Munich by Robert Kee (Hamish Hamilton £14.95)
AFTER 50 years, the author observes, there is still one simple certainty: whether Munich was right or wrong, something dreadful happened there.
It is difficult not to agree wholeheartedly. Robert Kee's laconic account, written with the careful attention to documentation that has characterised his journalism and earlier books on wartime themes, leaves open the question of whether Munich was valuable in gaining time for the west in which to arm, or whether it would have been better to accept war immediately.
There are arguments for and against both theories. But even when they have been aired, the final verdict must belong to Jan Masaryk, son of Czechoslovakia's founder: "If it is for peace that my country has been butchered up in this unprecendented manner I am glad of it. If it isn't, may God have mercy on our souls."
The story of Munich is so familiar in its broad lines that it comes as a surprise to realise how shocking the details still seem today. The unattractive blend of arrogance, deviousness and naivete which characterised so much of pre-war British foreign policy is exposed in these pages with a restraint that only makes it sound more nauseating.
Chamberlain, Simon, Hoare, Halifax, Runciman and even Eden (whose resignation was unconnected with Munich) all come out of it badly. The Labour opposition was if anything wetter. The French, who had actual treaty obligations towards Czechoslovakia, dithered incessantly.
The culminating diplomatic atrocity was the total omission of the Czechs. True, their representatives did turn up in Munich. They were taken by Gestapo escort to a hotel and confined there under a police guard.
What emerges clearly is the hopeless inadequacy of the British politicians of the day to cope with Hitler, from whom they apparently expected Old Etonian behaviour even when their own was riddled with hypocrisy. British failure to understand that ruthlessness cannot be countered by moderation led to disaster.
Neville Chamberlain emerges as strong-mided in the sense of being determined to save the peace for the Empire, but also as profoundly ignorant of Central Europe or foreigners as a whole. Robert Kee quotes his notorious reference to 'a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,' but might have added that Hitler knew a great deal about German/Czech territorial issues from earliest childhood and passionately loathed the recentlycreated Czechoslovakia. That he would spare it after his Austrian success was unthinkable.
It is an odd experience to be reminded from these pages that Britain played so much more significant a role than France or Italy, while the United States and the Soviet Union were marginal to the crisis. How times change. I for one am glad that Britain's 1938 politicians are not around in 1988.
The reviewer is a former BBC foreign correspondent in Central and Eastern Europe.