© 2018 Robert Harris
The year is 1938, and Europe is again sliding into war — a war that only one man wants. The man is Adolf Hitler, who is determined to claim all of Czechoslovakia for the Greater German Reich. He’s already annexed Austria, and sent the French running from the Rhineland. The little Bavarian has opposition, however: across the Channel, Neville Chamberlain is working around the clock to keep another bloodbath from erupting, and at home a group of German officers who worry for their nation’s future are contemplating a little regime change in Berlin . A last-minute peace conference with hasty security arrangements might be just the opportunity
Munich must be one of the most famous conferences in western history, remembered in shame as the time when the West hung Czechoslovakia out to dry, and were rewarded with Hitler’s breach of trust when he invaded that country and Poland, anyway. But a good history teacher, when approaching Munich, will put students in Neville Chamberlain’s chair — a seat from which the future cannot be viewed, a seat that sits in the gloom of memory, the memory of a war that emptied villages and destroyed millions of families not twenty years before. Europe cannot survive another war like that. Even if the Czechs have to give up their border with Germany, it’s not as if Czechoslovakia is a real country, anyway — diplomats invented it not twenty years ago. And so while Britain and France resentfully prepare for war just in case things go wrong, Chamberlain works like a dog to find any way to get Hitler to the table. And he does, via an Italian connection.
Robert Harris uses two men to deliver this four-day drama: the first is Hugh Legat, a man attached to Chamberlain’s staff who constantly worries that secret from his past will be unearthed as tensions with Germany grow ever greater. The second is Paul Hartmann, a German functionary who serves Hitler by day and helps plan his death by night. Paul and Hugh were Oxford friends, and Paul hopes to pass information onto England via Hugh that will ensure that the Allies-in-waiting will call Hitler’s bluff. Hartmann wants the war, for if Hitler takes Germany down that crimson path again, the conspiracy can be justified in giving him the fate that he would inflict on so many others: death.
Harris succeeds in turning a conference whose consequences are a known fact into a thriller with the potential for upset, and humanizes a figure who — at least in American histories — is depicted as something of a boob. The Chamberlain of Munich is not a quiescent, cowering figure: he’s resourceful, obstinate, and determined to deny Hitler the war he wants. Although Munich suffers slightly from the fact that most people know what happened at the conference, it’s still a good thriller, in part because of the espionage and anti-Hitler conspiracy.
- Fatherland, Robert Harris. An alt-history detective novel set in a victorious Germany, where Hitler is set to celebrate his 70th birthday by completing the conquest of Russia…but someone is digging up bones from the past. My introduction to Harris, who has kept me reading since 2008.
- Garden of Beasts, Jefferey Deaver. Another novel set in prewar Germany, this time during the “Nazi Olympics”.
- Phillip Kerr’s German novels, which always skip around a bit in time but almost always spend time in WW2-era Germany. Lots of gallows humor, but I have to read him sparingly.