FEW first novels get the kind of reception awarded to "Fatherland" by Robert Harris, a columnist for the Sunday Times of London. Not only did the book vault to the top of the British bestseller lists, but it also caused a furor across the Continent with its subtle bashing of the European Community.
In this excellent thriller, Harris sketches out an alternative view of history in which the Nazis won World War II and established a "Greater German Reich" stretching from the French border to Moscow.
Harris notes, correctly, that Adolf Hitler was an avid proponent of European unity (so was Napoleon); thus he surmises that, if Germany had won World War II, Hitler would have established a European community on his own terms. In his novel, the European countries not directly incorporated into Germany - France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and so on - are governed by Nazi puppets in the name of European unity.
The controversy swirling around "Fatherland" is due to the fact that the European community described in the book bears a great deal of resemblance to the real one - even down to having the same flag (12 stars on a blue background). This similarity has provided ample grist for British opponents of European unity, who fear German domination of the Continent.
What has received a great deal less attention than the European community theme is another subplot - the diplomatic relations between Germany and United States. In the novel, which is set in 1964, the two countries have waged 20 years of cold war. Now President Joseph Kennedy Sr. - the father of John F. Kennedy - is ready to establish detente with a Germany still ruled by Der Fuhrer.
Hitler, hard-pressed by Russian guerrillas on his frontier and desperately in need of American economic assistance, is eager to open links with the United States. But his grand plan could come unhinged if news of the Holocaust, kept suppressed for many years, leaks out to the rest of the world.
The Nazi government is willing to do anything it takes to stop the West from finding out what happened to so many European Jews. And both President Kennedy and his ambassador to Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, are eager to cooperate. Neither man wants to know about the gruesome deeds in the Nazis' past.
This scenario bears more than a passing resemblance to the situation in the 1970s, when several US presidents chose to look the other way at Soviet atrocities in order to foster detente with the Kremlin. Harris reveals the moral bankruptcy of this policy by the simple expedient of substituting Nazi Germany for Soviet Russia. How many in the West would have been as eager to deal with a Nazi leader as they were with Leonid Brezhnev? Far too many.
While "Fatherland" contains a fascinating political message, it is by no means a didactic or overtly political book. Above all, it is a first-rate thriller with an excellent story line and plenty of suspense.
The book's plot revolves around an investigation by a disgruntled detective named Xavier March into the murder of a prominent Nazi bureaucrat. As he delves more deeply into the case, March starts to unlock the secrets of the Holocaust - and becomes a target for the wrath of the SS, led by Reinhard Heydrich.
What makes "Fatherland" so compelling, besides its story line, is the obvious care and research that went into creating Nazi Germany, circa 1964. The author stocks his book with real characters, many of whom died in World War II. (Heydrich, for instance, was assassinated in 1942; in the book, he has survived the assassination attempt.) He even provides a tour of the new Berlin that Albert Speer, Hitler's master architect, planned to construct after the war.
"Fatherland" might best be described as a cross between Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park" and George Orwell's "1984." Harris, it turns out, has a rare gift for incorporating historical details and political insights into the format of a highly readable thriller. If "Fatherland" is any indication, he has a fine future ahead of him as a writer of this genre.