In 'Munich,' Neville Chamberlain Gets The Best Of Hitler History hasn't been kind to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who tried to head off war by appeasing Adolf Hitler. But Robert Harris' new novel Munich asks readers to reconsider Chamberlain.
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In 'Munich,' Neville Chamberlain Gets The Best Of Hitler

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In 'Munich,' Neville Chamberlain Gets The Best Of Hitler

In 'Munich,' Neville Chamberlain Gets The Best Of Hitler

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This story takes us back to 1938, the days before World War II. We say now it was before the war. But, of course, people were not sure the war was coming then. In September 1938, German leader Adolf Hitler demanded to take over parts of neighboring Czechoslovakia. He threatened to invade. But at a meeting in Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated what Chamberlain called peace for our time.

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NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN: The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved, is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.

INSKEEP: History was not kind to Chamberlain. He avoided war only through appeasement, allowing Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia. And in truth, he only delayed war since Hitler kept seizing territory. The Munich negotiations formed the backdrop for a new work of fiction. The British novelist Robert Harris wants us to rethink those talks between Hitler and Chamberlain.

ROBERT HARRIS: You couldn't get two figures in history more unalike. And yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it's Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.

INSKEEP: Robert Harris is a journalist as well as a novelist. And his historical fiction often seems to comment on current events. His novel, "Munich," tells the story of September 1938 through two young men at the Munich negotiations. One is a low-level German official, and the other is a British aid to Chamberlain. Both are trying to find a way to do right in a time of rising fascism. And we see the leaders through their eyes.

HARRIS: Chamberlain was a man of peace as much as Hitler was a man of war. He was determined to try and avoid it. And I have sympathy for him. The British had lost three-quarters of a million men only 20 years before in the First World War. And you've really got to think yourself back to how that felt.

And we were still rearming in Britain. It was to be another couple of years before we had a sufficient air force to take on the Germans. We only had 20 operational Spitfires in September 1938.

INSKEEP: Oh, the most modern British fighter planes - there were hardly any of them working, you're saying?

HARRIS: Yeah, no. We were armed with biplanes. So, you know, this was the backdrop to the novel.

INSKEEP: So I'm just thinking of the popular image of this - the references to it in political culture even today. Appeasement is considered really bad. Chamberlain is considered really bad. What more is out there that you think people are missing?

HARRIS: Well, I think people are missing almost everything, to be perfectly honest, in particular, for some reason, in America, where Munich is even a dirtier word - and appeasement and Chamberlain - than they are in Britain. And the best witness for my view, which is - I admit, challenges the popular conception, the best witness is Adolf Hitler.

And one of the reasons I wanted to write the novel was I came across a diary kept by Joachim Fest, the German historian who ghost-wrote Albert Speer's memoir. Speer was Hitler's armaments minister. And he asked Speer about Munich. And Speer Hitler was in a foul mood for weeks after Munich. And at a dinner party, it all came pouring out. He said the German people have been duped and by Chamberlain of all people.

And even at the end of his life, in 1945, Hitler was saying we should have gone to war in 1938. September 1938 would have been the perfect time. And I think if the British and the French had gone to war in September 1938, Hitler might well have survived a lot longer and be much more triumphant.

INSKEEP: You describe Hitler in this novel - in this fictional work very much as you say that he is found in the historical source there. He's super grumpy all the way through. He's being dragged to the peace table. How much time did you spend with the authentic historical sources on this?

HARRIS: Well, I've spent a lot of time on its stage, to be honest, perhaps, more than is healthy. I made a documentary for the BBC 30 years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of Munich. And right back then, I wanted to write a novel about it even before I had written my first novel. I researched everything that I could about that momentous four days when the world seemed to be on the edge of war. And to sense - to live it hour by hour, not looking back, not seeing it through the filter of Winston Churchill in the finest hour and the Holocaust...

INSKEEP: All the things that came afterwards, yeah.

HARRIS: Yes. To say this is what it would've felt like at that moment before hindsight.

INSKEEP: You have each of your main characters - these young men in their late 20s - recognize that they are in dark times, turbulent times, that things may get far worse before they get better. And each in his own way is asking, how can I measure up to the age? How can I do something that is large enough for the terrible moment that I'm in? Do you ask yourself that question sometimes in this period, which many people do consider to be a difficult time?

HARRIS: Yes, very much so. As I said, I'd been thinking of writing a novel about Munich for 30 years. And it was only in the last year that I found the story and found the resonance that it suddenly seemed this was the right moment at which to embark upon it.

And you're right that for a young man - these two young men - my - the protagonist in my novel - they're at Oxford in 1930 - one English, one German, young men - and yet, they are doomed. They are trapped on opposing sides, and there is nothing they feel that they can do about it - that there are forces at work in the world driving it towards an abyss. And even though a lot of people can clearly see where everything's going, no one seems able to stop it.

And I think that there is a sense in the world now that something is going on and that it's very hard for any of us to stand up against it. And I feel, therefore, a great deal of empathy with these two young men who are doomed to fight. And it's like a kind of madness, a sickness that's going to work itself through.

And there's a scene in the novel where Hartman (ph), my German character, finds himself alone with Hitler on Hitler's train as they're heading towards Munich. And he realizes if he had a gun, if he brought it up and pointed it at Hitler, he still wouldn't be able to pull the trigger. And I think that was how a lot of people felt in Germany. You know, there was - something was playing through, and it couldn't be stopped.

INSKEEP: Robert Harris' latest novel is called "Munich." Mr. Harris, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thank you, been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOU MAY DIE IN THE DESERT'S "TRUE NORTH")

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