Munich, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Robert Harris offers up another wonderful novel that weaves together the events of history with some background fiction that only serves to accentuate the dramatic effect. It is 1938 and Europe is on the precipice of another war. Adolf Hitler has begun acquiring areas of neighbouring countries, citing their Germanic history, in order to build a stronger homeland. All the while, the world looks on, centred in London, where U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is weighing his options. Surrounded by policy makers and some sycophants, Chamberlain has Hugh Legat as one of his private secretaries. Legat can see that the PM wants nothing more than peace, though may be blinded by the diplomatic approach many leaders take to problem solving. On the other side, Paul Hartmann is deeply embedded into the Nazi regime, though he is less than pleased with the way things are going. Hartmann knows that his Fuhrer wants nothing more than war and will connive to ensure that he gets it. These two men, Legat and Hartmann, share a pre-war history as friends in Oxford, though neither makes a great deal of that to their peers. With a last-ditch peace conference to save Czechoslovakia from the German carving board, Legat and Hartmann find themselves in Munich, ready to do whatever they can. The British have their allies France at the table, while Hitler has his devoted Italian fascist Mussolini to stroke his ego. Words are exchanged and a document is signed. However, before the ink is dry, Legat learns of Germany’s true intentions. Pulled in numerous directions, Legat must not only decipher where the truth ends and propaganda begins, but how to convince Europe’s preeminent leader what is actually going on. Harris balances the world opinion that Neville Chamberlain scored political points by bringing home the peace accord with the naiveté that both sides would adhere to it once hindsight could be applied. A strong piece that fleshes out some of the ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ aspects of this final salvo before Europe (and the world) turned back to the bloodbath that defined them. History buffs and those with a penchant for fast-paced thrillers will enjoy this story in equal measure.

I have read some of Harris’s work in the past and never been disappointed. He is clear to use a perspective and stick to it throughout, though always offers a strong foundation on which the entire story can rest. Hugh Legat is a highly likeable character as he tries to sift through all the information that has been presented to him, in an attempt to choose what needs selling up the line. The perspective is strong and the struggles to parse through the news is not lost on the attentive reader. Paul Hartmann, on the other hand, is quite mysterious and knows what he wants, though is caught up in such a deceptive political situation that there is little hope of anything clear and forthright coming from the German camp. Hindered with an anti-Nazi sentiment, Hartmann much choose how to fight against his own countrymen without being caught, sure that any deception would mean a trip to the concentration camps, or worse. As Harris adds numerous other characters, both fictitious and historical, to the mix, the plot thickens and the depths to which both sides are pushing for their own outcome becomes a little clearer. The plot of the story is one torn from the history books, but by adding dialogue and some ‘behind the curtain’ backstory enriches the reader’s experience. Told in a four-day narrative that compartmentalises the events and shows just how intense things got in short order. While the world applauded Chamberlain for his peace treaty with Hitler, it was hindsight (and perhaps some of this narrative) that helped to show just how blind the British were and what the world would accept at face value. Hitler was not a strong leader with a few odd tendencies, but rather a megalomaniacal being who had nothing but his own interests in mind. Harris provides the reader with one of the more intriguing and interesting accounts of that 1938 build-up to war, particularly with a quote at the beginning of the book, where Hitler admits that they ought to have gone to war in 1938. Brilliant in its telling and quite on point, Robert Harris is surely an author on whom many readers can rely to be educated and entertained in equal measure.

Kudos, Mr. Harris, for another novel that pulled me in from the opening pages. I will have to make a point of investing more time to follow your work and make sure I take much away from the experience.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: