‘Munich’ by Robert Harris

by Edith Cody-Rice 

Most of our attention now, with respect to the second world war, is centred on the war itself and its atrocities, but before the war, there were desperate attempts to avoid it, for which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has been roundly criticized by history. This novel, set in the 4 days preceding and during the infamous Munich Conference of 1938, from which Chamberlain emerged to tell the British people that he had achieved “peace in our time”, presents a much more balanced picture of this prime minister and of the context in which he negotiated.

At the beginning of the story, there appears a quote by the historian F.W. Maitland (1850-1908): We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future. It is in that context that this novel is written, with a focus on the events of the present of the day, when people and governments felt that war might still be avoidable.  

Robert Harris is an accomplished thriller artist, having written, among many other works,  Fatherland, a best selling novel that posited the victory of Germany in WWII. In this, his latest work, Munich, he has created two fictional diplomats, both mid level civil servants in the government of their respective countries. English Hugh Legat and German Paul Hartmann had been friends at Oxford in the early 30’s, Paul being a Rhodes Scholar. Both had entered the civil service and now, on the eve of war, they are employed in trying to insert some backbone into the British government to resist an agreement with Hitler; such resistance could have unseated the dictator before the war got going. They have information that would make the British extremely wary of signing any agreement with Hitler and that shows that war is, in fact, inevitable.

Harris’ research is meticulous and for the post war generations, who know little of the underlying causes of this catastrophe, it is instructive to learn that the initial justification that Hitler was the reintegration of German speaking majorities in lands that had been incorporated into the newly created  Czechoslovakia,formed in 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. The then great powers of France and Britain found it difficult to justify a war against Germany which was trying to integrate into itself its own ethnic group who wanted to rejoin Germany. Chamberlain, who has been represented as naive by history, is presented as a much more nuanced and clever politician.

The story follows the events of those four days minute by minute and includes many details available only in scholarly research. We discover that there is an element of snobbism and particularly of naiveté in the gentlemen’s outlook of the English. They simply cannot believe that a common little dog like Hitler has brought the great powers to heel. They also appear naive in their dependence upon the word of Hitler, however, towards the end we discover that Chamberlain is not so naive as he would appear.

Although we know the outcome – a second disastrous 20th century war, there is enough tension in the story to keep one reading, perhaps obsessively. This is a compelling, though fictional thriller. At every point, we wonder what will happen to these two young men, although we know the greater outcome.