Even though I couldn’t find the entire series when I was looking for books — and found “Joe Steele” — what had really caught my eye was the series “The War That Came Early” series, by Harry Turtledove. I have to admit that at least part of the appeal was that I was reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and so had an interest in WWII in general and specifically in the question of what would have happened if Chamberlain had not given in at Munich. Hitler, if I’m recalling correctly, was absolutely spoiling for a war there and only didn’t invade in force because the West kept giving him everything he asked for no matter how outrageous. He couldn’t very well break off talks and invade when every time he asked for something the answer was “Absolutely!”.
In Turtledove’s version, a single event happens that changes this: the assassination of a prominent German by the Czechs. And, in-universe, it actually is by the Czechs; Hitler didn’t actually invent that as a pretext. However, Britain and France believe that it was invented as a pretext, and thus stiffen their spines. And thus the war starts early.
So what did I think of the first book?
One of the big draws to alternative history — or to any “What if …?” scenario — is to see what major changes occur from, at least potentially, relatively minor changes to history. The problem here is that while the war starts early, at least so far not all that much changes because of that. The big changes are that Germany’s thrust in France is blunted before they can take Paris, at least in part due to the fact that they are in a two-front war with Russia, who did fulfill their pledge to declare war on Germany … but ended up attacking/violating the territory of Poland and so creating an alliance of Poland and Germany in the East. This also leads Japan to make a push into Russia instead of signing a non-aggression pact with them, giving Russia a two-front war themselves. How this all plays out might be interesting and might lead to more changes later, but we don’t have the radical differences, at least so far, that we found in his World War series or series on what might happen if the Civil War turned out differently, which blunts some of the interest of an alternate history.
That being said, Turtledove is still good at creating characters and through them showing us the view from the perspective of the average, every day person. All of his characters are interesting, even those who are on “the wrong side”, and even those who aren’t all that nice. However, the first book focuses almost exclusively on them; we don’t get to see much if anything from the perspective of the major leaders in the war, which we did get to see more of in his other works.
What this leaves us with, in my opinion, is a book that’s good as a book, but somewhat lacking as an alternate history. The alternate timeline does absolutely no work in the book; the stories could be told in almost any time or even in a completely invented universe. Putting it into an alternate history framework only encourages us to look for the differences in the history, most of which aren’t really there or aren’t really important. It might have been better, then, to build this into an invented universe instead of reusing WWII. That being said, this was probably easier for Turtledove, and the book was still entertaining. So, so far, good.