Thriller Writers and WWII

Not long ago, I took part in a International Thriller Writers round table discussion on why writers—particularly thriller authors—frequently return to WWII Europe and the Holocaust as themes in their books. I believe there are a couple of reasons we turn to the Nazi-era of the 1930s and 1940s for story lines. The evil manifested by the Nazis was so horrifying and insidious, it left an indelible scar on the human psyche. The horrors they wreaked on Europe—the death camps, the mass murders, even the wholesale theft of art and culture from occupied nations—was so blatant that, unlike wars before and afterward, the Nazis represented a clear and, to most people, undeniably malevolent enemy. It was black and white, good vs. evil.

The phrase “most people” in the last paragraph is the key to the second reason I think we return to the Nazi-era for inspiration. Not everyone believed, or wants to believe, the Nazis were as evil as they were. Even today there are Holocaust deniers. Allied leaders recognized that might happen. It was one of the reasons General Dwight Eisenhower wanted as many people as possible—both Allied soldiers and German citizens—to witness the liberated death camps so there could be no denying the hideousness of the Nazi monster. Even back then, there was a fear there could one day be a resurgence of Nazism and fascism.

It was a well-founded fear. In the 1930s, pro-fascist sentiment was widespread in Europe and the United States. The 1930s in America saw brown-shirted, jackbooted thugs of the German American Bund—essentially the Nazi Party affiliate in the U.S.—marching proudly through American streets. There were pro-Nazi Silver Shirts training in secret forest camps in California and elsewhere. It was an America where pro-German business groups openly shut down Jewish businesses, and where Father Coughlin spewed Jew-baiting, pro-Nazi propaganda in national radio broadcasts. In the early 1930s, wealthy pro-fascist Americans actually attempted a coup to overthrow the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in what is now known as the American Putsch.

All this inspired Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, about a populist fringe candidate who becomes president and turns the country into an armed camp. The same period in history inspired Phillip Roth's alternative history novel, The Plot Against America, about anti-Semitism in the United States after Charles Lindbergh, who was pro-fascist, defeats President Franklin Roosevelt. This time period also inspired Arthur Miller's 1945 novel, Focus.

Some of my own work was inspired by the events of the 1930s. For instance, in my Paul Klee series of alternative history short mystery stories I visualize a defeated United States occupied by the German military and pro-Nazi Americans. Klee, a former police officer and OSS spy, is forced to work for the Nazi SS. These mysteries expose the reader to a dark period of American history not taught in schools today.

Unfortunately, today we again see the rise of nationalism, racial scapegoating, anti-intellectualism and anti-science, the comingling of religion and politics, and corporate influence over government—all major components of fascism—not only in Europe and Latin America, but here in the United States as well. I believe this is also causing writers to look back to the Nazi era for plots that can mirror the politics of today.

My current work in progress, a new Peter Brandt thriller called The Fourth Rising, was inspired by the work of researchers who maintain that while Germany surrendered in 1945, the Nazi Party did not. Instead, they believe much of the Nazi leadership escaped Germany to parts unknown to continue the party’s quest for world domination—this time through politics and economics rather than open warfare.

In The Fourth Rising, due out in early 2020, the gruesome murder of the husband of one of Peter’s old flames launches him on a hunt for hidden Nazi gold—a hunt that leads him from the drug cartels of Mexico to a neo-Nazi training camp in the Southern California mountains, and uncovers a decades-long plot to re-establish the Nazi Party and a new Fourth Reich.

As long as such evil as was scene in the 1930s and 1940s continues haunting our existence today, thriller writers will return to those horrors for plot lines and inspiration.