In and Out of the Reich
Sea Lion Press
Let us not mince words, you and I, at the start of this particular book review: the ‘Victorious Third Reich’ scenario in the Alternate History genre is currently as stale, moribund and utterly unimaginative as the totalitarian, continent-spanning, dictatorship that it bases its stories upon. Whether you peer into the Kindle listings, or the many YouTube channels that produce Alternate History content in the form of maps, stories or other content, there are thousands of examples of what it might look like if Nazi Germany had triumphed during the Second World War; and yet there is so little originality in this content. There is no imagination, no real thought, no interrogation of the scenario beyond the shallowest concepts, with most authors and content creators apparently happy to play about with Swastika variants and often disturbingly-gleeful descriptions of domination, destruction and death camps.
Yet there is absolutely no reason why it has to continue be this way. It would take comparatively little effort to dig down into the scenario, ignoring the superficial trappings of the Nazi regime, and instead focus on the human side of the Reich – both the occupiers and the occupied. To look at what stories could be told from their points of view, and in turn how that might reflect on the regime, and indeed the scenario as a whole. Such titles are still vanishingly rare, but they are out there – and the latest example is Paul Leone’s deeply impressive triptych In and Out of the Reich, released last month from Sea Lion Press. Even without their growing reputation as the premier publishers of quality Alternate History fiction, it would be obvious from the front cover alone that this was an SLP title; we are treated to another impressive piece of Jack Tindale cover art with its distinctive Art Deco-inspired design. What at first glance appears to be a normal living room becomes more and more sinister as details are taken in by the reader: the stylised portrait of Adolf Hitler on the wall, the imposing silhouette of the Volkshalle in the distance, the TV showing a monochrome map of Europe under the Nazi jackboot. It perfectly reflects the stories to be found within In and Out of the Reich: an uneasy blend of domestic ‘normality’ and genocidal authoritarianism across the conquered states of an entire continent.
In and Out of the Reich is approximately novella-length, and consists of three separate stories that together provide a consistently engaging and thought-provoking examination of humanity under an undefeated Reich. They’re all told in the format of long-form magazine articles, the sort of sharp, focused, investigative content you get in The Times or The Guardian; it’s a clever decision by Leone as it simultaneously helps to ground the novella in the realities of this universe, while avoiding the often dry, exposition-heavy chapters so often used to bludgeon readers with unnecessary facts and figures. The first article is titled All Quiet on the Eastern Front, and begins with our protagonist travelling through Austria by train and picking up a local newspaper during a stop. Past the Reich propaganda and sports section are the obituaries, and one attracts his attention: a young woman, who died recently. Two shocks come in quick succession: she was killed serving on the Eastern Front, and she died in 2016. Not only is the triptych set in the modern day, but nearly a century of dictatorship hasn’t led to peace in what used to be the USSR. It’s a grim taste of what’s to come, as the article highlights various aspects of the modern-day Reich that give greater context to the fighting still raging on the Steppes.
Leone gives us an unsettling blend of the pseudo-scientific racism inherent to the Nazi regime, now scaled up after decades in power, and the sort of innocuous pop culture details that could exist in any universe. Hence the concept of the Wehrpass, detailing each Reich citizen’s racial history and characteristics (a shudder ran through me at the casual use of the term ‘Predominantly Nordic with Minor East Baltic characteristics’) sits alongside a lighthearted passage about the sitcom My Little Frau. As the columnist dives deeper into the ancestral heritage and family history of the deceased young woman, things become more and more disquieting as further aspects of the Reich’s control over its citizens and subjects is unveiled. Leone’s prodigious imagination, and impressive research skills, are clearly on show here, extrapolating from the historical Reich’s institutions to create a far more invasive and controlling State. We also get some incredibly grim yet undeniably realistic descriptions of how populations in the East have been Aryanised and decimated, along with a host of other minor details that draw you into the article and indicate that while the Reich spans an entire continent, it still suffers from the same social problems any empire has over the millennia. I was particularly amused, albeit in a rather dark way, by a dedicated Nazi veteran complaining about the weakness and laziness of the younger generation of conscripts. The overall impression, by the end of this first article, is of a terrifyingly powerful Nazi regime with an unprecedented level of control over everyone within its territories; but also one rife with internal tensions and external enemies.
Those impressions are carried through into the next article, entitled From the Atlantic to the Urals and examining the inter-continental span of the Nazi empire through the lens of air and train travel. Here we start to get more details of how the Reich operates, and also deals with its rivals around the globe, including some chilling mentions of terrorist and hijacking attacks ruthlessly suppressed by the Nazi authorities. There are also mentions of the mega-structures that have been constructed in the decades since victory, and even the trains and jets are bigger than their non-Germanic rivals; Leone deftly satirises the historical Nazi obsession with grandeur and ridiculous architectural designs, using them to show the Reich’s insecurities even after winning the Second World War. As the article progresses, the continent-spanning transport system is used to demonstrate more aspects of Nazi domination, from the deeply racist (yet worryingly contemporary to our own world) immigration policies, the tripartite queuing system for travellers into Reich territory, the weird, occult influence of the SS in certain parts of the higher education system, and even gossiping through the film industry. Perhaps the most sinister, and memorable, part of the article however is the description of Berlin – or Hitlerstadt as it has now been known for more than half a century at this point. The cyclopean architecture sounds both impressive and terrifying in equal measures, and an encounter with Slavic ‘guest workers’ leaves a sour feeling in both our protagonists stomach and us as readers.
While the thrust of the article is fascinating by itself, once again I was impressed by the Leone’s attention to detail as the narrative progresses, the little details mentioned in passing that add further layers to the dystopia he’s created. One such example being that there isn’t a national French airline, tying into long-standing German antipathy with France, and an obviously continuing desire to tamp down on even the blandest form of nationalism. Or the way in which post-war Agatha Christie books are bitterly anti-European in nature, reflecting her experiences during the Second World War. There are many of these little flourishes, carefully integrated into the text, and they make the difference between bland counterfactual fiction and engaging Alternate History.
Finally, the third element of the triptych, An Ordinary Germanic, focuses on a single Reich citizen, Therese Lohmeyer an air steward living in the United Kingdom. A chance encounter in hospital brings her into our protagonist’s circle, and makes her the subject of his article. The more he meets with her, the more her tragic and depressing story comes out, showing us yet another side that fails to reflect the asinine propaganda put out by the Reich, one that shows more pressures placed on its citizens. We also get to see more of the contemporary United Kingdom in this universe, one that simultaneously comes across as both familiar and deeply alien. There’s the same fawning level of public love for the Royal Family and their latest grandchild, but also a certain chill, a sharpness from decades of Cold War (which has sometimes heated up) with the superpower across the Channel. A brief trip to the Imperial War Museum of this reality is genuinely chilling, with the artifacts on display far more grim in nature than those in our museum. It all makes for an intriguing setting, and one that I’d like to see explored in more detail if Leone ever follows up with a sequel.
In and Out of the Reich is a deeply impressive work of Alternate History fiction, one that has managed the near-impossible feat of reinvigorating the Nazi Victory trope in the genre. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the triptych is effectively a form of travelogue through the shattered remnants of the former USSR – ‘a little German tissue stretched over an enormous Slavic skeleton’ as Leone so memorably describes it. Extremely well written, with a sharp eye for detail and excellent characterisation, and even some witty asides, Leone does not flinch from showcasing what it would be like for the average citizen under an eternal Reich. The harsh, often depressing realities are laid bare in memorable and highly quotable passages, yet never comes across as voyeuristic or excessive in nature. In addition to the content of the articles themselves, there’s also a meta-narrative running through the triptych to engage the reader further: just who is our nameless protagonist, and what exactly was their job prior to becoming a journalist? Ultimately, In and Out of the Reich is a highly-polished and hugely enjoyable slice of Alternate History, and a great credit both to Mr Leone, and Sea Lion Press, once again at the forefront of revitalising and innovating the Alternate History genre.