September 2018 will mark the 80th anniversary of the (in)famous Munich conference from which Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought back "peace in our time" - or, more precisely, another year's grace in which to build up Britain's military readiness to wage the war which would soon be inevitable. The story of Munich is a good example of how important it is to read correctly a situation capable of many correct interpretations. On its face, the conflict at issue concerned whether to unite with Germany those German-speaking populations who had been unwillingly trapped in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Versailles, something hardly worth starting another world war over. But it also represented one more step in Hitler's long-term plan to conquer Eastern Europe, something certainly more worth going to war about. From history's vantage point the latter reality colors our interpretation and evaluation of Chamberlain as an "appeaser." But obviously at the time the former interpretation was just as plausible. And, in any case, even if he were convinced that the latter interpretation was the the more relevant one, Chamberlain was hardly in any position to start a war with Germany. He needed time for Hitler to show his hand more clearly and for Britain and France to get ready to resist him.
That was the background both for the real Munich conference of 1938 and for Robert Harris' latest novel. Harris is the author of several well-received historical novels - ranging from the history of ancient Rome to the modern papacy. Harris faithfully portrays the events leading up to and during the Munich conference and does an excellent job of depicting the personalities of the principal characters - in particular, Chamberlain. Harris portrays a Chamberlain who understood Britain's unpreparedness and his people's obsessive preoccupation with avoiding another way (true also of the German people - to Hitler's chagrin - as Harris so aptly shows). Chamberlain is depicted as understanding (better than some of those around him) the need not only to buy time to prepare for war but also to use Hitler's own words to trap him - so that, when eventually he committed further aggression, his mendacity and hypocrisy would be revealed to all, highlighting the moral case for war (a case which could not convincingly be made as long as the issue was just the Sudetenland).
A novel needs fictional characters. So Harris tells his tale through the experience of two historically plausible but fictional participants. They are two relatively young men, one British and one German, who had been friends years before as students at Oxford and who now serve on the staffs of the real-life participants. Hugh Legat is in the British delegation ostensibly because he speaks fluent German. Paul von Hartmann, who speaks fluent English, is actually also part of a secret group that hopes to overthrow Hitler. The plot revolves around von Hartmann's effort to derail an agreement by revealing to his English friend information that proves Hitler has long-term aggressive plans. The fictional story is told with just the right amount of suspense and danger to highlight the complexities of the actual historical account,
Being a novel nowadays apparently requires some sex, but the romantic side-plots really add little to the story. Legat's unhappy marriage may serve as somehow symbolic of the general moral and cultural rot among the upper classes - the establishment elites that had led Britain into its weak position. But even that may be a bit of a stretch. Otherwise, Harris has created an excellent account that can contribute significantly to teaching about Munich and understanding its real historical significance beyond the polemics and slogans that have been attached to it.for so many of the past 80 years.