Munich by Robert Harris review

Munich is the latest novel by Robert Harris and is set over a period of four days when British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain was attempting to avoid war with Germany in 1938.

Hitler is demanding that parts of Czechoslovakia with German speaking majorities be handed over to Germany, something which all parties are agreed on in principle. Only he wants it done immediately and is about to mobilise his forces.

In Britain war looks inevitable and young diplomat Hugh Legat is called back to Downing Street while attempting to have lunch with his wife. Meanwhile in Germany Legat’s old friend from Oxford, Paul Hartmann, is part of a group of Germans who are contemplating a coup to depose Hitler if he moves on Czechoslovakia, with the promise of support from the army.

We have these two point of view characters to lead us through the events of the four days with Neville Chamberlain’s speech to the British people on the radio, Hitler’s demands follow with the glimmer of light that he might tolerate more time for talking. Chamberlain’s speech to the recalled House of Commons is a particular highlight with the eleventh hour reply from Hitler inviting him to Munich handed to Chamberlain as he is still reading his speech.

So the peace talks in Munich are on but Hartmann is discouraged. He would rather Hitler invade and get deposed. He wants to get a confidential document to Chamberlain via Legat who has been sent along with the British negotiating party.

Legat and Hartmann eventually meet in the middle of Nazi Munich with the ever present Gestapo not far away. This feels like the one fictional part of the novel, the rest of it being a description of the comings and goings of the historical figures as seen from Legat and Hartmann’s viewpoints.

As always with a Harris novel the detail is authentic as to time and place. Hitler borrows Hartmann’s watch when starting the talks in his study. The Czech observers arrive in Munich only to be confined to their hotel room while the leaders of Germany, Italy, Britain and France discuss carving up their country. Chamberlain receives adulation from the German crowds in Munich for his efforts to avoid war.

Of course the outcome is well known, culminating with Chamberlain’s famous “Peace in our Time” speech delivered back in Britain, although interestingly Harris actually doesn’t let us listen in to the whole thing and we miss that famous line. I was surprised to see Chamberlain actually coming out of it fairly well. He knows that war is perhaps inevitable but at least he can put it off for a while longer. And Britain has a chance to rearm.

And his joint statement with Hitler, while not worth the paper it’s written on at least lays down a “tripwire”; if Hitler breaks his word then everyone will know who is to blame.

Munich is worth a read.