Robert Harris is a writer whose books I’ve enjoyed for years although I sometimes belittle him with faint praise; ‘he’s a great thriller writer’ that kind of thing. That said, he is a great thriller writer but he’s often so much more. Known predominantly perhaps for the excellent Fatherland, his rich body of work includes the Cicero trilogy – an absolute feast for lovers of Ancient Rome – and a thinly disguised portrait of an ego driven Tony Blair in The Ghost. I was a bit disappointed with his last, Conclave but his latest novel, Munich, is superb.
The novel concerns Chamberlain and Hitler and the events leading up to the infamous ‘peace in our time’ proclamation by the now much derided British prime minister. Harris addresses the Munich agreement from a different angle than the usual appeasement one and the book reads like an argument for the PM as a force for good at a time the forces of evil and war where in the ascendancy, and it’s a convincing argument. The story is driven by the relationship between 2 civil servants, one English the other German, who knew each other from their days together at Oxford, and the role they play in the cauldron of late 1930s world affairs. The overriding message of the book seems to be that Chamberlain was, contrary to conventional historical opinion, no spineless fool and Churchill’s eventual success should not have come at the expense of Chamberlain’s reputation. To the victor the spoils, alas, is an ongoing tragedy throughout history but the greatest tragedy here is Chamberlain’s quest for peace failed and in retrospect was always doomed to failure.
Nowadays, with Neo Nazis seemingly everywhere you look, it would take more than a peace of paper to get us to believe we had peace in our time, but only 20 years after the first great world war, people had to believe another could be averted. Chamberlain was certainly one of those and perhaps that’s the worst thing that can be said about him.
Highly recommended if you like thrillers, espionage and an intelligent reading of history.