By Adam Selby-Martin
I've mentioned in previous reviews my disdain for some of the dominant scenarios in the Alternate History genre - Dixie Victorious, the Third Reich Victorious, the Second World War But Slightly Different and so forth. I dislike them because they are stale scenarios that tend to only breed cookie-cutter stories that often only differ between themselves in the typos to be found in their pages, and strange fascination the authors seem to have with their subject matter. They also seem to stifle innovation in the genre, there being so many different titles based on these scenarios that there is little room for original ideas to blossom and be noticed in the marketplace.
Yet it cannot be denied that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of these stories in the marketplace, and they surely cannot all be as dire and uninspiring as each other. There must be some that stand out from their neighbours - and having considered that, I decides to dive back into the Kindle listings to see what I could come up with; stories and authors that utilised these scenarios, but in some way distinguished themselves. After some determined digging through Amazon, whose book listings become more esoteric and confusing with each passing day, a few candidates revealed themselves. This is the first - a very recent publication, and one that caught my eye not only because of the attractive cover art but also the unusually lengthy title.
I can't imagine many pieces of cover art more striking, and perhaps controversial, than quasi-religious beams of light streaming out from behind a full-colour portrait of Erwin Rommel. It's incredibly unsubtle yet undeniably attention-grabbing, and is further aided by some striking white and orange font that brings out the novel title and author name. Then there's the matter of the title itself - although somewhat long-winded, it does precisely lay out what the reader can expect from the book. Rommel's victory at the Battle of El Alamein allows him to strike through the Caucasus, presumably to link up with German forces advancing towards Moscow during Operation Barbarossa . That certainly whetted my appetite, there not being many counterfactual titles focusing on the North African campaign, and the idea that the viewpoint character would be a war reporter also seemed interesting, it being a role that would not be confined to a specific geographical area or a solely military viewpoint.
We begin the story sometime in the early 1950s, and a chance meeting between the protagonist Joseph and an old American friend, in an Oktoberfest beer tent. It turns out that both men are old friends, former war correspondents who first met in Civil War Spain, covering events from Franco's side of the conflict. One boozy discussion later, and Joseph stumbles home to reminisce about how he ended up a close confidant of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and what that means in the complicated mess that is a victorious post-war Third Reich that has gone through a number of internal power struggles. It's certainly an effective framing device for the plot, and allows the author to then jump back in time and use Joseph as a viewpoint character for this counterfactual history.
The bulk of the novella consists of our jaded war correspondent recalling his time in North Africa, and to his credit Stahl does a highly credible job of portraying the difficulties that the Afrika Korps experienced in the desert - from the need to defeat the efforts of locals in the pay of the British, spying on them and reporting back details; to the huge amount of improvisation required to convert German vehicles to desert conditions; and the bane of having to work under conditions imposed on them by an impulsive Italian advance (and subsequent Italian defeats). There are some great action scenes as the plot progresses that Stahl brings to life; a clash between thick-armoured Matilda tanks and dug-in 88mm anti-tank guns is particularly evocative. In addition, the chaos of war is enhanced by it being viewed through the (often literal) lens of a camera, as Joseph attempts to take pictures and even film of the fighting between the two sides. This is where the Rommel connection comes in: Joseph is assigned to follow him as closely as possible and produce text and photographs for the propaganda ministry back in Germany.
To say that Erwin Rommel is a controversial figure in the history of the Second World War, and the history of the Wehrmacht, would be to put it lightly. Though this is not the place to discuss it, there has been a huge amount of mythologising in regards to Rommel, both from contemporary sources and historians and politicians in later years. To his credit, Stahl has his characters recognise this - an early discussion between Joseph and his old American comrade highlights that Rommel's supposed genius for war was turned into a legend and ruthlessly promoted by senior figures like Goebbels and even Churchill, especially in a timeline where the Third Reich's continued survival was due to his victories in North Africa and the Caucasus. Those victories form a key part of Joseph's narrative, driving the plot forward relentlessly. A different Battle of El Alamein appears to be the Point of Divergence (PoD) for this timeline; a more aggressive strategy by Rommel leads to the Afrika Korps attacking and e eventually defeating the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery. As PoDs go it isn't hugely plausible, though there is the interesting suggestion that German victory is possible through the supply of large numbers of Italian self-propelled guns, which is an angle I haven't seen before and is certainly food for thought for this tank enthusiast.
From there we are told of a string of victories that secure all the key areas of North Africa for the Axis powers, and then an advance through the Caucasus, though regrettably there's scant detail about how such a difficult manoeuvre would have been achieved. Stahl posits a theory that Rommel's successes allowed him to influence Hitler to the extent that the aims of the Eastern Front campaigns became more realistic, thereby allowing an armistice to eventually be agreed with the Soviet Union. Again it's an interesting narrative, though for me leans far too much on the previously acknowledged theory that Rommel was a 'Great Man' and could thereby wield influence in a distinctly Whiggish way.
Perhaps the best thing about Rommel's Game is the look we get into the fractured and perilous nature of German society and politics in the years after the German victory. Or what was announced to be a victory, but is rather a tense stalemate of sorts. There are hints at a long, drawn-out conflict and internal state dissension, with historical assassination attempts such as the Von Stauffenberg bomb plot leading to ahistorical developments such as the SS being stripped of its power, and the concentration camps being exposed. I've always thought there's a lot of unexplored potential in a 'denazified successful Third Reich' scenario - a Germany uneasily sitting between the Soviet Union and partially-liberated France in mid-1944 - and as such this piqued my interest in a number of ways. Towards the end of the novel, we do get a good look at what the Third Reich looks like like by the early 1950s. The SS has been defanged and the concentration camps exposed, but other than that it still appears to be a Nazi dictatorship. Hitler has a Grand Mausoleum, Swastikas are still in appearance during a Grand victory parade, and the Gestapo still maintains an iron grip on society. Unfortunately all we get are these fascinating but very brief glimpses at this society, which is deeply frustrating; it feels like Stahl is on the cusp of exploring such an awkward clash of ideologies, but there’s never any greater detail.
There are a few downsides to Rommel's Game. The writing is rather awkward and stifled, often not flowing terribly well, something that's likely due to the author not speaking English as their first language. Though even here one could argue it adds to the plot in a rather meta way, these being the memoirs of a German war correspondent who would not necessarily have needed to speak English in his role. There's also some confusion around the exact dates that various battles and actions took place, with the narrative often switching back and forth without any real warning, thereby confusing the reader. Secondly, the characters are all rather two-dimensional and the story is a little shallow, though it must be said that this is at least somewhat balanced out by the counterfactual details that the plot is laced with, this book belonging to that group of titles where characterisation and story depth are secondary to an exploration of the alternate history and how the counterfactual changes unfolded.
Finally, I should mention the novel's price structure. I purchased it when it first came out on Kindle for 99p, and this seems to be about the right price for the relatively short length, and the language issues highlighted above. Its current price (as of writing in February 2019) of £3.99 is unfortunately too high for me to recommend purchasing at this time; Rommel's Game has some enjoyable ideas and interesting ideas that bear exploring in further detail - just wait until it's lowered in price again.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews