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Monday, March 15, 2010

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Title: Fatherland
Author: Robert Harris
Publisher: Random House, 1992
Originally published in the UK by Hutchinson.

Fatherland is one of those books that has regularly crossed my path over the years, usually mentioned in an article about some other book I’d read.  I finally gave it a go and checked it out of the library last week.

The novel has the feel of a Cold War thriller, but the atmosphere of the novel is even more claustrophobic than many of that genre tend to be because the action takes place in 1964, in Post World War II Germany, a Germany that won the war and continues to be ruled by Hitler’s Nazi Party.  The Nazi propaganda & violence machine has been churning for over 40 years.   The younger generations are fully indoctrinated into the system; indeed, they know no other way of life.  If older generations question the system, they’ve learned to keep those questions to themselves.  Tourists flock to Berlin to see the wonders of the Reich, a Berlin rebuilt as Hitler and Albert Speer had planned.  Because the Nazi’s won the war, the truth of what became of the millions of Jews who were relocated to the East is not known.   America’s President Joseph P. Kennedy will soon arrive for a summit with Hitler to discuss an end to the Cold War between the two super powers.

The action starts on April 14, 1964 and ends only six days later on April 20th, F├╝hrertag, Hitler's birthday which has become the main holiday of the Reich.  Homicide detective Xavier March, a former U-boat captain during WWII, is called to the shores of Lake Havel where a body has been washed ashore.  It turns out to be the body of Joseph Buhler, an old guard in the Nazi party, whose death initially looks like a swimming accident.  March is quickly and officially called off the case after the Gestapo takes over the investigation and rules the death a suicide. 

But March can’t let it go.  He’s a 40-something divorcee who hasn’t had a promotion in ten years and is alienated from his only child, a ten-year-old son named Pili who is gung-ho for the Nazis.  Rumor has it that the Gestapo is ready to come down on March after years of documenting his disinterest, if not outright hostility, toward his Nazi rulers.  He risks his life by carrying on his own investigation.  There’s a pretty girl, of course: Charlotte Maguire, a tough American journalist who drinks, smokes, and isn’t afraid to use her fists. 

One of the things driving March is a picture of the family who once occupied his apartment, the Weiss family, who lived there from 1928-1942.  He found a picture of them tucked into the wallpaper and this photo and their disappearance haunt March.  He’s also tired of the Gestapo and party bosses neatly sweeping the truth under the proverbial carpet.  March peels away layer after layer of political maneuvering and finds much more than he bargained for.

The most interesting parts of the novel are those where Harris imagines what life would be like under an ongoing Nazi dictatorship.  It’s a life ruled by insecurity both at the national and the personal levels.  There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel where March is on a Reich Tourist Ministry tour bus with his son who wanted to take the tour, yet again, to see the architectural glories of the Reich.   As the tour guide goes on about the size of the architecture March thinks, “Higher, longer, bigger, wider, more expensive . . . even in victory . . . Germany has a parvenu’s inferiority complex.  Nothing stands on its own.  Everything has to be compared with what the foreigners have” (22).   Upon dropping his son off at home, he notes that his ex, her new lover, and now his son all wear some sort of uniform for the Reich.  The only creature in their home who doesn’t wear a uniform is the dog.

The Nazi regime remains obsessed with racial purity: “Homosexuality and miscegenation had replaced rape and incest as capital offenses.  Abortion, “an act of sabotage against German’s racial future,” was punishable by death.” (86).

And it’s those who are most insecure about their position and their safety who are the loudest proponents of racial purity: “the racial fanatics were seldom the blue-eyed Aryan supermen. . . . Instead, the swampy frontiers of the German race were patrolled by those less confident of their blood worthiness.  Insecurity breeds good border guards. . . . The lame and the ugly, the runts of the national litter—these were the loudest defenders of the Volk” (85-86).

This novel is also a warning about the political struggle over who controls history.  Because the Nazi’s won the war, they are in full control over what is taught in schools, what is printed in newspapers & books, and what is broadcast on radio & TV.  Twenty years after the war, they continue to weed out the monumental archival holdings of the Reich so that only the “right history” will be known.  It’s a good reminder of why people who are committed to freedom and democracy should read as much as they can from a wide variety of sources to stay as informed as possible about the world we live in and our history.  There's been much press lately about the political text book controversy going on now in Texas.

I recommend Fatherland to mystery/thriller lovers and history buffs.  In 1994 the book was made into an award-winning HBO movie.  Netflix doesn't seem to carry it as of this posting.

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