From the first page to the last, one reads this 2017 novel as if one is experiencing history. As if the reader is in each scene, watching and eavesdropping as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, along with their respective entourages, meet at Munich in 1938 in their brief and famous effort to avoid a new world war.
We are brought into the scene by two presumably fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann, a minor official in the German Foreign Office, and Hugh Legat, a rising British diplomat who is fluent in German and is a private secretary to Chamberlain. The two diplomats first met as students at Oxford University and have drifted away from each other, but now they meet again because Hartmann, part of an anti-Hitler movement in Germany, has sent a message to the British that he has a document verifying Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. And so the British send Legat to Munich with Chamberlain with orders to contact Hartmann, for if the British can obtain those plans, they can expose Hitler before he can put them into action.
The novel consists of alternate meetings by each side as both the English and the Germans scheme over four days on the German threat to swallow parts of Czechoslovakia. These meetings will conclude with a joint statement and the famous Chamberlain declaration that his efforts had achieved “peace for our time.” What is remarkable is the suspense that Harris has created here, even when the actual outcome of the Munich meeting is so well known.
The first explanation for this suspense, I believe, is our fascination at learning, step by step, what really happened. We are there at both private meetings in which the German, English, Italian and French leaders meet with their entourages to discuss strategy and deal with their colleagues, and then at a public meeting as the two main leaders confront one another. Such details, along with a vivid description of the Munich environment, including ever-present German crowds in the street, reveal not only the author’s extensive research but also his ability to convert the dry findings of that research into the realistic details of his fictional world.
The second reason for suspense is our concern for the two fictional characters, Legat and Hartmann, given the impact they attempt to have on this historic confrontation. Both face obstacles from their own colleagues, first to being able to meet and, second, being able to join forces to convey Hitler’s specific plans to Chamberlain. In fact, one scene builds to a dramatic meeting with Chamberlain in which the two diplomats confront him. From history, the reader knows that the efforts of these two young men will prove ineffectual, but we read on to learn whether their effort to sabotage the Munich negotiations will be discovered and whether or how they will be punished.
History has judged the Munich mission a major failure based on false Allied hopes and German duplicity. A failure, especially, of Neville Chamberlain. But in this novel, Chamberlain is continually seen in a positive light. His views of Hitler are always forthright, never obsequious. Indeed, he is constantly cheered by German crowds during his public appearances in Munich, and then is later hailed by the English populace and the English press when he returns home. For he has saved both sides from the horrors of war by reluctantly accepting a limited German takeover of Czechslovkia. His rationale is that he has negotiated with Hitler in order to buy the time Britain needs to rebuild its depleted military.
Patrick Anderson sums up Harris’ approach to Chamberlain in his Washington Post review, writing that the novel “offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. …Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement,” Anderson continues, “but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time.”
John Fund explains the author’s approach to this novel in National Review: “Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his ‘slightly rebellious nature’ led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions ‘have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland.’”
Given Harris’ past success in recreating history, not only in Fatherland, which depicts a world in which Germany has won World War II, but also in his successful novels set in ancient Rome, one should not be surprised that his “rebellious nature” in evaluating traditional history also prompted him to offer a different take on Chamberlain’s strategy in Munich.
In another interview, author Harris told NPR: “You couldn’t get two figures in history more unalike; and yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it’s Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.” In fact, Harris says that Albert Speer in his memoirs wrote that “ at a dinner party it all came pouring out [of Hitler]. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people. And even at the end of his life in 1945, Hitler was saying, ‘We should have gone to war in 1938, September 1938 would have been the perfect time.’”
Given the terrible state of the British supply of fighter aircraft in 1938, this certainly has the ring of truth. And the result is that we can thank Robert Harris for another successful novel offering a refreshing view of history. Indeed, I look forward to many more. (July, 2019)