Great background research, as ever, by this author!
Early on, especially for those familiar with the history of the events about which he writes, Robert Harris’ new book, Munich, is perhaps a trifle slow, but stick with it. It’s an excellent read.
The first half of the book establishes background and situation and, of course, introduces us to the protagonists. It is late September 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is working long hours, including flights to Germany to speak with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, in an endeavour to stave off war when the Germans take over the part of Czechoslovakia they call Sudetenland.
Hugh Legat is a young Oxford ‘first’ who enters the Foreign Office as a junior secretary. He is aware of the potential for war; because of the pressure under which he is working, he is unable to reach his beautiful wife Pamela – with whom he has a strained relationship – and their two small children, so has to telephone, telling her to get away to her parents’ place in the country. He is required to spend some nights at Number 10 Downing Street, assisting the PM with an important speech to the reopening of parliament. Needing shaving gear and clothes, he returns to his house to pack a small case.
A decade earlier, Legat had attended Balliol College and was friends with a young German, Paul von Hartmann. In Germany, Hartmann is a secretary in the German Foreign Ministry, in a position not dissimilar to Legat’s, but is also a member of a small resistance clique opposed to Hitler. Through skilful writing manipulation, both young men are inveigled into their leaders’ proximity.
Coincidentally, on the evening Legat is at his house packing a case, a mystery car stops and an envelope is left at his doorstep. It contains confidential papers from Germany and has obviously been sent by his friend Hartmann.
In an attempt to forestall war, a new meeting is arranged at short order between Chamberlain and Hitler (which will also be attended by Mussolini and Daladier) in Munich. Legat joins the PM, flying with him on the Lockheed Electra, while Hartmann travels through the night on Hitler’s armoured train.
The international delegations arrive at Munich during the start of Oktoberfest, with bands playing, people singing and some serious drinking undertaken, but more serious matters are afoot. Talks totally contrast the public celebration, serious and consuming a great deal of sometimes none-too-subtle negotiation. We are taken into the massive, Hitlerian Fuhrerbau (a floorplan of which is provided) where negotiations are held. Among the leaders present, French Prime Minister Daladier is drawn as weak and ineffectual, Hitler churlish and abrasive, Mussolini effusive, and Chamberlain tired but determined.
The young protagonists, Legat and Hartmann, play parts both background and unofficial, but will what they attempt, basically to establish an ultimately passive outcome, be of value? Is the German memorandum they share capable of ensuring peace? Can Hitler be stopped, either by negotiation or, if need be, by more forceful means?
As we expect of his work, Robert Harris’ background detail is impeccable. He has a capacity second to none to ensure characters and timelines in his historical novels are accurately recorded. Munich continues the trend, as one would expect, in an interesting take on a fraught historic issue.
Unfortunately, in hindsight, we all know the eventual outcome.