by Robert Harris.
Hutchinson, 372 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 09 174827 5
Show More
Show More

A useful maxim for reviewers would be one that encouraged them to relate art to life rather than art to art, or fiction to fiction. In two respects, unfortunately, Fatherland by Robert Harris makes artistic comparisons inescapable. It belongs, first, to that select genre of fiction which deals in the Alternative Present, or in this case an alternative recent past. It is set in 1964 in the vast, imperial, intimidating Berlin of an undefeated Third Reich. The dome of Albert Speer’s Volkshalle, nearly a thousand feet high, is lost in the clouds. Below, the earthlings prepare to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday and try to adjust to the news that, after two decades of Cold War, détente with the United States of America is suddenly a possibility. The aged President Kennedy (Joseph P., not John F.) plans to fly to Berlin for a summit meeting. Since all this is conjecture as to how things might have turned out, it can only be assessed against your own, or other people’s, conjectures. The two best-known novels based on the premise of a German or Axis victory are Len Deighton’s SS GB and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I can remember two no less interesting television variations on the theme: Giles Cooper’s epic play The Other Man, and a serial by Philip Mackie, An Englishman’s Castle.

Certain suppositions are common to most of these fictions. Churchill either lost his life around 1940 or fled to Canada. Britain was subjugated. The Russian campaign succeeded, at least as far as European Russia was concerned – both Giles Cooper and now Robert Harris require an interminable war to be dragging on along the Asian boundaries of the Reich. That Hitler planned a European federation not altogether unlike the present EC is an irony not overlooked. Germany dominates its sphere of influence culturally as well as economically, with sooner or later a sly allusion to Herbert von Karajan (permanent conductor of the New York Philharmonic in Dick’s book, due to conduct a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in the Royal Albert Hall on the Führer’s birthday in Harris’s). What is less consistent is the degree to which the various authors accommodate the probability that any regime, however ruthless, is going to have to change, and perhaps soften as the years go by and new leaders replace some of the old.

Except for a flaw I’ll come to in a moment, Harris makes his version of the Third Reich in its 32nd year reasonably plausible. Hitler is a venerable figure who doesn’t appear in the story in person. Goebbels is only glimpsed driving past with a young actress. Heydrich has succeeded Himmler as head of the SS. Berlin is a cosmopolitan city with many tourists. English domestic servants are prized by the haute-bourgeoisie, and the young people listen to rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles are playing in Hamburg, just as they did in ‘real’ history. But Germany is still a police state, and it is the plot of Fatherland, set among the rival police forces of the police state, that makes a second literary comparison unavoidable. In the course of three straightforward period detective novels, with maybe a fourth on the way, Philip Kerr has pursued the same rivalries, the same kind of scandals involving Nazi big-wigs, the same dark political conspiracies underlying what seem at first to be routine crimes. I reviewed the third story in the canon, A German Requiem, in these pages, a little over a year ago.

Kerr’s hero, Bernhardt Gunther, has been a member of the Kripo, or Criminal Police, which was politicised by the Nazis – its officers were given SS ranks and uniforms – but remained distinct from, and wary of, the Gestapo and SD. Harris’s hero, Xavier March, is still a member of the Kripo and a reluctant SS officer. Bernie Gunther uncovers a conspiracy involving a number of historical Nazi villains, including Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Muller (deputy head of the Gestapo) and a man Bernie once admired and respected, the legendary Kripo chief Artur Nebe, who in real history is thought to have disappeared after faking records to suggest that he had been executed, in the last days of the Reich, for complicity in the July Plot against Hitler. Xavier or ‘Zavie’ March uncovers a conspiracy involving a number of historical Nazi villains, including Eichmann, Heinrich Muller and a man Zavie has respected and admired in the past ... ja, good old Artur Nebe. Let me hasten to add that no wisp of suspicion can attach to this coincidence. Both authors chose to use actual figures, and their actual figures happen to belong, for different reasons, to the same small stock company. But for Philip Kerr it must be galling to see the strip of land he has been tending for three years in traditional literary style, slowly winning attention and accumulating a readership, taken over by a roaring combine harvester. Fatherland, the jacket brags, was translated into ten languages before publication. On publication, it shot into the best-seller lists.

And no mistake, Fatherland is a formidable thriller. That it sprang fully-armed from the word-processor of a writer whose previous books were speedy journalistic exercises makes it all the more remarkable. It is terse, involving and expertly-constructed. The initial recovery of an elderly man’s body from the Havelsee could be a bit of grimy police routine in any capital under any kind of regime, but if you flip back to it afterwards you see that it was throwing up pointers to the furthest reaches of the plot the author eventually reveals. At the same time, the essential characteristics of Xavier March are economically indicated. Though he is supposed to be off-duty when Kripo headquarters mistakenly telephone him in the small hours, he still obliges because the officer they should have rung is a family man whilst he, Zavie, is divorced, doesn’t get on with his son, lives alone and would rather be working than not. Once he has taken on the case, his chronic curiosity to know the truth drives him on in the face of orders to abandon it. He has stumbled on a black secret of the Reich which, if spilled, could put an end to all talk of a détente with America.

As he pursues his investigation, taking more and more risks but getting away with them, you begin to think that the evil old state founded on denunciation and torture is at last beginning to show cracks. March gets help from some unexpected quarters. He finds a few honest coppers and upright officials willing to put duty before the party line. The ugly, sadistic head of the Gestapo, Odilo Globocnik, seems unable to head him off. Then suddenly, on the verge of success, March is betrayed to his enemies. It is a genuinely shocking, dismaying moment. Only in retrospect does something anachronistic about the betrayal strike you. I cannot elaborate without the risk of giving too much away: let’s just say that it is the kind of deed which seems to belong to the fervent, early days of a totalitarian regime, the Germany of Horst Wessel and Hitlerjugend Quex rather than one old enough for a whole generation to have grown up in it, and whose kids now mob the Beatles.

What follows is hard to stomach. Xavier is beaten and tortured by an exultant Globocnik. Those whom he had thought his friends are now part of the plot against him. The story closes on a muted note of hope for the future, but little to celebrate in the meantime. And then you turn to the last page and find an author’s note telling you what really happened to the historical characters he has been deploying: Heinrich Muller’s disappearance, Nebe’s suspected disappearance, Eichmann executed by the Israelis ... blimey! there’s Globocnik too, the hideous Globocnik. He was also a real figure, captured by a British Army patrol in May 1945, whereupon he bit on a cyanide capsule and died.

So he couldn’t have smashed Xavier March’s hand with a baseball bat in 1964! The whole thing has been a feat of gloomy make-believe. We needn’t grieve for Zavie any more. Is this the fatal weakness of the Alternative Present, that it makes it too easy for the reader to shuffle off the implications of what he has just read? It never happened. I’m not sure. I really am not sure. It is five days since I finished Fatherland and it is still rumbling around in my head. But I am reminded that at least two of the practitioners I listed earlier gave their Alternative Present stories an equivocation, an element of tease, that made it harder to dismiss them on the grounds that they had demonstrably never happened.

In The Other Man (Granada Television, 1964) Michael Caine played an English infantry officer looking back on a career which had finally taken him, in command of his regiment, to a tour of duty on the far frontiers of the German empire the British Army now served. His task there had been to supervise the slave labour, drawn from inferior races, that was building some latterday Burma Road. In the end, it turned out that this was all a bad dream, and the colonel had actually enjoyed a blameless career in the usual Army stations, which some may think a cop-out: but it allowed Giles Cooper to leave on the table the point he wanted to make, which was that the finest Army traditions of obedience and service could all too easily be distorted to sinister ends, and that inside the good colonel was another man who, in other circumstances, might have become a rather nasty one.

Philip K. Dick is the dazzling metaphysician. If you don’t know The Man in the High Castle (first published in America in 1962) it is a bit late to start telling you now. The story is located in California, where the Japanese are overlords, but there are cunning glimpses, through the eyes of the German consul in San Francisco, of the changing Reich, of the Europe it dominates, and of the Eastern States of America over which it holds sway. The same old names crop up – Heydrich, Himmler, von Schirach, von Karajan. Between the Japanese fiefdom of the West and the German of the East is a disarmed buffer zone called the Rocky Mountain States, and somewhere there, in isolation, lives the author of a fantasy which, to the irritation of the Germans in particular, is sweeping the world. It postulates an Allied victory in World War Two. It’s a work of the alternative present within a work of the alternative present, but still not a picture of the world we know. In some ways it is comically awry, with, for instance, a 90-year-old Winston Churchill clinging to power in Europe. The world we know is flashed up only once, and briefly, when Dick’s principal character, a Japanese businessman, suffers a hallucination and suddenly glimpses a San Francisco of freeways and rush-hour traffic.

Dick is juggling three versions of what happened, or might have happened, in recent history. He is saying, if I read him aright, that we should not attribute inevitability to any of them. An Allied victory was not guaranteed by the sheer economic superiority of America. The Axis victory of Robert Harris’s bleak vision might not necessarily have followed in the absence of that superiority. What determined the outcome of the great conflict of the 20th century was a chaotic equation, on both sides, of accidents, blunders, miscalculations and strokes of genius and if, as we believe, the right side did finally win, it was by good luck and the skin of our teeth.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences