Fatherland and HHhH

March 6, 2014

by Robert Harris; Laurent Binet & Sam Taylor

These two books are tied together by the name of Reinhard Heydrich. I can’t think of a polite way of describing Heydrich. He was one of the architects of the Holocaust, a fervid Nazi, and an all-round total bastard. Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart”, which gives you some kind of idea of what kind of a git he was.

In the real world, Heydrich dies in 1942 from injuries sustained during an assassination attempt by Czech and Slovak commandos while he was “Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia”. In the world of Fatherland, he survives, the Germans win the Second World War and Europe languishes under Nazi rule, with a sympathetic administration in the USA led by Kennedy (père rather than fils) providing no effective check on their activities. Heydrich continues in his role as second-in-command of the SS and goes on being as much as a bastard as ever.

Fatherland was published in 1992, so I’m a little late to the party (for a change). Alternative history novels set around WW2 are a popular genre, but Harris does something interesting and different. He manages to avoid any of the obvious missteps in representing a Nazified Europe by writing what starts out as a straight police procedural. The Thousand Year Reich still needs plods, apparently. Well, it’s a police state, so you do need some police. The slight twist is that the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei) was subsumed into the SS in 1939, thus becoming a sister agency to the Gestapo and so under the overall control of Himmler and his sidekick Heydrich. Our hero, Xavier March, wears the feared uniform of the SS, rationalising that he’d rather do some good wearing the uniform than no good at all.

The plot isn’t terribly unpredictable, although it’s uncovered in stages, so it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. An upcoming summit between Hitler and Kennedy precipitates mild discomfort within the Nazi hierarchy over the Final Solution: everyone in Germany talks about the Jews “going to the East”, if they talk about the Jews at all, but that’s not quite euphemistic enough a cover-up for the kind of high-level negotiations that are coming up. Heydrich conceives a spectacularly brilliant and quintessentially Nazi solution: let’s destroy all the documents (well, that bit isn’t quite so typical Nazi, but this is a serious enough problem that we can tolerate a little disruption in the paper trail), and murder all the high-level bureaucrats involved (basically everyone who was at the Wannsee Conference, apart from Heydrich and the higher higher-ups, of course). Cue slapstick confusion between Gestapo on the one hand (killing inconvenient bureaucrats) and Kripo on the other (trying to figure out why all these fat old Nazis are getting bumped off).

As one might imagine, things don’t end so well for March. At the end of the book, after a good going-over from Heydrich and his Gestapo buddies, it looks like he won’t be drawing a whole lot of that SS pension. However, he has succeeded in getting information about the Holocaust out (not called that in Alternative Earth Germany, of course), which will soon lead to widespread condemnation of the Nazi regime, a breakdown in negotiations between the US and Germany and a new world order. You think? Well, perhaps not. If experience on Real Earth is any guide, clear and detailed documentation of atrocities usually leads to, well, not much. A stiff editorial in the Guardian. Questions in the Lords. That sort of thing. Real change, not so much.

Fortunately, of course, Heydrich didn’t survive. The evil shit died in 1942. HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich) is real history, rather than alternative history, and tells the story of how that happened.

Now, a straight “history of the killing of Reinhard Heydrich” might be of interest to historians, but HHhH goes well beyond that.

Historical fiction, alternative history and “real” history have something of a funny relationship. Writing good historical fiction is exceedingly difficult. If you write a conventional novel, you get to choose the plot, the characters, the events you portray, how you render the dialogue, basically everything that goes into your book. To a great extent, you can do the same in alternative history. You choose a jumping off point where your alternative world diverges from ours and off you go. You can use historical characters without worrying too much about historical authenticity – who can say exactly how Heydrich would have responded in any given situation, if it’s a situation that never existed in the real world and thus to which there can be no witnesses? You can just make it up.

For a historical novel, you certainly don’t get to choose the plot, and you’re constrained as far as characters and events go too. You can do what C. J. Sansom does in his Matthew Shardlake novels or Patrick O’Brien in the Aubrey-Maturin novels and invent incidental characters to focus on, using the history more as a backdrop than an integral part of the novel. That gives you a great deal of freedom to write what you will while still exploiting the atmosphere and mores of the period you’re setting the novel in to add a bit of glamour. Or, you can do what Hilary Mantel did in her Wolfe Hall novels. This involves thousands of index cards recording the most trivial of recorded events in the lives of the most minor of characters of the period and an effort to weave all of those strands into a sort of “maximally historical” narrative. The fact that the Wolfe Hall novels are successful as novels within these constraints is a testament to Mantel’s genius.

And then there’s real history, where you may have to forego some of the requirements of good writing in order to present the known facts in sufficient detail to support whatever thesis you want to present. At this level, you care about details. Counting the buttons on uniforms in archive photographs may tell you which factory produced those uniforms and when, giving insight into logistics and supply. Trawling through thousands of pages of agricultural production records may help you to identify a hidden famine. Of course, you then take away the scaffolding, hiding the details. The process of tracking down all of those facts, the worries that you may have missed something, the controversies, the lacunae, the not-quite-justified leaps of logic, all of those are swept under the carpet.

HHhH doesn’t do this sweeping away. The scaffolding is there in plain sight in the form of short “writing of” chapters interspersed between the conventional narrative chapters describing the assassination attempt. It works really well, mostly because of the worried, slightly paranoid tone that Binet has. He worries about the number of buttons. He worries about what person X said to person Y on occasion Z. He doesn’t want to say that a certain German officer on the Eastern Front was driving an Opel if he doesn’t have incontrovertible evidence that said officer really was driving an Opel.

Now, handled badly, this kind of thing could descend into a sort of annoying historical pettifoggery that would serve only to distract from the real story. Here though, it’s handled well, and serves more to emphasise the malleability of history and the importance of rigour. On the face of it, whether it was an Opel or a Volkswagen doesn’t matter. But where do you stop? If you write, definitively, that it was an Opel, then some future historian researching German industrial production during WW2 may take that as evidence that Opel were producing a given vehicle at a given time from a given factory. Which may be untrue. And which may lead this hypothetical historian to draw incorrect conclusions. So that would be bad history.

What makes all this the exact opposite of annoying, indeed incredibly engaging, is that Biney truly appears to care about the people whose stories he has taken it upon himself to tell. Getting things wrong due to inattention or lack of diligence would be an insult to the people of Lidice, and to the memories of the Czech and Slovak soldiers (and many others) who gave their lives in the effort to remove Heydrich’s boot from their peoples’ shoulders.

Binet was writing HHhH around the time when Jonathan Littell was being lauded to the skies for Les Bienveillantes (in English, The Kindly Ones). Dealing as it does with the Holocaust, the war in Russia and other matters WW2-ish, this was of great interest to Binet. There are some very funny, although eventually unpublished (you can find them on the web with a little Googling) sections of HHhH where Binet frets about the likely reception of his book after the success of Littell’s book, and he has a good little bitching session about Littell’s slapdash approach to historical accurary. Slapdash in comparison to Binet, that is, so probably well within the bounds of factual accuracy any sane person would expect from a historical novel. The Opel example comes from this stuff – Littell talks about some officer’s car and Binet starts to worry that he’s missed a source that describes the car that this (real) officer was driving at the time. And if he’s missed that, what ever else might he have missed?

Now, I thought that The Kindly Ones was a brilliant novel, and the voice of the narrator was really strong and interesting (the phrase “unreliable narrator” doesn’t really do justice to secretly homosexual ex-SS officers with direct responsibility for the killing of Jews during the Holocaust living in hiding in France…), but HHhH really is something sui generis. Binet pulls off a great trick, in making us care about counting buttons (metaphorically) by tying that quest for historical fidelity to a respect for and love of the people whose stories he tells.