Halfway through "The Order of the Day," Éric Vuillard's powerful novel about Adolf Hitler's annexation of Austria, the acclaimed Lyon-born author notes that "Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps." The book — winner of the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award — chronicles that great catastrophe in tiny yet well-paced steps: small enough to allow for a tantalizing buildup, steady enough for the reader to behold and be appalled by the full scale of the unfolding disaster. The result is a sure-footed blend of storytelling and re-evaluated history.

The book begins in Berlin on Feb. 20, 1933. In a private salon in the Reichstag, a clandestine meeting takes place between Nazi top brass and "the twenty-four high priests of German industry." The purpose: to raise funds for a successful National Socialist Party campaign for the country's upcoming election.

From here Vuillard fast-forwards to Feb. 12, 1938, and another meeting, this time between the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and his German counterpart at the latter's mountain retreat, the Berghof. Schuschnigg's fear of falling into a trap is confirmed when Hitler insults and intimidates him into permitting Germany to cast its shadow over Austria.

Schuschnigg learns the hard way that a concession to Hitler only triggers further demands, each of them more unhinged and unrealistic. Austria comes under German "supervision," but that is not enough. On March 12, 1938, the country is invaded and incorporated into the Third Reich. It is a peaceful takeover — "No need for violence or thunderclaps" — and everything runs smoothly.

Or so many of us have been led to believe. Vuillard's book tells a different story, one filled with ultimatums and forced agreements, farcical events and tragic upshots. German Panzers en route to Vienna break down or are stuck in traffic jams. Crowds are hand-picked to cheer to the cameras; a referendum is rigged to validate an illegal act; dissenters are arrested or driven to suicide.

As Vuillard takes us through the years, to the brink of war and beyond, we hear from a range of voices in revealing sketches. Britain's Lord Halifax attempts to appease Hitler, but on a visit to Germany mistakes him for a servant. Ribbentrop, the Führer's foreign minister and "little champagne salesman," outmaneuvers the British prime minister over lunch. As the fate of Europe is being decided, an inmate at a Swiss asylum continues "painting his anguish on ratty bits of paper," while at the end of the war a German industrialist is haunted by the slave laborers who were worked to death in his factories.

Each vignette works in isolation. Together they create a compelling picture. Eighty years on from the Anschluss, in an age of fake news and real threats, rising nationalism and diminishing freedoms, they also cohere into a timely cautionary tale.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Order of the Day
By: Eric Vuillard, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.
Publisher: The Other Press, 132 pages, $21.95.