Book Review: Fatherland, Robert Harris

Have you ever wondered how different the world would be now had the Nazis triumphed in 1945? Ever thought about a Europe controlled by and centered around a German Empire- a ‘Greater German Reich’? Have you set the wheels of the unimaginable in motion by asking the questions: what if Hitler had succeeded? What if Hitler had lived?

If you’ve found yourself answering ‘yes’ to some or all of the above, then you’re not alone and fortunately for us one author has gone one step further, kindly taking these questions and re-writing history for us. There can be no greater “What if…” subject for fiction than Nazi Germany and in his acclaimed work of historical fiction Fatherland, Robert Harris proves to be the daddy (sorry, the Vater) in this field.

But historical imagination and intriguing ideas are nothing without a compelling story and Harris blends the two superbly. Xavier March- a homicide investigator with the Berlin Kriminalpolizei or Kripo– is the detective who is called to the scene of a corpse being dragged out of the Havel lake. The body is identified as high-ranking Nazi veteran, Joseph Buhler and as the investigation is swiftly taken over by the Sipo (the Gestapo) the ever-curious March begins to suspect foul play from deep within the Reich hierarchy.

The sprawling Berlin backdrop of this investigation is perfectly cast. Harris’ descriptions of the city take us into the heart of a bleak and grey empiric capital where the imposing architecture of the Great Hall, the Arch of Victory and the Grand Avenue is contrasted brilliantly with the unassuming and mundane lives of its inhabitants and the reality of living within a surveillance state. Every corner is watched, every phone is tapped and every citizen is a policeman. “Be vigilant at all times! Attention! Report suspicious packages at once! Terrorist alert!” These signs are commonplace in Hitler’s Berlin; a country in a constant state of red-alert; an empire terrified of complacency.

The detailed descriptions of the Fuhrer’s city give a sense of awe and March’s games of hide-and-seek propose a breath-taking super metropolis. It is the perfect scene for a thriller in which our protagonist must seek out the truth of a corrupt Reich whilst avoiding detection by those he is trying to detect. Harris makes occasional references to the German obsession with Paris. The tour guide describes the ‘Avenue of Victory’ as being “…both wider and two and a half times longer than the Champs Elysees”; the Arch of Triumph being able to accommodate the Arc de Triomphe inside itself forty-nine times; and Residence of the Fuhrer exceeding the façade of Luis XIV’s palace at Versaille by one hundred meters. The very real envy of Paris that was harboured by many a German is captured here by Harris and this simple technique of comparison helps blend the factual with the imagined.

And what historical novel would be complete without the accompanying map of this new world to better extend the readers imagination across the continent? Harris complements his map with factual documents, quotes from officials and military leaders and government statements from the Nazi era, complete with official swastika, wreath and eagle stamp. It’s clear that Harris has done his homework and these lend an air of authenticity to the imaginary. These documents are intertwined with the narrative so that we find out more about how the world came to be post-1945, just as March delves deeper into the secrets and conspiracies of his own people.

March’s accomplice is the up-and-at-em, story sniffing American journalist, Charlie who accompanies the detective about the city and across Europe. Other than helping the story along and playing the love interest (helping to ease the weight of the heavy themes of state control, murder and espionage) Charlie is at first the annoying puppy following him around, but quickly proves a faithful companion. Through Charlie’s attitude towards Nazi uniform and her liberal ideas, a whole new ideology is proposed to March; a U-boat serviceman who despite knowing little else in his lifetime other than the German Reich, does not feel comfortable surrounded by grey, drab SS uniforms and civilians who speak of nothing but allegiance and duty to the Fatherland, including his own son. March has long deferred from celebrating openly the Furher’s birthday and other such national holidays, but his meeting with the Western ideas of Charlie only prove to verify his feelings of unease towards the Party which helps him sniff out the rotten eggs of the system.

One of these eggs is particularly foul smelling and leads him onto the trail of the question that everyone has been trying to ignore since the Nazi uprising: the Jewish question. What happened to the Jews? All that people seem to know is that they ‘went east’ and while most Germans are content to keep their inquisitive sides to themselves, March with the help of Charlie becomes hell-bent on exposing the truth that Buhler and the other ageing Nazi officials were intent on delivering to the world. That is until the Gestapo, led by the ruthless and corrupt ‘Globus’, begin to suppress the possibility that certain, incriminating documents may find themselves in the public domain.

For those that enjoy the pace and energy of the Dan Brown novels, Fatherland will not disappoint. First published in the early 90s, Harris’ novel must no doubt have been some form of inspiration for Robert Langdon and his adventures through Europe’s sprawling cities. Fatherland is an exciting thriller that keeps its reader in a constant state of alertness- much like the civilians of Hitler’s 1964 Berlin- whilst addressing the evils of an extreme national socialist state and its bloody and murderous consequences. A novel which grips the reader from start to finish in an imagined reality where fact and fiction, and truth and propaganda are not so cut and dry.

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