Munich by Robert Harris
There are moments in history where the world stands at the brink and hold it’s breath. The Munich Crisis of 1938 is one of those very moments. Popular history and “wisdom” is one of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Hitler and betrayal of Czechoslovakia. While the handing over of the Sudetenlands, which effectively ruined the Czech’s defensive planning, was a brutal choice, the realpolitik of the outcome is remarkable. In his new novel Munich, Robert Harris looks at those four days in September 1938 from both sides at Hitler’s conference table.
Hugh Legat was a high flyer in the Foreign Office, top of the entrance exam, marked for great things that have not quite worked out. Legat finds himself as one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries in Number 10. His home life a mess, a wife who had hoped to ride his coattails to a peerage and a house he cannot afford. With war a day away, he sends his family away and prepares to watch a conflict no one can seemingly stop begin. The PM has other ideas. With his cabinet split, Churchill looming from the back benches preaching war and his Chiefs of Staff clearly telling him that His Majesty’s forces are in no fit shape to face Germany, he needs to stop the escalation.
Meanwhile, in the Nazi Foreign Ministry, Paul von Hartmann isn’t so much seeing which way the wind is blowing, so much as being caught in the gale. All around him, officials are gleefully looking south to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and a new war so soon after the last. Hartmann is not going to sit around. While being a party member, he is also a member of the resistance, working with Ostler, Gisevius and Beck (among others. See Danny Orbach’s The Plot Against Hitler for a brilliant look at the German Resistance to Hitler) to overthrow Hitler. But what they need is a blunder into a war that would allow the country to see the mistakes of their leader. To do this, Hartmann reaches out to his old Oxford classmate, Hugh Legat. While events seem out of control, Chamberlain manages to arrange a conference with Hitler, in Munich.
So, how do you write a thriller when your reader knows what happens? With great skill and Robert Harris is as skilled as they come. His great achievement in Munich is taking something we have been told and showing us something else. Taking us behind the closed doors of Number 10 and the Fuhrerbau, we see the battles not just between the leaders, but within their own entourages as opinion and influence fight it out. Through Legat’s eyes we see the best and the worst of the Parliamentary system, class and snobbery overriding clear thinking. Through Hartmann’s we see a system dismantled by a demigod and rebuilt in Hitler’s own imagine, where sycophancy rather than talent and knowledge is the vital skill. Harris uses these two disparate sets of eyes so we can watch one of the greatest moments in history unfold.
Harris’ viewpoint, that Chamberlain's course of action in getting an agreement with Hitler, is not popular but one that the facts support. If war had started in 1938, Britain would have been at a huge disadvantage. The common memory of the “glories” of 1940 were a long way off. The Army and Air Force were not battle ready and the Navy, while vital, would have been pretty useless if the fighting was in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Harris shows us the pains to which Chamberlain fought for the peace, which I truly believed he thought he had won, but that only ended buying the time to allow Britain a chance. In Munich, Chamberlain is very much the hero of Harris' tale.
I am a big fan of Robert Harris and his work. He and his characters have a passion, even with the characters that are withdrawn by design, that escapes with each page you turn, you will them on and they stay with you. In Munich, Harris has crafted another brilliant, intelligent thriller and one that arrives in a world that seems determined to walk to the brink and I thoroughly believe this is his attempt to try and remind us that we need a Chamberlain now more than ever.