Éric Vuillard (Picador, £12.99)

On 13 February 1938, Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, summoned by Hitler to sign a document which will effectively annexe Austria, is being browbeaten by the Führer for his country’s lack of support. “The whole history of Austria is just one uninterrupted act of high treason,” Hitler rants. A popinjay suddenly confronted with his own insignificance, Schuschnigg tries to think of an undeniable Austrian contribution to Austro-German relations, but his mind is blank. Finally, in desperation, he offers up Beethoven. Who, as Hitler witheringly points out, was born and bred in Germany.

Marketed, somewhat misleadingly, as a novel, the Prix Goncourt-winning The Order of the Day is more of a stylish, stinging essay availing itself of the techniques and tricks of fiction. Its subject is the circumstances behind Germany’s invasion of Austria in 1938, but told with a novelist’s eye for irony and moral weakness. Its polemical outrage is tempered and channelled into measured prose (which may be partly due to the translation from French by Mark Polizzotti), like revenge served cold.

As much as anything else, it’s a story about capitulation and “a mysterious respect for lies” which sees the advance of the Nazis in terms of those who gave way before them. Vuillard evokes a Europe of complacency, privilege and reticence, unable to deal effectively with a brutish regime like Hitler’s. What does it take to make a man fold, he asks, and finds, depressingly, that the answer is not much. Why bother with a threat when a bluff will do the trick?

Vuillard pulls no punches and sheds no tears, not for Schuschnigg, nor for Lord Halifax, nor Chamberlain, who allowed Ribbentrop to twist him round his little finger. Where history presents us with underdogs, Vuillard sees hypocrites, like Schuschnigg and Austrian President Miklas, who had no qualms about oppressing their own population in a one-party state before the Nazis came along.

Even now, he argues, we see the Nazis just as Goebbels’ propaganda intended us to: as a well-oiled, unstoppable machine with a deadly masterplan. Vuillard adds back the pieces that don’t fit: incompetence, cheap tricks, shabbiness, the phoniness of the whole enterprise. The invasion itself is a key scene in the book. A front, in the first place, for the real work being done through diplomatic channels, the German army’s triumphant procession was scuppered by a plague of broken-down vehicles. In what should have been his hour of glory, Hitler was yelling at stuck lorries to get off the road.

Vuillard highlights another significant episode, five years earlier, when 24 German business leaders pledged money to the Nazi party. Many of their businesses, like Agfa, BASF and Bayer, are still here today, part of the unnoticed fabric of our lives. He never refers directly to the current international resurgence of the far right, but awareness of it underpins every angry, urgent word, as he warns, “We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”