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Munich: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 16, 2018
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“An intelligent thriller…with exacting attention to historical detail. The novel’s power lies in the conflict between our hindsight and the characters’ all-too-believable hopes and fears.”
—The Times (UK), Best Historical Fiction of 2017
“Once again, Harris has brought history to life with exceptional skill.”
—Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post
“[Harris’s] writing remains lean and understated throughout Munich, even when the spy-craft starts. . . . The result is an entertaining mix of diplomacy and derring-do . . . history buffs should find it exhilarating.”
—Doug Childers, The Richmond-Times Dispatch
“Harris has built a career upon painstakingly researched what-if stories centered on World War II, and with Munich, he weaves fiction into the fabric of history without even the tiniest hint of a seam. This is a fine addition to a fine writer’s oeuvre.”
—Bruce Tierney, Bookpage
“Densely researched, tightly constructed and deftly written.”
—D.J. Taylor, The Wall Street Journal
“Thumbs up. Harris fashions an absorbing tale.”
“Another thrilling historical novel from Robert Harris. [He’s] on sure and familiar ground in Munich—he quickly settles into the mid-20th century setting that made Fatherland and Enigma so compelling, and the claustrophobic feel of the conference carriers on from last year’s exploration of Vatican politics, Conclave. . . Against the intriguing backdrop of political machinations and brinkmanship is a thriller plot bursting to get out.”
“[A] master storyteller . . . Harris is an undoubted wordsmith.”
“Gripping . . . Harris is a marvelously compelling storyteller. . . . A historical novel, a novel of ideas, and a gripping thriller. . . . Harris writes with complete and compelling authority.”
“Thriller-meister Robert Harris won’t need this recommendation to top the bestseller charts, but he’s getting it anyway. . . . Perfect prose . . . the menacing air of jackbroot brutality lurking between the lines. . . . It’s hard to imagine how history could be told better.”
—Sport Sunday (London)
“In Fatherland, Robert Harris’s debut thriller, an aged, ailing Hitler is kept firmly off the page. In Munich, he walks, he talks, he rants. . . . A vivid recreation . . . Harris brings the history alive. He cleverly inserts arresting facts and detail into his narrative.”
—The Times (London)
“A tense and subtle narrative of the 1938 deal that sold out the Czechs.”
“Engaging, informative, and quietly suspenseful.”
“Another surefire best-seller. A tautly constructed, compellingly written story.”
About the Author
ROBERT HARRIS is the author of eleven novels: Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, Imperium, The Ghost Writer, Conspirata, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy, Dictator, and Conclave. Several of his books have been adapted to film, most recently The Ghost Writer. His work has been translated into thirty-seven languages. He lives in the village of Kintbury, England, with his wife, Gill Hornby.
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The story is presented as it might be in a play. Act One begins in Whitehall, the second scene takes us to Wilhelmstrasse ; in Munich we move between the Fuhrerbau and the Regina Palast Hotel. The cast is balanced between the British team – all decent chaps – and the Nazi leadership. Robert Harris seeks to rehabilitate Chamberlain - loving husband, passionate about peace and a tough negotiator.
Into the main event, the author works the lesser known Oster conspiracy. This is where the two narrators come into play. Hugh Legat works in Downing Street, Paul von Hartmann has a post in the German Foreign Office. They knew each other at Oxford, of course! They are fictional but are credible types, if being provided with somewhat cliched backstories.
I found some of the dialogue clunky, which rendered the conspiracy unconvincing. The book would be improved by a map of the different settings, as the action involves much to and froing: corridors and galleries crisscrossed, stairs ascended and descended, corners turned left then right. This reader frequently got lost. Further an appendix of participants in Munich would have helped – just who was who at the conference.
Does it add anything to the vast literature on this subject? I don’t think so. Would it not be rather fitting to look at more recent episodes in peace/war diplomacy? Perhaps, but appeasement remains enduringly popular.
Despite these reservations, and some flaws, I found it an enjoyable and easy read.
There are two ways of writing history; non-fiction straight history and historical fiction. With historical fiction, the author takes a real event or person, and weaves a fictional story along with the facts. Most historical fiction is "okay"; after all, not every writer is Leo Tolstoy. Robert Harris takes the events and persons around the 1938 Munich "peace conference", where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain "gives" Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler and so achieves "Peace in Our Time". (The same "peace" that would be shattered a year later when Germany invaded Poland and set off WW2.) Okay, the problem with Harris's book is not that events and real characters are dull (Harris drops "real" people into the plot with his fictional characters), but rather that the fictional characters he uses are cardboard thin and improbably good and lucky. There really weren't too many Nazi officials who were secretly plotting against Hitler in 1938 as there are in Harris's book. The British characters hanging around 10 Downing Street aren't any sharper. And there are just too many coincidences. Way too many....
I think that if you're a long-term Robert Harris fan, you might be disappointed in "Munich". Read it, if you must, but maybe substitute instead the rereading of "Enigma" if you want a great WW2 mystery.
Why did Neville Chamberlain go to Munich?
As Harris paints the picture, Chamberlain's actions in 1938 were not just understandable but possibly admirable. He was not naive about Hitler's intentions. His rush to sign the pact with Nazi Germany responded to almost universal desire to avoid war, the difficulty of refuting Hitler's logic about absorbing the Sudetenland Germans into the Reich, and Chamberlain's passionate desire to avoid repeating the slaughter of World War I. (He had been too old to serve in the military then.)
Harris based his novel on extensive reading about the Munich conference and the principal characters involved in it, which he details in a long bibliography in his Acknowledgements. Moreover, recent research suggests that if Britain and France had gone to war against Germany in 1938, the result would have been devastating. It's true that the Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 and the Battle of Britain that followed were disastrous for the Allies. However, the nearly two-year delay Chamberlain achieved at Munich allowed Britain to equip and staff the Royal Air Force just enough to stave off a German invasion of the island in September 1940. Harris implies that Chamberlain was fully conscious that war would come. He sought only to gain time.
An historical novel wrapped in a thriller
Harris builds his story around two central characters, one English, the other German. Hugh Legat is the most junior of Neville Chamberlain's three Private Secretaries; he serves essentially as a gofer but is pressed into service at times as an interpreter and, even more rarely, as a wordsmith. Paul von Hartmann holds a similarly junior post in the German Foreign Ministry; he despises the Nazis and has joined a conspiracy to depose Hitler. The two young men had been classmates and friends at Oxford. They'd last seen each other in 1932 on a vacation in Germany.
Von Hartmann has secured a document that proves Hitler's intention to expand Germany's borders through war regardless of any international agreements. With the help of his collaborators in the anti-Nazi conspiracy, he travels from Berlin to Munich in hopes of delivering the document directly to Neville Chamberlain. Through their connections in London, the conspirators have contrived to arrange for Legat to be assigned to attend the conference, too. Von Hartmann expected Legat to help him get to Chamberlain. Harris builds a suspenseful story around the effort to arrange that.
Historical figures in a fictional setting
Legat and von Hartmann are both fictional characters. However, many of the other figures portrayed in Munich are based on real men. Prominent among them are British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, as well as Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, and French Premier Daladier. The author's portrayal of these historical figures is solidly grounded in his research.
About the author
Robert Harris is one of the most successful writers in the world today. Most of his work is historical fiction about World War II and Ancient Rome. Beginning with Fatherland in 1992, his novels also include The Ghost (adapted to film as The Ghost Writer) and the three novels in the Cicero trilogy.