Deal that became a byword for folly
Appeasement. There are few labels more damning in the lexicon historians use to describe decisions made by world leaders that in hindsight seem tragically misguided. Perhaps no figure in world history has been more heavily criticised for an act of appeasement than British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who in Munich in 1938 cosigned a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler purporting to confirm that there would be no war with Nazi Germany.
It takes a historical novelist of the calibre of Robert Harris to make Chamberlain into a more empathetic figure than generally is allowed in the judgment of history. The Munich Agreement allowed Germany to annex the part of Czechoslovakia mostly populated by ethnic Germans, and so “liberate” a group of people who, according to the Nazis, had been unfairly separated from their compatriots by a previous treaty.
Within a year, Germany had begun invading Poland in partnership with its then ally the Soviet Union, and World War II was under way. By the time war ended in 1945, more than 60 million lives had been lost amid suffering, damage and destruction on an unprecedented scale.
Realistically, Harris asks, could Chamberlain, who at the time received support from both sides of British politics, have stopped any of that happening? Could any European leader at that time have thwarted Hitler’s megalomaniac military ambitions effectively?
It is tempting to see contemporary examples of appeasement or non-appeasement. Some have criticised Barack Obama for drawing a “red line” in relation to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population in 2012, and then standing by while the Assad regime went ahead and used those weapons anyway. Others praise John F. Kennedy for refusing to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff that, if the outcome had been different, might have led to atomic war. For its part, Germany soon broke the Munich Agreement by occupying all of Czechoslovakia, not just the German enclave in the Sudeten area to which the agreement applied.
In Munich, Harris meticulously recreates the tense atmosphere of the negotiations, combining real participants with fictional characters. In addition to convincing portrayals of leaders such as Chamberlain and Hitler, the cast includes two minor officials on either side, British prime ministerial private secretary Hugh Legat and German diplomatic translator Paul Hartmann, who years before had been students together at Oxford.
Hartmann is a member of an underground resistance movement within the German hierarchy opposed to Hitler, while Legat sees danger in allowing the Nazi leader to have his way, as occurred previously when his troops moved unchallenged into Austria.
In Harris’s compelling version of fictionalised history, Chamberlain is faced with a situation, as the world faces today with North Korea, in which options don’t appear to be available. Like so many of their generation, Chamberlain and his advisers had lived through the carnage of World War I, and wanted to do everything possible to avoid a repeat.
As Chamberlain explains to Legat: “I truly fear for the spiritual health of our people if they don’t see their leaders doing absolutely everything they can to prevent a second great conflict. Because of one thing I can assure you: if it comes, the next war will be infinitely worse than the last, and they will require great fortitude to survive it.”
Harris shows Chamberlain thinking that taking Hitler at his word only to have him break it could have an upside, in demonstrating just how unprincipled he is, thus making it easier for people to find the will to fight the Nazi regime.
Legat, meanwhile, works with Hartmann to provide proof to the British leadership that the Nazis have no intention of abiding by any agreement that would limit their plans for massive territorial expansion.
The behind-the-scenes intrigue propels a novel that might otherwise be made up of a succession of long-winded speeches. Harris is adept at weaving real and imaginary elements without letting the one unbalance the other.
Legat warns Hartmann not to underestimate the power of the irrational in shaping world affairs. Chamberlain and Hitler are driven by equally strong, albeit irreconcilable, impulses: Chamberlain to avoid war at all costs and Hitler to make war regardless of the consequences. Each in his own way contributed to the global conflict that followed, though neither they nor anyone else could have foreseen how events would unfold. is an author and critic.