Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchison.

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50 thoughts on “Munich by Robert Harris

  1. I will certainly be reading this one. It’s such an interesting period of history. Very easy to judge Chamberlain with the benefit of hindsight, but reluctance to go to war is a trait that some of our current world leaders could learn from. What is they say about those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it..?
    Also, what a nice picture of Harris. He has such a lovely face.

  2. This sounds so interesting, FictionFan! That was such a watershed moment in history, and it’s fascinating to look at the people involved, and the moments and decisions that led up it, and that resulted from it. One of the things I always learn from really good treatments of historical topics is that things are never as simple as they seem. I’m glad Harris acknowledges that.

    • I enjoyed it particularly because my knowledge of the history of Hitler and WW2 is so coloured by growing up in Britain soon enough after it so that all the adults had been through it, so there were certain certainties that were never challenged – Germans evil, Churchill hero, Chamberlain appeaser, plucky Britain, etc. Now there’s been enough distance for us to get, and accept, a more nuanced view – not revisionist exactly, but less black and white. And Harris is excellent at that.

  3. I’m going to read this book too. It sounds great. I have loved all of his books that I’ve read so far – just finished Conclave, which is absorbing and who would have thought a Papal election would be so dramatic! That too has quite a slight plot, but is nonetheless enjoyable – apart from one development that maybe isn’t quite credible. Harris is so good at making you think you’re a fly on the wall!

    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one too, Margaret. It’s the way he creates a totally authentic picture and puts you right in it. I loved Conclave too, and would never have expected to! The incredible thing rankled a bit, but I loved all the stuff about the other cardinals and thought Cardinal Lomeli was a wonderful creation. I must make time for his Roman books…

    • It a fictionalised account of real people and events, but with Harris in my experience he sticks pretty closely to the facts whatever subject he’s writing about, so it feels almost like reading history only more enjoyably! I’ve only discovered him recently, but he’s become an absolute must-read for me, and I’m keen to get to some of his older books…

      • Well, I checked and got all excited when I saw that my library has three of his books on audio. Then I discovered all three are abridged. What’s the purpose, exactly, of an abridged book? (On a happy note, they have quite a few (complete) print copies.)

        • Oh, that drives me crazy – I got all excited a few weeks ago at the idea of Derek Jacobi having narrated the Brother Cadfael books only to discover they were all abridged. It’s not even as if they’re particularly long books. Grrrr! Glad you can get print copies though… 😀

    • I know – and to be honest I don’t think the parallels were lost on Harris either, though he wasn’t being polemical in any way. Not overtly, at least. I suspect you’ll enjoy this as much as I did.

  4. I was intrigued by this when you first mentioned it a few weeks ago. I’m so glad it delivered for you! I’m going to add it to my TBR (just yesterday I deleted some books from it, so now I have room to add more, ha ha!)

    • Haha – there’s always room to squeeze a few more in, I find! 😉 I hope you enjoy this one if you get a chance to read it sometime – he’s undoubtedly become one of my favourite writers. He’s like a time-machine – actaully takes me back to whatever event he’s talking about and puts me right there in the middle of it…

  5. I gave up on Harris halfway through the secon book in the Imperium trilogy; I decided life simply wasn’t long enough. I did enjoy ‘Fatherland’ however and this seems as if it might be a similar sort of novel so maybe I’ll try again.

    • Oh, that’s a pity! I only discovered him a few books ago, so haven’t yet read the Imperium books or Fatherland. But I’ve loved every book of his I’ve read so far, even Conclave – and I never thought I’d read and enjoy a book about electing a new Pope! Hope you enjoy this one, if you get time to read it… and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for when I get around to the Roman ones…

  6. Not sure I’d enjoy this one as much as you did, but you certainly make it sound interesting. I could be swayed … well, maybe. My TBR is already spilling over its sides, so perhaps I ought to restrain myself. Do you recommend initiating a Might Read Later list??

    • I might have made it seem too much like a history book because it’s the history side I’m interested in, but he’s actually such a good writer that he makes every subject interesting. Haha – I do! Mine’s called my Wishlist – entirely separate from the TBR, so it doesn’t weigh on my mind as much… 😉

  7. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m one of the younger folk who aren’t entirely sure how that particular conference played out. I’m terrible with history and geography, so I’d probably be on the edge of my seat with this one!

  8. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Harris, so I will definitely be reading this one! I know the basic history but haven’t read about it in very much detail, so I’m looking forward to it, especially as you say he gives a more balanced view of the people involved. It sounds great. 🙂

    • Me too – I’ve still only read a few of his books but he’s become one of my firm favourites. I was the same – I knew the outcome, but not really what led up to it, and I felt his portrayal of the various people was very convincing. I think you’ll enjoy this as much as I did – hope so! 😀

  9. I started this review thinking this book wouldn’t appeal to me, but had added it to the list before I got to the photo of Chamberlain and Hitler shaking hands. They look open and full of goodwill to each other to me, clearly I’m no judge of character either.

    • I thought that about the photo too – in fact, I thought it was the only photo I’ve ever seen of Hitler where he looks kinda normal! I suppose politicians have to be able to deal with all sorts of people they’d rather not – look at our bunch today. Who’d want to go for lunch with that lot? Hope you enjoy the book if you get to it sometime – I love his writing style.

      • Agreed, although it is impossible not to look at historical photos without being influenced by the knowledge of what came after, as I think you said in your review.
        I’m thinking of starting with Pompeii or another early book by Harris. It’s past time I started, think I avoided his work as I had confused him with Thomas Harris (I enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs, etc, but couldn’t face any more!)

        • I know – and I suspect that might be why politicians are so wary about who they shake hands with in public.

          Haha – yes, I can see that! There’s about five zillion crime writers all with the first name Peter and I can never remember which is which. But you’ll be glad to hear Robert is way less gruesome than Thomas! I haven’t read Pompeii but have heard good things about it – it’s one of the ones I want to get to too.

    • That’s exactly what he does, and always tells a great story along the way too. I only discovered him a couple of years ago but have loved every book I’ve read so far, and still have the joy of knowing there’s plenty more to go… 🙂

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