Fatherland, Robert Harris (Arrow Books, 1992)

Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.
(Alternative History, Thriller, Mystery, Conspiracy Theory)

 In brief:

Fatherland by Robert Harris is a conspiracy thriller set in an alternative history Germany of 1964 where the NAZI’s won the war.  It has a great premise with a fantastic setting that is fully brought to life by the author.  Unfortunately, the absolutely obvious nature of the conspiracy and some characterization problems reduces the excitement of the book.  A must read for anyone who likes alternative histories, its transparent mystery reduces its pleasure for others.


Germany, 1964, in a world where the United States never joined the allies and so Germany won the war, though there remains conflict and guerrilla warfare on the Russian Front.

In Depth:

I am torn in my review of Fatherland because in some ways it’s brilliant. Robert Harris does wonders in bringing to life a Germany that never fell.  He shows the aching decay that plagues a nation where the totalitarian fascist rule has the economy and infrastructure breaking at the seams. He illustrates the cracks beneath the veneer, and shows the depressing dread and dull acceptance that one could expect from such a system.  Yet at the same time, there are flaws in the story and the characters that undermine the book’s ending.

Xavier March, as played by Rutger Hauer in the 1994 made for HBO movie. I’ve never seen this film, and didn’t really picture March as looking like this, but I can see why Hauer won the role and have little doubt he played the character well (perhaps even better than he was written).

Let us start with the central character, Xavier March, a detective working for the Kriminalpolizei, a police division that serves as part of the SS.[1] A former U-boat commander, March is now a dedicated police investigator.  He works within the SS, not due to a devotion to the NAZI state, but because it is an efficient department and he is committed to police work.  He is not without skepticism, however, and this has stopped him from taking the next step in advancing his career, joining the Gestapo.

Now this is a brilliant set up of character: an SS policeman who has some problems with the system.  Yet, unfortunately, Harris plays the skepticism card too heavily, especially considering the nature of this book.  We all know what nastiness the NAZIs got up to, and we’ve seen the effects of totalitarian states on the welfare of different countries’ economy and citizenry. To that end, we don’t need a total skeptic to show us the decay underneath NAZI Germany.  Indeed, I feel the story could have been made much more effective if our protagonist March was less skeptical of the system, and spent more time making excuses as to why the decay he saw was not the Party’s fault.  Instead, we get a character who is already 2/3rds the way to believing his nation is innately flawed.  As a result, rather than seeing the growth of a character from self-denial to realization, we have a much more shallow character arc, and that is a pity, especially considering the problems with the plot and the final reveal.As for the plot, well, it’s standard conspiracy stuff.  At the outset of the story, March is tasked with investigating the suspicious death of an important NAZI official.  Along the way he meets up with an American reporter[2] and together they discover a conspiracy that leads deep into the NAZI party.  Only, for a modern reader who is even slightly aware of history,[3] the final reveal is in no way surprising.

Oh, I could see how the characters would be surprised.  After all, they are living in a world where the media is tightly controlled by the state.  Yet, I cannot believe that anyone who has learned even the slightest detail about the NAZIs, like for example, their name, would be at all surprised at the conspiracy at the end. Don’t worry, I won’t give away what the reveal is (though, really I could, it is that obvious), but let’s just say our intrepid hero discovers that the Germany of 1964 is built upon a crime of vast and horrible nature.  To that end, the central mystery that the characters are trying to solve is in no way mysterious to the reader and so there is no ‘ta-dah!’ moment when it comes to light.

Here then the first problem plays into the second and visa versa, for while the impact of the reveal has no effect on the reader: it could have had a tremendous impact on the central character.  If March had been a bit more of a good little NAZI, albeit one with deeply seeded doubts that he keeps pushing out of his mind, the reveal would have served as a profoundly important moment in his life.  Instead, since March is already disillusioned with the state, one could hardly imagine it would have as deep an impact as Harris suggests it does. Oh it might horrify him, but not really surprise him.  After all, the Police State nature of the 1964 Nazi Germany is discussed and described in the book and March is a part of the system that supports it.  How could he be that surprised when he realizes the depth of the problem is greater than he suspected?  He already knows the problem is pretty damned deep.

Now, in one sense Harris plays the double edged doubt and belief reasonably well; March is both surprised and not surprised by the discovery, much the way the German population really was after the war. To discuss anymore would likely give away what little surprise there is, and I may already have done that.  Suffice it to say that the plot just doesn’t work either as a ‘reveal’ to the reader nor as an impact on the central characters.

Furthermore, I do wonder if any individual who had been exposed to over 25 years worth of propaganda about Aryan superiority would really care about the nature of the crime.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, the crime discussed is truly evil, but if one looks at how society has changed its views on different issues over the years, I suspect the state propaganda machine of the NAZI government might well have changed even the most moral person’s views. Thus, the plot just didn’t work for me, neither as a mystery nor as a character arc.

Yet, the setting does work.  In fact, the setting works so well that it almost makes up for the critical failure of the plot and characters.  Harris really does paint a brilliantly glum picture of a fascist state in the 1960’s.  To that end, while I think fans of Alternate History books will enjoy this, I suspect fans of mysteries, conspiracies and indeed most other books may not.

[1] Yes it is much more complex than that, and in this story is dealt with quite well, but I don’t want to get into the inner workings of the NAZI state at the moment please.

[2] one that, to be honest, pushes the borders of cliché.

[3] (e.g. watched any television that includes any aspect of World War II, has any idea about NAZI’s at all, has ever talked to anyone who even has the slightest concept of about word events from 1930 to the present day, has… oh you get the idea)

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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