It is 1964, and Nazi Germany, having won the war eighteen years ago, dominates the world.
To be sure, the war isn’t quite over. Far to the east, the USSR may have been pushed back beyond the Urals, but partisans carry on a vicious guerrilla war and regularly raid and massacre German settler families. Train loads of corpses of German troops return stealthily in the dead of night, hidden from the eyes of the common citizenry. But for the average German, the war is long since won.
Berlin, reconstructed after the end of the war, is the greatest city in history. The immense domes and gates of Albert Speer’s architecture tower over the skyline, while the streets are crowded with tourists from Western Europe and Japan. All the other nations of Europe, barring neutral Switzerland, are ruled by German vassals. Germany’s post war victory seems complete.
The only competition for Germany from anywhere is the United States of America, which is covertly aiding the Soviet guerrillas and which, having nuked Japan into surrender in 1945, was forced to a reluctant peace the following year only when Hitler exploded a nuclear missile over New York City to prove that he could retaliate effectively. But in 1964, the USA is looking for an opportunity to make peace with Germany, too.
It is April 1964, and it’s almost time for the greatest annual holiday, Adolf Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. The Führer of the Reich will be 75, and from all over the land, people are pouring in to celebrate the occasion. And as a further proof of how well things are going, an announcement is made that President Joseph Kennedy will be arriving in Berlin to meet the aging Hitler and sign an agreement solidifying the detente between the two remaining powers and an end to the Cold War between them.
By this time, the old order is passing. Though Hitler still lives, most of his cronies have disappeared from the scene. Hermann Göring, Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, is long dead, and his name adorns Berlin’s main airport. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS, the Gestapo, and the entire German security apparatus, was killed in a plane crash/explosion a couple of years before (which would have actually been a compelling story in itself). His erstwhile deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, is Reichsführer now, but all along the line the old thugs are being replaced by younger, smoother, well-educated Aryan supermen who dislike soiling their hands with blood.
German society is also changing. Though the Nazi Party’s hold is unchallenged, liberalism is sneaking in with long hair, jeans, pop music (a “group from Liverpool” has apparently held a concert recently in Hamburg); anti-Nazi graffiti tends to appear on walls, though how it does so given the overwhelming presence of the security state is an unexplained mystery. Uniforms are everywhere; every two bit organisation (even one of falconers, and another of German mothers) has its own uniform. And the educational system is geared towards making Hitler a demigod from the early school level, despite which the “Negroid” pop music and other liberal influences still have managed to take hold.
It is at this point that the corpse of a minor Nazi official is found washed up on the shore of a lake in a posh Berlin suburb, and Xavier March, investigator with the Criminal Police (Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo), is given charge of the case...
An interesting set-up, wouldn’t you think? Something that could be made into a really good examination of how things might have turned out?
So did I when I started reading Robert Harris’ Fatherland. And that’s why I am reviewing it at all – I only review books I really, really like or really, really dislike. I’ll leave you to guess which category this one falls into.
Before I go on further, let’s discuss the story in a little more detail.
Xavier March, the “hero” of the book, a former U Boat officer turned policeman, is increasingly embittered and disenchanted with his masters. His career has flatlined because he refuses to join the Nazi Party – apparently a prerequisite for promotion – contribute to Nazi fund raising drives, or even show sufficient enthusiasm for his son Pili’s activities in the junior wing of the Hitler Youth. He has even made the solecism of asking about the whereabouts of a Jewish family whose photograph he found; in the world of this book, the Jews of Europe have vanished, and nobody cares to ask where they went or what happened to them.
The mother of his son, March’s ex-wife, is seeing another man and resents her former partner’s right to spend any time with Pili at all. March lives in a cheerless flat, smokes compulsively (the book’s favourite line, endlessly repeated, seems to be “He lit another cigarette”) and is aware that he’s being watched by the Gestapo as a likely undesirable. That he holds the rank of Major (Sturmbannführer) in the SS is immaterial; all Kripo investigators are automatically given that rank as a matter of course.
When he’s called out in the early hours of the morning, by mistake – the duty officer has mixed up rosters and it’s his partner Jäger (or Jaeger) who was to have taken the call – March finds the obese, almost naked body of the dead man, who had apparently gone swimming, by the lakeside. The corpse was found by a young SS trainee called Jost who was out on his morning jog.
A clear open and shut case of drowning, one might have thought. However, if that were so, the book would have stopped right there, so of course it’s not a clear open and shut case of drowning.
March soon discovers that the dead body was of one Josef Buhler, formerly part of the Nazi government in the German colony of Poland, and that he was a recluse who lived in an opulent fortified residence on an island in the lake which is also inhabited by numerous other top Nazi officials. As soon as he’s identified the body, though, he’s ordered off the case by the Gestapo, which proclaims that it’s taking over the investigation.
Incredibly, this disaffected cop with so much on his mind does not give up the investigation, despite a clear order, and insists – knowing he is already under suspicion – on continuing the case by himself. One would have thought he was looking for a way to get himself into a concentration camp, something his son has already told him is likely to happen. He totally illegally breaks into Buhler’s residence, as illegally searches it, and discovers clues that the death was more suspicious than appeared at first sight; Buhler, a teetotaller, had apparently been drinking heavily, someone had clubbed his dog unconscious and left it confined in the kitchen, and his artificial foot – the legacy of a Russian guerrilla attack – is floating by the side of his private dock. While he’s looking at all this, the house is visited by three high ranking SS officers, one of whom is a general whom he recognises as Odilo Globocnik (“Globus”) – an Austrian SS thug who actually existed in real life, by the way.
Having managed to get away from Globus and the others, March visits Jost at the barracks, and accuses him of being a homosexual; his “evidence” is that Jost took far too long to run the three kilometres that he claimed to have run before discovering Buhler’s body, so there’s a gap of fifteen minutes which is unexplained unless the trainee had been secretly meeting a lover. It’s obvious to anyone who actually understands the metric system that this is only evidence that Robert Harris has no idea what a “kilometre” is or how long it might take to run one. In any case, Jost breaks down and admits that he actually saw Globus and his men planting Buhler’s corpse in the water. Shortly after this, Jost disappears, sent off to the Russian front by Globus to get rid of the witness.
Carrying on the investigation on his own bat, March discovers that Buhler was part of a four man group of ex-Nazi officials, all of whom retired, quite affluently, in the mid-1950s and of whom two others have recently met with sticky ends. The body of one of these, Stuckart, was discovered by an American journalist named Charlotte “Charlie” Maguire (who is, needless to say, brave, young, and beautiful; I will have something to say about this young, beautiful, brave American trope later on in this review) who was on her way to “interview” the dead man and arrived only just in time to see his killers leaving. Officially, however, Stuckart has committed suicide.
Meeting Maguire, March without any great difficulty “persuades” her to join in – again (illegally) breaking into the dead man’s flat, where they then recruit the services of a safecracker and March’s partner Jaeger to (illegally) crack the dead man’s safe, which for some reason the Gestapo investigators seem to have failed to discover. Astonishing how many things the Gestapo fails to find in the world of this book, just like how many illegal things March, who is aware that he’s already under suspicion, seems to do compulsively. They discover a key to a bank locker in Zurich, in the neutral state of Switzerland, but Jaeger and March are arrested by the Gestapo before they can escape. The Kripo chief, Arthur (or Artur) Nebe, Globus’ rival, gets them out of the SS’ clutches and gives March a 24 hour exit visa to go to Switzerland and find out what the locker contains. This locker is jointly owned by the four Nazi officials mentioned, of whom by now three are dead, one, Martin Luther, is missing and presumably on the run, and all of whom are implicated in an art theft racket dating back when they were members of the Nazi regime in Poland.
Maguire attaches herself to March for this trip to Zurich, initially strongly against his wishes, and they end up finally and very predictably sleeping together. The bank locker is empty except for a painting, but Martin Luther was there a few days earlier and presumably removed something.
To cut a long and rambling story short, it turns out that the four Nazis were part of a 14 man group which was invited to a conference in Wannsee in January 1942 – a conference which actually happened – at which the order was passed for the “Final Solution” (Endlösung) of the “Jewish Problem”. Actually, as any historian will tell you, the organised extermination of the Jews had begun directly after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, but in the world of this book it all boiled down to this conference. Apparently, ever since the end of the war, these 14 officials are being killed one by one, in order to silence them; it seems that to Harris, killing 14 men is quite sufficient to make all the evidence of the organised mass murder of the Jews (the so-called “Holocaust”, a term I no longer use owing to its employment as a shield by the illegitimate Zionist colonial apartheid regime in Occupied Palestine) disappear. The commandants, guards and executioners at the camps, the drivers and staff of the trains carrying the Jews to the camps (Harris actually exhaustively discusses the railway timetables) don’t matter. The only thing that’s necessary is to kill these 14, and all evidence of the mass murder evaporates like the morning mist. And Globocnik, acting under the orders of Himmler’s successor Reinhard Heydrich, is determined to make that happen.
And why should the evidence be made to vanish anyway? Well, President Kennedy is coming to town, and if the news of the Jews’ fate got out, it seems that the entire detente and the end of the Cold War would be called off...
As an insurance against being made scapegoats for the massacre of the Jews, Luther and the other three had apparently got together a file of “evidence”, including such incontrovertible, unimpeachable proof as affidavits, rail timetables and a crudely drawn map of the long since destroyed camp at Auschwitz, and are planning to use this as a way to get themselves asylum in America. You know, the kind of evidence which will make or break history. March and Maguire plan to get this file to Switzerland and then to America, where it would be made public and blow the end of the Cold War apart.
I’d like to say that I won’t include spoilers, but ask yourself this: in a contest between the Evil Nazis and a young! brave!! beautiful!!! American!!!! heroine, exactly how likely is it that she will not win?
In the genre of Alternate History tales, the Nazi Germany Won WWII subtrope is probably the most dominant. I’ve read others of the genre, and the quality has varied wildly from the very, very bad, to the passable. But they all seem to have some features in common.
The first of those features seems to be a compulsory attempt to show that the regime is doomed as a direct consequence of the actions of the protagonists. Apparently, this enormously successful political movement and military machine, having destroyed all competition and assimilated most of Europe, is also so fragile that it can be brought down by the actions of a few people, among whom is a Compulsory Heroic American.
I’m serious. The inclusion of a heroic American, even in a story very much not written by an American, seems to be essential for this kind of tale. Len Deighton’s SS-GB, about a German-occupied Britain, had one; so did even the otherwise good science fiction story The Pacific Mystery by Stephen Baxter, which however played with the formula enough to make the American hero though young and brave, male and not particularly handsome, and also had the temerity to make him fail at his appointed task (though it ends up making no difference either way to the plot). But that’s a major subversion. The typical American in these Nazi-fighting books is almost always a dashing young beauty who is incredibly adept at all she does (Maguire has lightning fast reflexes, can fight off a Gestapo assassin, is an expert at disguising herself with make-up, and has dissimulation skills at the equivalent of a trained propagandist), and will let nothing come in her way.
In fact so annoying is this character type, and so prevalent, that I have pretty much made up my mind to write my own Alternate History Nazi story which will not only not exclude any such woman, but will have no room for any American citizen whatsoever.
The second is the conceit that there’s always one nation which stands against Nazi domination of the world, and that nation is always America. For instance, here in this book, as I said, it’s the remarkable idea that America will instantly rise up in anger at the idea of a detente with Nazi Germany if only it finds out what really happened to the Jews that’s at the core of the plot, the driving force.
More than anything else, it’s this which in my mind is the book’s biggest failure. If there’s anything at all we know about the United States of America – more properly called the Imperialist States of Amerikastan – it’s that it’s more than happy, nay, ecstatic, to ally with criminal genocidal regimes as long as the end results benefit Wall Street. Nothing, but nothing, comes in the way of Wall Street profit, and as for the Jews, one ought to recall that Amerikastan turned back Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s, and that when the Red Army actually liberated Auschwitz in January 1945 and revealed its horrors to the world, the Western part of the Allies at first treated the news as “Russian propaganda”.
Of course, in reality, nothing as unimportant as the mass murder of Jews – already finished decades ago in the world of this book – would influence an American detente with Germany where trade and profits were at stake. Since there would not be any so-called state of “Israel” (as the Zionist colonial racist settler project in Occupied Palestine is known) that would not be in the calculations at all. Even today, keeping the American people supporting “Israel” requires an enormous, and increasingly ineffective, amount of money and effort. It’s beyond laughable that they would turn away with revulsion from Nazi Germany if they knew the Jews were dead, when they hadn’t when said Nazi Germany reduced most of Europe to vassal status and was fighting an endless genocidal imperialistic war in the East.
It’s more than obvious that these Nazi Alternate History books are written for the American market, and to please America. There’s absolutely never an evil American character in these books; they’re all good people. Even here, there is an embassy staffer who turns out to be a good guy despite spending half the book under suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. In this case it’s especially glaring because the edition I read (thankfully a copy borrowed from the library, which means none of my money went to pay for it) was an American edition. Each time I read a book that was translated from English to Americanish, I want to ask why the reverse process never seems to occur. Why do British publishers, when they republish American books, never seem to want to translate them into English?
It’s not just the language; even the dates are flipped around into Americanish from the normal (and European) day/month/year configuration, and American “units” of measurement are painfully jacked in wherever the book can manage it. That’s in addition to the fact, as I said, that the author himself apparently has little understanding of the metric system.
Normally, I’d have not bothered reviewing this book, relegating it to the trash file. But what made it unforgivable was the author’s setting up this wonderful backdrop, and then screwing it up so totally.
Can you imagine what he might have done with the following plot line, for instance?
As the 75th birthday of Adolf Hitler approaches, with the Führer becoming increasingly infirm in health, it’s obvious that he isn’t much longer for this world. The struggle for succession, in abeyance for years, heats up again. Then, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, one of the top men in the regime and the presumptive heir, is killed in a mysterious plane crash. Who did it? Communist guerrillas? Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, still officially a member of the Nazi inner circle though insignificant for years? Field Marshal Rommel, the increasingly marginalised head of the Army? Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Gestapo chief and Reinhard Heydrich’s second in command (and an even more ruthless and brutal character than Heydrich himself)? Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and the de facto dictator of Germany, desperate to preserve his own power by eliminating all rivals?
Xavier March, an investigator with the Kripo, is called in by the chief of police, Arthur Nebe – acting under direct orders of Hitler – and given the job of investigating. Armed with little more than his own intelligence and a letter from Hitler himself demanding that the bearer be given full assistance, he goes to work...
No American characters. No irrelevant ultra-accomplished heroines. Just a detective story, which, as it goes, explores the world of a Nazi-run Germany.
How easily this book could have been that book, and how unforgivable that it was not.
Note: There is, it seems, a film of this book, starring Rutger Hauer as Xavier March. I can wait to watch it...I can wait forever.