What are the best works of alternate history? Are they the ones with the richest, most detailed and most plausible histories described? Or are they the most engaging stories that happen to take place in a timeline different from our own?
Fatherland, by Robert Harris, by the latter definition, might just be one title that can be counted among the greatest works of alternate history. Through its description of an Axis victory timeline that has since become cliché, its engaging plot and rounded characters, and its presentation of one of the most frightening dystopias since Orwell’s Airstrip One, it has rightly earned its place as a seminal work of alternate-history fiction.
A bestseller in the UK upon its 1992 release, does Fatherland still hold up as one of the greats of published alternate history?
Let’s consider first the alternate history presented in Fatherland, one where Nazi Germany has succeeded in their Lebensraum goal and corralled the rest of Europe not part of their empire into a network of puppet states.
The main points of divergence from our own history are the success of the Wehrmacht in cutting off the Soviet Union from its reserves of petroleum and the Kriegsmarine discovering the breaking of the Enigma machine code. The Soviet Union is pushed back east of the Urals and the United Kingdom starved into surrender while the United States still defeats Japan in the Pacific by 1945.
By the 1960s, a cold war has set in between the Third Reich and the United States. The latter in alliance with some of the few remaining free nations of the world, including the rump Soviet Union. Part of the current affairs background in the novel is a growing détente between the Reich and the United States, led by Joseph P. Kennedy, in the lead up to Hitler’s birthday. Said birthday is a Reich national holiday as the Führertag, during which millions of people flock to Berlin remodeled since the war to the designs of Albert Speer and the world’s largest city, home to some ten million people. (See Hitler’s Nightmare Capital of the World)
The Nazi Party invades all aspects of public and private life in this alternate Berlin, with Nazi policies of race and family accepted norms except for a brewing rebellious student and youth movement indicated by the presence of the Beatles in Hamburg and the resurrection of the White Rose Movement.
The broad strokes of this alternate history are the windowdressing for what is a plot drawn from one of the grimmest chapters of our own history. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Wannsee Conference coming in the months before the novels publication, the underlying conspiracy of the Reich eliminating the attendees of the conference to finally cover up any potential witnesses to the planning of the Holocaust, itself a vast conspiracy within the Reich with the disappearance of the Jews from Europe being explained away by the Nazi government as millions of people having been “evacuated East”.
Though the alternate history presented within Fatherland is drawn in the broadest of terms, can be subject to criticisms of its plausibility, and may have some blatant errors (such as the presence of Reinhard Heydrich in 1964, when historically he died the year before the points of divergence) it still became the template for many a Nazi-victory alternate history since.
If criticism can be levelled at the alternate history of Fatherland, then its plot and characters more than make up for it. The plot is riveting and takes some unexpected turns drawing upon our own history. The characters are similarly well developed throughout the novel, with some again drawn from the pages of our own history.
The lead character of the novel, Xavier “Zavi” March, is a middle-aged detective in the Kriminalpolizei with the honorary rank of Sturmbannführer in the SS. His attitude is atypical for someone so high up in the police forces of Germany, having divorced his wife, refusing to take part in the various relief efforts promoted by the party, even going so far as to refuse to join the party and being overheard telling off-color jokes about senior Nazi figures. Only his decorated service during the War as a U-Boat commander has allowed him to rise as far as he has.
By the beginning of the novel he is already under surveillance by the Gestapo, and his attitude toward the Reich makes him an ideal viewpoint character for the novel but proves inconvenient for the forces behind the central conspiracy.
The mystery of the body of a senior party figure pulled from the Havel in the week leading to the Führertag spirals into a vast conspiracy from the highest echelons of the Reich. History buffs with a good knowledge of Nazi officials might be able to spot the direction of the mystery from the revelation of the name of the deceased. Harris holds back from explaining too quickly as other figures are revealed to be assassinated, but the nature of the conspiracy becomes apparent by the final act where it is revealed only an accident let March be assigned to the case instead of his partner. If not for this mistake the witnesses to the planning of the final solution would have been dispatched with no one but the conspirators knowing of the plan.
Rounding out the book are its cast of supporting characters both fictional and historical. Charlotte Maguire, a half-German American reporter in Berlin who provides the reader, and March, with information about the world without the filter of Nazi propaganda as well as driving the investigation of the mystery. March’s partner, Max Jaeger, dedicated to the party and Reich out of necessity and survival rather than ideology but revealed to be a pawn in the conspiracy and working opposed to March. Historical war criminal Odilo Globočnik fulfils the closest thing the novel has to a direct villain, operating as the blunt instrument of the conspiracy and terrifying the reader even before we witness firsthand his depravity in torturing people.
The plot and characters of Fatherland are its main focus rather than on the historical minutiae different from our own history. The characters are memorable, with March in particular standing out as fully developed over the course of the novel. His death carries with it a pang for a reader and the hope that his fantasy of Maguire escaping to Switzerland was more than a fantasy. The plot can actually serve as a historical lesson if someone is unfamiliar with it and pulls back the curtain on Nazi society, making the already dystopian setting even more so with each progressing chapter.
The Reich is unmistakably portrayed as a dystopia in Fatherland with few redeeming features beyond the smidgens of hope given in March and some worldbuilding elements. It takes more than a little inspiration from Nineteen Eighty-Four, with some characters and relationships even mirroring those in the earlier novel.
Some of the Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired characters and devices include the aforementioned Jaeger, whose parallels can be drawn with Winston Smith’s neighbor, Parson, through their shared political conformity. However, Parson being reported by his child to the secret police happens to March himself rather than Jaegar. His young son Pili being fully indoctrinated by the party by birth betrays his father to the Gestapo when he tries to say goodbye to him before going on the run.
A trip to the Reich Central Archives late in the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ministry of Truth, with the sight of wheelbarrows full of documents being taken to a furnace as part of everyday work. The Kripo‘s sexual crimes division conducting investigations through a camera behind a mirror conjures up more images of the telescreens of Oceania than the 101 detective and espionage works featuring the device.
The dystopic elements of Fatherland went further in some ways than a lot of the Axis victory works that came before and play them with a greater subtlety than many that came since. Seemingly inspired by Orwell’s seminal dystopia, the skillful portrayal comes largely from the fact that a great deal of the people living in this world seemingly do not realize that they are in a dystopia. For them it is reality, and through propaganda the Reich keeps its citizens from questioning the state long enough to uncover anything. Anyone who might prove a threat is monitored and eventually removed from where they can cause harm.
Is Fatherland one of the classics of alternate history? Undeniably so, being one of the first works in the genre to join the bestsellers list in at least one country. Through drawing directly from our own history for its engaging plot, frightening portrayal of the Reich and rounded characters, it is not only an engaging work of alternate history but overall as an engaging thriller.
Is it one of the greatest works of alternate history? This may come back to the debate between alternate history as a genre versus a setting for genres. Some holes can be poked in the plausibility of the world portrayed. It remains up to the reader whether or not this detracts them enough from the content of the novel.
For this reviewer, it remains a favorite thriller that I enjoy returning to every couple of years. The richness of the world portrayed is such that I want to know more about the rest of the world not portrayed in the novel. I feel it should serve as the template for Axis victory settings finding the right balance between plausibility and a completely alien world to our own.
This story was originally published by Sea Lion Press, the world’s first publishing house dedicated to alternate history.