Friday, August 14, 2020

Green Phoenix - The Man with the Iron Heart Review

The Man with the Iron Heart.jpg

I have mentioned it several times before in my previous reviews of alternate history novels, but the genre as a whole has a fundamental issue at its heart. An author of alternate history must be able to balance an interesting and unique premise and point of divergence while at the same time not selecting a subject so esoteric that the general reading audience (which in America is woefully historically illiterate) won't be turned off or too bored.

For most alternate history authors, the solution is to pick a point of divergence and timeline that alters some event that is universally understood or known to American audiences, those two tending to be either the American Civil War or the Second World War. This results in these two time periods being the most discussed in the field of alternate history, almost to the point of parody. Even Harry Turtledove, the man widely considered the master of alternate history, has created dozens of stories based on these two time periods, immediately to great effect.

But today's review will cover one of Turtledove's more comparatively recent explorations into a WW2 point of divergence. In 2008's The Man with the Iron Heart, Turtledove explores not a Nazi victory in WW2,  but an altogether different, yet even more intriguing question. What if the survival of a single SS officer had enabled the creation of a more unified German resistance to the allied-occupation of Germany after World War 2? What would the impact be on Allied post-war sentiments at home?

These questions and their correlation to more modern wars like the Second Persian Gulf War form the thematic heart of The Man with the Iron Heart and it leaves this stand alone novel as easily one of Turtledove's most intriguing and underappreciated, in my opinion.

  • Written by Harry Turtledove
  • Published by Del Rey Books
  • Available in Hardback & Paperback
  • 533 pages (first edition, hardback)


In 1942, high-ranking German SS officer, Reinhard Heydrich, narrowly survives an assassination by Czech freedom fighters that historically killed him. Shortly after his survival, Heydrich is tasked by his commanding officer, Heinrich Himmler, will overseeing a project known as Werwolf, a Nazi insurgency group that will operate should the war turn against the Third Reich. Should the Reich fall to allied forces, Heydrich is tasked with leading Nazi guerilla forces in resisting allied occupation of Germany and working in all ways to re-install the Nazi government to power.
Following Germany's defeat in 1945, Heydrich leads this insurgency and exiled government throughout the Allied-occupied zones, killing generals, politicians, and Allied sympathizers. In common Turtledove fashion, our author presents the story through the viewpoint of several characters from numerous walks of life. From Heydrich's trusted aide, Johannes Klein, to a Soviet counter-insurgency operative struggling to kill Heydrich, to an American housewife who finds herself the leader of a growing anti-war movement following the murder of her son in an insurgent attack. This offers the reader a truly immersive experience of the story, enabling a view from nearly every side of the conflict. It has worked to spectacular effect in the author's previous work and it works wonderfully here as well.

The Man with the Iron Heart is a generally somber alternate timeline, as the attitude of a post-World War America beset by anti-war sentiment and acts of terror committed by a Nazi insurgency is hauntingly familiar to many millennials, myself included, who grew up on images of the Second Persian Gulf War and the anti-Iraq war protests that dominated the late 2000s. This was clearly intentional on Turtledove's part and it gives the novel a very grounded feel. It feels like it could've very well happened because it did happen in our time, just during a different war.
The novel maintains that grounded feel throughout, never allowing itself to go too crazy with the plans and schemes that the Nazi insurgency commit, with the craziest scheme being flying planes into important occupied government structures throughout Germany. The novel also remains fairly open-ended with the question of whether or not Germany is liberated from Allied-occupation left up in the air. It makes me feel like this novel was supposed to have a sequel that simply never got made and I feel like that really is a shame.

Another important feature I feel is necessary to point out is that the book does not attempt to romanticize Heydrich or the Nazi insurgency in this story. Historically, Heydrich was an evil bastard who was personally involved in the development of the Final Solution that led to the horrors of the Holocaust. Heydrich is not a heroic figure or protagonist in the story. In truth, the story is quite unique in presenting no single individual as a protagonist, but rather allowing us to follow many perspectives throughout this post-war conflict. Heydrich is the antagonist without a question, with the titular "Man with the Iron Heart" shown to be ruthlessly charismatic but brutal and as dispassionate as any Nazi. His actions and the people he inspires form the core of the primary conflict and it is the manhunt for him that is the central focus of the more military-focused perspectives.

While The Man with the Iron Heart is not a terrible alternate history by any means, in many ways I feel like it is ultimately unfinished. The divergences and changes to the timeline grow quite extreme as the fate of some major American and British military and political figures are drastically altered in the story, to only some nominal effect. It feels like the major upheaval is about to occur just a few short years after the novel is complete, with the leader of the insurgency at the end of the story outlining strategies that sounds eerily similar to 9/11. It's a strangely disappointing feeling of unfulfilled story, but one that cannot be avoided and most certainly not a bad thing.

It does seem foolish to hold a novel in the negative because there isn't more story after its finished, if anything that seems like a positive.

Overall, I really enjoy the idea of The Man with the Iron Heart. I could very easily see an TV or Netflix adaptation of the novel that I think would stun audiences with a portrayal of very modern political ideas in a setting that is, in popular American mythology, our moment of greatest triumph. And I genuinely hope that Harry Turtledove might someday return to this woefully under-appreciated piece of alternate history, as there are so few stories with this concept out there.

So many alternate histories ask us to consider a world where the outcome of a battle or war was changed, but The Man with the Iron Heart asks us to consider what the world would like if the peace that followed war had changed. It's a question I find more compelling and I hope that you might check the novel out and agree with me. It's truly a shame that this story doesn't get spoken of in alternate history circles more. Perhaps this recommendation and review can change that?

One can only hope.


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