Germany in 1964.
- The Man in the High Castle
- This depicts the USA under the rule of Germany and Japan (the Axis powers) after the second world war. It is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.
- America First
- In his inauguration speech on becoming president, Trump repeatedly used this phrase. During the second world war it was associated with a committee which wanted to keep the USA out of the war. Many of its members sympathised with the Hitler regime.
- Max Hastings said Germany would have conquered much of Europe without Britain’s involvement, but Niall Ferguson argued the British empire would have been safe for another century.
- Channel Islands
- The Nazis occupied these from 1940 to 1945.