'The Man with the Iron Heart' review

Updated: Apr 29

By Alexander Wallace

Harry Turtledove has often been tarred within our community as being excessively parallelistic; certainly, most of us remember in vivid detail the clear Holocaust parallels of the ‘Population Reduction’ in his Southern Victory series. One can certainly make the case that it shows a lack of originality, but when done right I feel that it can illuminate certain truths that may be obscured by temporal or geographical details.

Turtledove once remarked that he became more and more openly political as he got older. This novel is most certainly a political commentary; it came out in 2008 and is a metaphor for the state of the Coalition occupation of Iraq by that period with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In a more literal sense, the book’s history diverges from our own during the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who died in our world at the hands of Czech partisans (the town of Lidice would pay for said partisans’ daring). In this world, Heydrich survives the assassination and has little effect on the rest of the war; however, the Germans winning the war is not what Turtledove is concerned with. Rather, he is far more interested in the Allies losing the peace.

Reinhard Heydrich ends up becoming this world’s Osama bin Laden, leading a bloody insurgency against all the occupying powers in Germany; here, the ‘good war’ becomes a savage war of peace, a meat grinder into which American, British, and Soviet boys are thrown into by the bundle. The book, ultimately, is about why insurgencies succeed and why counterinsurgencies fail.

The plot contrasts Heydrich, a murderous mole, against the Allies, who are playing an infuriating game of whack-a-mole. Heydrich is a captivating villain, utterly ruthless and thoroughly despicable, who nevertheless maintains your attention. Seeing him find ways to constantly elude his hunters gives the narrative several twists and turns, and it is satisfying seeing how his organization finds new ways to terrorize the occupational forces (many of which are, in a Doylesian sense, clearly based on similar events in Iraq in the 2000s). I wouldn’t say you end up rooting for one of the men who planned the Holocaust, but Turtledove’s portrayal of Heydrich most certainly has the literary equivalent of stage presence.

The response of the Western Allies is not unlike the confused response that the Coalition Provisional Authority had when confronted with the fact that the Iraqis didn’t just do what they said. Conversely, the Red Army has no such qualms; they end up reusing former Nazi concentration camps for their own purposes, as they did in our world. For the Americans, in particular, the war ends up deeply unpopular at home, with a burgeoning anti-war movement presaging that of our world’s movement against the Iraq War.

In terms of plausibility, it seems believable enough that a better-led Nazi organization in occupied Germany could end up being a significantly more painful thorn in the collective side of the Allies. It is not in the insurgency that strikes me as being the most implausible, but rather the response. In our world, America and Britain were both absolutely willing to brutally crush insurgencies in the Philippines and South Africa. In particular, I would expect at least the British to wheel out the concentration camp system pioneered in the Boer War and inflicted upon Kenya and Malaya in the 1950s, after the war in our timeline.

Given that the British endured so much death and destruction at the hands of German bombers, and the bonfires the Royal Air Force was willing to set alight in German cities (whereas the American bomber command was more hesitant - Dresden was, contrary to Vonnegut, a mostly British operation), I suspect that the British, at the very least would have no mercy for Heydrich’s organization (and the Boer War shows they were willing to do this to white people).

But that sort of hard plausibility is not the point of this book, nor is it the point of many other Turtledove works. The Man with the Iron Heart is about the emotional plausibility (as Liam Connell put it) rather than historical plausibility, and it certainly feels emotionally plausible that World War II could end up in an even blooder manner (see Paul Hynes' Decisive Darkness duology or Jon Kacer’s Festung Europa, both available through Sea Lion Press), given how bloody it already was. As General Sherman said, war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.

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