The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair. It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.
What *is* happening? The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”. The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters. Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar. And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany? We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.
I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it. It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good. The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios. I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.
The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president. And you can see exactly how that would have worked. Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria. Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there. OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still. And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost. A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938. You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked. Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.
And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia. OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.
I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say. OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this. Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far. It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.
And anti-Semitic incidents rise. We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army. The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic. Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet. Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country. Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.
Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is. Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him. I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.
I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that. He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense. And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna. I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America. Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. I really could have done without that. Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please? See Song of Slaves in the Desert .
Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”. This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else. And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”. The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there. It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … . They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.
Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency. There are violent clashes at rallies. Winchell is assassinated. Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well? We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved. [We hope they are. The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.] Riots break out. We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms. [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.] Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Conspiracy theories abound. Bengelsdorf is arrested. An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.
And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t. Are we going to get a second series?
Just a couple of other things. I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well. And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices. Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky. The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip. None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it? I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain. It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.
By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside. I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening? That’s why it was so good. We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised. Things like this happen from within. There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.
I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go. I think I’m glad I did. It was so good that it was horrific. And so relevant that it was even more horrific. No-one wants to be paranoid. But nor should anyone be complacent.