When I think of the word resistance, I think of people fighting at all costs to fight off an invader. I know a little bit about the civilians fighting the Nazis in Russia, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and other places. So when I picked up Resistance by Owen Sheers, I was expecting to see some of that ferocious fighting.
Resistance is one of my favorite types of novels. It’s an alternate history. But it’s not just any alternate history, it’s a World War II alternate history. Like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Resistance is set in a world where the Soviets lost the battle of Stalingrad, where the Nazis figured out that Britain and the United States were lying about the target of the D-Day invasion and fought off the invasion. In this world, the Nazis invaded England. Even though Sheers’ alternate history required a lot of things to go wrong for the Allies, he makes it seem terrifyingly plausible. All through the beginning of the novel, as I read along with the English characters, I felt a lot of dread as the Nazis made their way inland and started to subdue the English.
The novel follows three different characters. Sarah Lewis, the first protagonist you meet, lives on a farm in an isolated Welsh valley. One morning, she wakes to find her husband missing. Later, she discovers that all the men from the valley are gone, with no explanation. The second character we met is George, a man who was pulled into the British intelligence service in a peripheral way. He’s only supposed to be activated if the Germans invade. The third character is Albrecht Wolfram, a Wehrmacht captain who is sent to patrol Sarah’s valley. As the novel progressed, their story lines intersect.
One of the main issues that the British characters have to wrestle with is whether or not they’ll capitulate to the Nazis. It’s a hell of a lot safer to listen to the Germans’ proclamations, but they are all told over and over again by the British government-in-exile and by they British military and by their peers that they need to fight. Sheers lets you know what the penalties are for resistance though, because the Nazis learned a lot of hard lessons from the French, Russian, and other resistance groups. So, when I said in the beginning that I was expecting a lot of fighting, you can see why if you read that Wikipedia article. But this novel isn’t really about fighting, its about living in difficult times and making very hard choices.
As you read through this book, you start to feel sympathy for characters who, in the normal course of things, you wouldn’t feel any sympathy for. There were a couple of times in the book, where I thought about the Holocaust victims. When I read a book about World War II or see a movie about the war, and the victims of the Holocaust come up, I always think, “Hold on, guys! Stay alive until 1945 and you’ll live through this.” But I always get an awful feeling when I’m reading an alternate history where the Germans win.