Genre: Historical Fiction, Espionage
Narrative Style: Third person with viewpoint alternating between two characters. Chronological.
Synopsis: Hitler is determined to start a war and Chamberlain is determined to stop him. Hugh Legat works as one of the prime minister’s private secretaries. His old friend, Paul Hartman is a German diplomat. They haven’t seen each other since 1932. Now there paths are destined to cross in Munich when both leaders arrive in the city to try and reach a historic agreement.
Reading Challenge: TBR Challenge 2023
Time on Shelf: I bought this not long after it came out. I really enjoyed Fatherland and was keen to read more by Harris.
There were a couple of things that attracted me to this book. First of all, it was about a time in history that I hadn’t read much about. Books about world war two tend to focus on later events and on Winston Churchill. Secondly, I was keen to read a straightforward historical novel from Harris after reading Fatherland. Finally, I have mixed feelings about spy fiction but felt that if anyone could do it well, it would be Harris.
The book is set in September 1938. Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. He wants possession of the parts of the country that are settled largely by Germans and war will be the result if he doesn’t get them. Chamberlain, along with other leaders are tasked with resolving this. We see the story unfold from the point of view of Legat, first of all and then from the German side, from that of Paul Hartman, both of whom are closely involved with the events.
Legat begins the novel an ordinary civil servant with a unhappy marriage. He is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position. The first thing that happens to him is he attends a meeting between Chamberlain and the heads of the armed forces in which he learns that the Navy are not yet ready for war as they were not expecting this situation to arrive so soon. Immediately after, he is told to destroy his notes, something he finds quite shocking. How close this is to the truth I am unsure but it certainly gives a different slant to the events that follow.
By contrast, Paul Hartmann is confident, almost arrogant. He had initially supported the new regime and so has a position within the foreign office. He is now beginning to feel uneasy with the regime and is part of an underground group that are planning to get rid of Hitler. Their plot involves the army and requires a war to be started. When some material comes into his hands that shows that Hitler is lying when he says that he has no further territorial ambitions and he will not invade anywhere if he gets the Sudetenland, he thinks of his old college friend and sends it to Legat.
At first, the narrative moves between Legat and Hartman in alternate chapters, helping to make the story tense. Of course, we know how the conference between Hitler and Chamberlain turns out but it is still interesting to see the machinations of both governments as they move towards it. As the story progresses and both Legat and Hartman are in Munich, the story switches between their viewpoints more quickly and it is possible to sense the frustration of both men at their own powerlessness in the grand scheme of things.
The characterisation of Chamberlain was interesting. The popular view of him is that he capitulated to Hitler because he was a coward and if not for Churchill we’d all be speaking German now. Harris paints him as an honourable man who is passionately opposed to war at this point in time. He knows his armed forces aren’t ready and he feels that the country will not back him if they went to war over this issue. While it is easy for us to see that the note he comes back with is ridiculous and that Hitler will break his promise, it is also possible to see the honest hope that Chamberlain has in this act.
I did enjoy this book and it is certainly one of the best spy novels I have read, I did feel that these stories always seem to turn on people’s stupidity (for example, Legat leaves secret documents in his room which is then burgled) and also on exceptional good luck. (Legat doesn’t actually lose the documents. Chamberlain’s secretary gets them just in time.) Also, the characters of Legat and Hartman sometimes seemed a little clichéd but overall, it kept me reading and made me think differently about the Munich agreement.