I have completely revised my opinion of Robert Harris, and to this I owe a debt of gratitude to a friend who has maintained faith with him. Independently, I thoroughly enjoyed An Officer and a Spy, his novel about the background to the Dreyfus Affair, an army scandal that rocked France in the 1890s and which led to Victor Hugo leaving France for exile after his rampant j’accuse campaign. The fact that Dreyfus was exonerated did not alter the opprobrium heaped on VC.
Then I was persuaded to read Robert Harris’ trilogy about Cicero, Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, my icy heart slowly melted and I have enjoyed each of his latest, especially this last novel Munich.
As the title suggests, this is a novel about the historic, and fatally flawed, Munich Conference in September 1938. Switching between the lines of communication, both official and unofficial, of the German government of Adolf Hitler and his fascist partner Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, and the British government of Neville Chamberlain, with a walk on part for the French president Eduard Daladier (whom it has to be said, even historically, took a very passive position at this stupendous meeting), Robert Harris has constructed an almost hour by hour drama beginning at the point at which Hitler announced his intention of taking Sudetenland by force. This in spite of misgivings by his advisors some weeks before, but after his first meeting with Chamberlain at which he became convinced that Britain, and therefore France, would do nothing. Robert Harris, while outlining in detail the verifiable historic members of the process, has added two fictional characters whose actions played a small but vital part.
One of them, Paul von Hartmann, is very lightly based on the real life conspirator Adam von Trott. In this novel, Paul is part of a group of anti-Nazi Germans who intend to prevent war by stopping Hitler in his tracks, preferably by means other than outright assassination, which would only have created a martyr. Paul’s contact on the British side is a fellow Balliol graduate, Hugh Legat who is a parliamentary secretary, and both of them in this novel get themselves on to the teams that are travelling to Munich.
I suspect that it is not a plot spoiler to say that their attempts failed. It does not, one whit, alter the extreme tension of the novel, and the very near misses and subterfuges that went on as part of their story.
Even more compelling though, is the fleshing out of the real players, Chamberlain and his team, Hitler and his, because this story is told from the point of view of “before the worst happened”.
We all know now, that the annexation of Czechoslovakian Sudetenland was the prelude to a much wider land grab which precipitated the Second World War. But this novel takes us back to the moment when given different characters, or a different mind-set, or a different something, the catastrophe could have been avoided. Indeed, Neville Chamberlain thought that he had avoided it – “peace in our time” – his famous, now much derided, naïve belief after his private meeting with the Chancellor.
This is a most interesting, exciting and insightful look at those momentous weeks.