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Forget the politicians, it's mob rule that is really terrifying


Making  alt-history: Sam Riley who plays Detective Douglas Archer in SS-GB

Making alt-history: Sam Riley who plays Detective Douglas Archer in SS-GB

BBC/Sid Gentle Films Ltd/Laurie

Making alt-history: Sam Riley who plays Detective Douglas Archer in SS-GB

SS-GB has been the most eagerly awaited new drama of the year. Well, certainly the most eagerly awaited from my perspective.

I first read Len Deighton's speculative pot-boiler, which posits the now almost routine idea of the Nazis winning the war, back in the early 1980s.

Still only a kid, but like most kids my age with a ravenous fascination for the war, the book was a revelation.

The Gestapo stalking the streets of London. Winston Churchill executed by the SS, but flashing his famous V-for-victory sign as a final act of defiance. The last batches of resistance hiding up in Scotland. Ireland maintaining an awkward but largely irrelevant neutrality.

It was a riveting dystopia that was so firmly embedded in a recognisable context that reading the book was like tucking into a particularly gorgeous meal - each mouthful to be savoured, every tantalising nugget of horror to be remembered.

SS-GB was first published in 1978, a time when punk was boiling in the streets of the UK and the National Front marched with Doc Martens rather than jackboots, but such subtle differences in footwear would have meant little to the people being kicked by them.

SS-GB may have been the first alternate history I read, but it was certainly not the last.

As well as the highly lauded Philip K Dick classic The Man in the High Castle, which showed America divided up between the conquering German and Japanese empires, there was also Robert Harris's peerless Fatherland, which saw a German detective uncovering proof of horrors in the East. Such new evidence would offer confirmation of the rumours from the occupied territories and would scupper a new alliance with the United States.

Those two novels may be the most well-known forays into this horrifying but compelling prospect of a victory for history's ultimate bad guys, but they were not isolated publishing incidents.

Indeed, the great white whale for all speculative fiction fans is undoubtedly Eric Norden's 1973 The Ultimate Solution, which saw a nightmarish Nazi America, where Slavs and African Americans had their vocal chords cut at birth, and detectives carried their own mobile torture kits with them, alongside their handcuffs and service revolver.

So what is it that keeps dragging us back to imagine the unimaginable?

What part of our atavistic brains seems forever compelled to turn over the rock of history and take a horrified look at what lies underneath?

Well, there has been an inevitable upswing in think-pieces blaming Donald Trump for this renewed interest in counter-factual history, but there's more to it than that, surely?

Yes, Trump has all the ridiculous pomposity of a populist leader, and he has an undeniably unfortunate habit of looking rather like Mussolini when he's concentrating on something.

But all these classic novels, which so entranced us, were written before Trump took power.

Similarly, whatever about the TV adaptation of SS-GB, Amazon Prime's adaptation of The Man in the High Castle had completed its first season before the ginger fringe won November's momentous election.

If anything, all the hand-wringing pieces about Trump ushering a new era of totalitarianism and fascism are missing one crucial point - it's not the politicians we should be afraid of. It is, instead, our friends, colleagues and neighbours.

In reality, for instance, the hated Gestapo never numbered more than 30,000 members across all of Nazi-occupied Europe, and even in Berlin, it consisted of a surprisingly small number of people, most of whom were pencil-pushers.

They were able to act with such apparent omnipresence simply because they relied on the information freely given to them by disgruntled civilians who, whether motivated by fear, spite or simple malice, took to informing on their neighbours with terrifying alacrity.

So, in many ways, our ongoing fascination with Nazis and our apparent inability to have a serious conversation about modern politics without someone screaming that everyone is a fascist is as much motivated by a fear of authoritarianism as it is by a specific political agenda.

Every totalitarian state needs one thing to survive - the complicity and consent of the people it controls.

It's much easier to make a public example of one person than it is to waste resources privately punishing a thousand.

As tempting as it is to run around squawking about fascism, which is only done by those who seem to subliminally equate themselves with brave Resistance fighters, the problem is that this takes our gaze away from the people we should be afraid of - our fellow citizens.

Fascism, after all, is simply the inevitable extension of regulated mob rule, with public shaming, mass petitions and the ever tiresome demand that people be prosecuted for saying something the mob doesn't like.

It should also be remembered that tyrannies survive by shutting down dissent, and not all tyrannies come from the government down - the most effective ones started from the people upwards.

So, if you think angry petitions, mass condemnation and public denunciations are acceptable, then congratulations - you've become your own mini-tyrant.

The mob, regardless of its politics, must always be resisted.

Indo Review