Synopsis: Twenty years after the Nazi’s have won WW2 a criminal detective in the SS starts investigating the deaths of a number of senior party officials in the lead up to celebrations for Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday. It’s Agatha Christie meets George Orwell.
My Take: Let’s face it – the main appeal of historical fiction is the details of the alternative reality that the author creates and there’s a lot for history geeks to amuse themselves with in Robert Harris’ first work of fiction, “Fatherland”. A second major offensive through the Caucasus in 1942 allows Nazi Germany to defeat Stalin on the Eastern front in 1942. German counter-espionage enables the Nazi high command to first learn that the British have cracked the Enigma code and then lure the British fleet to its destruction. Cut off from the US, the United Kingdom is forced into an armistice in 1944 and a puppet government led by Edward the VIII is installed on the throne. Winston Churchill flees to Canada, where as he predicted, the remnants of the British Empire continue to resist. The German discovery of the nuclear bomb in 1946 leads to a cold war stalemate with Americans that continues until President Joseph Kennedy (Snr) initiates a détente between the two superpowers. The details of the Nazis’ Holocaust have been lost to the fog of war, but the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine is known around the world as “Stalin’s Holocaust”.
Harris uses this alternative historical context to create a reality just as rich as that put together by any science fiction or fantasy author. Like Orwell’s 1984, it’s the details of Harris’s Nazi society that are most the effective in creating the claustrophobia of the totalitarian state. Particularly amusing in this regard was the following passage preceding a discussion of the State sanctioned torture practiced by the state security apparatus:
“Down in the cellar the Gestapo were licensed to practice was the Ministry of Justice called ‘heightened interrogation’. The rules had been drawn up by civilised men in warm offices and they stipulated the presence of a doctor.’
I quickly thumbed back to the publisher page of the book after reading this passage only to learn that the first edition of “Fatherland” was released in 1993, more than ten years before the Bush Administration sanctioned it’s very own program of “Enhanced Interrogation”. While the plot arc of “Fatherland” is nothing special and the prose is pretty ordinary, little gems of spot on historical imagination like this makes the book a worthwhile read.
Highlight: Wikipedia describes the landscape of the Nazi capital recreated by Harris in “Fatherland”:
Berlin has been extensively remodelled as Hitler’s “capital of capitals,” designed according to the wishes of Hitler and his top architect, Albert Speer. By 1964, the city boasts gargantuan Nazi monuments; the Great Hall holds over 160,000 people at the highest Nazi ceremonies; the enormous Arch of Triumph is inscribed with the names of German soldiers killed in the two World Wars, and straddles the Grand Avenue, an immense boulevard lined with captured Soviet artillery and towering statues of Nazi eagles. The Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate are dwarfed by the vast, severe, granite civil buildings which dominate Berlin’s city centre; the Grand Plaza, the sprawling Berlin railway station, Hitler’s mammoth palace, the headquarters of the German Army, and the parliament of the powerless European Community.