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Review: Munich, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2018. 303 pp. $28

Robert Harris has a knack for turning intense historical events into political thrillers, as with An Officer and a Spy (the Dreyfus affair); Aquarius Rising (the destruction of Pompeii); or Dictator (Cicero’s attempt to save the Roman Republic). Harris’s best narratives immerse you so thoroughly that he persuades you to hope that history will unfold less tragically than it does, though you also know that’s impossible. Not only does this make for terrific storytelling, you can see how small moments lead to earth-shattering ones, and therefore how history might have happened differently.

With Munich, about Neville Chamberlain’s pursuit of “peace in our time” in 1938, which dismembered Czechoslovakia for Hitler’s benefit without even consulting the Czechs, Harris hasn’t quite reached those heights. I never for one second doubted that the appeasers would appease, nor did I even dream of them having second thoughts. But I admire Munich nevertheless, as a completely riveting story, with “no — and furthermore” aplenty; a re-creation of an era that leaps off the page; and an ingenious, briskly paced rendering of complex events that somehow doesn’t feel condensed.

With An Officer and a Spy and Dictator, Harris uses historical figures to spearhead his narratives, but in Munich, he can’t. Chamberlain’s cabinet contained only one or two ministers who favored standing up to Hitler, and the prime minister made sure to leave them behind in London. So, without a historical figure to push back and create conflict, Harris invents Hugh Legat, a rising star in the diplomatic corps and a junior private secretary to Chamberlain. Hugh’s growing opposition to appeasement raises the stakes, especially once he gains possession of a state secret that Hitler would kill to protect. Hugh’s opposite number in the German delegation, Paul von Hartmann, is an old friend and former Oxford classmate. He too wishes Britain and France would stand up to the Führer, and belongs to a nascent, disorganized resistance movement that wishes to depose him.

This is why Munich never attains the suspension of disbelief that drives the other novels. We do get a full portrait of Chamberlain in his arrogant stubbornness, dictatorial style, and, to some extent, his vanity, but also his sincere belief that he’s acting in Britain’s interests. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s a sympathetic character, because when you see how lonely he is, you also see the snobbery and bigotry that prompt him to push others away. It’s also one thing to swallow a con job by Hermann Göring and believe that the Luftwaffe could raze London in six weeks, and another to reject, out of hand, any evidence or argument to the contrary. Still, when he claims, pathetically, that he’s also done the right thing for Czechoslovakia, you see how much he wants it to be true. But since he’s immovable, the two underlings, Legat and Hartmann, matter more here, except that they stand at the periphery of history, with little or no power to influence it.

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper that he believes will bring permanent peace to Europe, Heston Aerodrome, London, September 30, 1938 (Imperial War Museum, London, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

However, there are compensations, for the novel revolves around the choices the pair must make and what allegiances they’ll uphold. Hugh’s the more successful characterization – stolid, unspontaneous, but more perceptive than his chiefs, capable of seeing the larger picture and trying to do the right thing in the long run. Yet in his private life, fearful of losing his beautiful, wayward, and mercurial wife, he backs away from confronting her infidelities. Harris never says he’s an appeaser like Chamberlain, but he doesn’t have to, delivering the parallel with a light touch.

Paul von Hartmann’s harder to pin down. He understands Nazism’s mythic power but hates the regime (and, for the longest time, it’s not clear why). Yet he remains a nationalist, a nuance essential to his politics and surely representative, but less clear or convincing on the page. The depth of his former closeness to Hugh (or even that they both attended Oxford) remains a secret from the reader for too long, a lack of authorial generosity that surprises me with this author.

But, as with Hugh, you see Paul’s milieu as clearly as if it were yesterday, and he’s an excellent guide. Typical is this passage about his office mates:

They weren’t such bad fellows, Hartmann thought. He had mixed with their type all his life: patriotic, conservative, clannish. For them, Hitler was like some crude gamekeeper who had mysteriously contrived to take over the running of their family estates: once installed, he had proved an unexpected success, and they had consented to tolerate his occasional bad manners and lapses into violence in return for a quiet life. Now they had discovered they couldn’t get rid of him and they looked as if they were starting to regret it.

If Munich were only a brilliant evocation of the era and its tensions and hopes, the novel would be well worth reading. But it’s more than that, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.