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SS-GB: The real-life history and German plans behind the new what-if drama

The new BBC drama imagines a world where the Nazis won – and some of it is based on real events

Published: Friday, 9th June 2017 at 2:00 pm

New BBC drama SS-GB imagines an alternate history where the Nazis won World War Two and Great Britain became an occupied country, with star detective Douglas Archer (Sam Riley) caught in the middle as resistance brews while he tries to keep the peace.


But just how accurate is the depiction of German-occupied Britain? How likely is it that Britain would respond as the series depicts, and how much do real events feed into SS-GB’s fictional world?

Read on to find out.

The Gestapo and the SS


Germand secret police The Gestapo and their SS superiors are depicted with accuracy in SS-GB, from their command structure to their ranks. For example, SS officer Oskar Huth’s rank of Standartenführer is a real rank, established as the greatest field-officer rank possible, and is depicted in SS-GB as being roughly equivalent to a British Brigadier.

Their attitude towards dealing with an occupied Britain is harder to speculate on, though author Len Deighton (who wrote the original SS-GB novel) took advice from a man who served as functionally the “head of the English Gestapo” in occupied Germany after the war to get a sense of how they might have worked.

The Battle of Britain


In real history Great Britain obviously won the Battle of Britain, but the world of SS-GB where the Germans triumphed does show just what a pivotal moment in the war it was.

The first major defeat of Hitler’s military forces, the victory buoyed British spirits and changed American attitudes towards the war, leading to their all-important entry into the fighting and turning the tide.

As such it’s easy to imagine that if Britain had lost the battle, the war might have ended quickly in Germany’s favour, as SS-GB imagines.

The occupation plans


As author Len Deighton reveals in this week’s Radio Times, much of his story was based on real-life plans the Germans had for the occupation of England – for example, the German struggle to occupy non-Southern England in the series may be based on the fact that some people believe the Germans only planned to occupy southern areas of the UK.

The occupation plans also included a decree from Adolf Hitler that UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s ancestral home of Blenheim Palace be used as the overall headquarters of the German occupation military government, a move probably intended as a pointed insult. In the TV series, Churchill has already been executed.

Other possible German plans to separate Great Britain and Ireland into six military-economic commands (with headquarters in London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Dublin) or detaching Scotland from the Union aren’t addressed in SS-GB’s opening episode, though more light may be shed on this in future weeks.

Still, Deighton has also said that his version of events differs somewhat from the official plan, partly out of necessity and also under the understanding that the Germans would have been unlikely to carry it out exactly as they had initially planned.

The resistance


The story of SS-GB revolves around the idea of a secret resistance fighting back against the German occupiers, and this was a threat anticipated by the real German command.

According to reports the Oberkommando der Wehrmact (OKW) charged with supreme command of the German armed forces expected to face armed civilian resistance if they occupied Great Britain, and factored it into their plans (which also included creating a compliant government).

The Germans also had plans to send Einsatzgruppen (basically death squads) to London to neutralize key figures who could be damaging to the New Order, with the task forces given a list of 2,820 people (known as The Black Book) to immediately arrest and also tasked with “liquidating” Britain’s Jewish population. Other versions of this sort of brutality can be seen in SS-GB.

The status of the royals


In the series King George VI is being held in the Tower of London, though many believe that in real life senior Nazi officials had considered approaching the abdicated Edward VIII (then-Duke of Windsor) on the subject of returning to the throne, due to their belief that he had sympathy for their ideals.

In Robert Harris’ fellow alternate-history tale Fatherland (which also imagines a world where the Nazis won), Edward does return to the throne in this way.

The characters


The characters in SS-GB are entirely fictional, though real-life Nazi officials like Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering are mentioned from time to time and involved in ordering Archer’s investigation.


With that said, there was a real person with the same name of Lars Eidinger’s SS officer Oskar Huth (pictured) around in the 20th century – but the actual Huth was, rather ironically, a resistance fighter against Nazism who forged travel stamps and false papers to help people (mostly Jewish citizens) to escape Germany.


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