Deal that be­came a by­word for folly

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon Cater­son

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.

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