Many schools no longer teach history, so it’s no surprise that young people today have to absorb the lessons of World War II through books and movies. Gary Oldman might win a Best Actor Oscar for his extraordinary performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which is set in the few weeks in May 1940 between Churchill’s becoming prime minister and the mass evacuation of Dunkirk. But there is another event, a couple of years earlier, that could be cast as a “darkest hour.” It goes by a single word: “Munich.”
In its broad outlines, the story is familiar. In September 1938, Adolf Hitler demands that he be allowed to annex the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border region of Czechoslovakia. German troops are poised to invade. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain tries to broker a compromise. He persuades Benito Mussolini to use his influence, and Hitler gives Britain and France barely a day to come to terms. There is incredible tension, with Europe poised on the brink of war.
The denouement: At a conference in Munich, Chamberlain agrees to immediate German occupation of the region, the Czechs retreat to their truncated state, and the dogs of war remain temporarily on a leash. Chamberlain succumbs to vanity and returns to London proclaiming the agreement as “peace in our time”; he brandishes a scrap of paper bearing Hitler’s signature and declares that it is “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”
Robert Harris, a former political columnist for the London Sunday Times, has written a dozen thrillers to great acclaim. Especially noteworthy was Fatherland (1992), a fascinating piece of alternative history in which Hitler wins World War II but in the early 1960s desperately seeks to maintain the illusion that there was no Holocaust. If he fails, the revelation will blow up a critical summit meeting with newly elected U.S. president Joseph P. Kennedy, the appeasement-minded father of John F. Kennedy.
Harris has long been fascinated by the policy of appeasement and its culmination at the Munich conference. In the late 1980s, he did a documentary on the subject for the BBC. Now he returns to the crime scene with a new thriller that layers in his own interpretation of Munich with a fictional plot centered on a German diplomat’s plan to assassinate Hitler. The book wrestles with issues of treason, conscience, loyalty, and betrayal, on a historical stage peopled by the Big Four of Munich — Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini, and France’s Édouard Daladier.
This is rich material to draw on, and Harris does a competent job of weaving in his characters with the historical players. As in many of his novels, he creates two interconnected characters whose past catches up with them at a historically critical point.
The British protagonist is 28-year-old Hugh Legat, a private secretary to Chamberlain. He implausibly finds himself on a bumpy plane ride heading with his boss to the Munich conference. His diplomatic counterpart on the German side is 29-year-old Paul Hartmann, a Nazi by day but by night a member of the anti-Fascist resistance movement. Both men oppose Hitler, and they knew each other at Oxford in the 1920s, but they haven’t seen each other since they were last in Munich six years earlier. Their private torments from that period play a role, as fate brings them back together in Munich to prevent the outbreak of war.
The tension builds as Legat mysteriously receives a copy of a year-old German Foreign Office document detailing a speech Hitler gave outlining his plans to dominate Europe by force while first pretending to seek peace. Meanwhile, Hartmann’s fellow anti-Hitler conspirators meet and decide that, if the Munich conference fails, they will be able to use the prospect of imminent war to launch a coup, overthrow Hitler, and install a more benign military government. The key is to get the incriminating Hitler document into the hands of Chamberlain before he brokers a deal with Hitler.
The plot is interesting enough to engage the reader, but it’s clear that Harris has a dual purpose in his novel. He wants the book to serve as a vehicle for his alternative view of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich conference.
History is written by the victors, and Churchill partisans and many others have successfully painted Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement as a spineless surrender to the demands of a dictator. But in Harris’s novel, Chamberlain is heroic, and thoroughly devoted to making sure that Europe avoids a new world war. He believes that Britain is ill prepared for an immediate conflict and that it must take the chance of trusting that Hitler is telling the truth that he has no desire to dominate non-Germans, while it rearms in case Hitler is lying about his intentions.
“It’s not simply that this country is militarily and psychologically unprepared for war — that can be remedied — we are remedying it,” Chamberlain tells Legat. “It’s rather that I truly fear for the spiritual health of our people if they don’t see their leaders doing absolutely everything they can to prevent a second great conflict. Because of one thing I can assure you: If it comes, the next war will be infinitely worse than the last, and they will require great fortitude to survive it.”
Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his “slightly rebellious nature” led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions “have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland and the idea that we could have been on the side of Hitler against Stalin, one totalitarian regime or another.”
Harris’s book is thus bathed in shades of gray, in stark contrast to most World War II thrillers. On one hand, it’s no surprise his book will be turned into a movie: Britain’s Euston Films has already announced it will co-produce an adaptation of Munich with Germany’s UFA film studio. But it’s also almost certain that the film version will stress the thriller aspects of the Harris book and downplay its attempt to inject historical nuance into the Munich conference. The popular perception of those times will inevitably draw far more from Gary Oldman than from Robert Harris.