David Edgerley Gates
Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.
Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.
What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.
We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.
This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.
The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.
The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.
Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable.