Fatherland is set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War. It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb.
As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth -- a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.
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Customer Reviews (171)
The Publisher's Weekly review pretty much nails it. I enjoyed reading it but was ultimately happy it was such a fast read.
An homage to Len Deighton?
The irony of a murder investigator working inside the Third Reich in an alternative history has been used before in Len Deighton's SS-GB. Again, the investigator even falls in love with an American journalist. However, in my view, for all its faults Harris's Fatherland is superior to SS-GB in every way.
The year is 1964, and the Beatles are touring Nazi Berlin. Western and Eastern Europe have both fallen to Hitler, though desultory guerilla war continues in the Urals. Britain has been starved into submission by U-Boats, the Nazi sympathiser Joseph P Kennedy sits in the White House, and Berlin has been transformed by the architectural dreams of Albert Speer. And Europe is entirely "Judenfrei".
The benefit of this book over SS-GB is that it concentrates on the long term effects of Nazi victory. Anyone imagining an alternative history of World War 2 might be able to imagine the first days after Nazi conquest (which is where Len Deighton prefers to focus), when analogies to what happened in Occupied Europe can safely be imagined.
However, what happens when you go into an era when the Nazis are so entrenched that they seem as "normal" as the Iron Curtain in our own reality? This is where the more interesting - and disturbing - speculation can begin.
First of all, there is obviously the question of the completion of the endlosung der Judenfrage. It may be that the Holocaust was more severe in our reality on the Eastern Front, because that was the principal target for the Nazis. However, the shipping of so many Jews from Western Europe, as well as the gathering of data on Western European Jews, obviously means that the Nazis would eventually have exterminated the Western Jews as well.
In Fatherland, the Final Solution has liquidated 11 million Jews rather than the 6 million in our reality, including the Jews of Western Europe. The death camps, in the same locations as in our reality, have been shut down and demolished, their task fully completed.
Second, there is the question of the fate of Eastern Europe. Hitler wanted Lebensraum in the East; as much of a slaughterhouse as Eastern Europe was in our reality, Hitler's eventual plans were to be incredibly severe. In Fatherland, Poles and other Eastern Europeans form a slave class working for their Aryan masters.
Finally, there is the sheer amount of detail of a Nazi 1960s. Whether it's the descriptions of Speer's Berlin, a truly incredible pipe-dream, or the image of Nazi satellites and ICBMs, Harris has really performed his research well on this point. There are all sorts of little details too, like radios being forced to play "de-Negrified" jazz, millions of musical chocolate boxes all playing Lehar, the Propaganda-Ministerie's library being mostly a bookburning furnace, and the image of entire families being involved in the Nazi apparatus, like participating in the Hitlerjugend and the Strength Through Joy.
The storyline, for all its hiccups, is also intriguing. Xavier March, the Kriminalpolizei detective, is an ex-Uboat crewman, probably the least offensive branch of the service for our hero to have served in. The idea of a 1960s Nazi murder investigator checking into the sudden murders of all the attendees of the Wannsee Conference is just excellent.
There is no doubt to me that Fatherland is superior to SS-GB. Just read it and wallow in the well-researched details of a victorious Third Reich.
Couldn't Put It Down
It's been quite a while since I lost sleep over a book, but Fatherland is so good I put everything else I was reading on a back burner and carried this around with me until I finished it.
The year is 1964, Kennedy is president of the U.S. - Joseph Kennedy. In this alternate history tale, Germany won the war and Xavier March is a tired, disillusioned police detective in Berlin. When a former high party official is found dead, March finds himself in the middle of an explosive investigation that is being covered up by the Gestapo. He teams up with a beautiful young American reporter, Charlotte Maguire, and together they uncover a secret so deadly it could topple both governments. Can't wait to see the movie - if I can find it.
The ending really reminded me of The Giver by Lois Lowry, a children's book which tackles a weighty subject, but is nevertheless a great read.
Imperfect, but nevertheless one of the best alternate history novels of all time.
It's been some six years since I picked up a May 1993 edition of "Fatherland", a book I still have today. Six years is a long time, and so much happens in a period of time like that, it can be hard to remember everything. Yet I easily recall seeing that red paperback cover, the gold lettering of the front. The gold swastika that dominates the front cover, with a brass key set in its center. I turned it over and those white letters on the back jumped out at me- "Berlin, 1964. Hitler Reigns Supreme." Frightening, and yet so very fascinating. Few books have ever gotten my attention, so fully and so quickly.
Why, I wonder now, must public school students be subjected to pointless drivel like "The Pearl" and utter rubbish like "Brave New World" when great books such as "Fatherland" exist? There's a higher caliber of book out there, county and state school board folks. Those books aren't perfect either, but they sure beat the stuffing out of garbage like "The Pearl". God, how I hated that book.
"Fatherland" is set in an alternate 1960's, one in which Nazi Germany did not make certain crucial mistakes that cost it the war and its existence in our timeline. Germany seized the Caucusus rather than wasting away thousands of men on Stalingrad, cutting off Stalin's fuel supply. The Kriegsmarine issued a total recall on its U-Boat fleet, after discovering through unspecified means that its communications were being spied on by the Allies. Britain is starved into submission, and Churchill flees to Canada with a number of loyal followers. The Pacific goes just as it did in our timeline, and it doesn't much seem like the Nazis care at all. Given how little cooperation there ever was between the Axis powers, one being unperturbed by the total defeat of another is easily conceivable.
Still, it seems like Japan and Nazi Germany get along all right- the main character, SS Sturmbannfuehrer Xavier March, sees Japanese tourists visiting Berlin before Americans show up to do the same, and it does not sound like Japanese tourists in Hitler's Berlin are anything new.
Few characters in fiction have ever impressed me the same way March does. He is a brilliant investigator and a Kriegsmarine veteran, one who endured long tours at sea evading Royal Navy depth charges in one of Doenitz' U-Boats. He is- or was- a family man, with an ex-wife and twelve-or-so year old son. Pili, however, is far more loyal to the Nazi state than his father, who cares nothing for the Party and mocks it with a carelessness that puts him greatly at risk. So it's unsurprising that March, who has one way or another long since lost good relations with his former wife and son, has buried himself in a career that has dead-ended due to his all-too-well-known sarcasm towards the Party. March could have been so much more than he is when we meet him, and so much more than he is at the end. But he threw away chance after chance, and in the end paid a very heavy price for his attitude.
Berlin is the center of the titanic Nazi empire, containing all the huge buildings, all the monuments, that Hitler had wanted Albert Speer to create. Tour guides constantly compare this statue, or that Arch of Triumph, with that somebody else has got. March finds this amusing, remarking to himself how the Germans seem forever stuck with an inferiority complex, even in total victory looking over next door to make sure they're still the best. It is the center of everything for any German, directing law enforcement, military, and political operations all over the Reich. March is one of many Kriminalpolizei investigators in Berlin, carrying on the never-ending war on crime and enemies of the Nazi Party.
Trouble starts when he responds to a call about a body washed up at the edge of a lake, not far from a neighborhood in Berlin that is known for being inhabited by many prominent Nazis, including Joeseph Goebbels, still head of the Nazi propaganda machine. The body soon turns out to be more than just another dead fella pulled out of the lake, and the Gestapo steps in, telling March and everybody with him to butt out. Does March? Of course not. Then we wouldn't have a book. March asks questions, gets into a kind of trouble few would ever want to comprehend, and before long finds himself face-to-face in a torture chamber with the brutish Odilo "Globus" Globocnik. Not a whole lot happens there, beyond one of March's hands being turned into mush by a baseball bat. Did I mention it is Pili who calls the Gestapo and gets March caught? Like a good soon-to-be-HJ, Pili turns on his own father, whom he hates, and ensures his ultimate downfall. Such is the price for screwing up your marriage, career, and relations with the dominant political force in a Germany run by Hitler. March eventually escapes in a staged rescue, but soon enough figures this out and heads for one of the concentration camps he discovered during his snooping with American journalist Charlie Maguire. I honestly have no idea why or how she was able to get March to throw his career and indeed his life to the wind so freely, but hey. The two have a fun little affair, and Charlie escapes to Switzerland while a swarm of Nazi agents charge in on March as he finally finds proof that the death camps were there. The big deal about Charlie's escape is that she is carrying compiled evidence of the death camps that nobody has heard of in March's timeline, and will unveil this evidence to the world once she gets away.
The beginning and descriptions of the world March knows in this book are outstanding, and the plot for the most part solid and interesting. But I never did understand why March turned on his country so swiftly. Despite everything we all know the Nazis did, I couldn't quite condone March's actions, which were almost certainly treason. I agree with Doenitz, who believed that compromising one's loyalty to country in any way was wrong. But regardless, did his actions mean anything in the end? I'm not so sure. Yes, the saintly and rather annoying Charlie Maguire got away, and will no doubt go straight to Washington, who will no doubt take her straight to the President. Uh-huh. And who says the Nazi government couldn't weasel its way out of any scandal Maguire's evidence might provoke? A peace-making visit from Kennedy is imminent in this alternate 1964. It will take a hell of a lot to bring all that to a screeching halt. Globocnick points out one of the biggest things of it himself- the camps are gone. The death camps March gets evidence of have long since been shut down and erased, making denial of their existence even easier. But anyway.
In the end, the image I had in my mind when March prepares to face his certain doom at the hands of Nazi helicopters and infantry was not one of idealistic victory. I did not see the Nazi state, which is implied to be softening up and changing anyway, crumbling and falling instantly. No, what I pictured instead was the last words of Gestapo agent Herr Knopp in "Swing Kids", as Peter Muller is about to be shipped off to a camp. Knopp looks at the rebellious young German and says, shaking his head sadly, "Such a waste. All that passion- for nothing."
Hitler Triumphant? Now What!
"Fatherland" presents an audaciously brilliant concept: Nazi Germany and its Fuhrer are still in business in 1964, forming the backdrop of a murder mystery where nothing is as it seems. The mystery, however, is pedestrian and the alternate history haphazard.
In a quiet, well-off suburb of Berlin, not long before the city celebrates Hitler's 75th birthday, a body is found beside a lake. The victim, a high-ranking Nazi official named Buhler no one seems to know much about, appears to have drowned during a drunken swim, but police detective Xavier March has questions. In short order he finds himself the target of black-suited SS honchos, with only his wits, a few friends, and a beautiful American reporter to help him get to the bottom of an awesome crime.
Reminiscent of "Gorky Park" and "The ODESSA File", though not as good as either, "Fatherland" presents us with some stock characters, a fitfully-engaging plot, and a somewhat implausible notion that the Holocaust could hold the key to Hitler's overthrow if only word about it could get out to what's left of the free world. Robert Harris was just starting out as a fiction writer when this was published in 1992, and you can feel his debt to past thriller writers more than you do any unique voice that might make us want to see past such logic gaps.
Harris does develop a nicely seedy, oppressive atmosphere, which does compensate a bit for some major questions left unanswered about this imaginary postwar Europe dominated by Hitler. The chief villain may be an overbearing thug, but he is believably enabled by the dim culpability of a number of seemingly "good Germans" who simply serve their system a little too blindly. Late in the story, March finds himself talking to a younger Gestapo agent who tries to convince March he's part of a new and younger order not liable to repeat old mistakes; he's not evil himself but just doesn't think about things too hard.
March does, which is his strength and his curse. Even before the story begins, he has grave doubts about the country he serves. He found a photograph in his apartment, of a long-vanished Jewish family, and their faces gnaw at his conscience. He wasn't part of any Final Solution directly; he spent his war years in a U-Boat. But he comes to realize even there, living underwater in a metal tube, he was literally up to his neck in the carnage. If he acts a bit rashly under the circumstances, you understand why.
That Harris approaches the story of the Holocaust with empathy as well as inventiveness are points in his favor, but one wishes he found a better way to tie it into the rather desultory murder story at its center. The killing does link up to the larger framework of the novel, but Harris takes too long developing this. Suspense builds only to evaporate quickly. A romantic subplot reeking of Hollywood packaging eats up too many pages. And the real-life conference at the heart of this mystery is inadequately presented.
Maybe I judge too harshly because I wanted to like this more. Harris's heart was in the right place and he manages an okay result, but if you are going to use the real deaths of millions as a backdrop for a thriller, it needs to be better than okay.
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