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14 October 2017updated 09 Aug 2021 7:52am

Espionage thriller Munich explores the ethics of information

Author Robert Harris should know that less is more.

By Andrew Glazzard

“This morning, I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine…” The events that led to Neville Chamberlain’s declaration at Heston Aerodrome on 30 September 1938 that he had signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler provide the material for Robert Harris’s Munich. What is most intriguing about this entertaining and at times absorbing novel is that it is so preoccupied with pieces of paper.

On the surface, Munich works efficiently as an espionage thriller and, like most thrillers, its characters are motivated by the need to obtain or conceal some item: what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin. Munich’s McGuffin is a document – the minutes of a conference held in Berlin in 1937 in which Hitler set out his plans for European domination. Getting this document into the British prime minister’s hands would, in the minds of the novel’s two heroes – a British civil servant, Hugh Legat, and a German diplomat, Paul Hartmann – reverse Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement by revealing to him Hitler’s true intentions.

But Munich is also about documents in a deeper sense. We see them being written, being copied, being delivered, being circulated and being concealed. We read long quotations from secret papers and from newspaper articles. Much of the novel is occupied with characters planning what they will write, or how they will use information written by others.

A concern with information is unavoidable in an espionage thriller, because the purpose of espionage is to find out what your opponent doesn’t want you to know. What distinguishes Munich is the subtlety with which it uses the formulaic elements of the genre to explore the ethics of information and the functions of bureaucracy.

Hartmann is determined to leak information with which he has been entrusted, and Legat becomes convinced of the need to receive and then transmit it. However, the appeasers in the government do not want to know the truth. How Legat overcomes the forces of appeasement on his own side provides one half of the novel’s suspense; the other comes from Hartmann’s attempts to betray his government under the eyes of the SS, the Gestapo and even Hitler. All of the major characters are taking decisions, directed by their moral compasses, about the crucial document – and one of the virtues of this novel is that it shows these decisions, even with hindsight, to be finely balanced.

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British officialdom is especially well described, staffed almost exclusively by Oxford classicists for whom a split infinitive would cause more pain than the annexation of the Sudetenland. Clearly the British lack the skills required in the modern world and are therefore no match for the political street-fighters and technocrats of Nazi Germany. Yet the novel also recreates a world in which information management is largely a human activity – vital documents are carried by hand between ministries and embassies, or copied longhand with pens and paper – but where technology is beginning to make its presence felt in the form of radio and television (Chamberlain’s return from Munich was the first televised broadcast of a British prime minister), telephony and signals intelligence.

Given the subtlety of Munich’s narrative and its themes, it’s a shame that Harris can’t resist overloading the reader with unnecessary information. He has acquired the exasperating habit of generating a one-sentence CV when introducing a character and a Wikipedia-style summary for each location.

The book’s opening sentence, in which “Mr Hugh Legat of His Majesty’s Diplomatic Service” is shown to his table at the Ritz (which apparently is “in London”) and orders a 1921 Dom Pérignon is worthy of Dan Brown, albeit with a touch of Ian Fleming.

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Later, we discover that Wilhelmstrasse is “in the heart of the government sector in Berlin”, that Big Ben tolls on the hour “precisely” and that Munich’s Regina Palast Hotel was built in 1908 with “Versailles-style reception rooms, a Turkish bath in the basement and three hundred bedrooms arranged over seven floors”. And in case we miss the contemporary relevance of a novel about appeasement and dictatorship, the evil SS officer Sturmbannführer Sauer spells it out for us: “We have done something your kind never managed. We have made Germany great again.”

Robert Harris can write better than this, so one suspects that he is aiming at the blockbuster market by aping the tics of his even more successful rivals. As one of its most experienced practitioners, Harris should know that, with the historical thriller, less is more. 

Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 342pp, £20

This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled