Devil in the details
It’s the small things that bring history to life in new Harris novel
LONDON — The armoured train was travelling at an average speed of 88 km/h as it transported Adolf Hitler to that fateful 1938 meeting in Munich with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain.
Another fact: if you had occasion to visit a washroom while on board, you would discover a miniature steel swastika, symbol of Nazi might, adorning every tap.
But this didn’t necessarily mean the Nazi leader washed that often himself. In his powerful new novel, Munich, Robert Harris tells us Hitler had the body odour of “a workman who had not bathed or changed his shirt in a week.” In other words, Hitler stank. Small details like these have always fascinated Harris and they unquestionably heighten the impact of his bestselling novels about the use and misuse of power. They certainly ensured the success of Conclave, his 2016 thriller about the inner workings of the Vatican. And they have brought excitement and immediacy to his historical fiction about ancient Rome.
“It’s the small things that bring history to life,” Harris says matterof-factly. “The intimate detail, the armoured train, the washroom taps, the smell, Chamberlain’s plane bucking about in the clouds — all these things make history real, and there’s a great pleasure for me in writing about it.”
In the case of his novel Munich, Harris wanted to immerse the reader as deeply as possible in those perilous hours when a frantic British government’s last-ditch effort to prevent war with Germany yielded an agreement that many in the free world continue to see as an unforgivable act of appeasement.
Harris sees the circumstances as somewhat more complicated than that. He cites the little-remembered fact that many Germans anxious about Hitler’s increasingly aggressive scenario welcomed Chamberlain’s efforts to preserve peace.
History has not been kind to Chamberlain, but this taut new thriller isn’t prepared to join the chorus of criticism that condemns him as a pariah and an obedient lapdog to Hitler’s territorial ambitions.
Hitler was determined to start a war, and Chamberlain was determined to keep the peace, even if it meant permitting Germany to annex a disputed section of Czechoslovakia. But Hitler was furious with the conclusion of the talks, despite Chamberlain’s capitulation over Czechoslovakia. The Nazi dictator felt thwarted.
“For two weeks after Munich, you couldn’t go near Hitler,” Harris says. “He was in such a rage and said the German people had been duped — by Chamberlain of all people!”
Harris knows some readers will accuse him of showing undue sympathy toward the 20th century’s most reviled British prime minister. “Yes, I think they will,” he says over the phone from his Berkshire home. “In some ways, Munich is more of a dirty word in the United States than in Britain or France — but Americans didn’t actually face the bombing that would result from a failure.”
The novel argues the 68-year-old prime minister had few options. Given the extent of Germany’s arms buildup, Chamberlain was not negotiating from a position of strength. At least Chamberlain was buying precious time.
“Britain had 20 Spitfires in 1938,” Harris says. They had about 100 Hurricanes, but they had problems at high altitudes. The rest of its aircraft were biplanes, which would have been no match for modern German aircraft. In terms of fighting in the air, Britain would have been unable to defend itself. At that time it didn’t even have radar, which of course was vital for intercepting bombers when they came over in the Blitz.”
Harris likes to examine history from the perspective of fictional figures with subordinate roles in critical events. In the case of Munich there are two prisms — one provided by Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, the other by Paul Hartman, a conflicted German diplomat and a member of an anti-Hitler resistance movement. The two are old friends from college, and the Munich crisis brings them together again in a dangerous and unexpected way.
“I might have attempted to get into Neville Chamberlain’s head, but I certainly didn’t want to get into Adolf Hitler’s head,” Harris says. “These great figures are generally best observed from the outside, for example (through) a private secretary or adviser — someone who is intimate enough to be able to observe them and then kind of pass comment on them.”
Harris, 60, had his first success as a novelist with Fatherland, a piece of alternative history that sees Germany winning the war. With Munich, however, he’s dealing with real-life events he’s been obsessed with since he was a child.
“It dates back to being a child in the 1960s and growing up in the shadow of a war and questioning the things that I heard,” he says. “A lot of books have probed away at the myths one was brought up on. And I remember my parents telling me about Munich and their feeling of relief at the time that there would be no war.”
As young journalist, Harris continued to be obsessed by Munich and by the diminished reputation of Chamberlain. And that obsession has pursued him throughout his quarter-century as a bestselling novelist. “I’ve always been fascinated by controversial figures — people who have a consensus of opinion against them,” he says now. “I think Chamberlain was a fairly honest man, perhaps too honest for his own good.
“The real point to get across is that a lot of the appeasement was driven by realpolitik rather than naiveté. Chamberlain had it right when he declared that ‘you can’t play poker with a gangster when you have no cards in your hand.’”
Robert Harris takes a fairly sympathetic view of Neville Chamberlain in his novel, Munich.
Then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a 1938 meeting with Adolf Hitler thinking he had obtained peace.