Can the Second World War be avoided? Or is the slide into another global cataclysm, which will dwarf the First World War, to continue? These are the questions foregrounded in Robert Harris’ exciting historical thriller, Munich. But there’s the problem. How does an author create suspense when every reader knows the real outcome?
In his earlier best-seller Fatherland, which presented an alternative history of what resulted from an imagined Nazi victory in the Second World War, Harris could conjure up any number of hypotheticals, but this new historical novel is a different undertaking, needing to be true to actual fact. Harris is strikingly successful in finding a way forward: he entwines the plans and actions of two seemingly minor protagonists around the real events of 1938 and the policy of “appeasement”, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s shuttle diplomacy to avoid another world war.
In the process, Harris delivers a most vivid story. We witness clearly the fragility of modern civilization, the anarchy unloosed on international politics by actors who delight in their own mendacity and betrayal, with Hitler leading the pack. In sum, the global arena of 1938 is marked by the opposite of ordered liberty. It instead shows the advance of disordered servitude, in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. In this dark time, the agenda of international politics is set not by free and responsible individuals, but the driven and irresponsible.
The novel unfolds over a mere four days, starting on September 27, 1938. Europe is caught in general crisis, as Hitler threatens war if he is not allowed to immediately occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, claiming to champion ethnic German populations there (in fact, his ambitions extend far beyond this, to the reordering of all Europe under Nazi control). Slit trenches are being dug in Green Park in London, barrage balloons are sent up, and children are fitted with gas masks, in preparation for the war that now seems likely. The stage is set for Prime Minister Chamberlain to attempt to defuse the explosive situation by seeking to mediate, to appease Hitler’s demands and lay the groundwork for a general peace. This is made all the more urgent by Britain’s unpreparedness for world conflict, its weakened defenses, and creaky air force.
Amid the intrigue and policy debate, we follow the thoughts and increasingly desperate actions of a 28-year old public servant, Hugh Legat, a rising star of His Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. Though Legat is apparently “no one of importance”, ignored by news photographers, his new vantage point as a junior private secretary to the Prime Minister at Number 10 Downing Street gives him unrivaled access. Passing through the corridors and antechambers of power makes him “privy to the real truth”.
And he has an opposite number. On the German side, Paul von Hartmann is an official in the Foreign Ministry. He had been a close friend of Legat’s, from their days at Oxford, but six tumultuous years have elapsed since they last met. Now Hartmann is also in close proximity to power, seeing “history made at a distance of five metres”. Once a German nationalist, but now disenchanted with the Nazi regime, Hartmann has come to be associated with German officials and military leaders making vague plans to topple Hitler, if only they can count on the British to go to war over the Czechoslovakia crisis. By contrast with their irresolution, Hartmann takes more decisive action, plotting to get to his British friend a secret document that will prove Hitler’s desire for war, and thus will end appeasement and stop Hitler. Yet the S.S. and the Gestapo secret police have Hartmann in their sights, so this is a race against time.
The paths of Legat and Hartmann fatefully converge again in Munich, at a last ditch peace conference between Hitler, Mussolini, Prime Minister Édouard Daladier of France, and Britain’s Chamberlain (with Legat in his entourage of advisers). At close quarters, friendship and trust are tested in the highest degree, against a backdrop of high strategy, propaganda, and publicity.
The strengths of Harris’s account are many. He does an excellent and subtle job of reminding readers again and again of the indispensable backdrop to the mass psychology of the moment and the phenomenon of appeasement. That is the cruel legacy of the First World War, and the questions of what that war had meant (if anything). Legat’s own father died in the fighting in France, and other characters in the novel bear similar scars of memory. Chamberlain’s explanations of his own policy are studded with reflections on “a situation which has had no parallel since 1914”.
Harris sets his scenes very effectively. Indeed, so effectively that interiors and buildings almost become characters in their own right. The many rooms of 10 Downing Street are evoked, with changing atmospheres; now “like going belowdecks on a luxury liner”, at other times like a Victorian gentlemen’s club. At the heart of it all is the Cabinet Room: “a glimpse of dark suits and gold braid, of strained faces and of coiling blue clouds of cigarette smoke suspended in the dusky light, and then the door was closed again”. The rival to this rambling center of democratic government is the Führerbau (the Leader building) in Munich, brand new and built of blazing white stone, without a clear function other than “a kind of monarch’s court, for the enlightenment and entertainment of the emperor’s guests”. This is the scene where the Munich Agreement is signed.
In such moments, Harris skillfully gives details that transport the reader. Documents for Hitler, for instance, are typed out on a special typewriter with large print for the weakening eyesight of the dictator. At the British Foreign Office, their documents bear different colors for different categories: “pale blue for drafts, mauve for dispatches, aquamarine for Cabinet papers, interspersed occasionally by brown foolscap files tied with pink ribbon”. High politics are contrasted with elemental realities, as along Berlin’s magnificent street of official buildings, the Wilhelmstrasse, where in the aftermath of a formidable military parade, a cleaner works alone to scrape up the horse manure left behind. And such telling detail is deployed to reveal the ambitions at work in politics: the water taps in the toilets on Hitler’s private train racing towards Munich feature swastikas (“There was no escaping the Führer’s aesthetic, thought Hartmann, not even when one took a shit”).
As the novel tracks Legat and Hartmann pursuing their plans in the midst of a diplomatic summit, the historical figures of the leaders are delivered with conviction. Hitler appears disappointingly ordinary when encountered in person, and also smells bad. He has a “familiar metallic voice. It was strange to hear it at a conversational level and not ranting over a loudspeaker”. Yet “it was almost compelling how nondescript he was… he looked like a lodger who always kept to himself”. But he turns terrifying when he focuses his attention on Hartmann in particular.
Harris also advances a sympathetic reevaluation of Chamberlain, seeing him as possessing unsuspected depths, “a more passionate persona beneath the carapace of rectitude” and Victorian exterior. Harris depicts Chamberlain not as a dupe on an international scale, pursuing a delusional quest for compromise, but rather as having laid down a marker for the future by extracting a promise of peace from Hitler: “If he breaks it—well, then the world will see him for what he is. No one then can be in any doubt. It will unite the country and rally the Dominions in a way they simply are not at present. Who knows?… Perhaps it will even bring the Americans in on our side”. Legat concludes about the Munich agreement, “all that’s happened really is that a tripwire had been laid down for the future”.
In a parallel gesture, Harris shows us the role of public opinion in the reactions of crowds: tense masses outside Downing Street as the crisis builds, or seeing off Chamberlain’s plane departing for Munich, or rapturously greeting Chamberlain as he returns promising “peace for our time”. But most telling are the crowds of Germans in Munich who implicitly rebuke Hitler’s war agenda by cheering the British prime minister who has intervened, roaring their approval, chanting Chamberlain’s name. Chamberlain himself observes, “How very humbling. You see, gentlemen, it is the same in every country—ordinary people the world over want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, to cherish their children and their families, and to enjoy the fruits that nature, art, and science have to offer them. That is what I wish to say to Hitler”.
But since Hitler proves obdurate, war results in spite of it all, as readers knew it would all along. The story displays the “power of unreason” in the form of modern ideological warfare, and suggests that our constant hope is “a terrible thing”, impelling us to undertake “a gesture equal to the age”, regardless of whether it is fated to succeed or fail. At the outset of the novel, as Legat follows the crisis in which he will seek to intervene, he asks himself, “Is this what History felt like?” In the skillful hands of Robert Harris, the answer is yes