During my last year in high school we were allowed to get out of PE if we did voluntary service instead. I leapt at the chance to keep my trousers on and spent my Friday afternoons working in a charity bookshop. I took on extra days during my gap year before university, and went back during summers too, and in the course of my time there picked up several hundred books. On my first day there I picked up Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Nineteen Eighty Four I read immediately. I’ve only just got around to Fatherland.
Having now read it, it’s interesting just how much the two books I picked up that first day have in common, in terms of the societies they depict. Fatherland kickstarted the sub-genre of ‘counterfactualism’ – fiction that poses a ‘what if?’ question about how the world might have turned out had certain historical events gone differently. In this case, Nazi Germany triumphing in the Second World War.
Unlike other books that followed in this sub-genre, Fatherland isn’t about how the rest of the world deals with the success of the Third Reich. It’s about how it affects Germany and individual Germans. We are used to looking at the creeping totalitarianism of Nazism between 1933 and 1939 as steps that would inevitably lead to war and ultimately defeat and liberation for Germans. Here the resistance to totalitarianism has been vanquished. Fascism is now normalised. Hitler’s goals have been achieved. In 1964 Germany stretches from Alsace to Moscow. Nazism has brought Germans the peace they wanted on the terms Hitler dictated.
They are living in the calm of despotism that Thomas Jefferson noted all timid men prefer to the tempestuousness of liberty. But Xavier March is not a timid man. He’s not particularly a rebel either, however, even if he resists joining the Nazi Party and only wears the SS uniform because it’s required of all Germany’s police. A quiet, somewhat despondent loner, the detective only investigates the death of an old Party man because his partner can’t be bothered to get out of bed. When the Gestapo’s version of events doesn’t add up, March senses a cover-up. Already knowing too much, March has nothing to lose by finding just how far (and how far back) the cover-up goes. And, indeed, what exactly it is they are covering up.
It is the human story of an individual’s quiet realisation of the truth (much like Winston Smith’s in Nineteen Eighty Four) amidst the system’s attempt to destroy it that lifts Fatherland beyond being just a clever political thriller. Harris’s ‘what if?’ question about the success of totalitarianism is not purely counterfactual either. In Fatherland the Soviet Union is a rump of a country, vilified for its atrocities committed during the war whilst Nazi Germany’s, as victor, are ignored. Simply a reversion of who benefited from our collective denial, then. I also expect it was very well received in some quarters when, despite depicting a Europe in which pretty much everything else has changed, Harris describes a Treaty of Rome that has remained entirely intact.