Fatherland by Robert Harris: Book Review
Fatherland was written by Robert Harris and published in 1992. It is set in a world where Nazi Germany won the Second World War.
By 1964, Germany dominates the whole of Europe. However, Hitler is nearing his seventy-fifth birthday and has not been seen in public for months. Germany is also embroiled in a long-running, unwinnable guerrilla war in Russia, against US-backed partisans and faces internal resistance. It hopes to end this ‘Cold War’ by staging a superpower summit, where Hitler will sign a co-operation agreement with US President Joseph Kennedy.
In this alternate world, the common understanding is that Europe’s Jews were ‘Resettled in the East’. Although this is recognised as unlikely by many, their true fate is unknown. The Nazis claim tales of massacres are ‘communist propaganda’.
In a world where Nazi Germany won the Second World War, a German policeman investigates a conspiracy involving the deaths of high-ranking Nazis and must decide how much he is prepared to sacrifice in order to discover the darkest secrets of the victorious Third Reich.
Fatherland: Plot Summary
Note: Spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To reveal a spoiler, just highlight it.
Xavier March, an ex-Kreigsmarine U-boat captain, is now a detective in Berlin. He is in the Kripo, the German criminal police, not the more famous Gestapo, who deal with ‘political crime’. Working late, March answers a colleague’s telephone and is called to the recovery of a body found in the Havel river.
The next day, March visits his ten-year-old son, Pili. March is separated from his wife, and Pili lives with his mother. To his father’s disappointment, Pili has become a fanatical junior Hitler Youth.
The corpse is identified as Josef Buhler, a high-ranking Nazi. March goes to Buhler’s house. On the way, he learns the Gestapo has claimed jurisdiction over the case and he has been ordered to cease his investigation. Despite this, he continues and discovers Buhler’s diary, a suspicious envelope and evidence that suggests Buhler was murdered. A Gestapo Obergruppenführer, Odilo Globocnik, known as ‘Globus’, arrives. March senses danger and sneaks away without being seen.
The envelope March took from Buhler’s house contains a box of chocolates posted from Switzerland. The diary has a few cryptic markings and one reference to ‘Stuckart/Luther’, other high-ranking Nazis. March discovers Stuckart is also dead and Luther is missing.
March interviews ‘Charlie’ Maguire, the 25-year-old American woman who discovered Stuckart’s body. March takes her to Stuckart’s apartment where they crack his safe and discover the keys to a safe deposit box in Switzerland. The Gestapo arrive and arrest March, although Charlie escapes.
The next day, Globus takes March to Buhler’s house and shows him a cellar full of looted art works. He claims Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were using their positions to loot European art works and had come under investigation. Obviously, he says, Buhler and Stuckart committed suicide and Luther went on the run to avoid capture and disgrace. March disagrees believing the evidence points to murder and to Globus himself as the perpetrator. March’s boss, Artur Nebe the head of the Kripo, orders March to continue his investigation and gives him four days to make a case against Globus. Nebe appears to believe that the evidence may be useful as a political weapon against his enemies in the Nazi administration.
March and Charlie travel to Zürich to investigate the safety-deposit box. There is nothing in it except another painting, but March suspects that Luther must have recently removed incriminating papers. Returning to Berlin he looks in the archive for a clue to what the documents might be and discovers that Heydrich had invited fourteen senior officials including Buhler, Stuckart and Luther to a meeting in 1942 to discuss ‘a complete solution of the Jewish question’. Of the fourteen attendees, thirteen are already dead.
A body that appears to be Luther has also been found in the railway yard. March goes to Charlie’s apartment and discovers that Luther has phoned her to try to defect to the USA. He has tricked the Gestapo using the body of a tramp dressed in his clothes. Charlie has agreed to meet Luther on the steps of the Great Hall of the Reich the next morning.
In the morning, Charlie goes to the meeting, but Luther is assassinated by a sniper. March realises that Luther did not have any documents with him when he was killed. He goes to the airport, reasoning that Luther must have left the documents in the lost luggage there. He retrieves a briefcase…
Inside is documentary evidence of the planning and implementation of the Holocaust. March collapses at the horror of the atrocities revealed.
The conspiracy becomes clear: Globus is eliminating the Nazi officials who planned the Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference in 1942. The goal of the conspiracy is to stop the Holocaust being discovered, as it would make détente with the USA impossible.
March and Charlie decide to try to escape to neutral Switzerland with the evidence. From there, they will travel to the USA and expose the Holocaust to the world. March sends Charlie ahead, arranging to meet her at the border. He visits his son to say goodbye, but Pili, deluded by his Nazi upbringing, believes his father is ‘ill’ and betrays him to the Gestapo.
March is arrested, held at the Gestapo headquarters and tortured. The Gestapo do not succeed in beating Charlie’s whereabouts out of him.
Nebe rescues March and tells him to take a car and escape. Driving away, March realises that in fact Nebe has faked the rescue in the hope of tailing him to the rendezvous with Charlie. Instead of heading there, he sacrifices himself by leading the Gestapo in the wrong direction.
The Gestapo finally catch up with March at the site of Auschwitz, which has been razed to the ground. March searches for some sign that the death camp was real.
As the Gestapo agents close in on him, March calculates that Charlie will have had time to escape and imagines her doing so.
In the undergrowth, March uncovers foundations. Auschwitz is real. He draws his gun for a last stand.
Fatherland was the novel that got me into alternative history, so it has a special place in my heart. (It wasn’t the first alternative history book I’d read though. I read SS-GB by Len Deighton when I was about twelve, although I didn’t really understand it.) I’ve read all of Robert Harris’s books since and seen most of the films. Some are better than others, and I particularly like Archangel . But it’s Fatherland that’s the true classic.
The Alternative History of Fatherland
Fatherland is a great thriller, but it’s not great alternative history, technically. The problem is that Robert Harris never explicitly states his point of departure. For an explanation of what a point of departure is see my article How to use Point of Departure in an Alternative History Novel . He does include a passage in which victory over the USSR and Great Britain and peace with the USA are hand-waved as:
A triumph for the Führer’s strategic genius… a triumph for the Führer’s counter-intelligence genius… a triumph for the Führer’s scientific genius!
Unfortunately, this passage raises as many questions as it answers. However, despite the lack of a clear point of departure, alternative history enthusiasts have attempted to make sense of the alternative history of Fatherland. Analysing the hints in the book, it seems the point of departure is Reinhard Heydrich surviving the 1941 assassination attempt that in reality led to his death.
Heydrich is frequently mentioned in Fatherland as head of the SS, although he is never seen. His survival is the earliest change to history mentioned in the book. How Heydrich surviving could lead to the other changes is difficult to see. Perhaps it could be because he was more competent than a lot of the other high-ranking Nazis.
Alternative history specifically mentioned in Fatherland includes:
1941 Heydrich survives an assassination attempt
1942 On the Eastern Front, Operation Blue succeeds, and the German army captures the Baku oil fields. This is a huge strategic gain for Germany, as the Wehrmacht now doesn’t suffer from fuel shortages and the Soviets do.
1943 Moscow and Leningrad fall and the Red Army is pushed back to the Ural Mountains.
1944 The Western Allies lose the Battle of the Atlantic after Germany realises that the British are reading their codes. Starved into submission by the U-boat blockade, Britain surrenders. Churchill and King George VI are exiled in Canada and Edward VIII becomes king.
1946 The USA defeats Japan after dropping Atomic Bombs on them. Germany explodes a V3 (presumably the successor to the V2) missile over New York, deterring the USA from attacking Germany directly. Cold War between Germany and the USA begins.
1950 Construction of the fifteen-storey-tall ‘Arch of Triumph’ in Berlin is completed. ‘Day of National Reawakening’ celebrated.
1951 Herman Goering dies.
1957 ‘Avenue of Victory’ and ‘Great Hall of the Reich’ completed in Berlin.
1960 Joseph P. Kennedy becomes US President.
1962 Heinrich Himmler dies in an air crash. Heydrich becomes head of the SS.
1964 US-German peace summit. Events of Fatherland .
Fatherland as Mystery
Fatherland has a hybrid plot, although it is mostly a Mystery (see Spy Novel Plots ).
And as a Mystery, Fatherland works very well:
- The mystery is set up effectively in the first chapter with the discovery of Buhler’s body.
- The antagonist, Globus, is introduced and set up as a dangerous man.
- There’s a race against time: can March uncover the conspiracy in four days?
- The clues are resolved one by one, leading the detective and the reader into the heart of the mystery.
- The revelation of the murder conspiracy itself is well handled.
- There’s a twist.
- The final action sequences are tense and the open-ended finale works.
So, there’s little to criticise about the plot other than the ease with which March outwits the Gestapo and the fortuitousness of some of his guesswork as he follows the trail of clues. In particular, the leap of logic that gets March from the empty safe deposit box in Zürich to the archive in Berlin relies on nothing other than momentum to maintain suspension of disbelief.
Where the novel falls down a little is the question of character motivation. Why does March continue to investigate the murders, in a world where there is no possibility of justice? The murders are at least semi-official. The main suspect is a high-ranking Gestapo officer who cannot possibly be brought to justice. The murders are probably occurring with the blessing of the head of the SS. It is clear almost from the start that the investigation can only lead to one thing: March’s death.
Robert Harris only makes one attempt at an explanation: March has nothing else to live for because of his estrangement from his son. And, well, he’s a detective, isn’t he?
And there was something else, the instinct that propelled him out of bed every morning into each unwelcoming day, and that was the desire to know .
This is perilously close to March announcing, ‘plot necessity compels me to investigate.’
Fatherland as Dystopian Nightmare
Robert Harris’s evocation of the post-war Nazi world highly effective, and this to me is one of the main reasons the novel succeeds. This is the great strength of the novel. Robert Harris was a journalist and had written only non-fiction previously. He had planned a non-fiction book about the post-war plans of the Nazi government. Harris’s agent however thought (rightly as it turned out) that a thriller would sell better. The research for the stillborn non-fiction book forms the bedrock of Fatherland’s appeal. Harris certainly packs a lot of atmosphere in, and the settings are well evoked.
The concepts may seem well-worn, ‘Nazi victory’ being almost a sub-genre of speculative fiction these days, but Fatherland was one of the first novels to use the setting well. The final revelation of the conspiracy and use of extracts from historical documents to underscore the full horror of the revelations packs an incredible punch. It’s one of the most effective uses of alternative history to drive home real world lessons ever.
Alternative History Flag for Fatherland
The original cover of Robert Harris’s Fatherland showed the Nazi German Flag flying next to today’s blue and gold European Union flag. That makes no sense in my opinion. Instead, I think a ‘European Union’ dominated by the German hegemony would take the colours of the Nazi Party — red, white and black. The four arrows, as well as being reminiscent of the swastika, represent the aggressive expansionism of Fatherland’s dystopian Europe.
Click here for more alternative history flags .
Alternative Fatherland Book Cover
My alternative cover is based on a photograph of the Brandenburg gate, in Berlin. I wanted to avoid the cliché of having swastikas on the cover, and the book is enough of a classic that such cheap attention-grabbing is not necessary. Instead, the simple black and white image contrasts with the bold red banner, the germanic script further hints at the setting, and the glossy lettering suggests a more futuristic world than the 1940s.
Fatherland: My Verdict
One of the key alternate history novels. Anyone who is interested in alternative history should read this book.
Want to Read it?
The BBC dramatised Fatherland for radio in 1997, The adaptation starred Anton Lesser as Xavier March and Angeline Ball as Charlie Maguire. The radio play is well done, particularly Anton Lesser who is excellent. The main issue I found was that some of the main characters sounded too similar, making it hard to follow at times. The plot is abridged, but the main change is that Charlie Maguire definitely makes it across the border and escapes . The radio play is not as good as the book, but still worth a listen if you can find it (I got it off eBay).
Fatherland: the Movie
There was a TV movie too, starring Rutger Hauer. Don’t bother.
A Kill in the Morning
If you loved Fatherland you’ll probably also enjoy my novel A Kill in the Morning. You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning .
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