MUNICH. By Robert Harris. Knopf. 303 pages. $27.95.
It is September 1938 and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler each are on their way to Munich, Germany, for an 11th-hour effort to prevent war. Hitler is demanding return of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia and threatens to invade if no agreement is reached.
Chamberlain wants to avoid embroiling Britain in yet another war. World War I, which ended in 1917, remains all too fresh in the minds of the population. Plus, he knows Britain’s armory is woefully unstocked.
So begins Robert Harris’ latest novel “Munich,” in which he weaves fact and fiction, presenting characters such as Hugh Legat of Britain’s Diplomatic Service and a German Foreign Office official named Paul von Hartmann. The two had been close friends at Oxford in the 1920s, but have not been in touch for several years. They are reunited again in Munich, each possessing inside information that could have disastrous consequences on the negotiations.
Throughout the years, Chamberlain has been heavily criticized as an appeaser and, therefore, a tragic figure, but in the book he is treated sympathetically. In a speech, he declares, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
His tone was “melancholy,” Harris writes. Chamberlain had not forgotten the brutality of the Great War and its high death toll. U.K. losses have been estimated at more than 700,000 in that war, hence his desperation. Though he was able to delay the start of next war for barely a year, he could not stop Hitler.
Harris has taken an important part of World War II history and made it into a readable, intriguing and well-written historical novel.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a regular contributor to the book page.