The Munich Agreement between Great Britain and Germany in 1938 was a pact by which Germany was allowed to extend its territory into parts of Czechoslovakia. Between Sept. 29 and 30 in Munich, Neville Chamberlain negotiated on behalf of Britain, with Hitler on behalf of Germany. Benito Mussolini represented Italy; Èdouard Daladier, France.
Hitler had threatened to unleash a European war unless the Sudetenland, a border area of Czechoslovakia containing an ethnic German majority, was surrendered to Germany. The leaders of Britain, France and Italy agreed to the German annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hitler. Czechoslovakia, which was not a party to the Munich negotiations, accepted the terms of the pact under considerable pressure from Britain and France.
Chamberlain returned to London, proclaiming that the agreement reached in Munich had secured “peace in our time.” German troops began occupying the ceded regions between Oct. 1 and 10. Less than a year later, the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II began.
Against this backdrop, Robert Harris, author of “Fatherland” and “The Ghost Writer,” sets his latest novel, “Munich.” He remains adept at writing believable secondary characters based on historical figures as well as creating vivid fictional characters to take center stage. The result: his traditionally fast-paced, scrupulously researched, tension-filled political thriller.
Hugh Legat is one of the rapidly rising junior private secretaries to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In fact, the political climate is such that Legat is spending more time at Number 10 Downing Street than he is with his wife, Pamela, and their two small children. When, at the last minute, he is chosen to accompany Chamberlain to Munich on a tense and far too public mission, Legat is both pleased and very curious about the reason.
The reason, it turns out, is Legat’s friendship with Paul von Hartmann, who attended Oxford University with him. Hartmann is a rising member of his own country’s foreign ministry, even though he has grown mistrustful of the Nazi agenda. In fact, he and a small group of friends have mounting misgivings about Hitler himself. “He is under the illusion that he is some kind of military genius, even though he never rose higher than a corporal,” argues Hartmann.
Hartmann wants to stop Hitler’s madness at all costs. The success of Hartmann’s plan hinges on getting a private audience with the British Prime Minister, and Hartmann intends on using his own relationship with Legat to achieve just that. The only trouble is the fact that they both still nurse open wounds from a secret from their university days, a secret that could very well interfere with conveying the state secret that Chamberlain must be made aware of.
The plot of “Munich” plays out over four days, with the two days of the Agreement negotiations at the dead center of the action. Actual events serve as the setting for a breathtaking tale of friendship and betrayal. Harris does depict Hitler as an egocentric swine, but his portrait of Chamberlain will come as a surprise. Winston Churchill said of the Munich Agreement, “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Robert Harris, however, treats Prime Minister Chamberlain with dignity, understanding and unreserved charity.
“Munich” is a thrill-ride of a political novel on one level, and a cracked-doorway of a look at political maneuvering on another. It is a rousing page-turner for even the most casual historian.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.