Oh man, have I ever missed reading history.
I spent four years studying and writing about American, German, Canadian and so many other kinds of history. Now that I don’t have assigned reading for class, I haven’t been keeping up with my historical interests. This spy novel knocked some sense back into me.
Munich by Robert Harris is a fictional account of the 1938 Munich Agreement. Harris bases the book on carefully researched history, and weaves his fictional characters into the true story seamlessly. Historical fiction can be dicey, especially when done poorly or without adequate research, but Harris is undoubtedly a master at his craft.
The Munich Agreement was a last ditch effort to stop the Second World War from happening. Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, along with the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, met with Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany. In an attempt to stop Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, the British and French agreed to annex the country and give Hitler the portion he wanted. The agreement is now widely considered a failed act of appeasement. Less than a year later Hitler started the Second World War anyways.
Harris writes all of this history accurately, and on top of it adds two new, fictional characters – two friends, one English and one German, who met will studying at Oxford, and who both ended up working in foreign affairs. Both men have been chosen to attend the spur of the moment conference in Munich as translators. The twist is that one - Paul von Hartmann of Germany - is trying to secretly feed information about Hitler's intentions for war to the British through his English friend Hugh Legat.
The thing that I love so much about history is how absorbed into you become. You’ll find yourself imagining you lived in a certain time or place and you’ll try to picture what your life would have been like. You become obsessed with certain moments and decisions that people made in the past and you wonder what would have happened if they’d done something differently.
Munich is brilliant. It does justice to the unbelievably difficult decisions world leaders had to make when faced with a dictator who was set on taking over Europe. It explores the lingering tragedy of the First World War, both for the British and the Germans, and it demonstrates how far people would go to avoid another all-encompassing war. Harris takes a somewhat more sympathetic view of Chamberlain than I heard from professors and academic historians. He humanizes a man who desperately wanted to avoid dragging his people back into another war. I found it refreshing and, although history is not intended to be kind, I enjoyed reading the story all the more because of the way Chamberlain was portrayed.
The friendship, and tension, between Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann is a beautiful, sad way to define the tension between two nations in 1938. Legat and Hartmann, who spent years co-existing peacefully as friends, are now torn apart by the ideologies of their nations and by the overwhelming fear of being dragged into another war.
Harris lets his story build slowly. He doesn’t compromise accurate history for the sake of building his characters. He strikes a perfect balance between setting up the conference in Munich and setting up the confrontation between his main characters.
If you’re interested in history, particularly Second World War history, but don’t know where to start, I highly recommend Munich. It’s a great introduction into a complicated subject, and, though it requires a little background knowledge, it doesn’t rely heavily on anything that isn’t explained in the book itself.
The Second World War is an upsetting subject. As someone who studied history, I think I see it more objectively and scientifically than others. But reading Munich was an important reminder of the human side of conflict, and of the harsh realities world leader’s face when they step into office. We, in large part, put our trust into their hands, and when bad decisions are made the ripple affect can sometimes be felt decades down the line.
Munich is beautifully written and filled with moments of humanity. A man who is dealing with threats of war from Hitler must also contend with the infidelity of his wife. A Foreign Service worker who has to translate for Hitler also has to get a grip on his conflicting, overwhelming feelings about what his country is doing.