Zonen – Tom Black – Review


Tom Black

Sea Lion Press

Not all counter-factual or alternate history scenarios have to be complex, far-reaching or completely left-field; to me, there’s just as much need in the genre for smaller, more subtle stories as much as there is for works that completely change the face of the world that they are set in – Hitler is never born, the Confederacy wins the Civil War, North American is never colonised and the like. If the author is skilful, and has researched their topic sufficiently to show an understanding of it, and how a different course of events might have affected it in certain ways, then even stories that have minor or obscure Points of Divergence (PoD) can be just as entertaining (and informative) as ones that lead to Nazis riding dinosaurs.

The short story Zonen, by Tom Black, is an excellent example of the former. I’m fairly well-versed in the origins of the Cold War, the division of Germany into Zones of Occupation, each one controlled by one of the Allied countries (United States, Russia, France and Great Britain), and how these were decided upon. But if someone had told me that, for a brief period (several years at most), Denmark had temporarily taken over responsibility for a section of the British Occupation Zone, I would have easily believed them. It’s a small change in the geopolitical landscape, and from the point of view of the progress of the Cold War, has absolutely no effect on it. Yet, as the author skilfully shows, even such a minor change has long-term effects for the countries involved.

It’s a small PoD that Black invokes to create this particular story. In 1946, tensions in Palestine escalate sufficiently that the Labour government under Clement Attlee are forced to commit more troops than planned, meaning troops from the British Occupation Zone are withdrawn. The US government bluntly indicates that it has no further resources to offer, and so the British are forced to turn to Denmark, recently liberated from German occupation, and with a resurrected military primarily armed from British Army stock. The result is the titular ‘Zonen’ taken over by Danish troops, an area encompassing parts of Northern Germany as far as Hamburg.

Through a series of interviews with Danish subjects involved with the occupation, or knowledgeable about it, the author explores what the consequences might have been for part of a defeated country to be occupied by the armed forces of a country it had itself only recently occupied. These interviewees, who range from a member of the occupying Danish Army, a far-right politician, a historian of the Zonen and even a TV producer creating another Danish drama to be exported to the BBC, allow Black to vividly depict the consequences of this slice of fictional history and ask some interesting (and sometimes searching) questions. What happens when you arm young Danish men who had family members, relatives, loved ones killed during the Nazi occupation? Are incidents like the Tinningstedt massacre inevitable? How do recently occupied people feel about providing food to the country that occupied them? Would a Danish occupation of the Zonen have actually improved relationships between both countries eventually, as is hinted throughout the story? These are interesting questions, and ones that beg to be applied to a longer piece of fiction, in a different setting (the French/British occupation of the Saar Basin, perhaps?)

Zonen is a short read, and yet a deeply interesting one that I’ve read several times now. I think it deserves to be read more widely, both as a good piece of writing, and as an antidote to what the author highlights in his afterword as the sometimes exaggerated “butterfly effect” that fuels the genre.

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