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The mark of well-written historical fiction is when readers forget that they are reading about events that actually happened and are able to lose themselves inside the story. This speaks directly to the talents of the storyteller. Fortunately, the writer in this case is Robert Harris, who has been referred to as the smartest bestselling author in the world.

World War II, as told from the British perspective, has received a lot of play during the movie awards season that has just begun. Two of the best films of the year are Dunkirk, which depicts the turning point for the European allies in WWII, and The Darkest Hour, which features an award-winning turn for the great Gary Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill towards the end of the war.

Harris now releases MUNICH, which deals with an 11th-hour international meeting in September 1938 that sees the British Prime Minister and his team attempting to avert another world war. The problem is that the person they need to persuade against nefarious actions, like invading Czechoslovakia, is German leader and head of the Nazi Party Adolf Hitler, who is not a person to be reasoned with. It also does not help matters that one of the other European representatives involved in the meetings is his lackey, Benito "Il Duce" Mussolini of Italy.

"It is hard to imagine the events surrounding the Munich Conference without [Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann], which is why MUNICH is such an effective and engaging read."

Going back to my first comment on MUNICH, what makes it such a masterful novel is that you actually go through the feeling of suspense surrounding well-known historical events, hoping against hope that maybe the Allied Forces will succeed in stopping Hitler in his tracks before he can get started. Perhaps, if that were to occur, the millions of lives lost in the war and millions of people who were murdered at the hands of Hitler's Nazi forces might never have to endure that fate.

Alas, even knowing the actual outcome does not keep MUNICH from being a truly enjoyable read. Since this is the early days before the conflict was eventually named World War II, the Brits may not fully realize the importance of stopping Hitler from invading both the Czech Republic and neighboring Austria. The Prime Minister at that time was Neville Chamberlain, a brilliant man who had to eventually step aside so the far stronger-willed Winston Churchill could take the reigns in an effort to stop the Nazi takeover of the world.

That brings me to the two principal characters in this thriller: Hugh Legat, a private secretary and rising star under Prime Minister Chamberlain, and Paul von Hartmann, a staff member of the German Foreign Office. What makes them so interesting is not the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Munich Conference negotiations, but that they were classmates and friends while attending Oxford.

Hugh Legat feels so guilty as he all but assured his boss that the German people wanted nothing but peace, and that after the Munich Conference there would be no more territorial problems in Europe. He had risen in prominence within Britain and became noticed by Chamberlain due to the fact that his first superior --- a man named Wigram --- had taken his own life. Legat has much to prove. He is initially passed over when the team is being put together to go to Munich. A last-minute change sees his name added to the list, and thus he has an opportunity to make a name for himself while preventing another world war so soon after the previous one had ended.

On the other side, we have Paul von Hartmann. Possibly due to his prior relationship with Legat, or the fact that he was Oxford-schooled and able to see things on a global scale and not just with nationalized blinders on, Hartmann realizes that Herr Hitler was already off the rails and needed to be slowed down, if not outright stopped. The question, and the main source of suspense here, is how Legat and Hartmann can work together while on opposite sides of the table to ensure a resolution is found that favors everyone and brings a halt to any future death and destruction.

Even though Hitler and his team put on faces of cooperation while at the table, a letter is found that was authored by Hitler and speaks to German forces smashing Czechoslovakia via military action in the near future. The Oxford classmates are not blind to the fact that it may be a losing battle, but they must attempt to do something to salvage things before they get further out of control. This will require Legat and Hartmann, who had not been in touch with each other for years, to resurface past secrets and face them anew in an effort to bring forth the possibility for peace in Europe. It also will involve artful treachery, behavior bordering on treason and serious decisions that move against their own conscience to even have a chance at being successful.

Whenever I read a work of historical fiction, I like to do my own research. This is a great byproduct of a good reading experience as it allows me to learn new things or see history from a different point of view. Strangely enough, I could not find anything written about Hugh Legat or Paul von Hartmann. As a result, my respect for Robert Harris is that much higher; if these characters are indeed fictional, they are brilliantly conceived. It is hard to imagine the events surrounding the Munich Conference without those two young men, which is why MUNICH is such an effective and engaging read.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 26, 2018

by Robert Harris