Saturday, August 13, 2005

BOOK: Robert Harris, "Fatherland"

Robert Harris: Fatherland. Arrow Books, 1993. 0099263815. xiii + 386 pp.

Ah, the joys of pulp fiction. The main reason why I don't read it is that I enjoy it too much. I could just wallow in it for days on end like a pig in the mud. Being a bit of a snob, I don't want to waste my brains and time on trivial literature like that, so I prefer to read nonfiction or, when fiction, the sort of fiction that I (the damned philistine that I am) don't understand very well and shouldn't read anyway if I had any sense. But, anyway, every now and then I read something pulpy anyway and, feeling as it does somewhat like a forbidden pleasure makes it only sweeter.

Although I consider myself a fairly avid reader, it rarely happens to me that a book enthrals me to the point of interfering with other life activities. This book is one of the rare exceptions. I started reading it late in the afternoon and would have finished it in one sitting, except that by approx. 2 AM I calculated that it would probably take me another two hours to finish it and I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of going to sleep at four in the morning, so I postponed the last 100 pages or so until the next day. In short, I rarely feel that a book is really “unputdownable”, but this book really is one of them.

The story by itself is basically a gripping crime story/thriller and is very well-written to the point that there is practically not a single boring page in the whole book. But the main charm of the book, for me at least, is not the story itself but the world in which it takes place: one in which Germany largely won the second world war in Europe. Harris is very skillful at showing us some new detail every now and then, and I was constantly curious about what would turn up in the next few pages.

The point of departure from the real timeline is in 1942, with the German army suceeding to separate the Soviets from their oilfields in the Caucasus; without oil, the Soviets lose the war in the same year. Britain surrenders in 1944 thanks to a strong blockade by German U-boats; Churchill flees to Canada. The U.S. defeats Japan using the atomic bomb, but Germany acquires the atomic bomb in 1946 as well and a cold war develops between Germany and the U.S. (pp. 85–86). A low-intensity war continues in the Urals, on the border with what's left of the Soviet Union (p. 86); partly because of Hitler's idea that a permanent war will prevent the German people from growing “soft”, but at the same time it seems that the war is genuinely not going well for Germany (p. 164). The U.S. “have been allies of the Russians during the past twenty years” (p. 211), supplying them with “money, weapons, training” (p. 239); the U.S. support of Russia is also the reason why Germany won't use nuclear weapons in its war against the Soviets (p. 209). Efforts towards a detente between Germany and the U.S. are being made, however (p. 239), and the U.S. president Joe Kennedy (JFK's father), pro-German, isolationist, appeaser, and anti-Semite (pp. 120, 310), is about to make a state visit to Germany.

Stalin's various crimes, the purges, the gulags, etc., were highly publicized by the Germans for their propaganda value (p. 211); the mass murders carried out by Germany, of Jews and other undesirables, were of course kept secret by the German authorities; but the people also cooperated in a way, by never trying particularly hard to be concerned about where their erstwhile Jewish neighbours and acquaintances have been “resettled” to (p. 212). Some eyewitnesses of the horrors in the German East did manage to escape beyond the Urals, but their reports were dismissed as communist propaganda (p. 210).

Speer's various proposed megalomaniac building designs have actually been constructed in Berlin. This involves a huge triumphal arch with names of three million fallen German soldiers written on the walls (p.&nbps;24) and a great hall, 250 m tall with a dome 140 m in diameter, large enough for 180000 people, “the only building in the world which generates its own climate” (pp. 28–9)... There's a good observation about this obsession that everything must be larger than comparable things in other countries: “Even in victory, thought March, Germany has a parvenu's inferiority complex” (p. 25). “The regime closed churches and compensated by building railway termini to look like cathedrals” (p. 163). A large new airport has been built near Berlin (p. 191). Dozens of huge memorials have been erected in the East to commemorate “the Germans who had died [...] for the conquest of the East&rdquo (p. 379). Germany and the Germans are enjoying “the cornucopia of Empire”, imports from all parts of Europe (p. 39), foreign servants and employees (p. 164). German historians are busy writing an immensely detailed history of the war in the East (p. 47).

The eastern territories that had been taken from the Soviet Union during the war are slowly being colonized, but those areas are still poor and unstable (p. 51, 239). The Germans of South Tyrol have been resettled to the Crimea (p. 40). “From here, trains as high as houses, with a gauge of four metres, left for the outposts of the German empire” (p. 30). This is an interesting idea; however, given that no trains of a similar size have been actually built anywhere else, I wonder if even a victorious Nazi Germany would have thought it necessary to construct them. Would there really be so much rail traffic?

Göring died in 1951, Himmler in 1962 (p. 86); the latter was succeeded by Heydrich, who had survived the failed assassination attempt in 1943 (p. 230).

“Countdown to Tokyo olympics. US may compete for first time in 28 years.” (P. 39.) Speer mentions that Hitler once told him that after 1940 all the olympic games would take place in Berlin (see e.g. Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer). Well, I guess he could occasionally be persuaded to humour his Japanese allies and let them organize the games once in a while.

The twelve Western European countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) have been connected into a European community under strong German influence; “German was the official second language in all schools”; German goods of all kinds are exported into these countries, and Germans visit them as tourists (p. 201). (“The British, French, and Italians will do what we tell them. Australia and Canada will obey the Americans.” P. 185.) The flag of the EC is just as in real history, twelve golden stars on a blue background (p. 46); and Beethoven's ninth symphony is the European anthem (p. 40). “[E]very country on the continent accepted Reichmarks, it was Europe's common currency” (p. 198). Luxembourg was annexed by Germany; Austria, as well as the whole of Eastern Europe, were of course also part of Germany (p. 201). Only Switzerland remained a neutral country; Hitler had originally planned to occupy it, but the onset of the cold war intervened and both sides found it useful to keep Switzerland as a neutral no-man's land (p. 202) and banking centre (pp. 217, 219–20, 225). “[T]he burghers of Zürich worked hard for their money — twelve or fourteen hours a day was common” (p. 204). We aren't told about the fate of south-western Europe; I guess those countries would still be German satelites under the rule of more-or-less autocratic leaders (the likes of Horthy or Antonescu). China is apparently still independent of foreign influence; p. 185.

Britain (led by King Edward and Queen Wallis) is on friendly terms with Germany (p. 40). There is an “SS academy in Oxford” (p. 183). Churchil lives in Canada now, as does Queen Elizabeth, who “claims the English throne from her uncle” (p. 209).

Photocopiers are rare in Germany, and tightly controlled to prevent the multiplication of subversive literature (p. 245).

It is also interesting to imagine how the face of Nazism would slowly evolve in the decades after the war. The profile of the typical low-echelon Nazi evolves: “by the 1950s, the beer-hall brawlers had given way to the smooth technocrats of the Speer type — well-groomed university men with bland smiles and hard eyes” (p. 91; see also pp. 350–2). The disaffection and rebeliousness of the younger generation is mentioned, similar to the way it actually took place during the 60s. See e.g. p. 40, 155, 236. A “group of young Englishmen from Liverpool” is having a concert in Hamburg (p. 40; see also p. 198). “The permissive 1960s were showing a strong increase in such sex crimes” as homosexuality and abortion (p. 97); the signs of a nascent sexual revolution.

A few glimpses of art that was considered orthodox by Nazi standards are on pp. 182 and 184.

Goebbels is still in charge of the film industry and uses his position to sleep with young actresses; p. 64.

The book is divided into parts, one part for each day; each part begins with an epigraph or quotation (always a real one, not a fictitious one, if I understand correctly). Interestingly, the one on p. 369 is from Baedeker's guide to the Generalgouvernement. I remember that I once saw this curious 1943 guidebook on eBay. I'd be surprised if there were many German tourists going to the Generalgouvernement in 1943, but at least you can't say that Baedeker isn't thorough and up-to-date. Needless to say, there were no subsequent editions. I'd be curious to see it, but it is usually too expensive, and my ability to read German is much too limited to be able to read a book at a normal speed. But I sure wonder how it portrayed the horrible mess that was German-occupied Poland. Or did it pretend that everything was quite normal, and focus only on the churches and the tombs of kings, and report on where the good hotels are and where one can get one's shirt starched, and so on?

See also: the Wikipedia article about Fatherland.


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