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Invasion Literature Becomes Invasion Cinema, Prefiguring Trump And Brexit

In many ways the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 was one of the most influential political events in the lives of an entire generation of young artists and writers in late 19th century Europe. The shockingly swift defeat of Napoleon III’s fractious French Empire at the hands of the industrious, Prussian-led North German Confederation, and the humiliating capture of the Bonaparte emperor and 100,000 of his soldiers at the Battle of Sedan, stunned the Continent. Subsequent events in the city of Paris, revolution, civil war and siege, captivated the interest of Europeans of all classes for months, some of whom believed that a major rupture in the politics of Europe was imminent as the extremes of the metropolitan right and left vied for attention and influence. Reports detailing the emergence of a democratically chaotic Third Republic in France vied for newspaper space with correspondence from Germany where a patchwork quilt of Medieval kingdoms and duchies were improbably coalescing as the German Empire under Prussia’s William I. For many late 19th century commentators and intellectuals any change seemed possible amidst the constitutional and territorial turbulence sweeping the continent.

One of the states with the most to lose from this radical realignment of European politics was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which feared the emergence of a regional challenger to its piratical global empire. This concern was reflected in the popular culture of the time, with the assumption that a war for primacy between the main Teutonic races, German and English, was an inevitability. From such anxieties grew the genre of pulp-like fiction known as “invasion literature”, which sprouted localised versions across Europe. In some cases the imagined dangers were domestic: bomb-wielding anarchists and communists in Germany and France or gun-waving Fenian revolutionaries in the UK (the latter movement in particular inspiring an entire sub-genre for British and hibernophobic American readers). In other examples the threats were entirely foreign in nature: alien armies marching and riding across the borders or disembarking at the beaches and ports.

One of the earliest instances of this latter phenomenon was George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, issued in 1871, which detailed an attempted conquest of Britain by an unnamed but suspiciously Germanic-sounding enemy. While undoubtedly controversial it was also hugely successful, with numerous reprints, letters to the newspapers and even music-hall songs. Most other works copied this same template, though HG Wells chose to subvert the genre with his science-fiction invasion adventure, The War of the Worlds, in 1897. However the most influential publications of the era were probably the 1903 novel, The Riddle of the Sands, by the Irish author and later freedom-fighter Erskine Childers, and William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (first serialised in 1906). The former, at least, remains in print to the present day.

Oddly, as Brexit paranoia devours mainstream discourse in the contemporary United Kingdom, with ministerial and press talk of malevolent conspiracies among the nations of Europe to thwart the UK’s desire for global influence, the country’s cultural hue is slowly coming to resemble that of its pre-Great War past. The suggestion by some Brexiteers that a period of financial hardship caused by a no-deal withdrawal from the European Union would be an edifying thing for the British people brings to mind the claims of politicians in the early 1900s that a damn good war was needed to put some fire into the belly of England’s callow and feckless youth. To remind them of their ascendant place in the natural and man-made order of things.

In any case, here is the YouTube cultural-commentator Lindsay Ellis with an interesting take on some modern examples of invasion literature. Albeit, of the cinematic variety.

4 comments on “Invasion Literature Becomes Invasion Cinema, Prefiguring Trump And Brexit

  1. Two early conservative fictional versions of European take-over literature are Julian Fane’s Revolution Island and Andrew Robets’s The Aachen Memorandum.

  2. The whole idea of aliens being defeated by germs is very much an inverse of something that DID happen in human history.

    Native Americans suffered over 95% of their loss in population from 1500 to 1900 not because of swords or weapons, but due to germs.The history of treatment of the survivors from the “smallpox, measles, influenza, TB, Hepatitis E, and more” apocalypse inflicted on the Pre-Hispanic Americas has indeed been bad. But the mighty Empires of the Aztec and Incas were mostly not defeated by amazingly small numbers of Spaniards due to technology or valor, but because they unknowingly carried diseases to which these people had no immunity.

    So the original War of the Worlds narratives was the OPPOSITE of something that already happened.

    As for the role of 9/11. Well some things are easy to overplay.

    I don’t believe that there was much correlation between being “traumatized” or “feeling helpless” due to 9/11 and support for George W. Bush’s wars and agenda.

    If you look at the areas near New York where a lot of people breathed the smoke, saw something from the distance or close up, or where in some way to connected to somebody who was at the scene or who was killed……there wasn’t a whole lot of support for the Iraq War or Patriot Act. New England (my mother went to Catholic school in the Boston area and two of her former classmates lost somebody), New York, and New Jersey had a very, very low rate of support for the Iraq War. George W. Bush was very unpopular in New York city and became more unpopular with the rush to war in Iraq.

    Then you have the people who didn’t necessarily have any direct connection to 9/11 but knew they were living in “target rich” areas should the terrorists strike again. (I was in Seattle at the time.). You saw a lot of masses and memorials for 9/11 right when it happened, but if anything the correlation between a high risk city or area and support for Iraq War was in the negative.

    But there IS something that has an almost 1.00 correlation with Iraq War support. Regions of the country that have a long history of war mongering…often going back to before there even was a USA, but as one of Britain’s colonies.

    Larger countries really have a different dynamic from a country like Ireland when it comes to things like terrorism. It’s not that people are OK with violence, or readily dismiss the value of human life. However, for the most part, I think the “trauma” meme over 9/11 was used to make people afraid to oppose the Bush administration. Like if you opposed any of this you were one cold callous sonofabitch-a meme that dovetailed all to well with the post-Vietnam “spitting protester” narratives.

    After all, you don’t hear much about how people were so traumatized by Timothy McVeigh’s bombing a Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Nor about all the bombings that occurred during the 1970’s. Then again, the administrations of those times didn’t have the same agendas as Karl Rove.

    • I’ve often wondered about Oklahoma City – it had almost no cultural or other impact in the way of 9/11. One of the very few references (indirectly) was in the X-Files film Fight the Future in 1998.

      • I think your question half implies the answer.

        The Oklahoma City bombing really didn’t have much effect on the culture. People were shocked. It was all over the media for days. There are still memorials.

        But the cultural impact was minimal.

        Similarly during the 70’s and early 80’s New York, Chicago, and San Francisco were literally bombed hundreds of times each. Most major cities were repeatedly hit dozens of times with smaller cities like Seattle or El Paso along with large towns being far from immune.

        In New York pipe bombs became as routine as the weather.

        But you don’t hear about that as a traumatic memory in the US now do you?

        I think the answer is simple. Most Americans simply weren’t all that traumatized and those who were if anything tended to eschew extreme political moves as a result.

        I saw a large Emperor’s New Clothes element to it. Because the implication was always that if you didn’t go along with things politically, you were a horrible person and walking all over somebody else’s pain. You were a selfish asshole like all those hippies who spat on the returning Vietnam Vets (those stories were probably overplayed).

        In my experience it was just so manipulative that it made Putin’s trolls look like rank amateurs.

        Main reason I didn’t give in is because I literally couldn’t have lived myself had I not opposed the Iraq War. Also I’ve always tended to balk at cheap manipulation.

        I talked to 100’s and 100’s of people who expressed doubt about the Iraq War to me privately but said they could never protest it as I did. They felt like it would disrespect 9/11 survivors or would lead to “vets getting spat on”.

        The left favorite explanation for the difference is “before it was all homegrown white guys”. That also doesn’t hold up well to examination. Many bombers of the 70’s were Puerto Rican or African American. And a lot of the bombing we had during the 1910’s and 1920’s were done by immigrants many of them Russian Jews (sometimes after the Bolshevik Revolution)..

        I believe the two main reasons come down to:

        1) A particularly twisted form of manipulation that while pushed by the administration had been promoted for decades in the form of “Vietnam War Dochstosslegende”.

        2) Mostly the strongest support for George W Bush, came from regions of the US with strong histories of relentless warmongering and heavy social conservatism. Basically a lot of this trauma talk was a sort of veil over the fact that the real map of support for the war looked a lot more like a map of The Civil War, than a map of what areas had been affected by 9/11 or would be high risk in the event of future attacks

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