In “SS-GB,” spy novelist Len Deighton imagines what Britain might look like if it had been defeated in World War II. He focuses not on the military side of the conflict but on the lives of the British people under German occupation.
Two words come to mind to describe Deighton’s depiction of a German-occupied Britain. One is squalid. Britain was shattered in the course of the war and then by the grim nature of occupation. Food is rationed, clothing hard to get, heat almost nonexistent. For the English, a fastidious people, the loss of the war is best symbolized by the squalor in which they now live.
The second word that comes to mind is ambiguity. The main figure in the book is Douglas Archer, also known as Archer of the Yard. A graduate of Oxford University, Archer joined the police force and rose to become a superb detective who was known for solving all the cases that came across his desk. He’s committed to upholding the law, and England’s defeat leaves him in an ambiguous position. The law is now dictated by the Germans, but he can’t ignore his duty to hunt down murderers and criminals who did not dissolve with Britain’s defeat. But now, he must do his work within the framework of the new police force, led by the SS. He lives in poverty, and his wife is killed when a bomb hits their house. He has a young child who is fascinated by and collects German uniform badges. Archer has always been withdrawn, but he now withdraws almost completely into his work, which becomes increasingly complex.
There is a growing feud between the Wehrmacht and the SS, and within the SS itself. All militaries experience turf battles, but nowhere were they more extreme than in Germany, where Hitler ruled by playing everyone against each other. Archer, who was used by the Germans as a symbol of German-English cooperation, is in danger of assassination from underground elements.
He is drawn into the resistance being mounted by the British upper class. Deighton defines membership in this class not by how much money one has but by where they went to school, their ranking in the army and who their family members were. These are the things that draw these men together. They seek to draw the Americans into war by sending the king to Washington, but they know that the stuttering, sickly king will look pathetic. So they stage his escape, but then murder him on the beach from where he was to be evacuated, and it is announced that he died fighting the Germans. Britain needed a hero, and unbeknownst to him, Archer was helping to create one. He then faces the greatest ambiguity of all; he is a man of simple but durable morality, confronting the absolute ambiguity of existence.
Such ambiguity is the nature of occupation. We think of the Japanese, for example, and try to imagine the transition from overlord to the emptiness of being alive after defeat. Americans rarely imagine defeat, but the U.S. has occupied many countries and can’t quite fathom that they would resist after defeat. One of the hidden truths of geopolitics is that defeat can be unbearable, even more so when the occupier is not vicious and even tries to be kind to the occupied. The pain combines with the need to live, and what emerges is a population that is never again comfortable with itself.
George Friedman, chairman
This is the second time I am writing about “The Last Lion” in this space. Nearly a year ago, I was only a few chapters in and tried to give a sense of what I had learned already from William Manchester’s lucid prose and incredible sense of perspective. Almost 1,000 pages later, I have arrived at the finish line.
Over the past year, I have, of course, read other books while continuing to make slow but steady progress on “The Last Lion” – but I never had to go back to figure out where I had left off when I re-engaged with Manchester after a few weeks’ break. In a sense, this journey through Winston Churchill’s life from 1874-1932 has established a framework that I have come back to again and again. I had similar feelings after completing books by some of my other literary heroes, especially David Halberstam and Robert Caro.
Luckily for me, volume 2 awaits – and at a meager 816 pages, I hope to plow through it in better time than I did volume 1. But before I do, I’ll share just two observations about the book. Most know Churchill for what he did as leader of the United Kingdom during World War II – but he was well into his 60s by the time the war broke out. Churchill had already accomplished more before he became prime minister than most of us could ever hope to accomplish in a lifetime. He was at the center of much of British political life. He played a key role in World War I, in the U.K.’s relationship with Ireland and later India, and in the post-World War I British economy (in addition to keeping up a maniacal writing and speaking schedule and managing a rich, if slightly eccentric, family life). One certainly gets the impression, after reading “The Last Lion,” that Churchill’s leadership during World War II was a kind of coda to his life rather than the main event.
My second observation pertains to Britain itself. As I watch with fascination as British politicians rant and rave and demagogues switch sides and decry the death of democracy or the death of the union or the death of Britain’s global relevance, I realize that we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously. I don’t mean to say that I take Britain’s Brexit predicament lightly. But anyone with basic knowledge of British history would know that this is par for the course in British politics, the crisis du jour rather than the coup de grace. Churchill lived through many such crises himself – indeed, he found himself isolated completely from his country’s politics more than once, only to be called back when needed. To his credit, he was always ready to do so – a servant to what he believed was in the best interests of his island home and the idea of the British Empire that he cherished.
Manchester leaves no doubt that, in addition to being a dedicated public servant, Churchill was also a megalomaniacal narcissist, but somehow by the end, I was not interested in putting Churchill in either of those boxes. I think Manchester put it best when he said that when someone was with Churchill, “it was impossible to forget one was in the presence of a great original.” In that sense, so too was his country a great original, a purveyor of more small-minded and petty political squabbling than perhaps any other in human history, a source of some of the most honorable political ideals our species has created, and a participant in some of its darkest times, as well.
In Churchill’s own words, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” No one said it had to be pretty, and indeed, Manchester shows just how simultaneously ugly and noble it was during Churchill’s life. One need only turn on the BBC or CNN or any other media outlet to realize that this is still the case. Depending on the day of the week, that conclusion is heartening or depressing for me. Meanwhile, volume 2 awaits.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis