Fatherland – Robert Harris


Fatherland is in the speculative fiction/alternate history genre. It’s Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque.

We see the world that we know but we see many small but ramifying differences. The story is an imagined future in which Germany won the second world war and Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.

In this version of history the Germans have succeeded in wiping our the Jews – NONE have survived. Hitler has achieved his goals. By 1964 the Greater German Reich stretches from the Low Countries to the Urals and Britain is some sort of client state of little interest to any of the novel’s characters Harris drops occasional “facts” about Britain which is ruled by King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis but doesn’t go into detail.

In this version of history the Germans won the war by cutting the Russians off from their oil source, forcing them back allowing them to conquer them. The Nazis also realised that the Brits had cracked Enigma so issued an new code machine to all U-Boats enabling them to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was starved into submission. Churchill and his ‘gang’ were forced to flee to Canada and peace was made with Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, the US had no alternative but to make a grudging peace and turn its efforts to Japan which it is able to defeat.

In this triumphant Germany we see a Berlin landscape full of grand architecture of the fascist state, for example, the Triumphal Arch, the Great Hall of the Reich (largest in the world) and the Hermann Goring Airport. The nation is in a perpetual state of war with Russia. There are small rebellions – some listen to American radio, grow their hair, wear unconventional clothes and the Beatles have played Hamburg though pop music is officially deplored. We see hints of the 1960s that we know. We are told that President Kennedy is coming to Germany on a state visit but then we realise that it is Joseph Kennedy, not John who is the American president and the world seems ever more bleaker.

The story centres around Xavier March who is a good cop despite his SS uniform. He is estranged from his wife and son who are enthusiastic Nazis. He is investigating the murder of an old man who was once an important Nazi bureaucrat (Buhler) but soon realises there is more to the story. Heydrich, who in this version of history didn’t die in 1942, has become the state’s evil genius. He is never present in the novel but always behind the plot. Heydrich’s efforts to insure those entrusted with the knowledge of the Final Solution do no emerge to stand in the way of a rapprochement with the US. The novel is part police procedural and March’s investigations into the deaths leads him to discover the terrible truth that has been hidden from all Germans as well as from the rest of the world.

The genre plays on our sense of contingency. It tells us that NO outcome is inevitable. Evil is just as likely to triumph as good, mall differences can change the outcome ie. The defeat of the Soviets > conquest of Britain = no D-Day. It plays with our emotions.

This is not the sort of book I would normally pick up but I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed it. And I would thoroughly recommend it.


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