Robert Harris: MUNICH
A few years ago Robert Harris revisited the Dreyfus affair. Now he turns his attention to another ‘dodgy’ moment in history: Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in September 1938 to attempt a watering-down of Adolf Hitler’s intended annexation of a large chunk of Czechoslovakia into the new German Reich. The only alternative to appease-ment is war, and after 10 million deaths in 1914-18, Britain and France are reluctant (and ill-prepared) to face another world war.
Much has been written about Munich. Harris injects a fictional element into history by planting a young traitor in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry who hands a secret document to a former university friend on Chamberlain’s staff, a document which may deter the British from doing a deal in Munich. Paul Hartmann, the traitor in Berlin, is a splendidly complex character: a patriot, proud of his country’s history and culture and deeply appalled that his country’s future is now in the hands of a power-crazed madman. I wonder if Harris will bring Hartmann – and Hugh Legat, his Downing Street friend - back in another story from the war years?
In Fatherland, his acclaimed first novel, Harris vividly and disturbingly created a Britain that had lost the war against the Nazis. The reader is perhaps expecting another rewrite of history here. The Munich scenes are highly dramatic. And what a cast of players! Hitler, whom one character remembers from a few years earlier as “this half-sinister, half-comical brawler and dreamer” who is now poised to turn the world upside-down. Mussolini, when he smiles, is “like a child’s drawing of a sun”. And Chamberlain, “a Messiah of Peace” with no personal charisma but a desperate commitment to postpone another war to end wars.
People are cheering in their gardens as the Prime Minister’s Lockheed aircraft climbs out of Heston aerodrome. The great optimism with which the mission to Munich was greeted by almost everyone in Britain (except Winston Churchill) reminds us that appeasement was welcomed in 1938, however disparagingly later historians have come to view.
Like John Le Carré (and like Graham Greene), Harris elevates the thriller to the class of Literature. His prose makes other best-selling writers look trite. This in the opening scene in the Ritz hotel restaurant: ‘He turned to find the maître d’, palms pressed together as if in prayer, grave with self-importance.’ A page later, with war seemingly inevitable, the author imagines: ‘The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park.’ Sorry, but you don’t get sentences of that calibre in Dan Brown.