'Britain has a sense of moral superiority most other countries don't feel'
In ‘Munich’, Robert Harris exorcises a lifelong obsession by challenging the British myths he grew up with about the second World War
Robert Harris: taking a more nuanced view of the second World War. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
“Britain is the only European country to come out of the war feeling better about itself than when it went in,” says Robert Harris, when I ask why the UK has maintained such a fervour for second World War fare. Alongside the monster success of Dunkirk, the past 12 months has also seen the critically lauded Their Finest, a WW2-centric series of Netflix’s The Crown and opportunities for Michael Gambon, Brian Cox and Gary Oldman to play Churchill, a casting that’s fast becoming a sort of Rada equivalent of a bus pass.
Harris’s new novel Munich tracks a civil servant in a thrilling spy story set just prior to the breakout of war. “It’s our national legend and we love it,” he says, “and because Churchill was a brilliant writer and mythmaker, he stamped an interpretation on the second World War which, although nibbled at around the edges, has oddly enough never been confronted.”
Harris’s novel represents a more nuanced view of its more incendiary events. Eschewing the more well-trodden areas of the battlefield, it focuses instead on the slightly messier business of the preceding couple of years. And, though resolutely a cagey spy thriller, the choice of its context being the reviled Munich Agreement of 1938 was no accident.
“I think that what makes it worth writing, is that the words ‘Munich’ and ‘Chamberlain’ still have a hangover today,” he says. “Especially in America, funnily enough. You’ll see whenever any minor dictator pops up, a Gadafi or an Assad, anyone remotely hesitant about bombing them flat is automatically an appeaser.
“We look back at the war in a completely different way than Europe. You see it in the Brexit debate. The two sides talk past each other in lots of ways because we don’t realise that the Europeans are willing to sacrifice a lot of sovereignty in order to make sure that nothing like that war ever happens again. Whereas for us it seems to encroach on our image of ourselves.”
It’s really been a long obsession which I’ve finally managed to exorcise
Decades ago, Harris made a documentary about the Munich Conference featuring Alec Douglas-Home and Chamberlain’s daughter. “I wanted to write a novel about it even before I did Fatherland. I always liked the idea of having a civil servant who travelled with Chamberlain to Munich who had some personal crisis of his own but I could never quite see a way to expand it into a novel. Then I had the idea of him having this friend that he was at school with, and that gave me the second half of the story. So it’s really been a long obsession which I’ve finally managed to exorcise.”
In writing the book, Harris was keen to rewrite the narrative that has persisted ever since: that of treachery, moral cowardice and appeasement of fascists. He argues that this only tells part of the tale.
“I don’t think there’s much any prime minister could have done more than Chamberlain did and it’s questionable whether Britain would have been able to fight the war later on, without Munich having happened. It was the price we needed to be able to fight the war.”
For these reasons, Munich deals more in shades of grey than the sepia tones more familiar to treatments of the period. It’s a depiction that dwells on the queasy proposition that Britain’s best chance of defeating or even standing toe to toe with Hitler lay in initial appeasement.
“We wouldn’t have had the planes, we wouldn’t have had the radar and above all, we wouldn’t have had the national unity. Labour voted consistently against rearmament and conscription, for example. And, incidentally, the other thing that happened to Chamberlain was that he died unable to defend his reputation and was then trashed not only by the right, but very much by the left as well.”
For Harris, this is just one plank of mythologising simplification that abounds in all discussion of the period. “It was very dominant when I was growing up. All the comics had Tommies taking on cowardly Germans; we played it in the playground. The nearby big city, Nottingham, still had bomb sites. All my parents’ generation had lived through it and it was always talked about.
“Right from the start, being of a slightly rebellious nature, I began to sort of question it a bit. It seemed to me that I was being brought up on myths, and these myths have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland and the idea that we could have been on the side of Hitler against Stalin, one totalitarian regime or another.”
Harris is quick to admit that this was a national narrative that he too was brought up on. “What was ‘the war’ for someone of my generation? It went: ‘Cowardly appeasement, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, El Alamein, D-Day and victory.’ The fact that four-fifths of the war was fought on the Eastern front that had nothing to do with us, we never really focused on. The fact that Stalin killed far more people than Hitler was also never talked about. The notion that, without Munich, we never would have been able to have 1940, the same.”
We find it hard to understand Europe and why Europeans find us mildly irritating
This highly specific view of the war has, says Harris, shaped a fundamentally different conception of the period, and the psyche of modern Britain. “Although, obviously people suffered and there was tremendous loss of life [in the UK], it was nothing compared to the loss of life in other countries and the shock of being occupied and invaded.
“I wouldn’t suggest for one moment that it’s the major cause [of Brexit] but it’s part of our DNA, and makes us different to most other countries. We have, perhaps, a sense of moral superiority which most other countries don’t feel. I think that’s part of the reason why we find it hard to understand Europe and why Europeans find us mildly irritating; with our constant insistence that somehow we’re superior and must be given better deals and opt-outs and special treatments. All of that has made the book feel worth writing.”
Of primary interest, and importance, to the book is the notion that historical context makes it hard to place yourself in the shoes of your forebears. “Consider the FW Maitland quote at the front of the book,” he argues. “What now lies in the past once lay in the future. What did Hitler look like to a British prime minister in 1938? Repressive and unpleasant, yes. Discriminatory against the Jews, yes. But no more so than America was to blacks and Jews, to some degree. Stalin had killed many, many more people. It wasn’t until after Munich that you had Kristallnacht and great disruption of Jewish businesses and then Auschwitz, which was an unimaginable thing in the future.
“You can’t really take the benefit of hindsight and say they should have known that. It wasn’t to be known. What Chamberlain did realise was that the next war when it came would probably be much worse than the first World War, it would be bestial and all civilisation might collapse: predictions about which he was correct.”