Review published on September 29, 2017.
Munich is another winner from Robert Harris, a fantastically entertaining historical novel that you won’t want to put down until you finish. In four fateful days at the end of September, 1938, Britain and France signed away the future of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference. The Czech Prime Minister Benes wasn’t even allowed to be part of the negotiations and we all know what followed from this notorious act of appeasement. Harris is always on firm ground when his novels have a factual backbone rather than an invented premise. He brings a deep knowledge and understanding of real people, motives and events to his work. In Munich there are no liberties taken with documented history, which makes the imagined plot more credible.
Munich pivots on the relationship between two fictional characters: Hugh Legat, a young private secretary to the PM, and Paul Hartmann, an aristocratic German diplomat; they were friends at Oxford University. The latter seeks to warn the British of Hitler’s real intentions for Czechoslovakia. He hopes to use his friend as a conduit to Chamberlain, the hope being to get the British to pull out before signing away the Sudetenland. There were attempts by senior German officials before the war to get the British to stand up to Hitler. Is it a betrayal of Germany or true patriotism? Both Legat and Hartmann are under suspicion in this tense fast paced political thriller.
The character sketches of Hitler, Mussolini and some of the other major protagonists are sharp and memorable. Sadly, Chamberlain didn’t have much personality to exploit in a fictional portrait but Harris goes out of his way to create a credible/sympathetic explanation of Chamberlain’s actions within the context of the times. The PM’s fear of reigniting a conflagration on the tragic scale of WWI. The ‘peace for our time’ and paper waving appeasement which has mostly been castigated ever since is given a fairer hearing here. That balance benefits the political tale of the novel.
The level of tension that Harris generates is remarkable considering we all know how things turned out in the end. The anticipation in most thrillers emanating from the uncertainty of the outcome is half the fun. If there is a defect it’s that some characters are two dimensional, sacrificed to the pace and excitement of the plot. Harris is brilliant at conversations in dark huddles and diplomatic meetings at which matters of great import are discussed. The setting is impeccably realised.
For me, this is a better novel than Fatherland, which posited the ‘what if Hitler was still Fuhrer in 1964?’ scenario. It is altogether more grounded and serious, but equally enjoyable.
Paul Burke 4/4
Munich by Robert Harris
Hutchinson 9780091959197 hbk Sep 2017