Munich by Robert Harris review – can two old friends stop Hitler and avert disaster?

A tantalising glimpse into what might have been a very different outcome to Hitler’s meeting with Neville Chamberlain in 1938

London, late September 1938. Slit trenches are being dug in Green Park and at home children are fitted with gas masks. Hitler is determined to invade Czechoslovakia in his scheme to reclaim lost German territory. Chamberlain is equally determined to prevent another war. Europe holds its breath as a last chance for peace goes up for grabs at a conference in Munich.

As history this feels so well known as to defy a further rehearsal. Chamberlain’s piece of paper has become as pathetic in its way as Desdemona’s handkerchief: a white flag in the face of oncoming tragedy. As fiction, though, we’re just getting started. Amid this febrile atmosphere Robert Harris has parachuted one of his trusty old-school protagonists through the interstices of historical events, sticking tight to the record but suggesting how things might have turned out differently. Hugh Legat, late of the Foreign Office, now a private secretary to the PM, is privy to the “real truth” about Britain’s home air defence. The RAF has only 20 fighter planes “with working guns” to defend the entire country, so a war would be not only morally repugnant but strategically disastrous. Legat, a brilliant Balliol scholar, is also an upright, downright, forthright stiff, perhaps deliberately: Harris doesn’t want a “colourful” lead stealing any of the narrative’s thunder.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, a high-born diplomat named Paul Hartmann has joined a group of conspirators plotting against Hitler. Hartmann has got hold of a document outlining Germany’s expansionist ambitions, including their intention to launch a surprise attack and “smash” the Czechs. If the plotters can somehow convey this dynamite to a sympathetic ear in Whitehall it might provoke the British government to take action, and stop “the madman” in his tracks. The first hundred or so pages of Munich are full of tight little huddles, grave-faced men darting in and out of offices. At times the documentarist in Harris seems to be rather crowding out the novelist, hugging the shore of verifiable fact instead of boldly striking out on the choppier waters of fiction. I’m not sure, for instance, of our need to know that the Führer’s train south to Munich went “at an average speed of 55 kilometres per hour”. But then a couple of pages later Hartmann, aboard the train as an assistant translator, visits the toilet and notes the tiny steel swastikas adorning the taps – the vigilant novelist has reasserted himself. “No escaping the Führer’s aesthetic, thought Hartmann, even when one took a shit.”

After the pianissimo first section the book turns up the volume as the dual plotlines converge: Hartmann, who was a friend of Legat’s at Balliol, is relieved to discover that the Englishman is also on his way to Munich, aboard the PM’s plane. Both men must operate under a lowering cloud of suspicion as they inch closer to the respective centres of power, revealed to us in telling pen portraits. Chamberlain, nearing 70, a Victorian throw-back in stiff wing-collars, constantly surprises his staff with his energy and his “ostentatiously modest” way with the spotlight. Hitler, impatient and dour, presents a more enigmatic figure: how did this unexceptional man (“it was almost compelling how nondescript he was”, thinks Legat) bewitch a mighty nation into surrender? And just for good measure Harris throws in this sulphurous firecracker: he has the body odour of “a workman who had not bathed or changed his shirt in a week”. On top of everything else, Hitler stank.

As the negotiations grind on the scene is enlivened with touching squiggles of detail, such as the crowd outside the British delegation’s hotel striking up with “The Lambeth Walk” to make the visitors feel at home. Munich itself comes to life in the poignant contrast between the gracious city of botanical gardens Hartmann once loved and the new brutalist parade-ground spiked with gigantic flagpoles and swastika banners. During a midnight flit outside Munich he gives Legat a terrible glimpse of where Nazi Germany is heading, and both men come to a private reckoning of their failure to make a mark. A tense encounter in Hitler’s apartment is the book’s thwarted climax.

A tantalising addition to the inexhaustible game of “what if?”, Munich is one of Robert Harris’s more contained performances, less daring than Fatherland, not as compulsive as Pompeii, his best novel. The story of a crisis averted is, perforce, something of a pulled punch. But it makes for an ominous foreshadowing of the main event. “Our enemies are small worms,” the Fuhrer would tell his generals in August 1939. “I saw them in Munich.”

• Anthony Quinn’s latest novel is Eureka (Cape).

Munich is published by Hutchinson. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Anthony Quinn

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris review – a ‘genre-bending thriller’
The future Britain looks medieval in Robert Harris’s dystopian tale. But who ruined everything?

Clare Clark

07, Sep, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Conclave by Robert Harris review – a triumphant Vatican showdown
The pope is dead and cardinals are gathering to elect his successor in this portrait of power, corruption and deceit

Ian Sansom

24, Sep, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard review – creeping towards catastrophe
Aphoristic tableaux from the lead-up to the second world war build into a dazzling work of black comedy and political disaster

Steven Poole

02, Jan, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Fear Index by Robert Harris – review
Mark Lawson is gripped by Robert Harris's ingenious financial thriller

Mark Lawson

30, Sep, 2011 @9:55 PM

Article image
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Week four: readers' responses

John Mullan

20, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Week one: speculative fiction

John Mullan

30, Mar, 2012 @9:46 PM

Article image
The Friends of Harry Perkins by Chris Mullin review – predicting Brexit Britain
The follow-up to the 1982 political thriller A Very British Coup is so topical it will need instant updates

Mark Lawson

23, Mar, 2019 @7:29 AM

Article image
Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn review – life during wartime
This enjoyable thriller about hunting down Nazi sympathisers is shot through with postmodern melancholy

Christobel Kent

13, Jul, 2018 @6:29 AM

Article image
The Fall Guy by James Lasdun review – shades of Hitchcock and Highsmith
A banker, his wife and cousin take a holiday in the Catskills in this menacing thriller of money and betrayal

M John Harrison

05, Jan, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Body Lies by Jo Baker review – creative writing can be murder
Campus novel satire and the high drama of a thriller combine in a fiendishly readable interrogation of the allure of violent fiction

Sarah Moss

05, Jul, 2019 @6:30 AM