My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who returned, (barely) alive from Auschwitz to Hungary. After the war she became a journalist. As such she read a lot of foreign magazines and brought some home too. My recollection is that I first heard from her about Robert Harris‘ Fatherland when the book came out in 1992. She must have read about it in Stern or Spiegel, both German magazines. I can clearly visualize the pile of these magazines she kept in a small room of their apartment. I don’t have a clear memory though of the conversation, but I do remember the high level of anxiety the book caused by depicting an alternative history where the Nazis won WWII. I don’t think she ever read it, it would have been too much.
It was pretty hard on me. The plot starts it relatively easy on my nerves as it seems to be a murder investigation. I don’t want to spoil you the suspense as the background of the murders unfold, so won’t tell you what turns the book takes. Let me just say that it does have a grander theme and it is not really about art theft.
It is gut wrenching for anybody but Holocaust deniers. The book gives an insight on how every day Germans could have lived with the knowledge of what was happening to the Jews. They said to themselves that they didn’t know. That’s possible that they didn’t now the details, but (from page 352)
“Of course you knew! You knew every time someone made a joke about ‘going East’, every time you heard a mother tell her children to behave or they’d go up the chimney. We knew when we moved into their houses, when we took over their property, their jobs. We knew but we didn’t have the facts.”
The book was all about plausible deniability. The murder victims’, Hitler’s, the Gestapo officers’, the collaborators’. But you can’t build a lasting society, where everybody is trying to cover their back. Or as the book puts it (page 329):
“You can’t build on a mass grave. Human beings are better than that–they have to better than that–I do believe it–don’t you?
He did not reply.”
There was one person, the detective, who was trying to do his work and even had a conscience, who was not trying to cover things up. He mused early on (page 209)
“What do you do,” he said, “if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that he real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?”
She was looking at hi m I a different way “I suppose you go crazy.”
“Or worse. Sane.”
The life (and deaths) envisioned by Harris were eerily realistic. He did his homework and researched the topic extensively. I appreciated his note at the end of the book, where he clarified what was fiction and what was not. The later included everything till 1942, the major (and most of the minor) historical figures and most of the documents quoted in the book. That put my mind at ease as I was wondering exactly about how much of it was the work of his imagination. The plot itself of course was all made up, but the driving forces and the settings were not.
If you want to get a sense of how the world, or at least Berlin, would have turned out and looked like in the mid 1960s I recommend this book. The story is engaging, the details of a mostly peacetime Nazi Germany are convincing and what you can read between the lines is what must have been in the back of the mind of the people then.