It is only fitting that a book review in September should feature World War Two. The book Munich by Robert Harris is an excellent choice.
On September 1, 1938 the Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy. It agreed to let Germany annex Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia under the guise of reunification of all Germans. Hitler said that if Sudetenland was annexed, he would have no further territorial claims in Europe.
Not long after that we faced the start of World War Two (further WWII) and as history told us, he made further claims. On this date, he also signed an order to begin the systematic euthanasia of mentally ill and disabled people. History has shown his cruelty didn’t stop there.
On September 2, 1945 the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamory Shigemitsu signed the terms of surrender. He did this on board of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender followed these two events: on August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It destroyed the city. It killed approx. 80’000 people. Later, thousands would die from radiation exposure. Three days later, a second B-29 dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. It killed approx. 40’000 people. After this, Emperor Hirohito made Japan’s unconditional surrender public on August 15 but the formal singing took place on September 2, 1945. This ended Japan’s occupation of large parts of South-East Asia.
We know the key players for Great Britain and Germany. Instead of concentrating solely on Arthur Neville Chamberlain (March 18, 1869 – November 9, 1940) who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940 and Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889 – April 30, 1945), who served as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and became its Führer in 1934 until his death in 1945, Robert Harris tells his story by using secondary characters.
Legat and Hartmann
We meet Hugh Legat who serves in His Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. The Monarch at that time was George VI (December 14, 1895 – February 6, 1952) who was determined to defeat Germany.
Working from London, Legat is a junior private secretary to the Prime Minister. As Legat learns the “planning has always been predicated on there being no conflict with Germany before 1939 at the earliest.” It becomes clear why. The UK Army and Airforce are not prepared for war and neither is the Navy. All had counted on no mobilization before 1939. Legat, who is present at this meeting as one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries is asked by the PM to destroy the meeting’s notes.
We follow him as he receives confidential information. At first, he isn’t sure who is contacting him. While he observes and analyzes his colleagues, superiors, and others at Downing Street 10, we learn more about Chamberlain and how he interacts with his staff.
In Berlin, Germany we enter the German Foreign Ministry spearheaded by Joachim von Ribbentrop although the book refers to him just as Ribbentrop. von Ribbentrop (April 30, 1893 – October 16, 1946) served as Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany from 1938- 1945. He was arrested in June 1945 and tried at the Nuremberg. He was convicted for his role in WWII and the Holocaust. On October 16, 1946, he was executed with nine others.
At the Foreign Ministry, we meet Paul Hartmann. He translates all documents from German to English and drafts replies on behalf of von Ribbentrop. We also meet Erich Kordt who together with Hartmann desperately tries to change the course of history.
The history between Legat and Hartmann unfolds near the ending of the book. It is painful but as we now know, that was the reality of that time. Legat had heard of Dachau but is taken back by it sheer size. But that isn’t the only eye-opener he got. Hartmann has another one waiting for him.
We all know that Hartmann and Legat did not succeed in changing the course of history. However, that fact doesn’t take away anything of the tension that builds up in Robert Harris’ book. The pace is good, the tension between superior and even same ranking colleagues drips off the pages, and the personal sacrifices made are enormous.
Hartmann and Legat share more than just wanting to prevent WWII. They share their time at Oxford when their friendship deepened but also drove them apart. Robert Harris cleverly shows you how each of them wants to prevent WWII. Can you go to war on a narrow issue? Can you force a nation to endure war and its consequences while the issues are played out on the continent? To prevent WWII, Hartmann must speak to Chamberlain or get a document to him before he signs the Munich Agreement. Hartmann doesn’t just want to prevent war. He and others wish to depose Hitler. And they think that they have the right tools to do it.
We read about the strategic meetings. Is France alone strong enough to defeat Germany? Can we count on other countries? Which army is right now quickly mobilized and strong enough to defeat Germany? Russia, but that means that the battle will be played out on an independent country’s jurisdiction, Poland, as Germany and Russia do not share borders.
The character of Hartmann is inspired by Friedrich Adam von Trott zu Solz (August 9, 1909 – August 26, 1944) who was a German lawyer and diplomat. He was part of the conservative resistance to Nazi Germany and active in “the Kreisau Circle of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg. Together with Claus von Stauffenberg he conspired in the 20 July plot, and was supposed to be appointed Secretary of State in the Foreign Office and lead negotiator with the Western Allies if they had succeeded.” He was arrested, faced trial, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to death on August 15, 1944. He was executed in the Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison on August 26, 1944.
Both Legat and Hartmann arrive in Munich and not without real hope to succeed. But there’s a document Hartmann needs to get to Chamberlain. IF Chamberlain sees it, it will prevent the Munich Agreement. Hartmann is not just set on avoiding WWII and deposing Hitler. He and others wish to restore the monarchy. His best shot to get to Chamberlain is his Legat. However, as Legat is a junior private secretary he is not involved in all the meetings. He doesn’t have direct access to Chamberlain. Yet the cause is too important and Legat risks it all to find Chamberlain.
The plotting, meetings, exchanges of documents, and the efforts that they go through will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the book. We meet many more characters along the way including Mrs. Chamberlain. The book includes a long list of consulted works in the acknowledgements.
Robert Harris wrote a fantastic work of historical fiction. He leaves you wondering what if. This book is highly recommended reading for those who love history and are interested in WWII.
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