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In the Presence
of Mine Enemies

Decades after the Nazis won World War II, the last Jews in Berlin might not be able to stay hidden any longer

*In the Presence of Mine Enemies
*By Harry Turtledove
*New American Library
*454 pages
*ISBN: 0-451-52902-2
*MSRP: $24.95

Review by Adam-Troy Castro

I n an alternate present where the Nazis won World War II and the Thousand-Year Reich now dominates much of the world, Wehrmacht officer Heinrich Gimpel astonishes his 10-year-old daughter, Alicia, with a secret that's been hidden from her all her life: The family's Jewish. Unlike the majority of world Jewry, who fell to a Holocaust that's still official policy, the Gimpels, their friends Walther and Esther Stutzman, and their extended families all belong to those remnants of a despised and persecuted people who now survive by hiding in plain sight within the very society that wants them dead. Now old enough, by family tradition, to be trusted with this life-or-death deception, Alicia is obliged to hide the truth from her friends, her classmates and even her younger sisters, even as she's forced to regard her school's virulently racist curriculum from a new perspective that leaves her sick and angry over all the anti-Semitic propaganda she's always learned and parroted without question.

Our Pick: A-

Meanwhile, her father finds himself caught in the marital strife between his philandering co-worker, Willi Dorsch, and his irate wife, Erika. Embittered by her husband's infidelity, Erika wants a retaliatory affair with Heinrich. He resists, but rejecting such an offer can be dangerous in a world where a few malicious words whispered in the ears of the S.S. can mean the destruction of entire families.

Esther Stutzman, who works as a receptionist in a doctor's office, also sees the effects of Nazi policies up close when her friends Richard and Maria Klein, closeted Jews like herself, bring their ailing eight-month-old baby, Paul, in for a checkup. The diagnosis of Tay-Sachs disease, a rare but invariably fatal genetic disorder most often seen in Jews of Eastern European extraction, is a death sentence for the child, but that's not all the bad news: The subsequent investigation into his family background may soon spell doom for his parents and any Jews whose names they might be forced to reveal under torture.

The persecuted Jews live a precarious existence, where even keeping their heads down may not be enough ... and it's about to get more dangerous still, when the current Fuhrer, Kurt Haldweim, passes on and is replaced by the reform-minded Heinz Buckliger. Buckliger stuns the nation and the world with talk of turning away from what he calls the mistakes of the past. But though he soon gives hope to the Gimpel-Stutzman circle by systematically relaxing the oppressive laws of the Reich, thus raising the possibility of a future where Jews no longer need to live in fear, the machinery of state terror is still in place, and its adherents are more than willing to resort to force to keep the powers they've enjoyed for so many years. It won't be long before the Jews who've stayed alive by never calling attention to themselves are forced to make a stand in defense of the only leader who has offered them even a shred of hope.

More alternate history from the master

Harry Turtledove has earned his solid reputation as the field's foremost practitioner of that peculiar subgenre known as alternate history, usually following a large cast of diverse characters as they make their way through world-shaking, apocalyptic events. Some career highlights include the linked Worldwar and Colonization series, which detail a 20th century where World War II is interrupted by an invasion by world-conquering aliens, and the American Empire series, which details the generations of strife between the North and South in a timeline where the Confederacy wins the Civil War.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies, set in a history where the United States remained isolationist throughout World War II, would seem to be more of the same, but it differs from those earlier works in several important respects. They place the world-shaking events at the center of the action; this book covers everyday life in a world where the great event, a Nazi victory in World War II, is some 60 years in the past. They follow characters forced to fight their battles at the very cusp of history; here (at least initially) the relevant history is long past, and the heroism displayed by the protagonists is that of comfortable, middle-class people struggling to hold on to a normal life in a world capable of denying them that right at any moment. It's a quieter, less dramatic form of courage, which makes this a very different kind of alternate history from a writer whose books are usually punctuated with numerous battle scenes.

It would be a mistake to say it entirely succeeds, with the greatest problem being that the various Gimpels and Stutzmans weather the stress of their impostures too well. Oh, they all spend their days thinking about what's safe to say, and what's not safe to say—and Turtledove is excellent at demonstrating this to be a necessity in a world where the most offhand remark, made before the wrong set of ears, can arouse suspicions at any time—but it's not nearly enough. Think of our own, relatively free society, where there are still some people who, to avoid the real or imagined threat of economic hardship or censure by their peers, hide their ethnicity or, for that matter, sexual orientation. They do so, in our world, to avoid dangers far less overwhelming than those that threaten the Gimpels and Stutzmans, and their stories, in our world, are laced with incidents of self-loathing, alcoholism, drug abuse and even suicide.

Turtledove may present one character, Susanna Weiss, who keeps to herself and drinks too much, and another, Alicia Gimpel, who upon learning what she is faces a year of painful readjustment, but it still seems that everybody here deals with the unimaginable pressures with an equanimity far too unanimous for the book's own good. The effect mars the believability so much that it might have been better had we been provided at least one character, perhaps a minor one, who was not fit to the challenge of spending his entire life supporting an insupportable lie, and who was destroyed by it. If nothing else, it would certainly bring home the point that living inside such a 24-hour masquerade wreaks an undeniable psychic cost.

That said, any complaint that the characters of this novel are passive observers in a world long since shaped for them is countered by the triumphant events of the last sections, which give several major characters a chance to tear some cracks in the wall the Reich has forced them to build around their true selves. It's thrilling to see them finally have the opportunity to stand tall—and disconcerting to note the appearance of unlikely heroes among some characters, like Gauleiter Rolf Stolle, who happen to be unrepentant Nazis but who are nevertheless preferable as human beings, and as sources of hope to Turtledove's Jewish protagonists, to other Nazis who want to retain their firm grip on the handle of the Reich's whip. Their presence makes In the Presence of Mine Enemies a complex work that understands that even baby steps can be victories.

Esther Stutzman is a tuckerization of the well-known science-fiction/fantasy author Esther Friesner. Imagining her throughout, in the role of herself, made for some interesting mental images. — Adam-Troy

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Also in this issue: Time's Eye, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter




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