20 years have passed since Germany’s victory over the Allies in World War II. Adolf Hitler has been in power for 31 years, his 75th birthday nears, and a summit meeting between the Fuhrer and President Kennedy has been announced.
This is the intriguing scenario presented by British journalist-novelist Robert Harris in his first novel, Fatherland.
Harris’ novel, unlike Peter Tsouras’ Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, doesn’t offer us a very detailed “alternative history” of the Second World War, which perhaps would have been the easy way out for a lesser writer. Instead, Harris smartly teases us with little glimpses at how Germany could have won the war while still losing its collective soul.
Fatherland’s plot revolves around Xavier March, a former U-boat skipper who has joined the German police, which has been under SS control since the mid-1930s. On a rainy April morning, March has been called to investigate what seems to be a routine incident: a corpse has been found in the Havel River near the area where high Nazi party officials have their mansions.
Of course, if you have read political-police thrillers such as Gorky Park or Archangel, you know there will be nothing routine about this investigation. For this corpse’s identity is none other than Doctor Josef Buhler, one of the earliest Nazi party members and former state secretary in the General Government, the part of Poland directly annexed by the Third Reich during the war. Before long, March (who is not a Nazi party member, just a dogged investigator) will follow Buhler’s seemingly routine death down a dark and winding path that will lead him to Germany’s darkest and best kept secret of all.
In this endeavor, the dogged March is joined – uneasily at first – by American journalist Charlotte “Charlie” Maguire, a brash and independent young woman whose pointed questions about the Third Reich’s activities in the Eastern Front – where the Germans are still engaged in a decades-long guerrilla war – and the disappearance of a huge segment of Europe’s population fuel March’s compulsion to dig at the truth beneath the Reich’s propaganda.
For history buffs, this book is a fascinating look at what a mid-1960s Nazi Germany might have been like. Harris paints a chilling portrait of a country still at war with what remains of the Soviet Union while in a cold war with a nuclear-armed United States. Berlin is imagined as Hitler and his architect Albert Speer would have rebuilt it at war’s end (in the frontispiece there is an artist’s rendering of Hitler’s vision for his capital), and readers will shudder with horror to see how far the Nazis’ indoctrination of children extended.
Harris, a columnist for the London Sunday Times and author of the non-fiction book Selling Hitler, keeps things going at a brisk pace, never boring readers or insulting their intelligence. His fictional characters interact with historical characters (although, of course, their fates ended up differently in real life, thank goodness) in a believable fashion. Of course, this type of novel requires willing suspension of disbelief, but it is well-written and, in the end, eye-opening.