Dominion V Fatherland
"Rich, atmospheric and authentic. A top-notch thriller."
"Chilling, fast-paced and exciting. A superior police procedural."
There are several points during the Second World War when the balance of power could have turned decisively the way of Hitler. The what if… in these sliding doors moments has been realised in several works of fiction, not least the 1992 crime novel Fatherland by Robert Harris and CJ Sansom’s 2012 thriller Dominion.
If ever there was world ripe for the alternative-history genre then it is a world in which the Nazi’s won the war. Here’s a look at Fatherland and, first, Dominion.
C J Sansom’s version has Churchill failing to become Prime Minister in May 1940. Instead, it’s Lord Halifax that influenced the war cabinet and took the hot seat. After Dunkirk, Britain accepted the terms offered by Germany, escaping Occupation but shackled to the Nazi regime. When Lloyd George - who had become PM after Halifax had resigned - died in 1945, the newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook became Prime Minister.
The story is set in 1952 amid London’s London’s Great Smog. The German-Soviet War is still on-going and taking its toll on Germany. The British are under authoritarian rule, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley is home secretary, and the media’s under state control. The streets are marshalled by a violent auxiliary police and Jews face ever greater constraints: being forced to wear Star of David lapels and rounded up and taken to the Isle of Wight on route to German camps.
Hitler, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, is at death’s door and the more Fascist Britain becomes the more the resistance grows, but Beaverbrook, Mosley and Enoch Powell are unwilling to stand up for the British people.
A well organised Resistance movement – similar to that occurred in France – is led by Winston Churchill. He’s in hiding - wanted dead or alive - but makes a cameo in the book. The Resistance, increasingly strengthening as' British' interest weakens, are a mixed group of both fugitives and those hidden in plain sight, all intent on restoring freedom and democracy.
The protagonist is David Fitzgerald, a Civil Servant in the Dominions Office, secretly helping the Resistance, whilst hiding the fact that his mother was Jewish. His main mission involves his old friend Frank Muncaster. Frank, the victim of a traumatic life, is in a Birmingham mental hospital, alone with knowledge that could change the course of history; a secret from his brother scientist concerning the development of the atomic bomb. David must rescue Frank - before the Gestapo get their torturous hands on either of them - and smuggle him out of the country and into US custody. But the priority must be in keeping Frank away from the Germans (and British police) who are desperate for his secret. The deadly chase for Frank pits the might of Germany against the full support of the Resistance movement.
Leading the hunt is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth. One of the characters allotted passages told from their perspective. The capable and merciless Gunter; David’s pacifist wife Sarah; Natalia, the romantic interest, and, of course, Frank and David are well defined. It’s a long book but the cat and mouse game is made more gripping by the book’s richness and the character backstories.
This gripping and atmospheric spy story has Sansom convincing that this is a Britain that could very well have existed. Best-known for his (real history) Tudor novels featuring Matthew Shardlake, the author makes political points with his heavily researched and hauntingly authentic alternate-history, offering a chilling demonstration of what might have been and giving a clear warning that fascism could take root anywhere.
In Robert Harris’s Fatherland we are in Berlin in 1964, the week before Hitler’s 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, investigates the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb. On discovering the identity of the body - an old man who was once an influential Nazi bureaucrat - March uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth - a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.
“A police state is a country run by criminals.”
Unlike in Dominion, Britain plays a minor role here (but it’s comforting to read that The Beatles still emerge). There’s an SS Academy in Oxford and the nation is nominally ruled by King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis.
Like in Dominion, Germany is in a state of perpetual war against Russia.
The nuclear-armed United States is all powerful. Germany are attempting rapprochement with the US with a summit meeting between the Fuhrer and President Kennedy announced. Nothing can stand in their way. Or can it?
There is unrest and suspicion among the masses. Some listen to American radio stations despite pop music being officially discouraged; others are hearing horrible rumours of acts that the Germans are keeping from the world. March may be an SS man but he’s a questionable history of seeking the truth beneath the Reich's propaganda.
For all the alternate-history this is a traditional police procedural, with an engaging hero with personal problems (a broken relationship and a young son displays party values that show his Nazi indoctrination).
The romantic interest is provided by Amerian journalist Charlotte "Charlie" Maguire, a strong, questioning, independent young woman (more like Dominion’s Natalia than its Sarah).
In the question of Fatherland V Dominion, Fatherland wins on character (surprising given that it’s half the length) and plot but the authenticity of Dominion certainly rings true.