Devil in the de­tails

It’s the small things that bring his­tory to life in new Har­ris novel

Northumberland Today - - ENTERTAINMENT - JAMIE PORT­MAN

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.

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