Review of Dominion by C.J. Sansom
by C.J. Sansom
World War II is understandably an attractive point of divergence for writers of alternative history. "What if the Nazis won?" is a compelling question that has been explored many times over. Dominion takes a slightly different tack, imagining instead that the war itself was largely averted through appeasement. C.J. Sansom takes as his point of divergence the fateful meeting in which Churchill, Halifax, and Chamberlain decide who will succeed the latter as Prime Minister. In Dominion, Lord Halifax’s accession over Churchill results in a Britain that makes peace with Germany, which leaves the island alone as it prosecutes its war across the continent. In 1952, when the novel takes place, Britain is still nominally a sovereign power, but it bows often to Germany’s influence, and homegrown Fascism has taken root.
Sansom is treading sensitive ground. Alternative history where the Allies lose offers the condolence that at least we fought the good fight. Dominion posits rather that we stuck our heads in the sand, and that’s harder to bear. Yet it is inescapable that, at the time, a large number of people favoured appeasement. The horrors of Nazi Germany that are now printed baldly in textbooks and preserved indelibly in the memories of survivors and their families were, at that time, more rumours and whispers than hard truths. Hindsight makes it easy to view the war as the only viable option. But that was not always as apparent.
That makes the vision of Britain that Sansom presents so chilling and simultaneously compelling. This is a Britain of the 1950s that, in some ways, is very recognizable. I’m glad I read this after having lived in the UK for some time. More of the vocabulary makes sense, and although I haven’t visited the places referenced in the novel, I’m more familiar with the atmosphere and the cultural assumptions embedded herein. This, in turn, makes it easier to understand how the Britain of Dominion is a different, darker place. Through careful, well-paced developments in plot, combined with an exquisite attention to differences in media and transport and public services, Sansom builds a strong case for how peace with Nazi Germany would have led to a Britain that is less free, less democratic, and less prosperous than the Britain we got instead.
David Fitzgerald is not an action hero. He’s not a fighter. He’s a civil servant, one who gradually allows himself to be recruited into the Resistance movement. At first he is little more than a spy inside the Dominions Office. But when Frank Muncaster, his roommate at Oxford, becomes privy to secrets about the American atomic bomb project and lands in an asylum, the Resistance taps David to get him out of there before the German and British police close in. Already upset about lying to his wife, David does not relish the possibility of having to give up everything he knows and go on the run.
David’s wife, Sarah, comes from a pacifist family. But her sister has married a Blackshirt. So the family politics are … complicated. Dinners can be tense. And Sarah notices that David is working many late nights and weekends—and she suspects him of having an affair. Still torn by the loss of their son two years ago, Sarah is not sure what to do as she senses David drift further away from her.
And on the other side, Sansom provides the perspective of Gunther Hoth, a Jew-hunting Nazi transplanted from Berlin to London to question and apprehend Muncaster at all costs. Gunther is a good antagonist: he hates Jews and genuinely believes the party line on such points. Yet he is not a sadistic or cruel man. He has an ex-wife and an eleven-year-old son; he is a person, just a particularly bad one. He is also genuinely threatening, able to guess quite a bit of the Resistance plan for extracting Muncaster and getting him to an American submarine. Gunther is, if not one step ahead, then never more than one step behind. It’s this keen intelligence and insight that allows him to come close to catching David and other members of the Resistance several times, and eventually it allows him to leap ahead and lie in wait at the climax of the story.
Through these various characters and their various political and personal beliefs, Sansom builds a holistic picture of this alternative 1952 Britain. It is a warning of what might have happened if Churchill and others had not prevailed in prosecuting the war with such vigour. It is also a cautionary tale of what happens when one allows one’s country to get too caught up in the throes of nationalism. (In his historical note, Sansom goes from recounting the events leading up to the Halifax/Churchill decision before going off on a tangent about how awful the separatist Scottish National Party is, and while I can see the relationship, I’m not sure the connection between the SNP and the events in Dominion is as apparent as he might like. I was more caught up by the terrible things happening to the British Jews rather than the occasional mention of trade union crackdowns and the SNP.)
Dominion is a long novel, but it’s worthy of such length. It has a nice level of detail, not just in terms of history but in the actions and thoughts of the characters. It’s a potent demonstration of the dangers that are always lurking at the edges of so-called democratic processes, something that we would do well to remember given current events. I won’t pretend to understand what life was like in the 1940s, what it was like to see the end of the war and the defeat of Fascism. But it’s interesting to see Sansom’s take on what could have been different: a more isolationist America that actually wants to have ties to Russia, a weakened Britain losing its grip on its empire much more slowly yet more feebly; a terrifying unstable Germany that has bent Europe to its will on the brink of its own implosion.
Definitely interesting and moving, Dominion will appeal to fans of alternative history or anyone just interested in what might have been had we not quite fought World War II.