Robert Harris is a classy thriller writer at the top of his game. Munich is his re-telling of the September 1938 meetings between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Both had public, and private, objectives. Chamberlain was a pragmatist; though he sought peace, he was prepared to accept a delay of war to enable our woefully-equipped armed forces to prepare. Hitler wanted all of Europe for Aryans, which meant war. All of this is well-documented. But Harris takes two fictional characters and places them into this real history, splicing their personal stories into the political drama.
Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann met at Oxford in the early Thirties. In 1938, Legat is a junior private secretary to Chamberlain. Hartmann holds a similar position in the German government; he is also part of the anti-Hitler movement. They two men have not spoken or seen each other since a holiday in Munich with a girlfriend. We do not know why. Everyone in this story faces a personal decision of conscience: whether to be loyal to country, self, and family, or betray them. The costs are different for each person. For some; death. For others; isolation, loss of job, loss of family, loss of self-respect.
Chamberlain and Hitler meet in Munich with Mussolini and Daladier to settle the fate of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. We are party to a fascinating game of chess as the diplomats and civil servants behind each of the leaders struggle to find a way through the opposition’s refusals and disagreements. The subtle tensions and pettiness within the teams, the one-upmanship, the jealousies, the cliques – which anyone who has worked in management will recognise – remind us that these politicians are ordinary people with an extra-ordinary job to do. If they fail, millions will die. Chamberlain is portrayed as a dedicated, workaholic who is desperate to avoid another war less than twenty years after the end of the Great War.
I read this over a weekend, the last pages flew by as Legat and Hartmann sneak around Munich, hiding secret documents and running from the Gestapo. This is a meticulously-researched literary thriller where the tension comes partly from our own knowledge of the outcome and our understanding that, whatever words the British present, Hitler’s mind is made up. Chamberlain will give his ‘peace in our time’ speech. But to find out what happens to the fictional Hugh and Paul, we must read to the end.
Read my review of An Officer and a Spy, another thriller by Robert Harris based on real events.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MUNICH by @Robert___Harris #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-357 via @SandraDanby