My knowledge of the lead-up to World War Two could be described as being somewhere between patchy and non-existent, but some time ago Fiction Fan reviewed Munich by Robert Harris and this book ended up on my list, despite my lack of interest in the subject. Munich has left me wanting to know more about this time in history and has introduced me to an author whose back-catalogue I now plan to read.
Munich begins in September, 1938. The story alternately followed two fictional characters who were immersed into the actual build up to the Munich Agreement, where British Prime Mininster Neville Chamberlain, the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini signed an agreement on behalf of their governments along with Adolf Hitler who represented Nazi Germany in a last-minute attempt to prevent Hitler from going to war to force the annexure Sudenten, a territory in Czechoslovakia to Germany.
The story alternately followed Englishman Hugh Legat, a private secretary to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Paul von Hartmann, a staff member with the German Foreign Office. The two men met at Oxford and became friends but had not been in contact for some time. Ironically, the last time they had met was in Munich six years ago.
In the first part of the story in London, Chamberlain did everything he could to prevent war. England had only recently returned to prosperity after World War One and was not prepared for war, but most importantly, Chamberlain knew that all they would be fighting for is the rule of law, and preferred to try to appease Hitler rather than sacrifice human life in numbers which he knew would be far in excess even than of World War One. Government Departments scrambled to prepare for the worst, while working towards a peaceful outcome.
Germany, on the other hand, was prepared for war and the story showed Hitler doing his best to bring it about. As a translator, Paul’s position gave him access to important people, documents and therefore, knowledge. Paul was also part of a secret anti-Hitler resistance group and were prepared to betray Germany to prevent what they recognised as an evil regime carrying out far worse atrocities than what were already occurring.
When it became known that the leaders of the various countries would meet in Munich to try to resolve the Sudenten issue, Paul was able to engineer for Hugh to also attend, in an attempt to pass on important information to the British Prime Minister. Paul and his group hoped this information would cause other events to happen which would lead to Hitler’s downfall.
I feel an enormous respect for Neville Chamberlain after having read this book. He may not have been the best Prime Minister to lead his country during a war, but he certainly did everything he could to prevent one. This book also made me feel a frightening responsibility to stand up for those who are being treated unfairly on any scale, lest small things lead to bigger injustices. Frightening because I’m not particularly brave and overwhelming because there are so many things which are unfair. How and where does one person start? How does anyone know which battles to fight?
Munich was fascinating and I’ll be going back to this author’s first book, Fatherland next.