I wasn’t feeling well these past two weeks – not well enough to sit up, at least – so I decided to re-visit one of my favourite novels while I was recuperating. It’s an alternative history story, written by Robert Harris, that depicts a world where Nazi-Germany emerges victorious at the end of the Second World War and not only dominates Europe, but is a global superpower. So, allow me to welcome you to the Reich…
As the points of historical divergence are simplistic, they lead us into a world that, while it is very different, is also very similar to our own reality. England still has its monarchy; but it isn’t ruled by the Queen. A Kennedy is in the White House; but it isn’t J.F.K. The Beatles though are still rocking out; but they would probably be doing the same thing in any alternate reality.
The main character, a Berlin police detective named Xavier March, is far from the embodiment of the Arian superman. He isn’t a member of the Nazi party. He doesn’t espouse the ideology of National Socialism. And at no time does he appear to be anti-Semitic. In that same vein, he accepts that he is neither the perfect husband nor the perfect father. What he is however is a dedicated investigator who is aware that there is something very wrong with his country and a terrible secret is being hidden by its totalitarian government. This secret, which is obvious to the reader, is the Holocaust. But the explanation for the disappearance of six million European Jews isn’t accepted by everyone living in the German Reich, one of whom is our man Inspector March. In the often heard maxim, “That one bad apple spoils the bunch,” the main character comes to represent the complete opposite – that in every rotten bunch you can find one good apple.
Alongside him is a German-speaking American named Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Maguire, a self-exiled freelance reporter in search of a big story. She and March couldn’t be more different. While he is stern and professional, she is flighty and unconventional. Even their appearance present them as the odd couple, with March being an imposing figure while Charlie is rather diminutive in stature. What they do have in common however is a desire to learn the truth, and a willingness to undertake great risks to accomplish their goals.
Always a few steps behind them is the Gestapo officer Odilo Globocnik, a man who is almost too beastly to be real… be he is. His most important role in the novel is to serve as a reminder of the barbarism that exists behind the ‘civilised’ face of the new Germany.
The story opens with the discovery of a corpse; nothing unusual about it except for the fact that it is a leading member of the Nazi party. Further investigation reveals that the occurrence isn’t isolated, and that it is just one of a series of mysterious deaths of senior party officials in recent months. It is through one such case that Xavier meets Charlie and together they form a tumultuous working relationship as they explore a possible connection. But what starts off as a simple network of theft and smuggling of priceless artworks turns into a vast conspiracy of murder committed for the sake of burying the past. The irony is that while the reader is fully aware of the secret, the thrill of the novel is in following the exploits of our two protagonists. Where the threat of being caught looms ever closer with each new revelation.
The author does a brilliant job of creating a story that extrapolates history while including real people and events. Even younger readers with an iota of knowledge involving the history of the Second World War will find themselves in familiar company. They are even treated to a vivid description of the architect Albert Speer’s plans for Adolf Hitler’s vision of Berlin as the ‘capital of capitals’, complete with the massive Volkshalle (People’s Hall). These images represent part of one of the more impressive elements of the novel, which is just how frighteningly believable this world is. The Reich may not be as intrusive as George Orwell’s 1984, but it is an equally surreal society. It is one where every citizen of every age knows their duty, and is motivated with only one purpose in mind – to serve the state. All in the name of National Socialism, and all in a Germany without Jews. The reader can visit anytime they wish, and, unlike the characters in the book – leave whenever they want.