The story begins in Nazi Germany, the Third Reich in April 1964, in the week leading up to Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday. The plot follows detective Xavier March, an investigator working for the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), as he investigates the suspicious death of a high-ranking Nazi (Josef Bühler) in the Havel, on the outskirts of Berlin. As March uncovers more details he realizes that he is caught up in a political scandal involving senior Nazi party officials, who are apparently being systematically murdered under staged circumstances.
March meets with Charlie Maguire, a female American journalist who works for the New York Times, who is also determined to investigate the case. They both travel to Zürich to investigate the private Swiss bank account of one of the murdered officials. Ultimately, the two uncover the horrific truth behind the staged murders. The Gestapo is eliminating the remaining officials who planned the Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference of 1942. This is being done in order to safeguard an upcoming meeting of Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy by ensuring that the crimes of the Nazi regime are not revealed. Maguire heads for neutral Switzerland with the evidence, hoping to publish it in the New York Times. March, however, is denounced by his ten year-old son and apprehended by the Gestapo.
In the cellars of Gestapo headquarters at Prinz Albrechtstrasse, March is severely tortured but does not reveal the location of Maguire. Kripo Chief Arthur Nebe stages a rescue, intending to track March as he meets up with Maguire at their rendezvous in Waldshut-Tiengen on the Swiss / German border. March realizes what is happening and heads for Auschwitz, leading the authorities in the wrong direction.
The Gestapo catches up with March at the unmarked site of Auschwitz's completely dismantled extermination camp. Believing that Maguire has crossed the border into Switzerland, he searches for some sign that the death camp was real. As the Gestapo agents swarm around him, March uncovers bricks in the undergrowth. Satisfied, he pulls out his Luger and goes forth to fight a battle he cannot win.
In the German version of the book the English name of the main character is translated to "Xaver März", nicknamed "Xavi".
The attendees of the Wannsee Conference are central to the plot, although most of them are already dead at the time of the novel's events.
The second major point of divergence is that around the same time, German intelligence (in a way never explained) learns the British have cracked the Enigma code, which is leading to the sinking of their submarines. They withdraw their submarines from the Atlantic temporarily and send false intelligence to lure the British fleet to destruction. The U-Boat campaign against the United Kingdom resumes, starving Britain into accepting a humiliating armistice in 1944. Winston Churchill, King George VI and other prominent British officials are forced into exile in Canada. Edward VIII regains the throne at the helm of a pro-German puppet government.
Germany tests its first atom bomb in 1946, and fires a "V-3" missile that explodes above New York City, to demonstrate Germany's ability to attack the continental United States with long-range missiles. Following this demonstration of power, the United States signs a peace treaty with Germany. This results in the Third Reich being one of the two superpowers of the world, along with the US, which defeated Japan, which reflects actual history of the war.
Having achieved victory in Europe, Germany annexes Eastern Europe and most of the western Soviet Union into the Greater German Reich. Following the signing of the Treaty of Rome, Western Europe and Scandinavia are corralled into a pro-German trading bloc, the European Community. The surviving areas of the USSR become engaged in an endless guerrilla war with German forces in the Ural Mountains. Mounting casualties (at least 100,000 since 1960 stated in the novel and that the bodies have to be shipped back to Germany in the dead of night), have sapped the German military despite Hitler's earlier statement (quoted in the novel) about a perpetual war to keep the German people on their toes, like in the novel 1984. By 1964, the United States and the Greater German Reich are caught in a Cold War and an arms race to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons and space technology.
The novel takes place from April 14 – 20, 1964, as Germany prepares for Hitler's 75th birthday celebrations. A visit by the President of the United States, Joseph P. Kennedy, is planned as part of a gradual détente between the United States and the Greater German Reich. The Nazi hierarchy are hinted at being desperate for peace because the German economy has been staggering since the end of the war and the cost of fighting the war against the Russians has led to a situation whereby German citizens are encouraged to contribute to "Winter Relief". The Holocaust has been explained away to the satisfaction of many as merely the relocation of most of the Jewish population to the East into areas where communication and travel are still very poor, explaining why it is impossible for most of their relatives in the West to contact them. Despite this, many Germans are aware — or suspect — the government has eliminated the Jews.
The first few pages of Fatherland feature two maps; one of the city centre of Berlin, and another showing the extent of the massively expanded Greater German Reich. The map shows Germany stretching from Alsace-Lorraine (Westmark) in the west to the Ural Mountains and the lower Caucasus in the east.
The Reich has retained Austria (now known as the "Ostmark"), the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia), and Luxembourg (now named "Moselland"). In the East, Germany has annexed Poland, and Russia west of the Urals has been divided into five Reichkommissariats: Ostland (Belarus and the Baltic states), Ukraine, Muscovy (from Moscow to the Urals), and Caucasus, along with Generalkommissariat Taurida (Southern Ukraine and the Crimea).
Major cities in the expanded Reich include old German cities such as Hamburg, Danzig and Berlin (the largest city in the world, with a population of 10 million in 1964), but also include newly-annexed cities such as Moscow, Tiflis, Ufa, St. Petersburg, Kraków, Rovno, Riga, Melitopol, Gotenburg (Simferopol) and Theodorichshafen (former Sevastopol).
Berlin has been extensively remodelled as Hitler's "capital of capitals," designed according to the wishes of Hitler and his top architect, Albert Speer. By 1964, the city boasts gargantuan Nazi monuments; the Great Hall holds over 160,000 people at the highest Nazi ceremonies; the enormous Arch of Triumph is inscribed with the names of German soldiers killed in the two World Wars, and straddles the Grand Avenue, an immense boulevard lined with captured Soviet artillery and towering statues of Nazi eagles. The Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate are dwarfed by the vast, severe, granite civil buildings which dominate Berlin's city centre; the Grand Plaza, the sprawling Berlin railway station, Hitler's mammoth palace, the headquarters of the German Army, and the parliament of the powerless European Union.
The rest of Western Europe, excluding Switzerland, has been corralled by Germany into a European Community, formed from twelve nations: Norway, Sweden (which has surrendered its policy of neutrality), Finland (which has absorbed Karelia from Russia), Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland (the listing suggests that either Britain has annexed the Republic back into the United Kingdom or that the Republic has taken over the Six Counties), France, Spain (as in real history led by Franco), Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy (it is unspecified if Mussolini is still in control). Other countries of Fatherland's Europe include Croatia, Greece, Romania (which has annexed Bessarabia from the old USSR, a greatly expanded Hungary (which has absorbed Transylvania from neighbouring Romania as well as the wartime puppet state of Slovakia and possibly still led by the Arrow Cross Party), Bulgaria (which appears to have annexed Central Macedonia and East Macedonia and Thrace from Greece), Albania, Serbia, Iceland, and Turkey.
A virtually powerless European Parliament is based in Berlin. At the European Parliament building, the flags of the member states are dwarfed by a swastika flag twice the size of the other flags. The nations of Fatherland's EC, despite being nominally free under their own governments and leaders (such as General Franco and Edward VIII), are closely watched by Germany. The military forces of the "free" nations of Europe are only just sufficient to police their own territory and their colonies. European nations are under constant surveillance by Berlin and are subordinate to Germany in all but name.
Switzerland has not been annexed by the Reich and is not a member of the European Community. By the time the Reich had turned its eyes to it, the stalemate of the Cold War was setting in, and Switzerland had become a convenient neutral spot for American and German intelligence agents to spy on each other. Consequently, Switzerland is the last free country in Europe.
The novel also makes many references to the world outside of Europe. The United States is locked in a Cold War with the Greater German Reich. Since the end of the war in 1946, both the US and Germany have been racing against each other to develop sophisticated military, nuclear, and space technologies. Japan is said to have been defeated by the U.S. after the United States detonated two atomic bombs on Japanese territory. Japan seems to have recovered quickly since its defeat and Tokyo is the host for the 1964 Olympic Games. The United States is said to have not participated in the Games since 1936, but is expected to in 1964.
China is a weak independent state — a passing reference hints at China being ruled by a harsh government — and Sino-German relations do not seem particularly strong. A greatly-reduced Russian rump state exists, with its capital at Omsk. The United States supplies Russia with weapons and funds, which are used by the Russians to wage an endless guerrilla war with German forces in the Ural Mountains. Although German propaganda plays down the war in the east, the death toll on the Eastern Front is severe. Africa and the rest of Asia are still controlled by the old European colonial empires. South America is not referred to in the novel.
A point left unclear is whether the Holocaust was confined to Nazi-occupied Europe or was extended to the rest of the world, particularly Palestine. In the novel, the Nazis' Holocaust has never been revealed, and instead the Holodomor - the massive planned famines of the 1930s, in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR- is known throughout the world as "Stalin's Holocaust".
The British Empire appears to be a strong entity and retains its territories in Africa and Asia, although Canada, Australia and New Zealand have split from the Empire and are closely allied to the United States. Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Windsor, who claims the British Crown from Edward VIII, reside in Canada, speaking out against the Greater German Reich, German-controlled Europe, and the puppet British regime. However, Great Britain is afforded a great deal of respect from the German Reich as its Empire and historical institutions were greatly admired by Adolf Hitler even in the years before World War 2.
The novel describes that since the end of the war between Germany and the United States in 1946, a nuclear stalemate has developed, which seems to overshadow international relations. Various references in the book suggest that Germany is paranoid of a nuclear war. New German buildings are constructed with mandatory fallout shelters; the Reichsarchiv claims to have been built to withstand a direct missile hit. Despite the catastrophically high death toll on the Eastern Front, the German military is afraid to use nuclear weapons in case they provoke an American nuclear attack on the Reich. It is not explicitly stated whether Germany and the United States are the only nuclear powers in the world of Fatherland.
In the novel, the bedrock of Nazi ideology is still the policy of blaming subversives for social problems. Homosexuality, incest, and interracial relationships (particularly between "Aryans" and Slavs) have joined Jews (see anti-semitism) and communism to become the new scapegoats for the Nazi Party. The Nazi view of other peoples has also been forced to change. With Europe and Russia under German control, the Nazi Party appears to have spent the early 1960s blaming the United States for causing Germany's problems. Nazi propaganda has previously depicted America as a land of corruption, degeneracy and poverty. However, as the diplomatic meeting between Hitler and Kennedy nears, German propaganda is forced to change its image of America to a more positive view. In 1964, the Nazi Party no longer has any internal or external enemies left to fight and as a consequence, the very structure of Nazi society is starting to fall apart.
Despite its ideological and moral decline, Germany enjoys a very high standard of living, with its citizens living off the high-quality produce of their European satellite states and freed from physical labour by thousands of Polish, Czech and Ukrainian slaves. The European nations produce high-quality consumer goods for German citizens while also providing services, such as the SS academy at Oxford University and German holiday resorts in Spain, France, and Greece. Products from across Europe and their colonial empires flood into Germany, providing German citizens with a wide choice of high-quality goods. Hitler's crabbed, banal personal tastes in art and music have become the norm for society, creating a stagnant and boringly repetitive cultural atmosphere.
The social structure of Nazi Germany has changed considerably from the 1940s. Military service is still compulsory, but recruits have a choice of service. Eastern Europe has been colonised by German settlers (although local partisan resistance movements are very strong) and the German population has soared as a result of Nazi emphasis on childbirth. Increasing numbers of Nazi officials are university-educated bureaucrats. The SS serves as the country's police force, and concentration camps are still in existence for political dissidents, occasionally given staged inspections by the International Red Cross.
According to the main characters, however, German society in the early 1960s is becoming more and more rebellious. Student protests, particularly against the war in the Urals, American and British cultural influence (including the rise of The Beatles' popularity, already denounced in the official German press), and growing pacifism are all found in Nazi society. Jazz music is still popular and Germany claims to have come up with a version which is free from "negro influence". In spite of the general repressiveness, the Beatles' real-life Hamburg engagements have happened here as well, suggesting that American and British cultural influence is undiminished even in this version of the world. Germany appears to be under constant attack by terrorist groups, with officials assassinated and civilian airliners bombed in-flight. Religion is still officially discouraged by the state, and the Hitler Youth is compulsory for all children. Universities, like in 1930s Germany, are centres of student dissent, and the White Rose movement is once again active. The Nazis continue with their policies for women, encouraging women to remain in the home and bring up many children. Nazi organisations such as Kraft durch Freude still exist and fulfill their original roles. A sprawling transport network covers the entire Reich, including vast autobahnen and railways carrying immense trains.
The level of technology in Fatherland is much the same as in the actual 1960s, and in some respects, is more advanced. The German military makes use of jet aircraft, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers, while civilian technology has also advanced considerably. Jet airliners, televisions, hair-dryers, modern cars, and even photocopiers are used in Germany.
The novel makes references to the space programmes of the United States and the Third Reich, both of whom appear to possess sophisticated space technology. Judging by a reference made by Maguire, both the United States and the Third Reich launched the first artificial satellites into orbit shortly after the war, from White Sands and Peenemünde respectively. The extent of space technology and exploration in the world of Fatherland is unknown.
Eisenhower, it stated, retired in disgrace and the loss of life was so great that the American public turned its back on the war in Europe and focused on Japan, thus allowing Germany to regroup and defeat the United Kingdom. It also states that in 1964, Stalin is still alive and leading the Russian forces against Germany.
It was also serialised on BBC radio, starring Anton Lesser as March and Angeline Ball as Charlie Maguire. It was dramatised, produced and directed by John Dryden and first broadcast on 9 July 1997. The ending is changed slightly to allow for the limitations of the medium: the entire Auschwitz death camp is discovered in an abandoned state, and Charlie Maguire's passage into Switzerland definitely occurs.
Robert Harris himself was said to be very unhappy with the film's screenplay. The movie was filmed on location in Prague, Czech Republic.