The story is set against the backdrop of a significant event in British and world history. It should be full of drama and tension, but what we have here is a story that plods along on leaden feet. The life seems to have been sucked out of the events to leave us with just the cold historical facts.
There are, in fact, two stories being told within this book. The first is the factual account of the historical events. Most of the major participants have written their memoires, which means that Harris has plenty of material with which to create his account.
The second story is a fictional one, and should be what gives the whole book some drama and tension. Unfortunately, it fails to do that.
It is October 1938 and Europe is once again on the brink of war as Hitler seeks to fulfil his promise to the German people to bring ethnic Germans back into the fold of the Fatherland. This he plans to do by invading Czechoslovakia, a country that has only been in existence since the end of the First World War. In order to avert war, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, has been involved in shuttle diplomacy, trying to curb Hitler’s ambitions.
As the clock ticks down to the expiry of Hitler’s ultimatum to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain, with the help of Mussolini, manages to persuade Hitler to attend one last peace conference, the one from which Chamberlain will famously return waving a piece of paper and claiming "Peace in our time". It is the prelude to that conference and the conference itself, in Munich, that forms the basis for this book.
After each negotiating session there are comments from various characters about how difficult the negotiations have been, but we aren’t allowed inside the conference room to listen in. This lack of first hand viewing becomes very frustrating and detracts from the story. Hearing Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Deladier negotiate in person would have added so much life to the book.
Against this background is the fictional story. Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann are old friends from their student days at Oxford, who have drifted apart. It comes as no surprise when we later discover that the reason for that drift is a girl. They are both now junior diplomats, Legat with the British Foreign Office, on loan to Number 10, and Hartmann with the German Foreign Ministry.
When sensitive documents, outlining Hitler’s real plans for Europe, are handed to Hartmann he sees the opportunity to sabotage the peace talks, but how to get the documents into British hands? His former friend Legat seems to provide the only channel.
This story-within-a-story should provide drama and tension. Hartmann soon falls under suspicion, but the tension from that suspicion fails to materialise. A minor twist in the tale towards the end of the book doesn’t even inject the tension that it should have done. In the end the story just limps to a conclusion that felt unsatisfactory both in dramatic and historical terms.
There are a few historical insights within the book that I was unaware of, and I’m sure that the account of the conference that Harris gives is historically accurate, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same degree of tension that the people of Britain and Germany must have been feeling in October 1938. Peace was hanging by a thread, but I never felt that the outcome of the conference would be anything other than that which history describes. That is one of the problems of writing books about known events, which is why the fictional plot must carry the story far better than Harris allows in this book.
It's an easy to read if you want to know more about Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement and how it came about, but not exciting if that’s what you’re looking for.
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