Berlin, 1964. The Greater German Reich stretches from the Rhine to the Urals, and keeps an uneasy peace with its nuclear rival, the United States. On the eve of Adolf Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday, a detective is summoned to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin’s most prestigious suburb.
Harris makes his alternative history entirely concrete. In Berlin, where the novel is set, Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, has fulfilled some of the grand architectural designs of the fascist state ... Fatherland is clearly influenced by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, fiction's template for the workings of a totalitarian society ... This is alternative history, not allegory. The fraying of power is important to Harris's use of the other genre he exploits: the police procedural. It must be conceivable in this fictional world for a clever and brave investigator – the traditional police detective transposed into a nightmare situation – to find out the terrible truth that has been hidden from Germans as well as from the rest of the world ... The conceit behind the book is a nightmarish one: not only that the Nazis have won, but that, with the old leaders dead or ageing and a smoother new generation taking over, détente with this monstrous regime becomes necessary.
The novel’s finest conceit is the physical transformation of Berlin. Hitler and his personal architect, Albert Speer, always planned to remodel the capital, and Harris belatedly brings their blueprints to life ... The reader will immediately sense something off about this Nazi dystopia. There is no antisemitism. In fact, there are no Jews at all ... Harris may be suggesting that all forms of totalitarianism are the same, which is neither original nor true. But surely this is taking the novel too seriously. Fatherland works fine as a sly and scary page-turner, and for those of you who can’t imagine a summer at the beach without at least one good Nazi thriller--and who can?--then Xavier March is the SS man for you.
Harris makes his version of the Third Reich in its 32nd year reasonably plausible. Hitler is a venerable figure who doesn’t appear in the story in person ... It is the plot of Fatherland, set among the rival police forces of the police state, that makes a second literary comparison unavoidable. In the course of three straightforward period detective novels, with maybe a fourth on the way, Philip Kerr has pursued the same rivalries, the same kind of scandals involving Nazi big-wigs, the same dark political conspiracies underlying what seem at first to be routine crimes ... Fatherland is a formidable thriller ... It is terse, involving and expertly-constructed ... It’s a work of the alternative present within a work of the alternative present, but still not a picture of the world we know ... Dick is juggling three versions of what happened, or might have happened, in recent history. He is saying, if I read him aright, that we should not attribute inevitability to any of them.