Robert Harris has had a number of books in my 12 in 12 Challenge so far. This is because I bought most of his novels after I discovered and loved Fatherland which is an alternative history about the end of WW2 assuming that the Germans win. I was so blown away by this book and by his non-fiction title Selling Hitler that I gathered most of the rest of his books and I have been working my way through them as part of this challenge.
This book, Munich, is strictly not about WW2 at all. It is set in 1938 over four days when Hitler held a conference in Munich about the fate of areas of Czechoslovakia attended by the heads of state of France, UK and Italy (not Czechoslovakia you will note). In British history we think of this being part of appeasement and remember Chamberlain’s speech in which he talked about “peace in our time”. Had the conference had a different result it would have propelled Europe into war when Britain certainly was woefully unprepared for it and the result may have been different, but the appeasement and seeming capitulation of the other countries also encouraged Hitler to think that he could continue to annex territory with opposition. The conference very much shaped what was to come.
The people who were part of the conference didn’t know what was to happen or how history would see their actions. As the reader we know what happens next. The author manages to create characters who behave as they would have at the time of the conference and avoids lots of hints at conflict to come. He clearly shows the options before the actors and the very difficult decisions they had to make.
The story is told from the alternate points of view of two young men attending the conference; one with Chamberlain’s staff and one with Hitler’s. Paul has information gained from his opposition to Hitler which could help the UK government to make a different decision and Hugh is determined to do the right thing with the information if only this can be managed. The two men had been at Oxford together and there is a shared history and a difficult parting to negotiate.
The conference itself is a matter of historical record and as far as I can see the author is true to that. The action between Paul and Hugh is fictional but is used to reveal motivations and to help the reader to understand actions. This is a political thriller and there is little direct action but the tension and the stakes are high throughout the story.
I found this an easy to read and captivating novel. I found myself examining the different viewpoints and thinking what else the characters could have done. Because you know what is going to happen in the overall story you become absorbed with the spy element and the fates of Hugh and Paul which are by no means certain. A captivating historical novel in my opinion.