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'Munich' dramatizes one of the turning points of World War II

Robert Harris's book centers on the Munich conference held in September 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in one last desperate attempt to forestall a general European war. 

Munich By Robert Harris Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 320 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

"Fatherland," the 1992 mega-bestselling novel that made the career of Robert Harris, focused on one of the most pivotal "what if"s of history: it took place in an alternate history in which the Nazis won the Second World War. His new novel Munich returns to the setting of the war and dramatizes not an alternative history but one of the actual turning points of WWII: the Munich conference held in September 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in one last desperate attempt to forestall a general European war. 

At the heart of the matter was Czechoslovakia. Hitler had been using the nationalistic politics of the country's significant German-speaking population as a pretext for more territory-grabbing on the Continent, and Czech leader Edvard Benes had written in alarm to the great nations – Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union – who had pledged their support in the event of German hostilities. 

Neville Chamberlain had been too old to fight in the First World War, but like everyone else in England, his life had been profoundly touched by it. Here, on his watch as Prime Minister, world war seemed to be beckoning again, and Chamberlain was determined to do virtually anything to avert it, including flying to Germany and meeting with Hitler, and including riding roughshod over Czechoslovakia if he thought granting Hitler's demands might lead to “peace in our time.” Only after the very last card had been played did Chamberlain realize what some of his less doggedly optimistic countrymen – most famously Winston Churchill – had known for months or even years: Hitler's word was no good. Hitler was intent on war. All the tensions of demand and counter-demand had been for nothing.

These tensions form the backdrop of Harris's "Munich," and the fact that every reader knows at the outset what will happen might seem like an insuperable problem for a novel to solve. But Harris has solved that problem before; his 2003 novel "Pompeii" takes place against another immovable stopping-point, and the solution in both cases is the same: give a human face to the events preceding the climax by introducing fictional characters who can live the events in the moment, without knowing what we know about how it all ends. In "Munich," those characters are Hugh Legat, Chamberlain's private secretary, and Paul von Hartmann, a staffer at the German Foreign Office. Legat and Hartmann had been friends at Oxford together and now find themselves working on opposite sides of a widening chasm.  

But despite such dramatizations, the unexpected scene-stealer of "Munich" is exactly the right person: Chamberlain himself, with his bushy grey eyebrows and his “hawk's-beak nose tilted up in defiance.” The Chamberlain Harris gives his readers is not the vain, weak bogeyman of appeasement who can be found in most novels and histories of the period but rather a convincingly complex and driven patriot trying to navigate between unthinkable alternatives. “I truly fear for the spiritual health of our people if they don't see their leaders doing absolutely everything they can to prevent a second great conflict,” he tells Legat at one point. “Because of one thing I can assure you: if it comes, the next war will be infinitely worse than the last, and they will require great fortitude to survive it.”

Legat and Hartmann are involved in the day-to-day details of the Munich conference, the confusion and contradictions of what Chamberlain famously referred to as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Harris makes some slightly unconvincing gestures toward plotting and intrigue on that day-to-day level, but ironically, he's too good a historical novelist: his plots and intrigues will interest his readers far less than his dramatization of the appeasement saga itself. In the straightforward, even spare prose readers of "Fatherland" or "Pompeii" (or his underrated trilogy of novels set in the ancient Rome of Cicero) will be expecting, Harris keeps the complex story of negotiations constantly humming along, with Legat and Hartmann always on hand to watch the expression on faces and the tone of voices. Even at the eleventh hour, for instance, Hartmann can still report, “The professional diplomats might imagine the deal was already done, but nothing could be settled until Hitler willed it, and he still looked as if he would like nothing more than to send them all packing.”

Just like with Vesuvius erupting, readers will know the final act: ultimately, Hitler couldn't be appeased. Meeting his demands only caused him to increase them, and his invasion plans were set in stone long before he met with Chamberlain to pretend to discuss changing them. The Munich conference has had many histories (including Telford Taylor's 1989 masterpiece "Munich: The Price of Peace"), but in "Munich," Robert Harris gives the events their best fictional treatment yet.

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