During the first hour of Robert Harris’s new novel, Munich, a young British civil servant, lunching with his wife, is summoned to the prime minister’s office by news of impending war. “It looks as though the talking’s over,” Hugh Legat is told. “Our man is flying home.” Hanging up the phone, Legat wonders, “Was this what History felt like? Germany would attack Czechoslovakia. France would declare war on Germany. Britain would support France. His children would wear gas masks. The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park.” It is Tuesday, September 27, 1938. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler has told the British emissary that German forces will mobilize at two o’clock the next day. In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain prepares to address the nation. And in Munich, Robert Harris recreates the four days that follow in such penetrating detail that each moment of the drama holds us captive. A suspense thriller within a historical drama, Munich is one of Harris’s leanest and most dexterous novels. It is also a welcome return to the historical period that inspired, most memorably, the outstanding Fatherland (1992), which imagined Nazi-occupied England after an Allied defeat, and Enigma (1995), which revolved around the breaking of German codes during the Second World War. (Harris is also the author of the excellent Cicero trilogy set in ancient Rome and of contemporary thrillers such as The Ghost Writer.)

At the core of Harris’s novel is the Munich Conference of September 1938, the now-infamous example of an exhausted Europe’s weakness in the face of fascism. We know the outcome. But that knowledge only intensifies the sense of contained desperation that Harris creates in a narrative that is, from the outset, both airtight and charged with menace; a menace heard before it is seen. “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered,” Legat notes of Hitler’s September 26th speech, “Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful . . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hand pounding the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It had seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

As the novel’s plot uncoils and as the action moves from London to Berlin and Munich, Hitler comes gradually into focus — on the Chancellery balcony, in a roomful of generals, at the conference negotiations, terrorizing dinner guests — and here, as with Chamberlain, Harris conjures up a character rather than a cliché. This, for example, is Hitler receiving a foreign press summary: “He took the two sheets and started reading, rocking gently up and down on the balls of his feet. Hartmann had the impression of great energy barely suppressed . . . When he reached the bottom of the first page he stopped and flexed his head as if he had a crick in his neck, then read aloud in a tone of intense sarcasm: ‘Mr. Chamberlain’s description of his last meeting with Herr Hitler is agreeable proof that his strong candor was rewarded with liking and respect.’ He turned the page back and forth. “Who wrote this shit?” Paul von Hartmann, the civil servant delivering the summary, contemplates Hitler’s “fragile head — bent oblivious, reading. If he had known, he would have brought his gun.”

Soon he will. A German military coup seems imminent, and when Legat receives a secret message from Hartmann, a friend from their student days, he too is drawn into the web forming around the Munich Conference. “A car was driving slowly down North Street . . . ” Legat observes from his London flat. “The glow of its headlights lit up the ceiling, projecting an outline of the window frame across the opposite wall; the dark lines swung like the shadow on a sundial.” The stench of fear — for oneself, for the world — swiftly pervades the civilized, the everyday. And Hartmann, contemplating his office mates, sees how this has happened. “He had mixed with their type all his life: patriotic, conservative, clannish. For them, Hitler was like some crude gamekeeper who had mysteriously contrived to take over the running of their family estates: once installed, he had proved an unexpected success, and they had consented to tolerate his occasional bad manners and lapses into violence in return for a quiet life. Now they had discovered they couldn’t get rid of him.” Hartmann is the conscience of Munich and Legat its innocent heart, but Harris is too subtle a portraitist to draw them, or the history they embody, in bold colors. Here the past bleeds into the present and those maimed by the last war will soon face the next.

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