Review: Munich by Robert Harris

MunichFor setting, character, plot—and the ability to navigate a moral swamp—few do it better than Robert Harris, whose latest historical thriller, Munich, is the engrossing tale of Neville Chamberlain’s last-ditch negotiations with Adolf Hitler, against the backdrop of a covert scheme to overthrow the Führer, which is even richer for its ironic insight.

History has been unkind to Prime Minister Chamberlain; rightfully so, you could argue, though Harris’s novel paints a more sympathetic portrait of the man than most historians. Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” speech on 30 September 1938 regarding the Munich Agreement, and his policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler’s Germany, have been voraciously analysed and discussed by scholars and pub historians, and it’s fertile ground for an author of Harris’ skill. He presents the Prime Minster as a man determined—and desperate—to avoid war, but cognisant enough to plan for one, should the worst happen.

Harris’s interpretation of Chamberlain is shrewder and more calculating. I imagine this will bother some readers with preexisting ironclad notions of who Chamberlain was, and what he has come to represent. For me, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the man and overarching events, I was happy to be swept away by Harris’s compulsive plot revolving around his two fictional protagonists, Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance; former friends, now reunited, more than half a decade later, with the future of Europe in the balance. Hartmann has provided classified documents to Legat, which confirm Hitler’s real ambitions for Europe post the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Hartmann’s hope is that Chamberlain will stand firm, be the rock Europe needs, which would allow the anti-Hitler resistance the time to topple their leader, and ensure peace.

Munich works because it doesn’t rely on cringe-worthy overshadowing of events to come, or portraying Hitler as a devilish villain. Harris contains events to the four day period during which the Munich Agreement was signed. It is thrilling—breathless, even— because the consequences of those momentous days, while known by the reader, are not mentioned in the text. We know Chamberlain, in his vanity,  did not grasp the reality of Hitler; but the characters in Munich are dealing purely with hypotheticals. Will their actions avert war? Could their actions backfire and actually instigate a crisis? The uncertainly adds an additional layer of tension to the excitement already exuded from the sublime cloak-and-dagger spy stuff.

Munich is a vividly rendered, fictionalised account of those fateful days in 1938.  It is as gripping and as well-crafted as the author’s best work. Robert Harris has spun  a terrific yarn, full of details gleaned from painstaking research.

ISBN: 9780091959203
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Hutchinson
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 21-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

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