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Literature / Fatherland

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"This was to be the German Millennium, from which even the imagination was to have no means of escape."
Hugh Trevor-Roper

Fatherland is a 1992 Alternate History novel written by Robert Harris. It was adapted into a made-for-TV film starring Rutger Hauer and Miranda Richardson in 1994. The story is set in a Nazi-controlled Europe, twenty years after Germany won World War II.

It's 1964 and Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday is approaching. Nazi Germany dominates Europe and is engaged in a Cold War with The United States. President Joseph P. Kennedy has been invited to Berlin, in the hopes of reaching a détente and finally ending the costly war against the American-backed Soviet guerillas.

Meanwhile, a dead body is found and police investigator Xavier March takes on what seems at first to be a routine murder investigation, only to find himself on the trail of an explosive political secret — the long-hushed-up truth about the Final Solution.


The book is one of the more realistic visions of a world in which Nazi Germany has been victorious. Compare a more recent fictional timeline called Thousand-Week Reich, which shares many similar elements.

Fatherland provides examples of:

  • Allohistorical Allusion:
    • Former Soviet prisoners give tours of the gulags and teach about the Holomodor, in which the Stalinist regime purposefully starved Ukrainians. This parallels how The Holocaust is commemorated in our timeline.
    • One rather subtle difference is that just as you start to wonder why "President Kennedy" is still alive and acting so Out of Character, the realization dawns that America elected former ambassador to the UK Joseph Kennedy, JFK's father.
  • Alternate-History Nazi Victory: It's set in an alternate 1964 where the Nazis now control Europe, and the truth about the Holocaust drives the plot. It's also something of a Deconstructed Trope; rather than the Nazis building a world-spanning empire, the Nazi state covers Europe only and has more in common with the later stages of the Soviet Union, slowly decaying under the weight of its own tyranny and inefficiency while engaged in a Cold War with the United States.
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  • Ambiguous Situation: The novel ends with March trapped in a standoff at the former site of Auschwitz, surrounded by Gestapo agents. As he draws his weapon, he imagines Charlie successfully managing to deliver the evidence to the US, though even he admits it's an unlikely possibility.
  • Animal Motifs: Xavier is compared to a fox by the narrator, who also says that he doesn't run with the (wolf) pack (and groups of submarines are also called wolf packs. Xavier and Max were on subs during World War II). Max is compared to a bear.
  • Asshole Victim: Doesn't get much worse than the people who engineered the Holocaust.
  • Awful Truth: March learns the truth about the Jews “resettled east”.
  • Batman Gambit: Krebs, Nebe, and Max act as though they are helping March escape, in hopes that he will lead them to Charlie. It doesn't work.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The Nazis get their wish of seizing large tracts of Eastern Europe and Russia for German living space. In reality, the land is poor and underdeveloped, and full of partisans waging a guerrilla war against the Germans. Millions of settlers want to return home. Nebe notes the irony: "living space that no one wants to live in."
  • Bigger Is Better: During the tour of Nazi monuments, the tour-guide makes a point of comparing everything to monuments in other countries and stressing how much bigger everything in Berlin is. It's deconstructed, however, since in his inner monologue March scathingly identifies this as merely a symptom of the culture-wide inferiority complex that Nazi society deep down suffers from; even in victory, Nazi Germany is still desperately obsessed with proving how much bigger it is than everyone else.
  • Blessed with Suck: Germany has the massive empire in the East that Hitler always coveted...but having to invest resources into fighting partisans and developing farmland makes the "living space" more of a hindrance.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: While March's ultimate fate is not explicitly mentioned, by the end of the novel, he is trapped in a standoff at the former site of Auschwitz, surrounded by Gestapo agents. And considering that he is injured and armed only with a handgun, his only real options are going out in a blaze of glory or shooting himself.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Luther’s fate.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: What March actually thinks of his son educated by the government, although he pretends to be proud of him.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Played with in the book, in which either Charlie makes it out of Germany with evidence of the Holocaust or March simply imagines it before dying. Played straight in the movie, where Charlie gives the evidence directly to President Kennedy, who immediately cancels the summit with Hitler.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Globus taunts March that no one will ever believe Germany could have committed such terrible acts.
    Globus: There’s nothing there anymore, not even a brick. Nobody will ever believe it. And shall I tell you something? Part of you can’t believe it either.
    • The date-section of the book begins with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi quoting an SS officer, who expresses the very same idea.
    • Goebbels' propaganda claims that Germany is winning the space race. March is skeptical, but according to Charlie this is actually true.
  • Cool Train: The "Breitspurbahn", a railway network with three meter track gauge and gargantuan locomotives and rolling stock (and which in real life never went beyond the planning stages), got built in the story.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Nazi leaders try and sell the Third Reich as a mighty, prosperous colossus, with massive monuments to boot. However, low level officials like March don't see that prosperity, being forced to live in a somewhat rundown apartment. March muses that the great monuments are a sign of a nationwide inferiority complex.
  • Crapsack World:
    • For Detective Xavier March, it most certainly is. Divorced? Check. Son hates you? Check. Nightmares? Check. PTSD? Check. Living in apartment previously owned by Jewish family, who were "sent East"? Check. Suddenly discovering that the regime you serve is full of mass murderers? (You see where this is going, right?)
    • Also for anyone who doubts or differs from the Party line on any of a thousand things. For example, we see a priest whose church is across the street from police HQ, in a regime which officially discourages religions other than Hitler-worship. He is not a cheerful-looking man.
  • Deadpan Snarker: March and Jaeger. Artur Nebe as well.
  • Deconstructed Trope: Of previous "Hitler wins the war" scenarios. Germany in 1964 is not a very nice place by any means, but rather than the 'Nazis take over the planet' scenarios common to the sub-genre, it's clearly ended up as closer to being an analogue of the Soviet Union than an all-powerful unstoppable juggernaut. German territorial expansion is limited to the East, as planned in real life, while the nations of the west are clearly satellite states more-or-less subservient to German hegemony but nevertheless independent from direct German control (again, as planned in real life). Rather than invading the United States and conquering it, there's a Cold War between them which is starting to warm into an uneasy detente. Rather than the Thousand Year Reich lasting forever and ever it's implied that Germany is slowly beginning to stagnate and will ultimately collapse from within anyway.
  • Determinator: Xavier March. No matter the setback—Jost’s deportation, Luther’s murder—March is determined to learn the truth.
  • Empire with a Dark Secret: The Nazis killed millions of people from disfavoured groups, especially Jewish people.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Pili AND Max.
  • Evil All Along: Nebe and Jaeger.
  • Evil Is Bigger: Justified and deconstructed. The Nazi Reich has a ton of monuments that are bigger than anywhere else. However, March sees this as a sign of how deeply insecure Germany is as a society, that they have to constantly build such behemoths.
  • Fallen States of America: Averted. While the Nazis did win the war, America remains a functional and free society, and it is all but stated that is pulling ahead of Germany in the Cold War. note 
  • Final Solution: In the world of the novel, the Nazis have successfully completed it. And now they are trying to ensure it stays secret forever.
  • Fingore: Globus personally reduces March's right hand to a bloody mangled pulp with a baseball bat.
  • For Want of a Nail: The Allohistorical Allusion mentioned above might seem like a minor detail, but it may be a hint at the story's "point of divergence". When Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to Britain, he was strongly in favor of appeasement with Germany well into 1940, and lost a lot of public face because of it. In this timeline, although America still clashed with Imperial Japan (and won), it stayed out of the war in Europe.
  • Foregone Conclusion: A rarity in an Alternate History, but the event itself has already happened — it's The Reveal; the protagonist is investigating some deep political conspiracy that has something to do with the Nazi party and concentration camps.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Charlie Maguire, a female journalist (short for Charlotte).
  • Hate Sink: Odilo Globocnik manages to be the single most loathsome character in a book full of Nazis: he establishes himself as an obnoxious, violent, bullying Jerkass even before we learn he's a Gestapo torturer who willingly played a pivotal role in the mass extermination of Polish Jews.
  • He Knows Too Much: The plot is essentially driven by March investigating his own government and finding out far more than he should.
  • Heroic BSoD: While reading secret documents, Xavier comes across a real historical note about concentration camp victims' hair being cut off and turned into felt, which was then made into socks for U-boat crews. He reacts badly to the news that he wore dead Jews' hair during the war.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Artur Nebe is depicted as a semi-sympathetic Punch-Clock Villain whose main concern is maintaining law and order, and who doesn't seem to be a particularly enthusiastic or prejudiced Nazi. While the real Nebe was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was by all accounts a racist mass-murderer who only went against Hitler out of selfish opportunism. This is subverted by the end however - Nebe turns out to have been Evil All Along and fully aware and complicit in the Holocaust, with his earlier behavior only a ruse to trick March into trusting him.
  • Hopeless War: Germany's ongoing twenty-year war against partisans in the Soviet Union, which is slowly ebbing away at the Reich's strength. Casualties are heavy, it's increasingly unpopular at home and basically unwinnable. It's why Hitler desperately needs to reach a détente with the Americans, who are supporting the partisans.
  • Hope Spot: Near the end of the book, after Globus has horribly tortured March, it appears that Artur Nebe, Krebs, and Max Jaeger have planned his escape so he can reveal the truth about the Holocaust to the world. However, March quickly deduces that they are trying to trick him into leading them to Maguire.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: The Nazis are fond of overtly and implicitly rubbing their victory in the faces of their defeated foes. Their monuments are bigger than everyone else's. Their sporting teams always win (even, it is hinted, if they have to cheat). And so on. March merely considers this as culture-wide evidence of how insecure and inferior the Germans actually feel deep down:
    Higher, bigger, longer, 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...
  • Intrepid Reporter: Charlie.
  • In Spite of a Nail:
    • Played with; the English rock-and-roll band who are often mentioned as becoming increasingly popular with the youth are never explicitly named, but it's pretty clear that they're either supposed to be The Beatles or an Alternate Universe equivalent who are close enough to them to make no real difference.
    • The European Community, the predecessor of the modern European Union, was still formed, albeit it is clear that the other member states are all subordinate to Germany.note 
    • Even though the United States lost in Europe, it was still able to defeat Japan (with at least one city having an atomic bomb used on it).
  • Joggers Find Death: Jost witnesses Buhler's body disposal while out for a morning run.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: March lives a lonely existence, is pretty much alienated from his ex-wife and son, is a borderline alcoholic, and has become very disenchanted with the Nazi regime he serves. But he still risks his life and limb to solve the murder.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Himmler is said to have died in a plane crash a while before the story begins. It is strongly implied that Heydrich made it happen.
  • May–December Romance: Xavier March and Charlie.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory:
    • Josef Buhler was able to complete the Final Solution...but he spent his last years living a lonely existence consumed by guilt, with his own superiors having him killed to cover up his misdeeds.
    • In a broader sense, Germany may have been victorious, but the land it gained isn't all that useful and is crawling with guerilla rebels that are eating away at Germany's men and wealth.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Doesn't get much more major than this one.
  • Nazi Protagonist: Averted. Despite holding the SS-rank of Sturmbannführer (which equates roughly to Major in the Wehrmacht and Komissar in the pre-Nazi Germany police force), it's mentioned several times that, despite being a very capable investigator, the protagonist hasn't progressed further in his career because of his outright refusal to become a party member. It's why he has such a poor relationship with his ultra-Nazi son and ex-wife and one of the main reasons that the kid betrays him.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Xavier figures out that Max is The Mole when Nebe tells Xavier the SS figured out Luther wasn't dead because their phones were tapped. Xavier assumed the US embassy had tipped the SS off, and there was no reason for Nebe to tell him otherwise. Only a few people knew about that particular phone, so that meant they were betrayed. Had Nebe said nothing, Xavier likely would’ve trusted Max later on and led them to Charlie.
  • Only Sane Man: This exchange between Xavier and Charlie:
    Xavier: What do you do if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the 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?
    Charlie: I suppose you go crazy.
    Xavier: Or worse. Sane.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: Xavi takes a long, long bath after the Heroic BSoD above.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: The petite Charlie lays a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown on Xavier in an apartment where they meet to exchange information before she remembers they're together. She ascribes her prowess to growing up as the only girl in her family.
  • Point of Divergence: The German victory in this timeline was a result of:
    • The 1942 German offensive in the East (Case Blue) was successful, conquering the Caucasus and cutting off the Soviet Union's oil supplies, forcing them into defeat by 1943.
    • Germany won the Battle of the Atlantic in 1944 after discovering that their Enigma codes had been cracked by the British, and Britain was starved into submission.
    • Heydrich survived the 1942 assassination attempt in Prague.
  • Rage Within the Machine: Xavier was already becoming disillusioned and disgusted with his life in the Reich well before he learned of the Final Solution.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Xavier is most likely going to get shot and killed. And it's unknown if Charlie actually got away with the documents. But it is hinted that Nazism will eventually collapse under the weight of its dysfunction.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Happens to Jost, who is deported to the still-ongoing war against the Soviet Union in the Ural Mountains. This is mentioned several times throughout the novel as a meatgrinder of a war that kills men almost as fast as they're sent out.
  • Released to Elsewhere: The official Nazi line is that Jews were "resettled East," but even Germans don't seem to really believe that.
  • La Résistance: The Germans have spent the last twenty years fighting insurgents in the Soviet Union, still led by the elderly Joseph Stalin. In Germany, the White Rose anti-war movement of the 1940s is said to have resurfaced.
  • Romantic False Lead: Averted. March suspects Maguire is in a relationship with Henry Nightingale, with his behaviour not helping.
  • Sub-Par Supremacist: March reflects on this trope, noting that the most vehement supremacists were those that were not considered ideal specimens by the Nazi leadership:
    ...the racial fanatics were seldom the blue-eyed Aryan supermen- they, in the words of Das Schwarzes Korps, "were too inclined to take their membership of the Volk for granted". Instead, the swampy frontiers of the German race were patrolled by those less confident of their blood-worthiness. Insecurity breeds good border guards. The knock-kneed Franconian schoolmaster, ridiculous in his Lederhosen; the Bavarian shopkeeper with his pebble glasses; the red-haired Thuringian accountant with a nervous tic and a predilection for the younger members of the Hitler Youth; the lame and the ugly, the runts of the national litter- these were the loudest defenders of the Volk.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: This is one of the most realistic outcomes of a Nazi victory depicted in fiction. Rather than taking over the world, the Nazi empire consists only of Europe, and is basically no different than the Soviet Union in our universe. Most of the land conquered is also poor and undeveloped except for a guerrilla movement resisting Nazi rule, and the entire empire will most likely collapse in the near future.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Protagonist Xavier shows occasional signs of this, which might have contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Living through the war certainly left him with a much-diminished view of the Third Reich.
  • Slut-Shaming: This happens quite often to Charlie, since the perfect German woman stays in the kitchen.
  • Swiss Bank Account: The victims are revealed to have opened one. And stored proof of the Holocaust in it. The original purpose of the accounts — as a means for refugees from the Nazis to protect their assets — is also touched upon.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Downplayed if not outright subverted. Nazis are unquestionably treated as villains who committed terrible atrocities. However, they do not embody the stereotypical eccentricities often associated with Nazis. Instead they act as normal members of a totalitarian society. Globus is perhaps the only exception, as he comes across like a thuggish psychopath barely restraining himself from violence even when on his best behaviour.
  • Tour Guide Detective: Probably one of the best-known examples of the genre, in which March's investigation is used to explore in-depth the nature of this dystopia.
  • Truth in Television/Shown Their Work: Robert Harris includes an explanatory note about the historical characters he uses in the novel and their actual fates, as well as the real-life documents that he cites, just in case anyone thought he made up the thing about the Holocaust.
  • Uriah Gambit: Globus has Jost deployed to the Eastern front, ridding Globus of the only witness to him dumping Buhler's body.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": Despite Nazi claims that the Jews were “resettled East,” most Germans seem to know what really happened. Xavier lampshades this and another more vile euphemism, “up the chimney.”
    Krebs: I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of this.
    March: 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. [He points to the notes with his left hand.] Those put flesh on the bones. Put bones where there was just clear air.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: "Cut a clearing in the forest of your mind, the trees are just waiting to reoccupy it (rephrased)."
  • You Can Run, but You Can't Hide: Nebe gives March a speech of this kind, lest he consider fleeing while in Switzerland.
    Nebe: If you try to make a run to Bern, to enter a foreign embassy, you will be stopped. In any case, there is nowhere for you to go. After yesterday's happy announcement, the Americans will simply toss you back over the border to us. The British, French and Italians will do what we tell them. Australia and Canada will obey the Americans. There are the Chinese, I suppose, but if I were you I'd sooner take my chances in a KZ.