OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
AXIS OF ANDES: WW2 in South America – by D.G. Valdron
Publisher: Fossil Cove Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2021.
Cover design by Ewen Campion-Clarke.
In 1937 Adolf Hitler decides to aid the government of Ecuador the way he aided Franco in Spain. This triggers an arms race in South America which eventually explodes into war.
The full title says it all: Axis of Andes: WW2 in South America, an alternate history.
You might think, aha! An alternate history novel!
Yes and no, or, not exactly.
There are scenes straight out of a typical novel, complete with dialogue and description. The opening scene where Minister Velasco and Colonel Alba of Ecuador meet with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Goring in Berlin is a masterpiece of its kind, fully revealing the cynical and manipulative nature of all the characters and setting up the reader’s expectations for what follows.
However, such scenes are rare and interspersed among long passages which amount to the contents of a history text book packed with concise detail and explanation of situation and events. Since this book begins with genuine history going as far back as the wars of independence from Spain and subsequent squabbling among newly emergent nations, and only gradually slips into alternate history mode, subtly and imperceptibly, some readers, expecting a wham-bam military adventure novel, may find the text way too dry overall and somewhat incomprehensible and definitely not their cup of tea.
For example there are essay-like descriptions of the class structure in Ecuador and the impact of the Cacao bean market’s ups-and-downs on social stability in that country. Seemingly obscure stuff, but vitally important to any true understanding of Ecuador’s actual history into the 1930s. In addition, it provides the basic infrastructure on which Valdron builds his subsequent alternative history in a credible and convincing manner. He does this for Ecuador and for a host of other South American nations, taking each in turn, as described in “the Book of Ecuador,” “The Book of Chile,” “The Book of Peru,” and so on. Quite naturally, this shifts the focus onto different sets of characters, a practice which some readers may find confusing, or at least disconcerting. In other words, it’s a very complex book.
But if you are a Grognard (literally “grumbler” and first applied to members of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, then to gamers, and now more loosely referring to anyone obsessed with details) who loves to soak up behind-the-scenes historical tidbits like a sponge, Axis of Andes is totally fascinating, being crammed with detail exploring the incredible shenanigans of incompetent politicians and generals fighting utterly pointless wars over useless territory solely in order to distract subjects from their economic difficulties brought about by the idiots in charge.
In more recent terms, the Falklands war would be a good example of such a made-up patriotic war designed to get the populace all enthused over a “popular” cause and unite behind a corrupt and brutal military junta otherwise unworthy of being kept in power. There were similar wars in the past which I was only vaguely aware of, such as the 1865-1870 war of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay, the 1881 war featuring Chile vs. Bolivia and Peru, the 1932-1935 Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay (a particularly nasty affair), the 1933 war of Columbia vs. Peru, and the Peru-Ecuador war of 1941, to name just a few of the genuinely historical wars which killed thousands upon thousands of more-or-less willing soldiers dying to no good purpose. Some of these wars reached levels of pointless carnage similar to the Western Front in Europe during WW1. South America has an extraordinarily bloody history. Though differently structured and less reliant on personal details I’d have to say that, to any discerning reader keen on understanding the background cause and effect of these wars, Axis of Andes has a visceral impact as vivid as Max Hasting’s treatment of the Vietnam War. (Anyone familiar with that historian will recognize this as high praise indeed.)
The early portion of this book is in fact a splendid study of genuine South American murder and mayhem on a national level, which no doubt could have been extended into an overall survey of wars, coups, and mutinies up to the present day that many history-minded people would find both useful and entertaining in the traditionally morbid teaching mode of such accurate and insightful historical studies. So why turn it into a work of fiction?
Because a “what if?” scenario is always intriguing, even addictive and irresistible. Even Sir Winston Churchill indulged in the genre, contributing If Lee had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg to a 1931 book of essays by historians titled If, or, History Rewritten. Churchill wrote from the point of view of a historian living in an alternate world in which Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart won the Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln recognising the independence of the Confederacy. Not only that, but the South had gone on to conquer Mexico and somehow prevent WW1 from coming about. So, in the essay the “historian” was presenting the silly idea that, in some ridiculous alternate world, the Confederacy might actually have lost the Civil War. One critic referred to Churchill’s essay as “counter-counterfactual.” Quite a feat of imagination. Other essays in the work by the other contributors were based on concepts like “What if Napoleon went in to exile in America?” and “What if Byron became King of Greece?” If concepts like these don’t stir your curiosity and sense of wonder there is a case to be made that you are sadly lacking in imagination. If so, how sad.
You may sense that the book argues that nationalism is one of the ideologies that plague South American history. Valdron goes so far to argue that Fascism is a more correct term, and that it applies even in the period before Fascism was (technically) invented by Mussolini in Italy. In that sense Fascism is a convenient modern term to describe and sum up the most extreme forms of nationalism which South American history offers in abundance. All of them share common characteristics which are brilliantly described by Valdron thusly:
“The thing you have to understand about fascism is that it isn’t an ideology at all. It’s theater.
It’s all about dressing up and marching around and shouting in unison. It’s about being mad as hell and not taking it, whatever it is, any more. It’s about right and wrong, traditional virtues, manly men, womanly women, nervous but alluring sheep. Its simple solutions to a complicated world, the innate superiority of tribe and fixing the world with a sock to the jaw of some craven Jew/Marxist/Indian/etc. etc.
Fascist ideology is almost always a contradiction in terms. What a fascist believes, what a fascist does is self-serving and fluid, fitting the needs of the moment.
There is no real theory. Theory is for eggheads sitting in their ivory towers, contemplating the world, passively studying and forming theories.
Well, while the eggheads sit there and study, the Fascists are about action. They go out and act, and let the eggheads study that. And while the eggheads study, they act again.
Fascism is not about thinking, it is about acting. It is not about reflection or ideology or theory, it is about passion.
It’s about the belief in will. Translated plainly, Fascism is all about how if you believe hard enough, or wish hard enough, then something is becomes true, reality is overcome. Fascism is about force of will overcoming all odds—not force of thinking, not force of planning, just sheer will. Fascists believe that if you clap your hands hard enough, fairies will come alive. Making sense is for weaklings, the true fascist hero doesn’t care whether something actually makes sense, his indomitable ‘will’ can force it to make sense.
It’s all nonsense, of course. But Fascism has the advantage of looking good with all its shouting and bluster and appeals to blood and virtue.
Of course, this lack of actual ideas or ideology makes Fascism nicely protean. Mussolini starts off as a socialist. Hitler as a crank. Businessmen, landowners, union leaders, journalists, peasants and workers could all find a home in Fascisms big tent. Fascists can speak the language of socialism, cry for the plight of workers and peasants, and do business with businessmen.
Of course, all that tends not to survive a really hard look. Contradictions would start to pop up everywhere, and incompatible goals and constituencies would inevitably mean that in that big tent, more and more people get the crap end of the stick. The tent would fall in. You could postpone that for a while by lying nonstop. And you can keep the illusion of solidarity by attacking and purging the people who stepped out of line. Sooner or later though, it would all fall apart.
But the depression offers a unique opportunity. Fascism works best on an empty playing field, one where traditional parties and traditional solutions have failed. And the depression is just one big long tall drink of failure. Liberalism, conservatism, liberal democracy, traditional dictatorships, technocracy and feudalism, in a worldwide economic collapse, all of the rival parties and factions are discredited, heaped on the bonfire of failure, their solutions and their ideals exploded. They are all empty suits waiting to be swept away.
In this sort of environment ideologies like Communism and Anarchism gain terrifying power. But these ideologies preach radical reform, not simply upsetting what was left of the apple cart, but throwing it away entirely. These are divisive ideologies, throwing whole social classes on the bonfire. As a rival to Communism, Fascism offers a bigger tent, more familiarity and stability and the allure of emotional resonance—storm and blood, virtue, marching and shouting as opposed to dry dialectics and economic theory.”
I quote the above extensively because I happen to believe it is correct in all its particulars. But if you disagree, then consider it the one “impossible thing” (like Cavourite in H.G. Wells’ novel First Men in the Moon) you need to accept in order to buy the premise of Axis in Andes, which is that Fascism is terrifying relevant to South American history, and especially so in this fictional treatment where Fascism runs riot and plunges the continent into a blood bath.
The transition from fact to fiction occupies the latter part of the 1930s. Valdron handles this in a unique fashion. First, he describes “The History that We Know.” For example, in reference to Chile, he describes the foundation of the Chilean Nazi party in 1930 and its slow rise in election results, achieving 3.5% of the electorate in 1937. But then comes disaster.
“But the course of the [ 1938 ] Election is utterly derailed by what comes to be called the Seguro Obrero Massacre. On September 5, 1938, a group of 30 young Nazis foolishly attempt a Coup d’Etat by occupying the Seguro Obrero building, while another 30 occupied a University building. The government responds with force, all 60 were lined up against the wall and executed, after which the bodies were mutilated by bayonet and sabre.”
This is fact. Weird fact, but fact. The Nazi party was immediately abolished, its adherents hunted down and punished. Chile remained heavily influenced by Prussian militarism and admiration for all things German (the Chilean army still dresses in Prussian uniforms and marches in goosestep on ceremonial occasions even today), but outright Nazism died away. Nationalist-Fascism, on the other hand, remained, most notoriously resurgent during the Pinochet regime of living memory. However, these are “mere” details of what actually happened. The idea is to ignore them in favour of what Valdron does next.
The second thing Valdron does in his transition phase is to offer slight variations in detail which trend the “history” in new directions, ultimately resulting in radically different developments. In this case he simply portrays the Chilean Nazi party as being slightly more cautious and politically astute than it was in reality. The Seguro Obrero Massacre never happens, the party survives, and eventually the Nazis lead the country into fresh tumult and disaster. Quite plausible, given the underlying cultural infrastructure waiting to accommodate them. You might say Chile suffered from being one of the most Europeanized nations in South America. Foreign role models not necessarily a good thing.
Another not-good-thing is the tendency of foreign nations to interfere. At the request of the Germans, Henry Ford offers economic assistance to Ecuador (Hitler and Ford admired each other, but that’s another story. Here it is just background detail.) Point is, Ford’s fictional actions are somewhat at odds with what the American government supposedly wants to accomplish. Hitler himself, in a fit of absent-minded enthusiasm, without consulting his foreign ministry officials, sends off a telegram congratulating the wrong side in the Peru-Ecuador war of 1941, a blunder potentially harmful to German interests perhaps as much as the infamous Zimmerman telegram of WW1 in which the German foreign minister advised Mexico to invade the USA and seize back lost territory like Texas, California, and Arizona. This helped bring America into the war. The Mexicans, by the way, wisely rejected the German advice. Similarly, the fictional Hitler telegram amplifies how simple errors can lead to egregious consequences. And it’s a nice touch of imaginative humour to boot.
Valdron’s alternate history is packed with credible variations of actual events which add quirky interest to the fictional trends he extrapolates from the historical infrastructure. For example, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, instead of scuttling itself outside the harbour of Montevideo, Uruguay in 1939, manages to slip past the few British warships attempting to intercept it and escape into the South Atlantic. Being badly damaged from the earlier Battle of the River Plate, low on fuel, and empty of ammunition, its Commander Hans Langdorf opts to seek refuge in Chile where it is interned and then incorporated into the Chilean Navy as the Battleship Toro. Not until 1941 is it fully repaired and suitable for use. Meanwhile, Britain is very upset with Chile over this affair and relations between the two nations are dim indeed. This is not to Chile’s benefit.
I suspect Valdron was inspired by the saga of the German Battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau which, trapped in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of WW1, fled to Turkey (which eventually entered the war against the Allies) to join the Turkish Navy. The Breslau was sunk later in the war, but the Goeben, renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, served in the Turkish Navy till 1970! I mention this as illustrative of Valdron’s grasp of appropriate history to fashion telling details which bring his alternate history to plausible life. At no time does his fiction seem improbable or unlikely. It all seems to make sense. Internal consistency is one of the great strengths of this book.
Another strength is the occasional novel-like interludes where politicians debate events and military observers witness battles. Here the stress is on incompetence and failure despite personal courage and conviction, or to put it another way, on hubris and tragedy. This, after all, is pretty much what war is all about.
One of the great horrors of war, and there are many, is that even a “just” war, one crowned with total victory, can cost millions of lives and literally untold suffering on a scale impossible to grasp. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. When General Sherman said “War is Hell,” he didn’t mean “Hell-ish” or “Hell-like,” he meant “War is Hell on Earth.”
Does this mean reasonable, sane men can avoid war? No. War is often inevitable and unstoppable. And the kind of passion and emotional response Fascism thrives on can be a contributing factor to such an inexorable descent into Hell. Bad as things were in the history of South America, it could have been much worse. This Axis of Andes points out very clearly.
Is Valdron’s message or lesson fundamentally depressing? Only if you let it be. It is a tour de force alternate history offering many examples of assumptions and mistakes to avoid. A study of what not to do. An eye-opener, really. To read this book is to gain, first, an understanding of the intricacies of South American history up to the 1930s, and then, second, an understanding of the kind of fatal flaws politicians are prone to and what ordinary people need to pay attention to as their political favourites blunder along in same-old, same-old fashion. Reading this book will give you a better understanding of what is happening anywhere and everywhere. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it results in an epiphany or two for the majority of readers. It’s that good an historical essay.
I found Axis of Andes utterly fascinating. But then, I love history so much that this book’s incredible depth of detail is immensely appealing. Given that it’s nature is primarily a text book in some alternate universe, it may not be for everybody, but for such as I it is a “must read.”
I can’t resist adding that I can see gamers mining this book for info to create military and political games offering a whole new set of scenarios they will find intriguing and challenging. But that is just one possible impact of the book, and a minor one. Its major impact is that it will lead its readers to judge many military and political cliches in a whole new light. Reading Axis of Andes is an enlightening experience, providing you love history and earnestly desire to understand it better. Read it slowly and carefully, paying attention to every detail, and I guarantee you will find it revealing, meaningful, and thought-provoking. That evokes my sense of wonder. I trust it will do the same for you. Hell of an impactful book.
Check it out at: < Axis of Andes >