Prelude in Prague et seq.

I've recently read a trilogy of novels about the next war, by Sydney Fowler Wright, a prolific but largely forgotten poet and novelist: Prelude in Prague (London: Newnes, 1935), Four Days War (London: Robert Hale, 1936), and Megiddo's Ridge (London: Robert Hale, 1937). Only the first is a true knock-out blow novel: in 1938, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, Nazi Germany launches a huge aerial attack on Prague and pretty much flattens it in one night.

And it was true that Prague had ceased to exist. Its chemical devices for fighting fire had proved utterly inadequate to overcome the hundred conflagrations which had burst out in so short a time, and had been recruited continually as new bombs rained from the sky.

And, from an early hour of the night, the supply of water had failed, after the German air-fleet had made a concentrated attack upon the great pumping-station, which was built conspicuously on the river bank, as though to invite its fate.

When the fires died, as they did not wholly do for a space of days, not the commercial city alone, but all on river-valley and hills which had been the beauty of Prague, was an ended dream. Cathedral, castle, and palace were broken and blackened shells.

Classic knock-out blow stuff. Czechoslovakia is doomed before the war has even begun: there's nothing anyone can do about it, despite brave resistance by the Czech fighters.

The subsequent novels are about the spread of the war to the rest of the world, but while airpower plays a big part in them, for some reason Wright places less emphasis on the power of the bomber than he did in Prelude in Prague. That novel ends during a meeting of the British cabinet, which has mere minutes to respond to a German ultimatum or else London will suffer Prague's fate -- a real cliffhanger. Four Days War opens at the same point, and London and other British cities are indeed bombed, including the use of a rather nasty "freezing gas". Many tens of thousands die, but oddly, this mostly happens off-stage and is almost mentioned in passing, in complete contrast to the bombing of Prague, which is both heavily foreshadowed and quite effectively portrayed. And in the end, Britain does not give in: both fighter and anti-aircraft defences turn out to be quite effective, more so than in the first book. Overall, Wright no longer depicts airpower as the supreme arm:

It was these constant, continually fatal conflicts which were making it increasingly evident with every day that the air-arm, dreadful in its consequences as it might be, would be less than decisive to end the war. The air forces, if freely employed, as they first had been, were so mutually destructive, beyond any possible rate of replacement: they were so vulnerable from the ground. Their casualties were a list of few wounded, but many dead.

So the one day war of the first novel, and the four day war of the second, turn into a eight month war by the third. The decisive battle (imminent when Megiddo's Ridge ends) is fought not in the air but on the ground. Why Wright changed his mind isn't clear. Perhaps it was due to the fast, new monoplane fighters coming into view in 1936. In the later 1930s there was a growing opinion that effective air defence was possible, so maybe he was just ahead of the curve.

Even more striking than the change in Wright's attitude to airpower is the change in his attitude to Germany. In Prelude in Prague, the Germans are brutal, but the difference between them and other nationalities involved is only a matter of degree. For example, a German secret agent is summarily executed by the Czechs:

A few minutes later, the train whistled and commenced to move forward again. In the rear coach there was now the body of a dead man. It was that of one who had been arrested on suspicion of being a German spy, and the official report would state that he had been shot while attempting escape. The German Government would be unlikely to make open trouble for that. On its own side of the frontier, it disposed of too many unwanted Czechs in the same way.

The destruction of Prague is carried out almost apologetically -- we are even told that the German bomber pilots were explicity ordered to spare refugees fleeing the city. But the last two novels in the trilogy toss this idea of Germany as a normal, if pushy, country out the window, and instead the pages are drenched in religious rhetoric: Nazi Germany is evil and pagan, its opponents are good and Christian (in fact that's what Wright calls them, the "Christian allies"). Hitler is no longer even mentioned, having been replaced by a megalomaniacal airman named von Teufel -- "from the Devil" (subtle, no?) And the apocalyptic final confrontation takes place at Meggido in the Holy Land -- the battle of Armageddon foretold in Revelation. I think the explanation for Wright's change of heart can be found in the relationship between one of the main characters, a very posh young woman named Perdita (they all have names like that -- her best friend is Caresse) and a downed German airman named Dürer. In Prelude in Prague, they are clearly being set up for a romance:

This, if not all expressed, was implicit in what he said; and if its logic were little comfort to her, she found more in a kindness she could not doubt, a sympathy which, under other circumstances, might have been the close forerunner of love, an admiration his eyes expressed as plainly as any words would have been able to do [...] Would they meet again? Though they spoke few words, they were aware of a common will. But the future was hard to see. They were two among millions whose fate, whether peace or pain, would be resolved by those who ruled in the next hours.

When we next meet Perdita, she is at Nürnberg (Nuremberg), having just fled the house of Dürer's sisters (who turned her in to the authorities). One them is to be wed:

The lovers had applied for permission, and had received application forms, issued under the 1935 Nürnberg law, the details of which, when completed, must be verified by medical officer.

Profile and full-face photographs were to be attached to the forms, which must include descriptions of the applicant's body, habits, and physical history, in minutest detail. Perdita's knowledge either of the German language or of human obliquities had been insufficient to expose some of the filthier suggestions of this inquisition to her astonished mind, but she had understood enough to be as amazed at the servility of those who would submit to such legislation, as at the obscenity of the minds that were responsible for its composition.

Even in England, in 1938, little of personal liberty had survived, and a large part of the population had become unfit to endure the severities of its bracing atmosphere. It was also true, in that country, that the counsels of the birth-restrictionists, openly proclaimed, had befouled, at its very threshold, the ideals of natural marriage. But human degradation sank here in a lower slough.

And if they would subject their own people to a tyranny so absolute, an inquisition so coarse and vile, with what scorpions would they be likely to chastise the alien races who might prove unequal to resisting their military machine? The machine which a frightened Europe had watched them construct during the last four years, and had lacked foresight or resolution to check while the balance of strength had still been upon its side. . . . For four years, under the darkening cloud of the coming war, England had cried peace where no peace had been, and what price would she have to pay, now that the ashes of London smouldered beneath the rain?

As for the gallant German airman:

And she had been attracted to Captain Dürer! Had had a hope that she might see him again before it would be necessary for her to leave his home. . . . Would he have expected her to be questioned and measured and weighed? To submit her body to the examination of German doctors? Surely there must be many, even in this country of docile serfs, who would have personal dignity enough to decide that permission to marry may be bought with too high a fee!

And that's about the last we hear of Captain Dürer. Clearly, Wright was disgusted by the Nuremberg Race Laws -- not so much for their racism, but for the indignities they caused women to suffer, as well as their implicit support for birth control. September 1935, when the laws were announced, must have been a turning point in Wright's views of Nazi Germany -- a point when he was able to make connections between Nazi ideology and what he believed to be sick features of his own society. It's not too surprising, then, that he went on to drastically modify his future history from a straightforward political-military warning of things to come, into a rather convoluted and heavily religious prophecy of the End Times. A victory for the godless materialists of Nazi Germany would be a victory for the godless materialists of liberal Britain. Time to call out the Christian soldiers!

This post is already getting long, so I won't even mention Wright's obsession with the death toll on Britain's roads (that is, from cars, not planes), which he works into the narrative at every opportunity. Wright's trilogy is an interesting opportunity to see how one novelist's views on airpower and Nazi Germany changed over time.

There is a very good website devoted to Wright, apparently maintained by his family, which has nearly all of his books online -- over 160 of them.

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