Date Published06 January 2022
Price£ 8.99


by Robert Harris

With Hitler’s territorial demands looking likely to provoke war, statesmen assemble in Munich seeking a settlement to prevent conflict.


This thriller, originally published in 2017, has been reissued to tie in with a film based on the book, a portrayal of actual events at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938. The main protagonists, Hugh Legat, a young private secretary to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and Paul von Hartmann, a junior at the German Foreign Ministry, are fictional.

The story covers the few days of the conference held in Munich in the autumn of 1938, during which Chamberlain took a leading role in trying to persuade Hitler to agree to an orderly Czech surrender of the Sudetenland, a portion of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly German population. The successful outcome prevented an invasion that would have meant immediate war for most of Europe.

Despite the events being familiar history, Robert Harris generates plenty of intensity. The details of the background, the trappings of power, in both 10 Downing Street and in the Fuhrerbau, the setting of the conference, are depicted in evocative detail and the feverish atmosphere is almost palpable. The diplomatic to-and-fro is exhaustive but maintains interest, and the author gives the reader a sensation of intimacy with Chamberlain and Hitler not found in most history books.

The primary excitement comes from Hartmann’s attempt to demonstrate to the British that Hitler is determined on war, and to persuade Chamberlain that if Hitler is rebutted, key figures in the Nazi administration will feel empowered to push Hitler aside. Hartmann gains access to the British via Legat, as the two were both at Oxford together some years before, but risks death if detected by the Gestapo. For Legat, his attempts to give Hartmann access threaten early termination of a promising career, and possibly embarrassment of his PM.

From a historical point of view, the story is useful in the way it confronts the view, widely held, that Munich was a supine and shameful capitulation. Harris emphasises the enthusiasm with which Chamberlain was greeted both in England and in Germany where memories of the Great War were still so raw that the possibility of renewal was regarded with universal horror.

Chamberlain is given a speech that makes it clear he did not for a moment believe Hitler’s protestations of peace, but that deferral of hostilities was well worth fighting hard for, even if it did prove to be only temporary. It certainly provided a desperately needed space for Britain to prepare for war. Whether an earlier confrontation with Hitler would have guaranteed a better outcome is something that no doubt will always be a matter of debate.

The author manages to capture the spirit of the time with details of dress, the formality of manners, and many other aspects of the era convincingly displayed. History is always a foreign country but Harris seems to get as close as you can imagine to a re-creation of times very different from those of today.

Reviewed 29 April 2023 by Chris Roberts