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Novelist Robert Harris ‘twists’ history of Britain on the edge of WWII

At the eve of World War II, Britain launches a mission to prevent war with Germany. That's the starting point for "Munich," a new novel by author Robert Harris, who has written both fiction and nonfiction about that period. Harris sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss how he blends fact with storytelling to bring a fateful historical moment to life.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next- Imagine at the eve of World War II a mission by Britain to prevent war with Germany.

    Jeffrey Brown speaks to an author who tells that tale in the latest book on the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    September 1938, Germany threatens to invade Czechoslovakia. Britain fears being drawn into war just 20 years after the end of the first World War.

    The diplomats scurry between European capitals to negotiate, assessing each other’s influence, strengths and weaknesses. It’s the real-life setting for the new historical novel “Munich,” the latest from author Robert Harris, well-known and read for his many imaginative takes on ancient and modern history.

    And welcome to you.

  • Robert Harris:

    Hi, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You have written nonfiction and fiction about this particular moment. What is it that galvanizes you still?

  • Robert Harris:

    I think it was an incredibly dramatic story, four days in September 1938, when the world came very close to war, the moral compromises which had to be made to preserve peace, the controversy that still surrounds it, and the sheer drama of Chamberlain and Hitler meeting.

    And I have wanted to write a novel about it for 30 years.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, these characters, it’s Hugh Legat, the Brit, and Paul von Hartmann is the German.

  • Robert Harris:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Are they based on real characters or are they all imaginative?

  • Robert Harris:

    The background and the characters of Chamberlain and Hitler, who are both in the book, and the civil servants and so on, that’s all real.

    And the places, Downing Street, the Fuhrerbau in Munich, Hitler’s apartment, that’s all real. But into that, I put these two characters. Hugh Legat is a completely made-up figure, 27-year-old, high-flying Foreign Office diplomat who is working Downing Street and flies with Chamberlain.

    And the German character owes a lot to a guy called Adam von Trott, who is one of the conspirators against Hitler who was killed in 1944. But he, I drew a lot on the character of von Trott for his portrayal.

    He was part of a kind of nascent embryo resistance to Hitler in the German Foreign Ministry, which I wanted to try and put in the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s often said that you’re fictionalizing history to sort of explore the what-ifs of history.

    I wonder is that what you see yourself as doing, or are you just delving into the history to tell it in a fictional way?

  • Robert Harris:

    I thought at first of doing this as a what-if. What if there had been no Munich agreement?

    Because part of the argument for the book is that Chamberlain and Hitler, actually, it was the opposite to what most people think. Chamberlain actually got what he wanted, and Hitler was furious with this whole deal. And Chamberlain’s a much different character to Hitler.

    And so I thought of doing it as a what-if and showing that actually we might well have lost the war if we hadn’t had Munich. But then it became too conjectural. So I decided really to put as much of the actual truth and facts in.

    So, I hope people come away with a different impression of the Munich agreement.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, and also a different impression of Neville Chamberlain. Right?

    In history, he’s the great appeaser. In your book, he comes off better.

  • Robert Harris:

    Well, yes.

    Well, he certainly was the great appeaser, but he was a dynamic, driving figure. And there’s no doubt, if you actually look at it, he got Hitler on the back foot, because Hitler wanted to invade Czechoslovakia and begin the war in 1938.

    And to the end of his life, he was lamenting that Chamberlain had cheated him out of the war. Chamberlain was hugely popular when he appeared in Munich. He got louder cheers than Hitler did. This drove Hitler mad. But he realized that the German people weren’t ready for war.

    And Chamberlain did a very clever thing. He sort of appealed behind Hitler’s back to the German people. And he postponed the war, and Britain rearmed much more fully, and also fought on a better issue, if you like, the invasion of Poland. Much better to fight on that issue than the taking of Germans back into Germany.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As a lover and reader of fiction and novels, when you’re writing this, we know the ending. Right?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Robert Harris:

    There is a war, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You build all this tension, and there is a great plot between these characters.

    But I know how it’s going to end ultimately in the big picture. Do you worry at all about that?

  • Robert Harris:

    Not at all.

    One of the most successful postwar thrillers was “The Day of the Jackal.” We all know that President de Gaulle was not assassinated. It doesn’t stop it being thrilling.

    I did a novel called “Pompeii.” We all know that Pompeii is destroyed. Actually, people waiting for the shoe to drop in a way is often a source of greater drama than when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To the degree that you’re looking at different periods of history, what does something have to have for you to want to tackle it?

  • Robert Harris:

    I think it has to have something perhaps that’s new, one can say. It has to have something that’s relevant.

    I hope that, from “Munich,” people will take away the fact that whenever we use these loose terms about appeasement and Munich, actually, we’re misusing them, and that there might not have been the great Churchill victory speeches in 1940 if we hadn’t had Neville Chamberlain patiently trying to buy time and to make sure we — when we did fight, we fought on a big issue, and not something that people would probably have given up on if it we had gone to war in ’38.

    So, I like something — if I can twist the history and show something new, that, I like doing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What about our own moment? Do you see anything here that, in 10 or 20 years, that you might want to tackle?

  • Robert Harris:

    The trouble is, it’s all so bizarre, you can’t do it in fiction.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Robert Harris:

    It’s putting political novelists, thriller writers out of business.

    I find it again and again with modern reality. It’s so outlandish, there’s nothing that your imagination can come up with that’s more bizarre.

    That’s why I often reach into the past. And if I was going the write something about modern America or in modern Britain, I might well go back and take a Roman emperor or something like that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, that’s one approach to our daily news.

  • Robert Harris:

    Yes, Nero maybe.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     OK.

    The new novel is “Munich.”

    Robert Harris, thank you very much.

  • Robert Harris:

    Pleasure. Thank you.

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