Munich by Robert Harris, Penguin Books, 2017, ISBN 978-0-09-195920-3, 342pp
The collection of books that a man keeps for study while he is engaged in that essential daily bodily function tells one much about his character. Or so I have always thought. Such a collection should be eclectic and catholic; they should be books to be dipped into rather than read voraciously. One such book that graces the throne room in our house is “The First Cuckoo”, a collection of letters written to the Editor of The Times (the London Times of course). In “The First Cuckoo” there is a letter, written on 24 January 1933, in which the writer informs the Editor that he has seen a Grey Wagtail in St James’s Park. He notes that he has never before seen this bird in the Park. The letter is remarkable not because it is hardly a matter of great weight but because its writer was Neville Chamberlain who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not only did he walk to his office but he had time, upon his arrival, to take up a fountain pen and write to the Editor of the Times about matters ornithological. Perhaps he had his priories right; perhaps not. A week later Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
I think Robert Harris may also have read “The First Cuckoo”. Munich is an historical novel about the Munich Agreement that was signed by Chamberlain and Hitler in September 1938. It was a settlement that allowed Germany to annex portions of Czechoslovakia that were inhabited by predominantly German speaking people. History has not been kind to Chamberlain as it has tended to criticise him for an act of appeasement toward an increasingly aggressive and warmongering Germany. Robert Harris is a great writer and I think that part of his objective in writing this book is to cause historians to view Chamberlain through a different and more sympathetic lens.
I recently read the first two volumes of James Holland’s “The War in the West” (I am awaiting the third volume before reviewing these: the first two volumes are nothing short of brilliant). He provides data on the relative strength of the German and British armed forces immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. In the year before the war, Germany was pumping out 130 single-engined fighter planes a month compared with Britain’s 85. For two-engined planes the numbers were 220 and 150. Germany had 3,500 tanks, the Brits had 1,150. Britain was not ready to fight in September 1938. It needed the extra year to get its economy onto a war footing. There were plenty of hawks in the British Cabinet, including Churchill, who felt that sooner was better than later for a fight. Chamberlain overcame his absolute distaste for Hitler and, through contact with Mussolini, manoeuvred him into a meeting. The whole thing was organised very quickly and the agreement was hammered out in two or three days. This novel is about those two or three days and the two or three days that preceded them.
So, what has all this got to do with “The First Cuckoo”? In Harris’ book, on the second day of the crisis Chamberlain says to one of the central characters (perhaps the central character), Hugh Legat, “I shall need to write a letter to … G J Scholey of 38 Dysart Avenue, Kingston-on-Thames.” Scholey had written a letter to the Editor of The Times about the nesting behaviour of owls and wished Legat, one of his private secretaries, to take down a letter on the subject. I could not find Scholey’s letter in “The First Cuckoo” so perhaps it is fictional. As a vignette, however, perhaps it tells us something about Chamberlain. Harris seems to have an affection for a man who has been possibly unfairly treated but who was probably not the right leader for war. He was replaced by Churchill in May 1940 and he died in November 1940. Now, he is remembered for his claim when he returned from Munich that he was bringing “peace for our time”. What he meant, with retrospect, was peace for the time Britain needed to be ready for the inevitable.
But in a way Chamberlain is not the central figure in the book although the events of the narrative unfold around him. The main character is Hugh Legat who is Chamberlain’s Third Private Secretary. Legat is a fluent German speaker and a young man with a glittering career in the Foreign Office ahead of him. The second principal character is Paul von Hartmann. Hartmann is part of the German Foreign Ministry. He is also part of a movement to remove Hitler from power. Legat and Hartmann know each from their days at Oxford several years previously. They have not been in touch since then. The main thread of the novel is the unfolding rekindling of the links between them and Hartmann tries to manoeuvre the British into failing to settle with the Germans. This, his supporters believe, would weaken Hitler. There was a plot against Hitler, the Oster Conspiracy, in September 1938. It was led by Generalmajor Hans Oster, supported by conservatives in the Wehrmacht who felt Hitler was dragging Germany into a war it was not ready to fight. This book is enjoyable, certainly for any student of 20th century European history but also for anyone who likes a good read. The story zips along at a good pace and keeps the reader engaged. It introduces senior political and bureaucratic figures of the day in a way that make one want to look them up. It also makes one reflect on how difficult it must have been to be a bystander in those days. As the person on the street, one would have known very little about the detail, any news would be several days after the event and never enough to assuage the undercurrent of fear. Put this book on your reading list: better yet, give it to someone for Christmas. Postscript: I mentioned the James Holland books. These are “The War in the West: Germany Ascendant” (Volume 1) and “The War in the West: The Allies Fight Back” (Volume 2). They’re 1,500 pages between them but they tell a very accessible story. I am waiting for Volume 3 before I review them as a set.