The Mystery of Evil
by Leon J. Podles
By Richard Harris
(Random House, 338 pp., $21)
It is April 1964, and Germany is getting ready to celebrate Hitler's seventy-fifth birthday. Germany, having won the war, has reconstructed Europe: the Reich extends from a truncated France to the Urals. All the remaining countries of Western and Southern Europe, except Switzerland, are satellites. America alone stands free, and the two superpowers are locked in a stalemate and a Cold War. But President Joe Kennedy, Sr., is coming to Berlin for the celebrations, and a new era of détente is about to begin. The Jews have disappeared, but no one knows or cares what has happened to them. Police detective Xavier March gets involved in a murder case, and the victim turns out to be an old Nazi from the founding days of the Party. Suddenly March's life and the prospect of American-Nazi cooperation begin to disintegrate.
Harris has written a good thriller. The police detective novel with its alienated, hard-boiled hero, which Fatherland begins as, quickly transmutes into an intelligence novel, with overtones of James Bond and Tom Clancy; then the novel turns into something much more profound: the study of a soul that has had to tear itself apart and put itself together in the space of a few days, in a parallel to the convulsions that have disoriented the Left domestically and internationally as socialism and communism have collapsed.
Harris has made a loving study of Nazi culture: it is so banal, so irrational, so mean, it could easily have triumphed and become the Establishment. The Nazis were a result of German feelings of insecurity. Germany was the last European nation to unify, and always felt threatened by the older and more established powers. Hitler tried to solve this national inferiority complex: in the novel Speer designed (which in real life he did) and built (which fortunately in reality he didn't) vast monuments to the power and glory of the Reich: a Great Hall of the Nazi Party, a quarter of a kilometer high, the largest building in the world, into which sixteen Saint Peters could fit; a palace for Adolf Hitler (sans windows) 100 meters longer than Versailles; a triumphal arch into which 49 Arcs de Triomphe could fit. As March notes, "even in victory, Germany has a pervasive inferiority complex."
The flavor of Nazi institutional culture is also captured. The Germans have a tendency to disintegration that expressed itself for centuries in the hundreds of princedoms that were the political structure of the German people. Hitler unified the state in himself; the sole source of unity was his will. The vast bureaucracies became the new princedoms. Hitler assigned them overlapping areas of responsibility, presumably so no one could consolidate institutional power and challenge him. The state was therefore chaotic, and the fights between bureaucracies sometimes created a momentary space for freedom when an individual could appeal to one bureaucracy for help against another. March gets caught up in one of these fights, but he has to determine whether the fight is real or illusory and whether his freedom is real or a trap.
Nazi racial theory was guarded by sex police, who prevented liaisons between German men and their Polish maids (this really happened). The theory was guarded by the racial zealots who were not blond, blue-eyed supermen, but Germans whose claims to racial superiority was suspect, "the lame and the ugly, the runts of the national litter." This nuttiness of racial theorizing has had a resurgence in America's universities, although selected non-whites are the current idols and male WASPdom rather than Jewry the current demons. Despite the best efforts of American liberals, race has not become quite so dominating a category in America as it was in the Reich, but we are well on the way.
A more important parallel between the fictional and real worlds is the resemblance between the Nazi and Soviet empires. One lost and another won a war, but they are equally evil. In Fatherland the Nazis conquer European Russia and uncover the Soviet atrocities that they display to a horrified world, just as the Allies display Auschwitz. German television shows "documentaries on Stalin's holocaust—
On live television Yeltsin forced Gorbachev
to read the documents that proved the
very men he appointed had betrayed him and would
probably have murdered him if it proved
necessary. The Left is Gorbachev writ large.
bleached skulls and walking skeletons, bulldozed corpses and the earth-caked rags of women and children bound with wire and shot in the back of the neck." The novel makes the equation Naziism = Communism over and over, so that even the dullest Marxist professor is forced so see the truth.
The Left has had to undergo a wrenching re-evaluation as it has been forced to admit that it has supported squalid criminals, thugs, and murderers. In A Question of Character the liberal Thomas C. Reeves gathers the evidence that the Kennedys are a criminal clan, with the virtues (family loyalty, superstitious religion) of the Mafia. Intellectuals and journalists fell over themselves to conceal the corruption, the putrefying ulcer, that was Camelot. Joe Kennedy. Sr.—"appeaser, anti-Semite, gangster, and sonofabitch" as an American reporter in Fatherland describes him—was the font of the evil. Americans were as desperate to be deceived as the Germans were. Americans still are, as Catholic voters consistently send pro-abortion zealots (Mikulski, Ted Kennedy) to Washington.
The international Left will never fully recover from the indictment that the Russian government has made against the Communist Party, an indictment that equals the most strident Bircher rant. On live television Yeltsin forced Gorbachev to read the documents that proved the very men he appointed had betrayed him and would probably have murdered him if it proved necessary. The Left is Gorbachev writ large.
The Germans in history and in Fatherland want to be deceived; they are in love with a lie, and hate those who point out inconvenient truths. But totalitarianism tries to justify itself by its brutal realism. March as a detective glories in his sordid and gory work, in autopsies and the underside of society, as he pieces together the truth of a crime. Naziism taught March to look at reality without idealistic gas; he turns his gaze at Naziism itself. He realizes that a society built on lies and murder cannot last. He asks the American reporter, "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?"
He has been deceived because he has wanted to be deceived and has deceived himself. But he has an honesty and a hunger for reality that makes him willing to risk his life, and even more painfully, his identity, the story of his life, in pursuit of truth. The police chief muses to March: "Remember what the Führer once said? 'My greatest gift to the Germans is that I have taught them to think clearly.' And what happens? a few of you—perhaps the very best of you—turn this pitiless clear thinking onto us."
Because its power lies in its examination of the re-evaluation that March undergoes and its inescapable parallel in the reaction of the Left to the exposure of Communism and liberalism, Fatherland has the possibility of outlasting its historical moment and becoming part of the myth of the twentieth century. It may become to the Left what All's Quiet on the Western Front was to the militarists who sent millions of young men into an earthly hell and an early grave. Harris is more indirect than Remarque, but his indictment of the human lust for the lie is equally searing. He shows the nobility of the desire for truth, which ultimately —although this is not a religious novel—is the desire for Truth (seeing this, Chesterton made his detective-hero a priest). This portrayal saves the novel from the nihilism that threatens anyone who thinks about the events of the twentieth, the most horrifying of centuries.
Leon J. Podles writes propaganda from the formerly German city of Baltimore.