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Fatherland ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (60)

    'What do you do' he said, 'if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs
    to you that the real criminals are the people you work for?  What do you do when everyone tells
    you not to worry, you can't do anything about it, it was a long time ago?'

    She was looking at him in a different way.  'I suppose you go crazy.'

    'Or worse.  Sane.'
           -Fatherland

When a one-legged corpse washes up on the banks of a lake, downshore from an island which is home to one of Berlin's most exclusive communities, dogged Kriminalpolizei detective Xavier March is mistakenly called in, even though it's supposed to be a much-needed day off.  To save his partner having to drive in, March agrees to take the case.  When they are unable to identify the corpse, he secretly submits the fingerprints for analysis and discovers that the dead man, apparently the victim of an accidental drowning, does in fact have a criminal record; he was arrested in Munich on November 9, 1923, a participant in the failed Nazi putsch.  Further investigation reveals that several other aging Nazi leaders have recently died under mysterious circumstances and the evidence points towards SS complicity in the deaths and towards malevolent SS henchman, Odilo Globocnik, in particular.  Now, thanks to the intervention of his boss Artur Nebe,  March, a few loyal colleagues, and Charlotte Maguire, a spirited American journalist, have just six days to figure out what's behind the conspiracy.  Just six days because on April 10, 1964,  Germany will celebrate the Fuhrertag, the state holiday marking Hitler's 75th birthday, an event of added significance this year because President Joseph P. Kennedy is coming to help mark the occasion and to symbolize the nascent détente between America and Nazi Germany.

That's right, 1964; this thriller, which would be exciting enough if set in 1944, takes on an added fascination because Robert Harris adopts the conceit that Germany defeated Britain, sending "Churchill and his gang of warmongers" scurrying off to Canada, leaving Nazi sympathizer King Edward VIII on the throne, and developed an atomic bomb in time to reach a post-Hiroshima stalemate with the United States.  Subsequently, Germany forged the continental nations into a European Community, which it dominates economically but does not have to physically occupy, and entered a long Cold War with America, which allowed the German military to continue a lengthy campaign to pacify the quarrelsome populations of Eastern Europe, a campaign which is still going poorly and which has triggered increasingly successful terrorist movements.  In this atmosphere of relative peace, Germany has had the opportunity to complete Albert Speer's massive building projects, including a German Arch of Triumph (49 French Arches would fit inside of it) and the Avenue of Victory (wider and 2.5 times longer than the Champs Elysees.)

Most importantly, Hitler has had time to deal with "the Jewish problem"--reportedly by resettling them East.  March has grown to be deeply suspicious of this account.  In particular, he has become obsessed with the sepia toned family portrait he found beneath the wallpaper of his apartment; though to date, his efforts to track down the family pictured have been maddeningly futile.  Never much of a believer in Nazism, his doubts have taken their toll on his career and his personal life; as Nebe reads from his file :

    'Born Hamburg, 1922; father died of wounds, 1929; mother killed in British air raid, 1942;
    joined the navy, 1939; transferred to the U-boat service, 1940; decorated for bravery and
    promoted, 1943; given command of your own boat, 1946--one of the youngest U-boat commanders
    in the Reich.  A glittering career.  And then it all starts going wrong.

    ...

    No police promotions for ten years.  Divorced, 1957.  And then the reports start. Blockwart:
    persistent refusal to contribute to Winter Relief.  Party officials at Werderscher-Markt: refusal to
    join the NSDAP.  Overheard in the canteen making disparaging comments about Himmler.
    Overheard in bars, overheard in restaurants, overheard in corridors...

    ...

    Christmas 1963--you start asking around about some Jews who used to live in your apartment.
    Jews!  Are you mad?  There's a complaint here from your ex-wife; even one from your son...'

March of course knew that they must be Jews, but, until now, he has been unable to penetrate the frightened veil of silence which envelops Germany as regards the fate of the Jews.  Even Charlotte can only tell March what is rumored in America to have happened :

    They say you scoured Europe for every living Jew--men, women, children, babies.  They say you
    shipped them to ghettos in the East, where thousands died of malnutrition and disease.  Then you
    forced the survivors farther East, and nobody knows what happened after that.  A handful escaped
    over the Urals into Russia.  I've seen them on TV.  Funny old men, most of them a bit crazy.
    They talk about execution pits, medical experiments, camps that people went into but never came
    out of.  They talk about millions of dead.  But then the German ambassador comes along in his
    smart suit and tells everyone it's all just Communist propaganda.  So nobody knows what's true
    and what isn't.  And I'll tell you something else--most people don't care.

And there's the rub--the twist of ugly truth in the tale that makes the book so terrific--for the fact is that all of this rings strangely true.

The inspiration for the novel came to Harris on a beach in Sicily in 1987.  He looked around at all the German tourists and realized :

    ...if you closed your eyes, you could just imagine you were in the victorious German empire.
    Suddenly, everything came to me as a novel, the idea of a cover-up, a sequence of deaths, someone
    investigating them. I went splashing into the water, and by the time I came back onto the beach I
    had it written in my mind.

No doubt this is how it happened;  given the basic premise, it's incredible how little you have to tweak history to arrive at a plausible setting for the book.  After all, Europe has been dominated economically by the Germans for decades.  The European Community is a reality, including even a unified currency and a European Parliament, representing the opportunity for German (and French) bureaucrats to extend political control over the continent.  A nuclear balance of terror surely would have kept America from invading Europe and, after a suitable period of huffy pretense, there surely would have been a significant segment of public opinion, particularly in academic intellectual circles, advocating detente--just as has actually happened with both the USSR and Red China.  And just as the Holocaust failed to draw the U. S. into WWII in the first place, and just as the millions of victims of Russian and Chinese communist oppression failed to deter rapproachments with those countries, it's easy to believe that the "disappearance" of Europe's Jews would have little impact on an American/German détente.

The story is engrossing enough on it's own, but these speculations, and the subtle way in which they implicate the past sixty years of Western history, turn the book into a disturbing and subversive novel of ideas.  Conservative historians--like Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes and Allan Bullock--have beaten their heads against a wall for years, demonstrating to an uncaring elite establishment how little the Soviet Union, Stalin and Communism differed from Nazi Germany, Hitler and Nazism.  But this popular thriller makes the same points, and reveals the moral emptiness of our policy of détente, in a wonderfully imaginative way.  What more can we ask of an author than that he entertain us and at the same time raise questions that trouble our souls?

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Robert Harris Links:
    -Robert Harris (atrandom.com)
    -ESSAY : It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war (Robert Harris, November 5, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Forget Islam: bin Laden is no more than a spoilt rich kid (Robert Harris, 10/09/01, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Lessons we can learn from cracking the Enigma code (Robert Harris, October 4, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : So just when did we elect Tony Blair president? (Robert Harris, October 2, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY:  The West Prefers Its Dictators Red (Robert Harris, Sunday Times (London) | October 11, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew  Benefit Of Hindsight  By Richard Breitman  (Robert Harris, Literary Review)
    -PROFILE: In the Fate of Pompeii, Allegories for Today: Robert Harris, the best-selling British author, found the perfect setting for a satirical parable for modern America in ancient Rome. (ALAN COWELL, 11/10/03, NY Times)
    -PROFILE :  Inventing A World In Which Hitler Won  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY times)
    -PROFILE : An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery  (ALAN RIDING KINTBURY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland (Living Marxism)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (MysteryGuide.com)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Michael Specter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaissance)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jonathan Kay, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Richard Givan, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Pourover Press)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GUY POWERS, KNIGHTRIDDER NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW : of ENIGMA By Robert Harris (1995)(Peter Vansittart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of "Enigma" by Robert Harris  (Colleen Salo)
    -REVIEW : of  SELLING HITLER By Robert Harris (1986)(James M. Markham, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Harris (Imdb.com)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Robert Harris (atrandom.com)
    -ESSAY : It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war (Robert Harris, November 5, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Forget Islam: bin Laden is no more than a spoilt rich kid (Robert Harris, 10/09/01, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Lessons we can learn from cracking the Enigma code (Robert Harris, October 4, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : So just when did we elect Tony Blair president? (Robert Harris, October 2, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY:  The West Prefers Its Dictators Red (Robert Harris, Sunday Times (London) | October 11, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew  Benefit Of Hindsight  By Richard Breitman  (Robert Harris, Literary Review)
    -PROFILE :  Inventing A World In Which Hitler Won  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY times)
    -PROFILE : An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery  (ALAN RIDING KINTBURY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland (Living Marxism)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (MysteryGuide.com)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Michael Specter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaissance)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jonathan Kay, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Richard Givan, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Pourover Press)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GUY POWERS, KNIGHTRIDDER NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW : of ENIGMA By Robert Harris (1995)(Peter Vansittart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of "Enigma" by Robert Harris  (Colleen Salo)
    -REVIEW : of  SELLING HITLER By Robert Harris (1986)(James M. Markham, NY Times Book Review)

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