This is another of my In Short columns. It appeared in Vector 285, Spring 2017:
The recent death of Hilary Bailey reminded me of what was perhaps her best science fiction short story, “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner”. First published in the July-August 1964 issue of New Worlds, it is one of the finest examples of that strangely long-lived category of alternate history, in which the Nazis win the Second World War. It’s a type of story that first began to appear in the late 1930s, when fear of Hitler’s seemingly inexorable march to war began to spread. In the immediate aftermath of war such stories enjoyed a new vogue, largely because the true horrors of Nazi rule were becoming known and the war itself was recent enough for people to remember how close Germany came to victory. Later, these became the sort of alternate history story popular with non-science fiction writers (SS-GB by Len Deighton, Fatherland by Robert Harris, Resistance by Owen Sheers), often, I suspect, because it provided an inherently violent setting for a thriller plot. Such stories may be about to have a new lease of life, given the recent dramatisations of The Man in the High Castle on Amazon and SS-GB on the BBC.
It is, in other words, a type of story that never seems to die. Yet for me the real heyday of the Hitler Wins story was a brief period roughly bracketed on the one hand by “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” and on the other by “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts, two stories with noticeable similarities. They occupied a very particular period in British cultural history. The general election that brought Harold Wilson’s Labour Party to power occurred just a few months after Bailey’s story appeared, but already the ruling Conservative Party was mired in controversy and the deference in which politicians were held during the 1950s was long since gone. By the time Roberts’s story appeared, the 1970 election had brought Edward Heath’s Conservatives back into power, but had, if anything, damaged the reputation of politicians still further. What is noticeable about these two stories is that in conquered Britain, British people are working prominently with the regime; villainy is not restricted to the Germans (in fact, the real hero of Bailey’s story is German), nor are all Brits noble resisters. The new anti-establishment mood of the Sixties is reflected in an assumption that “we” are no better than “them”, an assumption that would have been unthinkable amid the heroism of Fifties’ war films. (It is worth pointing out that the archetypal American take on this theme, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, also falls squarely into this timeframe, and also concerns American collaboration with the new masters.)
On a less political note, it is also interesting that both “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” and “Weinachtsabend” are set at Christmas. It is not altogether clear why this should be. There is certainly an irony in this, clearly spelled out in Roberts’s story, but in Bailey’s story Christmas is deliberately underplayed, there is a total absence of celebration, of decoration, of any sort of festivity, even when the story takes us into the heart of German government. I think that Christmas is intended to act as a counterpoint to the superstition, the engagement with the supernatural, with which the Nazi regime is associated in both stories. The fact that the beliefs and actions of many of the Nazi leaders was shaped by belief in magic and ritual had been known before the war, but it was only in the Sixties that this knowledge seemed to have been absorbed to such an extent as to come out in the fiction. Thus the cruelty of the rituals enacted in “Weinachtsabend” is all we need to see of the cruelty of the entire regime, while “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” revolves around the belief that the title character can foresee the future.
And, of course, both stories reach their climax in a richly, if perhaps tastelessly decorated country house that implicitly identifies the new regime with an old aristocracy. But we’ll come to the climax in due course.
If “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” reaches its climax amid the ostentatious trappings of wealth, it begins in dire poverty.
It begins with our narrator, Sebastian Lowry, arriving at a dingy club in Leicester Square. It is lit only by candles, which hid “the rundown look but not the rundown smell of home-brew and damp-rot” (83). This creates a sense of disconnect right from the start: even in 1954, when the story is set, and even more so in 1964 when it was written, Leicester Square was the glittering heart of London nightlife. But later, as Lowry returns to the once-posh hotel (on Piccadilly, near Park Lane, its staircase made of marble, all what we would normally consider indications of money and exclusivity) that is now the cheap boarding house where he lives, we see that such dinginess is now the common state of London. “The water was off most of the time … The gas came on three times a day for half an hour – if you were lucky. The electricity was supposed to run all day if people used the suggested ration, but nobody did … I had an oil stove, but no oil.” (87) In the immediate postwar years, Britain went through a period of austerity, but the last of rationing had already been lifted by the time this story is set, and even at its worst it was never as bad as this. This is privation on an unprecedented scale, and deliberately imposed. Later still, when Lowry heads out for lunch with his brother Godfrey, who has a senior position in the German government, he looks at the despoiled city and asks: “Thinking of cleaning up, ever?” to which he receives the off-hand reply, “No manpower, you see” (103). As Lowry reflects: “Naturally they left it. One look was enough to break anyone’s morale. If you were wondering how defeated and broken you were and looked at Park Lane, or Piccadilly, or Trafalgar Square, you’d soon know – completely” (103-4). The cost of defeat is spelled out in dirt and squalor, the ugliness is Bailey’s way of showing how different this world is.
But let’s turn back to that moment when Lowry walks into the ironically named Merrie Englande. There are two policemen sitting at the bar. They wear helmets (though police would not normally do so inside, and one of the two is, we learn, a detective inspector, who would wear neither a helmet nor a uniform), which identifies them as typical British bobbies, though we later learn that: “The uniforms were all the same. You couldn’t tell the noble Tommy from the fiendish Hun” (98), only the helmets remain the same. “They wanted you to think they were the same blokes who used to tell you the time and find old Rover for you when he got lost,” (99-100) as Lowry remarks to the dodgy clothes dealer, Arthur; to which Arthur replies, sardonically, “Aren’t they?” (100). Coppers, like just about everyone else, are only too ready to adapt to the new order. Literally so: when one of the policemen in the bar leaves his card for Lowry his name is given as “Det. Insp. Braun” (86), he has even changed the spelling of his own name, Brown, to the German form. When Gwyneth Jones described an alien takeover in her Aleutian trilogy, what was startling was the way humans remodelled themselves to be like their conquerors; but here was something similar from 30 years before. There is still some resistance; at one point we hear explosions from “the English Luftwaffe doing exercises over the still-inhabited suburbs” (85), it isn’t made explicit, but we imagine someone still fighting there, but on the whole collaboration is more common.
Lowry is a musician who earns a precarious and potentially illegal living playing at the club, so he is instantly on guard against the police. But though the police are happy to intimidate anyone, they are there to ask about someone else: Frenchy Steiner. Frenchy is “a kraut” (84), we later learn that her real name is Franziska, who sometimes sings at the club with Lowry’s accompaniment. He had written “Frenchy’s Blues” for her, “one of those corny numbers that come easy to the fingers without you having to think about them” (84); although he doesn’t say as much, it is pretty obvious that Lowry is in love with her. In the end, Frenchy doesn’t show up that night, and the police leave without revealing why they are after her. The only comfort is that it is CID not the Special Branch, so it isn’t political.
The next day, however, Frenchy shows up at Lowry’s room. He tries to send her away: “It was the code. If someone wanted by the cops asked for help you had the right to tell them to go… If you were a breadwinner it was expected” (90); but Frenchy doesn’t go, and Lowry doesn’t really try too hard. She insists that she has no idea why the police might be after her, and anyway they can’t do anything because she has “a full passport” (90). In this stratified society, only the elite have a full passport, there are “about two hundred” (96) in Britain, and they can literally get away with murder. Lowry’s brother Godfrey, Gottfried as he now calls himself in another example of taking on the colouration of the conquerors, has one because he is Deputy Minister of Public Security; it is Godfrey who pays Lowry’s rent, to avoid the embarrassment of him being arrested as a vagrant, but the two haven’t even seen each other for two years. But a full passport marks someone out as special to the regime, so why should Frenchy have one? And why should the police be interested in her? She says she has the passport because she is the daughter of the mayor of Berlin, but there is clearly something more.
Nevertheless, Lowry lets her stay; if nothing else, the full passport casts a protective shield around him whilst he is in her company. And though she continues to insist that she has no idea why the police might be interested in her, she adds, mysteriously: “but I’ll know tomorrow when I wake up” (94), our first indication of Frenchy’s particular talent. Our second indication comes when Lowry wakes with a migraine. Frenchy rubs his temples, and the pain goes. She is some kind of healer. She then announces that she is getting out of London; she still doesn’t know what the cops want from her, but “I just know if I keep away from them for a month or two they won’t want me any more” (95). We won’t understand why this might be until the end of the story, for now we have little choice but to accept her oddness. As Lowry admits: “I’d always known Frenchy was odd, by the old standards. But as things were now it was saner to be odd” (96). Frenchy’s healing skills and prescience are the only way to deal with the world turned upside down that is Britain under Nazi rule.
But while Frenchy is out, using the immunity of her full passport to gather the things they will need to get out of London, brother Godfrey shows up. Making out that it is entirely casual, he takes Lawry out for lunch, but soon starts quizzing him about “a sort of casual entertainer. A German girl I think” (105). Moments later he lets his guard down even more, saying “We want to repatriate her” (105) and adding some vague story about an inheritance. Lowry stonewalls him, but knowing the Security Ministry is involved adds an extra urgency to their escape.
They don’t get far before they are surrounded by police, along with Godfrey and someone who turns out to be Frenchy’s father. As they are being driven back to London, it becomes obvious that neither the police nor Godfrey have any idea why there was a hue and cry for the girl. And despite appearances, Frenchy seems to remain in control of the situation. She insists that Lowry should accompany her, which is why he finds himself held first in a luxury hotel in London and then taken to a palace, “half old German mansion, half modern Teutonic with vulgar marble statues all over the place” (117). It is now that Lowry learns what is so special about Frenchy.
When she was thirteen she began to have visions: “I used to see tables surrounded by German officers. I used to overhear conferences. I saw the tanks going into battle, burning cities, concentration camps – things I couldn’t possibly know about” (113). This is where the belief in magic and ritual of the Nazi hierarchy comes into play. Frenchy becomes “the virgin who prophesied for Attila … officiating at sacrifices and Teutonic saturnalia, watching goats have their throats cut with gold knives, seeing torchlight on the walls” (114). In among all of this, she tells the Leader (as Hitler is referred to throughout the story) not to invade Russia. Frenchy is the turning point, the reason that Germany won the war. And afterwards: “I’d spent four years in an atmosphere of blood and hysteria, calling on the psychic part of me and ignoring the rest. I was unfit for life” (115). She had tried to kill herself, tried to get away, but now “There must be desperate problems to be solved. Or the Leader’s madness is getting worse. Or both” (115). Which is why she is dragged back to the heart of the Nazi regime.
At first they see no way out. Frenchy doesn’t want to help the regime, but she’s “not strong enough to resist” (115), and when she asks Lowry to kill her, he refuses because “If I killed you, how could I go on hoping you’d have a better life?” (115). In the end it is the superstition of the Nazis that they use against them. In the Leader’s palace, Frenchy gets away from her handlers long enough to get to Lowry’s room, where she convinces him to have sex with her. “Do you mean that if you’re not a virgin you can’t prophesy?” (119) Lowry asks, but it’s a question that is never answered. Brought into the presence of a raving Leader, just her declaration that she has “fallen” (122) is enough to convince Hitler’s aides that she can no longer help them. And in that moment hope is gone, chaos breaks out.
This, we must assume, is what Frenchy foresaw when she said it would be enough to keep out of the way for a month or two. She knew the Leader was coming to an end; she just didn’t realise that she was the one who would bring that end about. But she knows at the end. “‘This is the end of the Thousand Year Reich.’ She grinned again. ‘I did it’” (123).
Quotations taken from “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” by Hilary Bailey in Hitler Victorious edited by Gregory Benford & Martin H. Greenberg, London, Grafton, 1988.