The novel "Fatherland", by Robert Harris, is an alternate history story set in a world in which Nazi Germany won the Second World War. In the "Fatherland" world, the Greater German Reich encompasses Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Alsace-Lorraine, Luxembourg and the entirety of the Soviet Union west of the Urals. Hungary, Romania and the Balkans are excluded, while the nations of Western Europe and Scandinavia have been corralled into a virtually powerless European community. In effect every European country, save Switzerland, steadfastly neutral, is subordinate to Germany in all but name. The United States stands alone against Germany, with which it is locked in the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War. In the Urals an actual guerrila war drags on between Germany and the remnants of the Soviet Union, with no end in sight.
The story begins in Berlin in April 1964, in the week leading up to Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday on April 20. The plot follows Xavier March, a police detective working for the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) investigating the suspicious death by apparent drowning of a high-ranking Nazi, Josef Bühler. As March uncovers more details he realises that he is caught up in a massive political scandal involving numerous senior Nazi party officials, who are apparently being murdered systematically. In fact, as soon as the Buhler's body is identified, the Gestapo claims jurisdiction over the case and orders the criminal police to close its investigation.
March meets with Charlotte Maguire, an American journalist for The New York Times who is also determined to uncover the truth about the case. As the Gestapo tighten their noose around March and his prohibited continuation of his investigation, the pair ultimately uncovers the truth behind the murders. The Gestapo is eliminating the remaining officials who planned the Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference of 1942. At the time of the book’s events the German people suspect but are not generally aware of the Holocaust, believing the Nazi government's official explanation of the Jew’s disappearance: a mass, government mandated relocation to the east during the war. Even March didn't suspect the terrible truth: "After the war, I believed what everybody else believed. No reason not to. I am a loyal son of the fatherland. I served murderers all my life. How do I explain that to my son?" The assassinations are being carried out in order to safeguard an upcoming meeting of Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy, the first one between the two most powerful men on Earth, by ensuring that the horrible war crimes of the Nazi regime are never revealed to the public. Maguire heads for neutral Switzerland with the evidence she and March uncovered, hoping to be able to publish it once she returns to the United States. March, however, is denounced by his brain washed ten-year-old son, who is a member of the Jungvolk (the junior Hitler Youth), and apprehended by the Gestapo.
March is questioned mercilessly by Gestapo general Odilo Globocnik, Heinrich Himmler's right hand man, but holds out, despite having his hand smashed by a baseball bat. Eventually a fake rescue, involving March's long-time friend and fellow policeman Max Jaeger, is staged in the hope that he will lead the Gestapo to Charlotte. However March sees through Max, knowing that he must have been the one who betrayed him throughout the novel’s events. As the book comes to an end he buys Charlotte time to enter Switzerland by leading his Gestapo pursuers on a wild goose chase to the site of the now demolished Auschwitz concentration camp, where he finds evidence of the facility that once stood there.
Though the story took a long time to develop and was even tediously long at some points during the investigation, overall I found Fatherland to be just suspenseful enough to consistently keep the reader’s attention despite its otherwise slow pace. In addition the poigant end to the novel is highly satisfactory and really makes the narrative worth the reader's while. One of the elements of the novel I found particularly interesting was the characterisation of Xavier March in the midst of the Nazi construct, especially the dynamic between the man and the uniform he wears, which March feels sharply as a member of the infamous SS.
"She was laughing and ruffling an older man's hair. He was laughing too. Then he saw March and said something and the laughter stopped. They watched him as he approached. He was conscious of his uniform, of the noise of his jackboots on the polished wooden floor." (105)
However the part of Fatherland that I enjoyed the most were the descriptions, concentrated at the beginning, of Berlin as remodelled into Germania by Hitler and his top architect, Albert Speer. The Great Hall, featuring a dome twice the size of that of St Peter’s cathedral, holds so many people (180 thousand) at the highest Nazi ceremonies that the collective breaths form clouds in the cupola which condense and fall as light rain, making the hall the only building in the world that generates its own climate. The enormous Arch of Triumph, four times the size of the one in Paris, is inscribed with the names of German soldiers killed in the two World Wars and straddles the Avenue of Victory, an immense boulevard lined with captured Soviet artillery and towering statues of Nazi eagles that connects Hitler’s immense Palace of the Fuhrer (with a facade 100 meters longer than that of Versailles) to the Great Hall. Vast, severe, granite civil buildings dominate Berlin's city centre around Adolf Hitler Platz, the Wehrmacht High Command, the Reich Chancellery, the sprawling Berlin-Gotenland railway station, and Tempelhof airport all prominent among these. Everything about Hitler's capital of Germania was made to be bigger and better than monuments elsewhere, to dominate foreign countries with the might of the Third Reich.
"Above all, be suspicious of your fatherland. Nobody is more inclined to become a murderer than a fatherland."
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