Munich by Robert Harris

Anglo-German incomprehension is a difficult subject to bring alive. Robert Harris does so in the form of a thriller about the negotiations at Munich in September 1938 between Hitler and Chamberlain.

I happened to read the second half of the book on a train journey, and on reaching the last page, wondered how to pass the rest of the time before reaching my destination in any way that would be half so enjoyable.

It is impossible not to admire the skill with which Harris has inserted into the history of those days a plot involving two junior diplomats – one British, one German, called Legat and Hartmann – who were great friends at Oxford, and fell out with each other during a holiday in Munich in 1932.

For Legat had accused Hartmann of “being a Nazi at heart”. When Hartmann reproaches him for this in 1938, Legat replies:

“Did I? I’m sorry. Sometimes, to an outsider, German nationalism didn’t sound that much different to Nazism.”

If an Englishman like Legat, who speaks excellent German, cannot grasp this distinction, what hope is there for Chamberlain, who speaks none?

Harris once wrote a marvellously rude book about Tony Blair called The Ghost, in which the character based on Cherie Blair turns out to be an American agent, which explains why her husband always ends up doing what the Americans want.

But Harris does not want to be rude about Chamberlain. He wants to be fair and, in conversations which have accompanied the publication of this book, has sought to defend Chamberlain’s attempt, at Munich, to appease Hitler by selling out the Czechs. After Munich, as Harris puts it in one of these interviews,

“Chamberlain, dying when he did in 1940 … became a very convenient scapegoat, someone to blame. Whereas in fact, and I think it’s almost unarguable, that the time between 1938 and 1940 was very well spent in developing Spitfires and radar and perhaps above all it gave us a sense of national unity. A sense that no one could say that we hadn’t done everything possible to try and avoid war and it was clear that there was no making peace with Hitler, that you could never trust him – and so the country did have a resolution to fight on that it might not necessarily have had otherwise.”

Yet Harris’s respect for history compels him to admit, in his book, that Chamberlain was hopeless at conveying to Hitler the truth that if pushed too far, Britain would stand and fight. Hartmann has the task of conducting the French, British and Italian delegations into Hitler’s study in the Führerbau in Munich:

“He led them past the long gallery where the Germans were standing watching. How drab the British and the French looked in their office suits, crumpled after their long journeys, compared to the uniforms of the SS and the Italian fascists. How un-virile; how dowdy and outnumbered.”

The German resistance to Hitler wants things to go wrong for the Führer. It tells the British, via Hartmann, that he is a man implacably determined on making war, and that the German army – which sees that war will lead to disaster – will overthrow Hitler if only the British and French will force a showdown.

At Munich, Chamberlain instead presents Hitler with a cost-free conquest – the Sudetenland – which means the rest of Czechoslovakia has been rendered indefensible, and will be conquered early the following year.

One of the merits of this book is that it forces one to ask what one would have done oneself in 1938. Would one have gone beyond pious aspirations about the need to preserve peace?

In the city of Munich, Harris points out, Chamberlain is cheered more loudly and fervently than Hitler, for the British Prime Minister is seen as the man who has averted war. And in London it is the same: there is enormous relief that war has not after all broken out, and Chamberlain is cheered to the echo.

Legat so far forgets his “professional neutrality” that he cheers the Prime Minister too, when MPs burst into deafening applause on hearing Hitler has issued an invitation to Munich.

So Legat and Hartmann play the parts assigned to them by Harris of decent but ineffectual British diplomat with an unhappy marriage, and decent but ineffectual member of the German resistance.

They will not, however, live in readers’ memories. For they are marionettes, expertly manipulated by Harris, rather than characters with a life of their own. Even the relationship between Legat and Hartmann feels like a device rather a friendship invested with the passion of youth.

And Chamberlain and Hitler are marionettes too, rather than characters whose personalities emerge more fully than before. Chamberlain seems to me to have been a gifted technocrat – his health reforms in the 1920s were brilliant – but a deeply unpleasant man.

Stanley Baldwin, his predecessor as Prime Minister, asked him to stop treating Labour MPs like dirt, but Chamberlain remarks (in a letter in 1927 to one of his sisters): “The fact is that intellectually, with a few exceptions, they are dirt.”

That is one reason why Labour refused in 1940 to serve under Chamberlain. Nye Bevan, a brilliant young Labour MP, observed from the Opposition benches the change of tone in May 1937 when Chamberlain took over from Baldwin:

“In the funeral service of capitalism, the honeyed and soothing platitudes of the clergyman are finished, and the cortege is now under the sombre and impressive guidance of the undertaker.”

Chamberlain’s own brother, Austen, a former Foreign Secretary who was deeply versed in European politics, had warned him: “Neville, you must remember you know nothing about foreign affairs.”

Of these contemporary (rather than retrospective) criticisms of Chamberlain, not much is found in Harris. But it is true that the Prime Minister’s entourage, including the ineffable Sir Horace Wilson (rightly accorded a key role by Harris), were deeply loyal to him.

Nick Timothy this week suggested in The Daily Telegraph that Disraeli was the last Prime Minister who “immediately and accurately understood a German leader’s intentions” (though he dates this understanding to a conversation with Bismarck in 1862, when Disraeli was not Prime Minister).

Does Theresa May understand Angela Merkel? Probably not, for many Germans do not understand her.

Harris’s defence of Chamberlain rests on the assertion that the Munich agreement, though a shameful betrayal of the Czechs, was the only practical course of action for the British government. The Establishment got it right in 1938: ever since 1939, when the policy of appeasement collapsed, a pleasantly controversial thesis.