The book (written by Robert Harris) Fatherland is an exciting crime thriller set in 1964, after the Third Reich had won the second world war. It is a book that does not delve too deep into the Nazi ideology or pushes the intellectual boundaries of alternate history. Instead it tells the story about a detective who solves not just a murder but the mass murder of millions of innocent civilians. The conclusion focuses around the birthday of Adolf Hitler when the protagonist, Xavier March reveals the evidence of the genocide of the Jewish people. It is a bombshell that in the story would somehow unsettle the people’s faith in the Reich and chill the arriving American presidents’ warmth towards the Fuhrer. Shattering the alliance between the US and Germany. But, should this moment in history have occurred would it have made a difference what Xavier March revealed?
In the real world we know that the terrible Nazi regime ended but only after millions had perished. The nature of the crimes was not the reason for the allies to unite and defeat the Axis powers. Many in its service were no doubt unaware of the extent of the atrocities committed by the government that they served. And if they had been aware how much would it have changed their obedience? Especially should they personally profit from the State itself. It is easy to question the powers that be during obvious hardship, but in prosperity, after a great victory and during a unified crisis the questioning of authority becomes far less welcome. Especially for the patriotic.
A Backstory for Murder
It was with little condemnation that the Belgian empire was able to destroy and reap misery throughout its territories in Africa, murdering and mutilating millions of individuals. The atrocities inspiring Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’. While many were aware and reported on the mayhem of imperialism suffered by the African subjects of the Belgian King Leopold II. None rallied to overthrow him or even directly intervened. Late into the genocide protests and pressure was applied and the King’s own Congo Free State was turned into the Belgian Congo, no justice was found for the victims. Instead Belgian Empire would be viewed as a victim just over a decade later in World War One.
For the other belligerents of the Great War, notably Germany and the Ottoman Empire it was with genocide that they each conducted themselves inside of their own colonial possessions. Brutal repression was exercised by the German government in its African colonies for decades leading to a mass extermination of hundreds of thousands in what is now known as Namibia. Many of those administrators and executioners of racialist imperialism would find influence and authority inside the new Nazi Regime. At Versailles in 1919, for all the venom that the allies spat in the German direction, the crimes committed in Africa were not considered.
The Ottoman Empire already at the ends of its tether by the time World War One was waged ruled over vast territories full of unique peoples. The Turkish dominated empire oversaw a vicious genocide of Armenian and Greek civilians. Killing millions, a mass murder that has not been officially acknowledged to this day. After the war, many involved in implementing and planning the genocide found themselves in the post war government. The Young Turks were not condemned or viewed as a pariah nationalist entity to be associated with the extermination of a people. No justice was found for the victims of the Turkish government’s genocide. Young Turk is now viewed as a positive progressive term, despite the genocide and tyranny that they oversaw.
“Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler, 22 August 1939
The bloody revolution in Russia was soaked in the corpses of the innocent as differing communists fought among themselves and then against the ‘Whites’ united with the Western allies. After the Bolshevik victories in the Russian Civil War decades of brutal tyranny would lead ultimately to the unimaginable horror rule of Josef Stalin. Slavery, torture, murder were the instruments by which Soviet Russia improved itself before an observing world. The very Western nations that had tried to quell the growth of the communist empire were now enabling it with grants and assistance.
Just as many of the Gulf states in the modern era enjoy an influx of Western advisors and consultants as migrant labourers die around them pushed to the bone in what is legal slavery. The Soviet Union ‘employed’ millions to build and electrify its empire. Many dying, for the central planners this was a valid sacrifice. The price of modernity. The Holodomor where millions would die of starvation and executions in mostly the Ukraine was also ignored and dismissed despite good journalists such as Gareth Jones, reporting on the event as it unfolded. The Soviet regime was still embraced and supported, not condemned or challenged. Scores of credible journalists knowingly concealed and downplayed the atrocities. The reader could choose who they wished to believe.
“What are the causes of the famine? The main reason for the catastrophe in Russian agriculture is the Soviet policy of collectivisation. The prophecy of Paul Scheffer in 1920–30 that collectivisation of agriculture would be the nemesis of Communism has come absolutely true.”- Gareth Jones, Financial Times, 13 April 1933
Even through the purges of the late 1930s, where hundreds of thousands were killed and just as many sent to gulags the world observed with little action or sway. The communists in most nations accused the victims. The ideal of the communist utopia was far too great for the ideological romantic. The millions who had perished to help create this fictional dream be damned. The Soviet Union would become an ally, Josef Stalin with his murderous history on full display embraced as Uncle Joe by the supposed champions of freedom. The blood dripping from these champions claws also.
The mass bombings, vileness of empire and rationalisation of killing thousands of civilians to achieve a strategic or even to merely terrorise the enemy morale. Enemy being any subjects of the government being opposed, were credible methods of warfare. It would lead to the millions of dead in Korea and South East Asia as the exceptional empire waged its wars there. It is the methods of slaughter that intellectuals and legal scholars would debate. Bayoneting a baby inside the walls of Nanking are criminal while dropping napalm on babies in Vietnam is seen as valid. Chambers of gas killing civilians based upon their racial identity is a crime against humanity, detonating atomic bombs above a city of civilians based upon their national identity is a legal method of war fighting.
It is the arbitrary nature of intelligent people that view mass murder through the lens of civilised destiny that is best exhibited in the film “Conspiracy” depicting the 1942 Wannsee Conference where key officials and members of the Nazi party conceive the laws that would lead to the extermination of the Jewish people inside the occupied lands. It is with calculation and intellect that men of great power conceive the justification for mass murder. It is with a similar grasp of numbers and calculation that men like Robert McNamara would become prominent for. The context only being that victory justifies what those numbers represent. Human life taken in the game of greater cause. This is the nature of the regime that has won the war. All war. These men were aware of the crimes that the Belgian, Turkish and Soviet governments had committed, they were most certainly aware of the Kaiser’s regime and its genocide in Africa. The past taught them that no justice would find them, perhaps even if they lost.
For Xavier March in the book Fatherland, the dossier and photos of the death camps are the direct result of those conspiring to solve what they consider to be a great problem. His heroic revelation however would have done little. The WikiLeaks cables, Pentagon Papers and Afghanistan Papers all have done little to check the very entity that the protagonist in the book hopes to sway, the United States government. The US government would likely already have known, it would have been an admitted omission of wider diplomacy. When President Nixon shook Chairman Mao’s hand, he did not raise his knowledge of the millions murdered by the Maoist regime leading to that moment. Just as Winston Churchill and FDR did not call Josef Stalin out on any of his government’s atrocities. Great Men in history stand upon the unmarked graves of millions.
Such bloody omissions are fact of doing business and trade, it is polite among killers to ignore the death camps so long as the business can continue to go on. This is the pragmatism of politics. The conduct of evil. It is an ever-rolling stage act performed for the sometimes-voting mob that really does not need such theatrics. Many are compliant regardless of the deception. Scandals and great revelations certainly effect administrations and destroy political careers but they do not take down the apparatus. Instead others are welcome to replace the corrupt so that they can now use the playground of institutions to enjoy power, to rule.
It is likely the Nazi regime in 1964 would have been a Fascist welfare state. Public works, public education, public health, grants for the corporations and assistance across the empire to build a great society, where none are left behind. Many individuals gain from such a short term euphoria of wealth and comfort. Such means are bribery. The silver slipped to turn the gaze away from the deeds that are required to maintain rule. Those dissenting disappear and in an age before the Karen, the quick to dob neighbours always existed. Then just as now ‘the Karen’ is the dithering maid of tyranny.
Would those who benefit from such welfare, who are employed inside the apparatus of government and those working for private concerns that enjoy the government contracts have cared that millions of Jews were murdered? Do many now care about those murdered beneath the fleets of bombers of their own national government? Do they care about the intimate bullet to the head inside a sandy house in Central Asia performed by a brave of their government or the random menace of a missile from a drone blowing to pieces children and women because a lone man may have sent a text message? The justifications for such violence are never without end.
For Xavier March what was the best outcome that his revelation would have reached? For him to suicide or stand trial. Would he become the Julian Assange of his time lost inside the prison of self-serving litigation. Or would he go on the run like an Edward Snowden never to return to his home country again. He would be a traitor. For a regime that had massaged away the memory of war and genocide so easily on a no doubt willing to believe populace. It would have no trouble turning such a man as Xavier March into a discredited being. The evidence he shared labelled simply as Fake News. In the end of the fictional story the alliance with the United States ends and the Hitlerian vision of Germany collapses. Clean and simple. A happy ending for a noble sacrifice.
Perhaps in dealing with the subject of Nazi Germany it is important for a fiction writer to be careful in your story telling so as not be called a sympathiser or romanticist as that regime is forever pariah to the ages. The complex reality of what may have occurred afterwards does not fit a clean narrative for a satisfying conclusion. But as a reflection to our own world it is a bitter reminder that we are all romantics, naïve in our belief that justice will prevail so long as the truth is unveiled. Unfortunately, justice is not the one that is blind, it is the millions that enable the tyranny, it is found in their indifference and obedience. It is a desire to believe in something that never was noble. An ideological quest for equality that spins liberty and freedom into the web of evil, it is when security and safety are placed above all else and when the bribery of entitlement and welfare intoxicate many into a state of leisure. Anything that challenges such, even a brutal truth about the past and present becomes in the end the enemy. This is true now as it ever was and it is why for many the Fatherland is more important than its crimes.
“What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for?” Xavier March, Fatherland (Robert Harris)
Kym Robinson, May 2020