sat 16/12/2017

Robert Harris: Munich review - reselling Hitler | reviews, news & interviews

Robert Harris: Munich review - reselling Hitler

Robert Harris: Munich review - reselling Hitler

The author of Fatherland revisits the Reich to tell the story of peace in our time

Robert Harris: lashings of research

Robert Harris’s first book about Hitler told the story of the hoax diaries which seduced Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Trevor-Roper. After Selling Hitler (1986) came Fatherland (1992), another fake story about the Führer. In that alternative history the Third Reich had stuck to a non-aggression pact with Britain and expanded unopposed into the lebensraum of the Soviet Union. One founding fact of the thriller was that at Munich in September 1938, Britain and Germany made a commitment to peace in our time.

That infamous piece of paper has lured Harris back to Nazi Germany after 25 years. This time he remains committed to documented reality. On the first page we know where we will be by the last, and what will come after. Can it, like The Day of the Jackal, be thrilling anyway?

Into the story of the top brass who converged on Munich – Hitler’s gang of polished turds, Neville Chamberlain’s coterie of post-Victorian nabobs – Harris has insinuated two witnesses in their twenties. Hugh Legat is an underling at Number 10 on secondment from the Foreign Office, a stiff young fogey whose superiors are jealous of his swift advancement. He is our guide round central London where, in anticipation of war, barrage balloons float aloft and trenches are being dug into Green Park. Paul von Hartmann,  debonair and high-born, is of a similar rank at the Foreign Ministry in swastika-festooned Berlin, and one of several conspirators plotting to do away with the little corporal. What links them is a friendship formed as students at Balliol, and their fluency in each other’s language. They haven’t communicated since the Nazis’ electoral putsch, but Munich beckons and various shady players contrive to get them both listed on the passenger manifest to open up a back-door communication.

The first half involves much procedural throat-clearing as the two parties navigate a diplomatic path towards the summit at which the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia will be handed back to Germany. As ever Harris has done lashings of research so that for anyone wanting to know how the Munich Agreement came about, this is a fun way to find out. One or two of the scenes in Number 10 have the stodginess of setpiece melodrama, but Harris has an eye for colour amid the grey moustaches and yards of pinstripe. Duff Cooper, loitering in corners, exudes “a vague late-night whiff of whisky and cigars and the perfume of other men’s wives”. Meanwhile in Germany Harris homes in on the squalor beneath the pageantry, most overtly in the latrine on the Fuhrer’s train where Swastikas are even embossed on the taps.

Munich by Robert HarrisHarris is alive to the symbiotic consonance linking London and Berlin. On one side are men called Gort and Syers, on the other Kordt and Sauer, the last an unsavoury SS Rottweiler with the scent of treachery in his nostrils. But what most fascinates Harris are the two main players. The statesman who waved that piece of paper is a dogged negotiator, a complex mixture of shy and vain, improbably greeted as a heroic saviour in Munich. Half stuffed shirt, half wise old bird, he is variously described as "corvine", with a "hawk-beak" profile, likened to a "blackbird".

Hindsight has turned appeasement into a dirty word; this portrait wipes away much of the mud which clings to Chamberlain. The shaggy-dog plot turns on Hartmann’s quest to present Chamberlain with evidence of Hitler's long-term plan for military aggression, to which the Prime Minister has no choice but to respond with proper pragmatism. Harris doesn't entirely let him off. At the climactic moment, when Chamberlain holds the piece of page at arm’s length so as not to use his glasses, to Legat he looks “like a man who had thrown himself on to an electrified fence”. It doesn’t look quite that drastic in the archive footage on YouTube.

There’s much less scope to say anything fresh about Hitler’s dismal lack of presence. Harris is surprised by the softness of the Führer’s non-oratorical voice (of which Bruno Ganz, when researching for Downfall, could find only one recorded example) and reports that he reeked of body odour. He has Hartmann sneak into the bedroom of Hitler’s late niece Geli Raubal and draw his own conclusions about the nature of their relationship. But perhaps there’s another dimension to this portrait. Harris has admitted to using the machinations of ancient Rome as a means of writing about imperial America at one remove. In the person of a disdainful, lying demagogue who hoodwinked an electorate into putting him in office, a ticking bomb who is grouchy whenever crossed or denied the limelight, he may well be doing that again. As someone says of this Hitler, “No one really knows what’s in his mind.”

Harris peppers the canvas with incidental detail. The Czechoslovak delegation, who are about to be checkmated by the four foreign powers, play chess in their hotel room. A band strikes up "Doing the Lambeth Walk" to make the British feel at home. Harris has fun working up cartoonish pen portraits of "Musso" and his foreign minister/son-in-law Ciano (Jared Kushner, anyone?). There's much thrillerish toing and froing to bring Legat and Hartmann together. Less effort is expended on their back story. An idyllic holiday in Munich in the summer of 1932, involving a romantic menage à trois, is sketched in a little perfunctorily. So is Legat’s forlorn marriage to a woman who views the binding nature of her altar vow rather as Hitler treats non-aggression pacts.

While Harris briefly offers a glimpse of forthcoming brutalities, you sense that he’s already rolled that rock up the hill in Fatherland. What he’s nerdily interested in – as in Conclave, his masterly snoop inside the Vatican's citadel – is getting his characters through closed doors to eavesdrop on what happens there. For all its energetic traipsing up and down the corridors of power, the facts won't quite allow Munich to be a high-octane page-turner. But as a considered warning from history, it exerts a powerful grip.

Hindsight has turned appeasement into a dirty word; this portrait wipes off much of the mud which clings to Chamberlain

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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