Munich by Robert Harris

This was first published in 2017 and is about to be a Netflix movie starring Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, the hapless Prime Minister who has been portrayed (in my cursory understanding of history) as an appeaser who didn’t stand up to Hitler in the way Churchill did.

Of course, Churchill’s reputation is currently in flux, as we fight this endless irrational war about pounds and ounces and misogyny and racism. Harris clearly wrote this with the intention of re-evaluating Chamberlain. What else could he have done? Far from being the naive appeaser, in this he is the pragmatist who knows exactly how ready Britain is to fight a war in September 1938. Considerably less ready than we even were a year later. They may have been digging up London parks and issuing gas masks in 1938, but they didn’t have many working Spitfires.

As is usual with Harris’ non-fiction novels, I went in not expecting much only to find myself drawn in to the tension of the espionage plot, which takes place against the backdrop of Chamberlain’s last-minute negotiations about the fate of Czechoslovakia. As German opposition to Hitler fails to take action, a young British diplomat meets up with an old friend from his University days who has a document that shows Hitler is not negotiating in good faith.

But Chamberlain has no choice: Britain is not ready for war, and the cause is weak. He plays for time and ensures that Hitler’s later actions show him clearly to be the villain of the piece.

I called this a non-fiction novel above, and I think that is the best way to think of these books (like V2) that are based on real historical events. Personally I do prefer Harris’ fiction-fiction novels (like The Second Sleep, or even Conclave, which uses exhaustive research but is not based on anything that really happened). What I yearned for a bit in reading this was a counterfactual, in which the plot against Hitler was more than a bunch of old monarchists grumbling in the background. But Harris, like Chamberlain, is realistic enough to know that that would probably be the wrong choice.

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