Harry Turtledove's The Man With The Iron Heart is a hard-as-nails, brilliantly-imagined look at a truly frightening possibly - what if one of the most brilliant and evil Nazis wouldn't play dead? It's alternative history at its finest, making us think of how messed up and scary this world is…and reminding us that it could be a lot, lot worse.
Set during and after the Second World War, the novel imagines what would have happened if Reinhard Heydrich survived his assassination attempt in 1942. As a premise, this is scary enough; in 1942, Heydrich was an SS General, the head of Nazi Germany's intelligence services, and answered only to Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler (and at that, even Himmler was afraid of him). Such was his importance, reputation and power, Heydrich was the only leading Nazi targeted for assassination by the Allies. In our world, Heydrich succumbed to his injuries when a grenade was thrown at his car. In The Man With The Iron Heart, Heydrich lives long enough to talk to Himmler about the reality of the Allies closing in on one side of Germany, and the Russians on the other. Tacitly, he suggests it might be prudent to make preparations to take the war underground.
Turtledove does well to not only capture the scope of the conclusion of the greatest armed conflict in human history, but also twist it so that it takes on new and fascinating dimensions. Things were so volatile enough in 1945, with the entire world exhausted and horrified by the scale of death - but what if it didn't end? What if soldiers still died after the surrender? Turtledove touches on the fear, the paranoia, and the resentment by looking at the escalating violence through the eyes of everyone who is affected, even those thousands of miles away: counter-intelligence officers in the American and Soviet armies, who don't trust each other an iota, but have to confront a larger, unseen enemy; a single soldier who wants nothing more than to go home; a Congressman, a reporter and a bereaved mother who leads a growing "Bring Our Boys Home" movement. There's also a frustrated President Harry S. Truman, who has to convince his exasperated and weary country that underground or not, the Nazis are still dangerous.
It's easy for us now, obviously, what with hundreds of history books and war movies in the decades since the end of the war. But the America of 1945 hadn't yet heard about the Holocaust. They didn't yet know about the planned and systematic murder of the Jewish race in the most unimaginably inhuman and torturous ways. "Those Nazis can't be that bad," they say. Even when Truman orders the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the country can't fathom the sheer destruction and violence that the "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" bombs visited upon Japan. "If those Germans are so problematic," the drained American people say, "drop a few of those atomic bombs on them, like how you did in Japan. What's the worst that could happen?"