Munich 1938

Ralph Zuljan

In September 1938, an international crisis developed around the future of a little known area of then Czechoslovakia, populated mostly by ethnic Germans, and known as Sudetenland. The Third Reich under Adolf Hitler threatened to go to war with Czechoslovakia unless so-called Sudetenland was immediately ceded to Germany. Czechoslovakia had military alliances with France and the Soviet Union. Therefore, a war between the two countries threatened to escalate into another world war -- that no one wanted -- and might engulf all the great powers, including Great Britain. It was a most unwelcome prospect. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, believed he could defuse this crisis through direct negotiations with Hitler.

In British political circles there was a feeling that the Germans had been treated unfairly at the end of the Great War. There was a strong pacifist movement and a near universal desire to avoid another world war. Chamberlain, along with most of the political elite, believed that by befriending Hitler's Germany (rather than antagonizing it) and negotiating German expansion (rather than opposing it) not only would another potentially devastating war with Germany be prevented, but a powerful new ally in the struggle against Communist expansion would be gained. Chamberlain's attitude towards Hitler resonates with Roosevelt's approach to Stalin. The policy that emerged was called appeasement.

While France may not have shared Britain's interest in appeasing the Third Reich over the Sudetenland, the French leadership demonstrated a thorough unwillingness to act unilaterally against the new Germany. There had been unease with the growth of German power in the 1930s but the political will to do anything other than accept it did not exist as neither the British nor the Italians were willing to take joint action. The outcry generated by earlier French efforts to enforce the articles of Versailles proved sufficient to deter further attempts. By 1938 it was unthinkable; a variety of international agreements had already gutted the German disarmament and reparations provisions of Versailles. France grudgingly accepted the Third Reich's great power status by 1938. So, while France stoically prepared to honor its guarantee to Czechoslovakia, its leaders preferred to avoid doing so if at all possible.

Perhaps the most bellicose of the great powers in 1938 was the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin. It viewed the rise of Nazi Germany with great concern and endeavored to create an anti-Nazi coalition during the period leading up to the Sudeten crisis. It declared a willingness to assist Czechoslovakia and go to war with the Third Reich, provided that either Poland or Rumania allowed the Red Army transit rights through their territory and Britain and France also went to war. This offer was received with suspicion from all quarters. However, Poles and Rumanians doubted the Red Army would ever leave their territory if they allowed it entry and therefore refused to give it transit rights, the offer proved to be irrelevant to resolving the crisis.

Fascist Italy and its dictatorial leader Benito Mussolini were relatively sympathetic to the ascent of Nazi Germany by 1938. This was a significant turnaround from 1934 when the Italian government ordered a partial mobilization to prevent an Austrian anschluss, orchestrated by Nazi sympathizers. Fascist Italy's military adventure in Ethiopia during 1935-36 (the Abyssinian Affair) has generally been viewed as the event that alienated Italy from Britain and France. From that time onward, Nazi efforts to court Italian friendship proved more fruitful.

By September 1938 Nazi Germany had achieved some remarkable foreign policy successes. It had remilitarized the Rhineland (with British and French acquiescence), annexed Austria (with Italian approval and British and French disinterest) and provided substantial military aid to the Spanish Nationalists led by Franco (in conjunction with the Italians). German rearmament proceeded in flagrant violation of the, by now forgotten, Treaty of Versailles of 1919; German propaganda proclaimed a powerful new Wehrmacht and no one doubted it. None of the European powers were willing to prevent Hitler's Germany from rising to great power status. So, less than twenty years after Imperial Germany had effectively surrendered its great power status, the Third Reich emerged on the international stage and threatened to plunge Europe into a world war over the issue of a few million Germans living under Czechoslovakian rule.

Chamberlain flew to Germany and met with Hitler to resolve the crisis before war broke out. An initial agreement was made, on Hitler's terms. However, Hitler altered his demands and further negotiations ensued. Ultimately, Chamberlain, Daladier (the French prime minister) and Hitler gathered in Munich, with Mussolini as mediator, to reach a settlement. Mussolini was the senior statesman of Europe at the time and his role as mediator during the negotiations was received by the other participants in this light. The solution he offered was in fact prepared by the German Foreign Office. Even so, a final agreement was quickly reached. The Third Reich would be given the Sudetenland. In return, Chamberlain received a "friendship" note signed by Hitler.

Czechoslovakia was never involved in these negotiations. The terms of the agreement were transmitted to it as an accomplished fact along with a warning that refusing to comply would leave it alone to fight a war against the Third Reich. Sudetenland happened to be a cornerstone of Czechoslovakia's military preparations for an attack from Germany. Surrendering this territory to the Third Reich implied Czechoslovakia would be unable to offer a viable defense against any future German aggression. Nonetheless, Czechoslovakia complied and ceded the territory.

Within six months of the agreement, the remainder of Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the Third Reich, Poland and Hungary. An independent Slovak state allied to Nazi Germany emerged and most of the Czech lands became part of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. One year after Munich, Britain and France were at war with the Third Reich while the USSR abandoned its pro-western policy in favor of signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The irony of Chamberlain's claim to having achieved "peace in our time" at Munich was lost on no one.

Originally published in "World War II" at on April 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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