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Czechoslovakia’s fate hangs in the balance: the build up to the Munich Conference of 1938

In September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain met Nazi führer Adolf Hitler in Bavaria in an attempt to ensure "peace for our time" – or so he thought. PE Caquet explores the events leading up to the Munich Agreement from the points of view of Britain, Germany and Czechoslovakia, Hitler's immediate target

Sudeten-Germans Salute the Arrival of Nazi Guards in Czechoslovakia, 1938
Published: January 21, 2022 at 9:05 am
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As the 1930s progressed, so did Adolf Hitler’s plans for European domination – but Czechoslovakia stood in the way. It possessed a well-equipped army, it was a French and Soviet ally, and it barred the road to the resources of southeastern Europe. At a November 1937 general-staff meeting, the Nazi leader decided that the barrier of Czechoslovakia must be removed.

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Significantly, Czechoslovakia was home to a substantial German-speaking minority. Hitler observed that this community, mostly distributed along border areas known as the Sudetenland, could be leveraged to make territorial demands on the country and eventually dismember it.

At the beginning of 1938, Hitler made a speech proclaiming himself the protector of all Germans living in two neighbouring states, Austria and Czechoslovakia. In March he invaded and annexed Austria but, even at that point, Nazi dignitaries reassured Prague of their peaceful intentions towards Czechoslovakia.

Behind the scenes, though, the Nazis possessed a useful pawn: Konrad Henlein, leader of the Sudetendeutsche Partei (Sudeten German Party, SdP) that answered to Berlin. Henlein demanded that the Czechoslovak government hand him control of the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovaks knew they could rely on their allies if directly attacked, but the French and British preferred to see the situation defused through negotiation.

Talks during the summer went nowhere, because the Germans were only looking to establish a justification for invasion. During a tense few weeks in September, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler in his Bavarian redoubt at Berchtesgaden and in the spa town of Bad Godesberg. But peaceful solutions proved elusive, and on each occasion Hitler upped his demands. France and Czechoslovakia mobilised for war, each calling up more than a million men. Meanwhile Londoners began digging trenches in Hyde Park in anticipation of German air raids.

Then, at the end of September 1938, hours before his last ultimatum was due to expire, Hitler called the representatives of Britain, France and Italy to Munich for a conference. There, British preconceptions and misunderstandings left Czechoslovakia prey to the depredations of the Nazi dictator.


The road to the Munich Conference: the British perspective

Chamberlain did not believe that Hitler had aggressive aims

On 28 and 29 April 1938, Neville Chamberlain and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, received their French counterparts Édouard Daladier and Georges Bonnet in London. Britain was not an ally of Czechoslovakia, but Downing Street feared that if France were dragged into a war with Germany, Britain would inevitably become involved. Halifax revealed these fears to his visitors. Neither France nor Britain was ready for war. Sentiments in Germany and neighbouring states were volatile, and the smallest incident could spark a conflict in which France would be treaty-bound to intervene.

Aerial warfare had made significant strides since the First World War, and it was widely believed that bomber forces posed a deadly threat to civilian populations and infrastructure. Former prime minister Stanley Baldwin voiced this fear in 1932: “The bomber will always get through”. The Luftwaffe had been portrayed as invincible by its commander-in-chief Hermann Göring as well as by Hitler and observers such as Charles Lindbergh. Actually, though, it was far from war-ready, whereas the British, French and, indeed, Czechoslovak forces included good numbers of airworthy planes. Yet the legend had spread that Nazi Germany was capable of delivering a knockout blow to London or Paris.

Daladier was sceptical, as he made clear to Halifax. Air power had yet to force an outcome in the Spanish Civil War, for example. The French premier warned instead that the German dictator must be stopped while there was time. He even mentioned Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, as proof of the führer’s world-dominating ambitions. Neither he nor Bonnet, though, were prepared to risk war without British participation.

There were also more fundamental differences of interpretation. Chamberlain disagreed that Hitler had aggressive aims, instead believing that the Nazis merely chafed at encirclement, and that the führer was genuinely concerned about the treatment of Germans in neighbouring states.

British guilt over the economic impact on Germany of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had been growing ever since economist John Maynard Keynes had denounced its reparations clause. Throughout 1938, Hitler deftly played on that guilt, asking why self-determination was afforded to the Czechs and Slovaks but not to the Sudeten Germans. To observers of Nazi tactics, this rang hollow. Hitler, after all, had invaded Austria to pre-empt a free and fair vote on the very question of unification with Germany. Minority rights were nonexistent in the Third Reich, unlike in democratic Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain, though – along with Halifax and the British ambassador in Prague, Basil Newton – believed that, if sufficient pressure could be put on the Czechoslovak government to come to an amicable agreement with the Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein, the whole problem would go away.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1938, Newton called on Edvard Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia, to check on progress, urging greater compliance with the SdP. At his party congress in April, Henlein openly proclaimed his allegiance to Nazism. A group of paramilitaries disguised as a ‘security service’ had been smuggling weapons into Czechoslovakia from Germany, and in June they terrorised voters into supporting them at municipal elections. None of this was perceptible to Newton or Halifax; Henlein looked only as if he had a growing proportion of the Sudeten German community behind him.

In cabinet, Chamberlain complained that Beneš was dragging his feet. At the beginning of August he despatched a long-time political associate, Walter Runciman, to Czechoslovakia to act as a mediator. There he fell victim to the same Sudeten German Party tactics that had fooled Newton. Henlein was not negotiating in earnest but, rather, created the impression that the situation was intractable and the fault of the Czechs. Back in London, Runciman advocated ‘self-determination’ – a handover of the Sudetenland.

At the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Hitler threatened war if he did not obtain satisfaction. His troops had been mobilising throughout the summer, and any further delay risked pushing operations into the cold season. Before Runciman had even completed his mission, Chamberlain decided he must take over personally. On 15 September, at Berchtesgaden, he promised Hitler that he would convince the Czechoslovaks to detach the Sudetenland. On 23 September, in Bad Godesberg, he announced that an international commission would delineate all areas with a majority of native German speakers for transfer to the Reich. But this was not enough for Hitler: he wanted a transfer within five days, controlled not by international observers but by his own armies. Neither the Czechoslovaks nor the French were likely to agree to that.


The road to the Munich Conference: the German perspective

German commanders responded with scepticism to the führer’s plans

As far as German decision-making was concerned, the relevant perspective was ultimately that of one man: Adolf Hitler. In November 1937, Hitler had divulged to his general staff his intention to destroy Czechoslovakia in the near future. In April 1938, he had ordered the finalisation of Case Green, the army plan for the country’s invasion. During the summer, Germany had performed a gradual general mobilisation in preparation for an attack scheduled to begin on 1 October.

Hitler’s intentions were straightforward: he planned to go to war unless he was given exactly what he wanted. If this turned into a world war, so be it, as he told Chamberlain in their Berchtesgaden interview.

The perspective of the German generals, notably, was quite different. In 1937, the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces had responded with scepticism to the führer’s disclosure of his intentions.

In the spring and summer of 1938, General Ludwig Beck – who, as chief of the general staff of the German army, was the officer in charge of strategy – wrote a succession of memos warning against the planned attack. Through Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the army, he tried to get Hitler to change his mind. Such an attack would put Germany at war with a coalition of stronger powers, Beck argued. The Czechoslovaks would fight to the end, exacting a heavy price on the Wehrmacht. As to France, he observed that Germany did not possess numbers of men or equipment to defeat it until later in 1939 or 1940, at least.

Faced with this attitude, in August Hitler replaced Beck with General Franz Halder. Yet this new appointment panicked at the prospect of the looming war, and promptly set in motion a plot to overthrow Hitler should he activate Plan Green.

Not one of Beck, Halder or Brauchitsch, nor even the more junior officers whom Hitler harangued behind the back of their superiors, believed in a winning strategy. German rearmament, having only got into full swing after conscription had been reintroduced in 1935, remained too far from completion.

The Germany army was short of conscripted men, NCOs and officers. Its tank force was a work in progress, with the heavier panzers not developed beyond the prototype stage. Ammunition and fuel reserves were good for a few months at best. Raw materials for war production were lacking. Given these factors, the German generals did not see how, in a war beginning in 1938, they could beat France and Czechoslovakia, let alone a coalition also involving Britain and the Soviet Union.

It is also worth asking what the perspective was of the Sudeten Germans themselves. Were they actually in favour of the ‘self-determination’ Hitler was demanding on their behalf? These inhabitants called themselves German, and were called German by others, but neither they nor their forbears had ever been citizens of Germany. Their home was the old Kingdom of Bohemia, where their ancestors had, over many years, mixed with the Czech-speaking population. Indeed, SdP leader Konrad Henlein’s mother herself had been born Hedvika Anna Augusta Dvořáčková – a typically Czech surname.

By 1938, the SdP was no doubt very popular among the Sudeten Germans. This, though, was not necessarily an indication of support for German annexation. The SdP did well in municipal polls held that spring, but these polls were conducted amid a campaign of widespread intimidation. Most opponents pulled their lists rather than risk violence from the SdP’s paramilitaries. In the prevailing context of war and annexation rumours, many Sudeten Germans probably lined up behind Henlein merely to be on the safe side if the incorporation into Nazi Germany did happen.

In the last free and fair vote, the parliamentary elections of 1935, the SdP had obtained over 60% of German ballots. Even so, these votes were not necessarily all votes for secession. As a piece in the German nationalist Deutsche Zeitung Bohemia noted, Henlein’s programme at the time had “declared with noteworthy insistence the loyalty and law-abidingness of the Sudeten German people”. It had been a programme for improvement within the Czechoslovak state, not a blueprint for an Anschluss. Sudeten Germans included numerous social democrats and communists who opposed Henlein. Even among his supporters, many were uncomfortable with being forced to join the Reich.

In addition, a quarter of the population of the Sudetenland was Czech. Even supposing that every SdP vote cast in 1935 had been a vote for secession, that would still total only 45–50 per cent of all voters – less than a majority.


The road to the Munich Conference: the Czechoslovak perspective

Czechoslovaks had a long history of survival in the face of encroachment

Sydney Morrell, a journalist with Czechoslovak sympathies, worried in the Daily Express that they were unskilled at selling their side of the story. With their complicated historical arguments, he feared, the Czechoslovaks were outclassed by Henlein. “They put too much faith in the truth… ‘The truth prevails’ was their country’s motto.”

Czechoslovak foreign minister Kamil Krofta instructed his ambassadors to warn the world, and especially the French and British, that Hitler’s ambitions did not stop at the Sudetenland. Henlein was but a tool in the Nazi leader’s plans for the region. Beneš gave interviews to foreign journalists, and interacted ceaselessly with the ambassadorial corps to put across Czechoslovak realities. As soon as Runciman arrived, the Czechoslovak president invited him to a private talk and explained that the issues at stake were not merely Sudeten German minority rights, which were already broad, but the security of Czechoslovakia – and, beyond that, the very fate of Europe.

With a long history of survival in the face of encroachment, the Czechoslovaks had no illusions about Hitler’s aims. The police were well aware that Henlein and his party were funded from Berlin. Any doubts were dispelled by the German refugees who, fleeing the concentration camps, had moved to Czechoslovakia and now lived in their midst. Czechoslovakia had no choice, in any case, but to oppose Hitler: ceding the areas he claimed meant moving the German border to just 25 miles from Prague. Militarily, the country was studded with a web of bunkers and pillboxes from which its armies expected to fight a defensive war, but almost all of these were in the Sudetenland.

The idea of a Nazi enclave in the democratically run Czechoslovak Republic made no sense, but Beneš and Krofta needed to be seen to negotiate to retain French and British support. Halifax and Newton regularly threatened that, if it came to war, Czechoslovakia would lose the Sudetenland even after victory had been achieved. They were unable to see that this could make no impression on their interlocutors, who knew they were fighting for their very survival.

It finally dawned on the Czechoslovaks that their nominal partners were preparing for a peace that sacrificed them. On 19 September, Newton and his French counterpart Victor de Lacroix induced Beneš to accept the plan mooted by Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden. When the news broke the next day, crowds thronged the streets and the government fell. Beneš authorised general mobilisation orders: the armies rolled into place and the air force dispersed in anticipation of a surprise attack. Briefly, it seemed that war would come. Though they knew it would bring great hardship, the Czechoslovaks were ready, relieved that surrender had been avoided.

Days later, Hitler called the Munich Conference for 29 September. He sent no invitation to Prague.


The aftermath of the Munich Conference

The Munich Conference lasted less than a day. Only low-level Czechoslovak representatives were asked to attend, and even they were not admitted to the proceedings but were confined to the British delegation’s hotel. From the outset, Chamberlain and Daladier conceded that the Sudetenland should be handed over to the Reich.

Occupation was to begin a mere 24 hours after the conference ended. Within 10 days, the German army was to occupy a swathe of territory that had been part of the old Kingdom of Bohemia for many centuries. Czechoslovakia lost a third of its territory and population, and an even larger share of its heavy industry and power plants. All of its fortification barrier was gone, making it indefensible.

Panicking refugees numbering in the tens of thousands poured into railway stations: Czechs, Jews, democratic Germans who knew they were a target. Many were forced to leave home within hours, abandoning all belongings. Some were shot at by Henlein’s paramilitaries, or were seized and deported to concentration camps. Within weeks, Gestapo officers had spread throughout the annexed areas. In November, the Kristallnacht pogroms swept through the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovaks attempted to sell their now useless weapons stockpiles, but their French and British partners only dithered and there were no buyers.

The Munich Agreement had been the final milestone in appeasement: the fatal policy of bowing to the German and Italian dictators. Reneging on the treaty only six months later, in March 1939 Hitler ordered his troops to march on Prague and take over the rest of the country.

On his return from Munich, Chamberlain had waved a piece of paper signed by Hitler, and proclaimed that what had been achieved was “peace for our time”. After 12 months, that time was over. On 3 September, two days after the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany.


PE Caquet is a historian and author of The Bell of Treason: The 1938 Munich Agreement in Czechoslovakia (Profile Books, 2018)

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This article was taken from issue 12 of BBC World Histories magazine

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