The alternative history genre has bred some shockers, but fear not. Robert Harris’ Fatherland is, quite simply, brilliant. It’s one of my favourite books. Thought provoking and thrilling in near equal measure (well, not really, it’s quite a bit more thrilling with some thought provoking bits thrown in for good measure), it embodies everything that the genre should aspire to, it is surely the pinnacle of the alternative history genre. The fact that there were no good Nazis is challenged, the protagonist Xavier March attempts to get to the bottom of the murder of a leading Nazi.
The Nazis won the war. In fact, it’s Hitler’s 75th birthday. When Josef Buhler is murdered, SS Sturmbannführer Xavier March covers for a friend and investigates. What he doesn’t expect is the winding trail of corruption and deceit at the heart of the Nazi regime, major players in the policing game (read thugs) are against him investigating too far. However, with the help of the American journalist Charlie Maguire, he uncovers the best kept secret of the Nazi regime.
One of the things that impressed me here was the way Harris endorsed history being written by the victor. Instead of widespread horror, indeed, knowledge of the Holocaust, there was shock amongst ‘Germania’ at the Russian gulags and the death of prisoners.
I love how despite the book being set in 1964, we are given snippets of how Germany won the war, and the extent of their reach. Britain was taken apart in the battle of the Atlantic, and beaten into submission, America withdrew from war with Germany, and opposition dried up. I’m not convinced of the potential historical accuracy of these events-they obviously could have happened, but I would rate the chances as quite low-but they certainly make for good reading.
Hitler’s policy to the Jews was famously haphazard. Lambasted in Mein Kampf as to be “exterminated”, until 1941 a policy was followed of trying to make them emigrate, a plan was proposed to move them to Madagascar. The Wannsee Conference in 1942 was filled with euphemisms rather than facts and there has never been a written order from Hitler about the Final Solution found. But his anti-Semitism (which was echoed amongst many in Germany and the world at the time) was too obvious not to notice, in the novel, Jews have been killed for 20 years and no-one has seen them being marched to the death camps, spoken to someone who worked there, or has no knowledge of their existence? I can well believe that the majority of the population keep their heads down, but there will always be some kind of response to such acts, there will always be protest on varying scales, which I feel Fatherland does not accurately represent.
The ending is very open to the interpretation of the reader, it can be read whichever way you want-some have criticised the ending as too free and not nailed down as to what happened, but that should be cherished as a rare literary technique which makes the reader do some work, rather than a lazy failure to finish writing.
Thick cloud had pressed down on Berlin all night, and now it was lingering into what passed for morning.
Character development-the good Nazi March is actually quite likable, and the (stereotypical?) brash American Maguire inflates both characters’ interestingness-★★★★
Readability-one word: unputdownable-★★★★★
Overall-not only a great mystery, but an alternative history book which grabs attention from start to finish, and lastly an excellent thriller-★★★★½ (92)
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