The story follows two friends who met at Oxford, one German, one British. Hugh Legat is a secretary to prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Paul von Hartmann is a staff member of the German foreign office. Hugh is unhappily married to a woman who is cheating on him. Hartmann has his own problems, is meeting secretly with others in the developing German resistance to Adolf Hitler. He lives alone and carries a burden from a past relationship although he is having an affair with one of the typists in the ministry, who is willing to purloin documents for him.
Fall of 1938, Germans who were once in the Austria Empire, but were included by the Treaty of Versailles in Czechoslovakia demand that the territory be absorbed into Germany. Hitler threatens war if Czechoslovakia does not cede the area known as the Sudetenland and its three million ethnic Germans to him. The memories of World War I are fresh in the minds of all Europeans and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, begins the world’s first shuttle diplomacy with Hitler, flying to Germany to bargain with the Fuhrer.
The British government’s efforts to avoid war are complicated by word from the secret German resistance that if Britain will stand firm when Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and go to war for the Czechs, the plotters, who include businessmen, generals, and church leaders will overthrow the regime. But the British public doesn’t want to go to war over Germans wanting to become part of Germany. Further the British government can’t trust the fledging German resistance. Can it really overthrow Hitler? What happens if Hitler is arrested or assassinated? Does another Nazi simply take his place?
In the first negotiations the French and British agree in principle that Czechoslovakia should turn over the Sudetenland to Germany, but Hitler demands that the cessation be immediate, or his tanks will roll across the frontier. Chamberlain and the British government believe they cannot give into such a naked power grab. But nevertheless, Chamberlain agrees to one final meeting with Hitler in Munich, Germany.
At the conference, Hugh and von Hartmann meet for the first time since college. Hartmann has a copy of the minutes from one of Hitler’s early rantings detailing his determination to conquer eastern Europe for German lebensraum, living space. Hartmann hopes that showing Hugh this document can convince the British government that although the claims for the Sudetenland Germans sound legitimate, Hitler’s ultimate aim is world war.
The Gestapo doesn’t trust Hartmann and the two men must engage in cloak and dagger to get the memo to Chamberlain. Unlike most historians, Harris paints Chamberlain as sympathetic, a man genuinely determined to avoid war, who is not intimidated by Hitler.
You know how it ends. Chamberlain agrees that the Czechs must immediately cede the territory to Germany. Six months later Hitler invades the rest of Czechoslovakia and ultimately the world is led into war. Chamberlain is regarded by history as a failure, even a fool.
The backstories of the two characters are well told, the writing is crisp, and the reader will keep turning the pages, hoping against hope for a better outcome to the tragedy of the Munich conference. Even the descriptions of the inside of 10 Downing Street and Hitler’s private apartment are fascinating.
I give Munich a solid recommendation.