A review of the historical novel “Munich” by Robert Harris

This is the latest and twelfth historical novel from this acclaimed master storyteller and the sixth that I have enjoyed. Whereas the first, “Fatherland”, presented a counterfactual view of the end of the Second World War – Germany and Britain sign a peace treaty and Hitler lives to be 75 – “Munich” is an essentially factual account of the negotiation of the Munich Agreement which ‘postponed’ the outbreak of that war by a year.

The story occupies a mere four days in September 1938 and it is told from the points of view of two fictional characters: Hugh Legatt, a member of the British Diplomatic Service, and Paul von Hartmann, an official in the German Foreign Ministry, who studied together at Oxford University in 1930-1933 but have not been in contact between then and the negotiations at Munich. For just over half the novel, the chapters oscillate between Legatt and Hartmann, between London and Berlin. As the pace of events accelerates and the tension rises, each chapter flips regularly between the two officials as they interact with the negotiators of Munich.

At the heart of the narrative is the notion that maybe something could have persuaded British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain not to sign an agreement which savagely dismembered democratic Czechoslovakia that was not even represented at the negotiations. Even though we know how things will work out, Harris creates a wonderful sense of time and place and tells a compelling story. 

In fact, the seeds of the Munich Agreement were set over many years before the conference and Chamberlain had given up on the major issues long before flying to the German city. While Harris’s work is very well-researched, I feel that it is overly sympathetic to Chamberlain and rather harsh on French Prime Minister Daladier. While Chamberlain was no doubt well-intentioned and certainly energetic in seeking peace, in the years running up to the conference he and his government were guilty of much duplicty and deceit, not least to our French allies who had far more at stake. 


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