Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

35 thoughts on “Fatherland by Robert Harris

    • Haha – unfortunately he’s been quite prolific so if you like him, your TBR might end up like mine! This or Enigma would both be great ones to start with…

  1. What a brilliant review. I have not seen the TV series but have obviously heard of it and thought the premise clever, but the screen version appeared to focus more on the scariness of having the Nazis in charge – this seems to have that aspect more as a background rumbling. It sounds like it has been portrayed very well indeed. Bravo, Harris – a great writer and he has such a lovely face 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, the Nazi thing was important to the story in this, but he didn’t overdo it and that left more room for a good plot. I haven’t seen the TV thing either and don’t think I want to – the book is always better! 😉

  2. I’m so glad you liked this so well, FictionFan. And I think you brought up a really important point: books like this work best if the author keeps the focus on the characters and on the story, rather than the details of the alternate history. To me, that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Excellent review, as ever!

    • Thanks, Margot! 😀 Yes, I totally agree – the story has to not get overshadowed by the world-building. And I preferred that he didn’t fictionalise real people to any great degree – I always find that distracting, especially if I disagree with the author’s opinion of the person. Harris is really brilliant at this kind of thing!

  3. Wow! Great review! A very different rating than that for Gone with the Wind. 😀 😁

    The premise reminds me of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel.

    • Hahaha! Yes, not a single frock description in this one as far as I remember! 😉

      I tried listening to the audiobook of The Man in the High Castle a few years ago and couldn’t get into it. For me, this one felt much more believable.

  4. Great review of one of my favourite books. Everything Harris writes is worth reading – my favourite tends to be whichever I have read/reread most recently, but this is the one I would recommend to a newbie.

    • Yes, he’s become one of my favourite writers now and happily I’ve still got several more of his books to enjoy. This would be a good one to begin with, or Enigma.

  5. I want to read this based upon your review! I cannot believe it is not available in a kindle edition in the US. Bummer. That said, I may try the audio version even though I’ve essentially given up on them. I’m always trying to do something else at the same time and spend half my “reading” time rewinding.

    Thanks for the review.

    • How annoying! I wish they’d hurry up and get these older books onto Kindle, especially the ones like this that still get read a lot! Ha – I find it hard to concentrate on audiobooks too – I either get distracted or nod off. It can take me weeks to get all the way through a book. 😀 Hope you manage to get hold of it in some format though – and enjoy!

    • Yay! I thought I’d lost my touch altogether! 😉 I must say Harris is absolutely the best – if you ever do take a fancy for this kind of thing, pick one of his! 😀

  6. Nice to hear you enjoyed this one so much! I haven’t read it, but your review makes it sound like a winner. I’ll have to see if I can squeeze something else onto my TBR!

    • Every TBR should have at least one Robert Harris on it! 😉 Seriously though, he’s great at this kind of story, so if you ever do get time, it’s well worth reading… 😀

  7. It’s good to be reminded about the treats on offer as I slowly work my way through the Robert Harris novels. I am very much attracted by the background (rather than foreground) world-building you describe. For me, this brings a greater immersion in a taken-for-granted existence rather than a let-me-show-you-how-it-is-different world. I’m looking forward to this read.
    I am able to purchase Fatherland on Kindle via US Amazon. I wonder if there are sometimes different licensing arrangements for within US purchases? It’s also available as an eBook in our library.

    • I’m loving working my way through his books – I’m quite glad I was late discovering him, so there are plenty to look forward to! Yes, I thought he did the alternative history bit excellently. I found myself comparing it to Sansom’s Dominion, also about a world where the Nazis won. Usually I love Sansom but I thought that one got bogged down in the world at the expense of the story, plus he used a lot of real people and made some of them behave in ways that I felt were almost libellous, or would have been if the people were still living. Left a bit of a bad taste.
      It’s odd about the American Kindle thing – I know in the past I’ve had people say to me they can’t get a book when it looks to me as if it’s available on Amazon US. I think you must be right that it’s something to do with regional licensing arrangements.

  8. Great review! I’ve read almost everything by this author, but this book has somehow missed my notice! Thanks for the reminder:-)

    • Thank you! I only “found” him a couple of years ago, so I’m having loads of fun working through his back catalogue – what a great writer he is! 😀

    • I’ve still only read a handful of his books, but I’ve loved every one so far – he’s become one of my favourite authors. And this is a real goodie…

  9. One of the reasons I love reading your reviews is you challenge my preconceptions about the books/authors that I have discounted out of hand. For some unknown reason I have always dismissed this author as not being for me, without any real idea of what he wrote about – and then I find out it is something that I am likely to be interested in after all! Fantastic review and thank you

    • Aw, thank you! What a lovely compliment! 😀 I think he’s got more into writing about actual historical events and people these days, but his earlier books like this one are great, well written thrillers set in a historical background. This and Enigma would be the ones I’d recommend to a “beginner”… 😀

  10. It’s a really interesting choice to have characters who don’t remember the way it was and so just accept the regime they’re under. Although it’s alternative history it doesn’t sound gimmicky. You’ve made this appeal to me a lot more!

    • I thought so too – it allowed him to give a much more realistic picture of life under a totalitarian regime, I thought. I love Harris – although he writes thrillers, they’re so much more than that – I always stick him in my fiction index rather than my crime one. I suspect you’d love either this or the one about the Dreyfus affair – An Officer and a Spy…

    • I always say my middle name’s Eclectic, so all kinds of books turn up here! But I must say, though Harris writes thrillers, the quality of them always means I think of them more as literary fiction. He’s become one of my favourite authors over the last couple of years.

  11. Sounds good! A rather funny depiction of this same idea is the German film “Him” in which Hitler suddenly wakes up at the site of his WWII bunker in modern day Berlin and proceeds to wreak havoc.

  12. I’m glad you mentioned the fictionalized real people in other books. My book club read Man in the High Castle last summer, and there was a huge divide in those who cared about the book and those who didn’t. It was the folks in their 60s and 70s who liked the novel because they knew a lot about all the minions in Hitler’s regime, but the rest of us felt lost.

    • I also dislike when authors do that if I do remember the characters, because it distracts me – I keep thinking would s/he really have said/done that? I much prefer fully fictionalised characters in books like this. Real characters might be OK in books set much longer ago, when we don’t know how they would have behaved…

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