Stephen's Reviews > Fatherland

Fatherland by Robert Harris
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May 02, 12

bookshelves: audiobook, science-fiction, world-war-the-sequel, alternative-history, crime, mystery, 1990-1999
Read from June 12 to 17, 2011 — I own a copy

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I’ve never read a book that more starkly highlighted for me how thankful the good people of the world should be that the allies won World War II. While my final rating was a somewhat subdued 3 stars, there are parts of this story that I found extremely compelling.
 
BACKSTORY/ALTERNATIVE HISTORY:

Welcome to a very dark future...
 
It's 1964, and all of Germany is preparing to celebrate Adolf Shitler’s 75th birthday. As part of this national event, the President of the United States, Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s daddy), has agreed to visit Germany in an attempt to warm and toasty up relations between the two countries who've been in “cold war” mode since the end of WWII. (NOTE: In real life, Joey P. was a rabid  anti-semite,  a rumored Nazi sympathizer, and quite a little bootlegger during Prohibition...way to role model for John, Robert and Teddy). While there are numerous fascinating little details that Harris incorporates into the narrative, here are the critical “points of divergence” between this story’s “alternative history” and our reality:
 
1. In the novel, German intelligence became aware that the British had cracked the enigma code, and use that knowledge to lure the British fleet to destruction via false intelligence. Thereafter, the German U-Boats are able to starve Britain and force them into a demoralizing treaty in 1944. As a result the Normandy invasion never occurs. 
 
2. Partially as a result of 1 above, in the novel, WWII was still ongoing in 1946, when Germany tests its first “atomic bomb” and then fires an unarmed “V-3” rocket to explode over New York City as a demonstration of strength. Soon after, the U.S. agrees to a peace treaty with the Nazis. Germany and the U.S. become the world’s two “superpowers” after the U.S. defeats Japan in 1946 (a year later then in reality).
 
3. Regarding Russia, in both the book and reality, the German armies on the Eastern Front are stopped at the gates of Moscow at the end of 1941. However, in the book (and unlike reality) the “second major offensive” into the Caucasus was far more successful, and the Nazi’s were able to cut off the flow of oil to the Russian Army. This eventually led to a formal surrender orchestrated by a “rump” government. However, despite the surrender, the Russians (led by Stalin) have continued to wage a guerilla war against the Nazi’s for 20 years, much to the pain and angst of the Reich.

4. In the novel, as a result of the Nazi victory, the full scope of the Holocaust has been hidden and “explained away” by the German government...though rumors of atrocities still exist.  
 
PLOT SUMMARY:
 
The main character, Xavier March (Rutger House for those who saw the HBO movie adaptation), is a detective with the Kriminalpolizei, the German police agency responsible for investigating serious crimes (akin to a homicide detective). A week before the arrival of the American President, March is called in to investigate the suspicious death of Josef Bühler, a high ranking Nazi official (and real life war criminal). 

The rest of the book takes the form of a standard, but interesting,  crime/mystery novel set against the backdrop of this “alternative” Germany.  During March’s investigation, he uncovers evidence of a vast conspiracy involving high-ranking Nazi Party members and their activities during WWII. I won’t say anymore, but I assume most people reading this can guess what the conspiracy involves, and I thought this aspect of the story was very well done.  

THOUGHTS:

Pros/cons and why the 3 stars

On the pro side, the world imagined by Robert Harris is both frightening and very compelling. The evil of the Germany portrayed in the novel (i.e., post war) has a very authentic feel to it. There is a pervasive attitude of superiority, enforced loyalty and “big brother” paranoia, along with a whole underclass of minorities from conquered nations forming a permanent underclass. It is chilling because you get the sense that it “could have” happened this way. 

Also, on the pro side, the central mystery is a corker and I loved the way Harris unveiled the underlying thesis behind it. In addition, the writing is good and the story moves along at a pretty good clip. 

HOWEVER...

On the con side, I think this book got itself trapped between two different kinds of novels. The story is about 400 pages. As a mystery, this was just too long. On the other hand, as an “alternative historical fiction” novel, 400 pages wasn’t nearly long enough. I would have loved to have spent time learning about the details of day to day life inside the author’s Germany, and reading descriptions of the geo-political dynamic existing as a result of the alternative history.  

Unfortunately, what Harris did was try and marry the two, leaving us with a “bloated” mystery with some fascinating, but too slim,  background details peppering the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it, but I was disappointed because I think there are two 5 star stories in there somewhere.     

So...

While, on the whole, I liked the book, I think it tried to do too much and ended up being less effective than it should have been as either a mystery or an alternative history.

Still, a good read, and thus...  

3.0 stars. Recommended.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Velvetink Good review!
Last night I watched a doco about children (now adults) who were born via the Lebensborn program. One shudders to think what Hitler would have done with the science of DNA that we now have, let alone anything else sinister.


Stephen Thanks, Velvetink. I hadn't even thought about the implications to science and DNA research if the Nazi's had won...shudder is right.


message 3: by Alex (last edited Jun 18, 2011 10:38AM) (new)

Alex >I’ve never read a book that more starkly highlighted
>for me how thankful the good people of the world should
>be that the allies won World War II.

Yes - You are so right, Steve !!!!!!!

>...the President of the United States, Joseph P.
>Kennedy (JFK’s daddy), has agreed to visit Germany
>to attempt to warm and toasty up relations between
>the two countries

I would assume that Nazi's Germany would make a condition for Détente (French for 'relaxation', the easing of strained relations) with USA to be requesting USA to send its several millions of US Jews to Germany for "handling" ...

>4. In the novel, as a result of the Nazi victory,
>the full scope of the Holocaust has been hidden and
>“explained away” by the German government...though
>rumors of atrocities still exist.

It would be difficult to hide such massive extermination, unless people of conquered Europe would like to be complacent ...
Also I think Nazi Germany would boast of such "achievement".

PS I just have seen on TV two days ago that the 1919 (!) letter, handwrittenly signed by Hitler was found, where he openly describes that Jews have to be physically exterminated .


Stephen Alex wrote: ">.It would be difficult to hide such massive extermination, unless people of conquered Europe would like to be complacent ...
Also I think Nazi Germany would boast of such "achievement"."


Alex, I agree and in the book there are a lot of people that believe "something horrible" was done to the Jews if Europe. However, the book does a pretty good job of showing the old adage "the winners write the histories" and the Nazi propaganda machine is always there to shout done some reported who claims to have "evidence" of the holocaust. The problem is, since there was not liberation of the death camps by Allied Forces as in real life, there are no "eye witnesses" left alive and Germany has had 20 years to "hide the evidence." It really is the most chilling aspect of the book and actually made my skin crawl reading it because it just felt like it "could have happened that way" if the good guys hadn't won the war.

As for the Nazi's boasting about the achievement, in the book they boast of having "relocated" all of the Jews, but they know that world would turn on them and the U.S. And other countries would sever all ties if the "truth" were admitted. So, cowards as they are, they lie, deny, deceive and say it is all a "communist" plot to make them look bad.

Plus, even in real life, the Nazi's always spoke in cowardly euphemisms like "the final solution" or the "the Jewish question" rather than come right out and say what they meant.

There was a great HBO movie called Conspiracy staring Kenneth Branaugh as Heydrich that is all about the "secret meeting" in which the extermination of the Jews was agreed on...it was based on a book, but I forget the name of it but the movie was amazing and very, very disturbing.


Stephen Airshipman wrote: "If you haven't read it, try Philip K Dick's 1962 novel 'The Man in the High Castle' for another excellent fictional version of life under the Axis powers (Japan is also victorious in this award win..."

I have read that one and really liked it.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I think this book got itself trapped between two different kinds of novels. The story is about 400 pages. As a mystery, this was just too long. On the other hand, as an “alternative historical fiction” novel, 400 pages wasn’t nearly long enough. I would have loved to have spent time learning about the details and day to day life inside the author’s Germany and would have enjoyed even more learning details of the geo-political dynamic.

So, so agreed. For an instructive contrast, have you read Farthing by Jo Walton? A country-house mystery, told by the silly, sweet daughter of British Nazis. Who happens to be married to a Jew. Who gets framed for a political murder. Short, as in mystery-length, but the telling world-building details are simply assumed that you've noticed them as the narratrix lobs them past you.

I'm a fan, if it's not obvious.


Stephen I have Farthing but had forgotten about it until now. I will put it back in the rotation to get to (hopefully sooner rather than later).


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Stephen wrote: "I have Farthing but had forgotten about it until now. I will put it back in the rotation to get to (hopefully sooner rather than later)."

I really hope so. I want to read your reviews of:

The Night Circus

11/22/63

Farthing

All quite soon. I know that I'll learn something from reading them, since I always see something I missed or dismissed in a new light after reading your reviews. Always increases my pleasure factor.


Maciek Great Review, Stephen! I agree with your ending remark about the book's lenght. I would love to read more about life in author's Germany, as he drew it very well. If you're interested in reading more of his work, I'd recommend Archangel. It's set in Russia, very suspenseful and well-written. To say more would spoil it.


message 10: by Judith (new)

Judith I have not read this one (family issues...i think my Grandma was pro-Nazi back in the day...because she was an old "Nazi" as long as I knew her)...but did like Farthing...as Richard mentioned

On the flip side...here is a good article by Nick Hornby...Mr Harris' brother-in-law:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/201...

;-)


message 11: by Bill (new)

Bill Great review Stephen. I remember when this had come out but it had slid off my radar after reading lukewarm reviews at the time.

Now, Richard has beaten me to the punch but I'll say it anyway: speaking of JFK, you must read 11/22/63 soon!


Stephen Thanks, Bill. 11/22/63 is on my priority TBR list and I really hope I get to it soon.


message 13: by Anne (Booklady) (new)

Anne  (Booklady) Molinarolo Good Review. I'm trying to find the book now. No NOOK or Kindle Versions. Off to the thrift stores and my fav used book store.


Stephen Thanks, Anne. My fingers are crossed that you locate a cheap copy.


message 15: by Srinivas (new) - added it

Srinivas a good and compelling review, i liked it very much, i will read this book soon.


Stephen Thank you, Srinivas. I'm glad you found it helpful. I hope you enjoy the book.


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