I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland on my return from Germany. I spent the entirety of my stay there in Berlin, just south of the Reichstag, with a view over the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial. Over the few days I was there, I became quite familiar with the streets heading south and north of Unter den Linden. This familiarity made Fatherland, which is set in Berlin, evocative in a way that Code Name Verity wasn’t.
Fatherland is a major landmark in alternative history fiction, but it was so popular when it came out that it occupied a similar space in my head as The DaVinci Code. In short, I was worried that it was going to be a bit trashy. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case (at least, I didn’t think so anyway). The book is, at its heart, a hard boiled detective procedural — the twist is that it is set in a Germany that essentially won World War Two.
At some point during WW2 events diverged from those in our own world. The key turning point seemed to be the success of the German offensive against Russia. Without strong resistance on the Eastern Front, Germany can turn its attentions fully on Britain, which is eventually starved into submission. The Reich becomes a bloated state streching far into the east, while the rest of Europe consists of puny vassal states. After the defeat of the Japanese via the bombing of Hiroshima, Germany too develops nuclear weaponry and a Cold War develops between America and Germany.
In 1964, detective Xavier March discovers a dead body apparently drowned in a wealthy suburb of Berlin. As his investigation develops, he gradually unravels a complex conspiracy that runs throughout the upper echelons of the Nazi regime. He’s an obsessive worker and a hard drinker, alienated from his party-line spouse and son by his sense of irony and stifled humanism (He jokes at one point when accused of working too hard that “Arbeit macht Frei”). Over the course of the novel he allies with a mouthy and brave American journalist, Charlie Maguire (the love interest), and comes into increasing conflict with the Gestapo who want the case closed.
In this world, three was no march west by Russians, and the mass graves of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were never discovered. What happened to those who were “sent east” is an uncomfortable mystery to the people of Germany and to the world at large. Instead, the great crime against humanity that came to light during and following WW2 is the vast number killed in Stalin’s purges. The novel’s central conspiracy concerns an attempt to conceal documentary proof of the Final Solution. The final few pages involve Xavier fleeing from the Gestapo, travelling to Auschwitz, now a razed ruin, recalling the Jews who have intersected with his life, only now fully realising the horror on which the Nazi state is built.
It’s a strange big reveal, since we in the real world are so familiar with these events. Nonetheless, I found these scenes to be highly affecting. Harris was working with powerful clay in crafting this book, but that alone wouldn’t have been sufficient. I finished the novel impressed with his writing. His characterisation, plotting, and prose are rarely exceptional, but demonstrate a consistent craftsmanship. In sum, it was a tight package wrapping up an intriguing tale that deals with the most momentous events of the 20th century from a novel and unique angle.