For students of World War II, certain places possess enduring resonance: among them are Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Stalingrad, Monte Cassino, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima. Another milestone, although its importance is political rather than military, is Munich, the German city where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in September 1938 in a desperate attempt to preserve peace in Europe.
Their meeting is the focal point of “Munich,” by Robert Harris, the author of numerous outstanding novels of political history, from ancient Rome to modern London. His new novel offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. The two leaders met to discuss Hitler’s demands that the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia be handed over to Germany. Chamberlain, fearful of Hitler’s wrath, accepted the takeover but sought to gain the dictator’s assurance that peace, not more demands, would follow.
Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement, but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time. Before Munich, he quizzes England’s military leaders about their readiness. The army chief reports, “We only have about a third of the number of guns we believe are needed to defend London.” The air force commander confesses, “On paper we have twenty-six modern squadrons available for home defense but only six have modern aircraft.” He added that the guns on the Hurricane fighters have a technical problem: “They freeze above fifteen thousand feet.”
Although his story is based on fact, Harris uses two fictional characters to achieve his novelistic ends. They are young men, one British and one German, who became friends as students at Oxford and now serve as aides to the real-life senior diplomats. Hugh Legat is in the British delegation because he speaks fluent German. Paul von Hartmann is part of Hitler’s entourage although he secretly belongs to a group of military and diplomatic officials in Berlin who hope to overthrow the German leader. During the Munich conference, von Hartmann furtively gives his English friend information about Hitler’s plans that may strengthen Chamberlain’s hand. He knows he is risking his life.
The British view the German leader with dismay. Chamberlain says of his first meetings with the dictator that he felt like a Victorian explorer who had encountered “some savage warlord.” Legat, observing Hitler, is struck by his “strangely opaque blue eyes” and adds that he “smelled strongly of sweat.” Hitler’s German enemies scorn him as “a vulgar Austrian corporal” who thinks he’s a military genius.
Romance fares poorly in this story. We visit the Munich apartment where Hitler once lived with his half-niece, Geli Raubal, who was rumored to have been his lover and was killed there with his gun in 1931, at age 23, an apparent suicide. By the time of Munich, Hitler had begun his long relationship with Eva Braun but is also said to have taken a woman on his staff as a mistress. Legat’s English wife is beautiful, rich and unfaithful. Von Hartmann’s lover is a secretary in the German foreign ministry whom he doesn’t entirely trust. Chamberlain, at least, is happily wed.
Near the end of the conference, Chamberlain persuades Hitler to sign a statement that calls their Munich agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” To Hitler, these words are meaningless, but Chamberlain proclaims them to be proof that peace has been achieved.
Back in England, he is hailed as a peacemaker and continues as prime minister for nearly two more years, but Hitler’s continued aggression finally forces his resignation. He is, of course, replaced by Winston Churchill, whose inspired leadership, along with the brilliance of the Royal Air Force, thwarted Hitler’s dreamed-of invasion of England. In time, American and Soviet might would crush the Third Reich.
Some critics still call Chamberlain an appeaser, but Harris underscores the importance of the time he bought when he quotes Hitler saying bitterly in February 1945, when Germany’s defeat was near, “We ought to have gone to war in 1938.”
Once again, Harris has brought history to life with exceptional skill.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.
By Robert Harris
Knopf. 320 pp. $27.95