The Articles in the Category cover a vast range of history not only in our country but in the world as well. The category is entitled “How We Sold Our Soul”. In many cases our history has hinged on compromises being made by the powers at be. They say hind-sight is 20/20, which is why I am discussing these land mark decisions in this manner. The people that made these decisions in many cases thought they were doing the right thing. However in some instances they were made for expediency and little thought was given to the moral ramifications and the fallout that would result from them. I hope you enjoy these articles. The initial plan is to discuss 10 compromises, but as time progresses I am sure that number will increase.
The Munich Compromise of 1938 emboldened Hitler to continue on his path of European conquest. He believed after this conference that the European powers lacked the resolve to protect the weaker and smaller countries in the European Continent. It did accomplish one thing for England, it kept them out of the war for one more year. A year they needed to build up their military, however, it also gave Germany a chance to do the same. Who knows what would have happened if France and England had stood up to Hitler in 1938. The resistance in Germany might have been able to remove him from power, but after the conference there was no chance of it. Hitler had just become too powerful and popular with the people. So by selling their soul they only prolonged the inevitablity of war in Europe.
The Munich Agreement was an astonishingly successful strategy for the Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in the months leading up to World War II. The agreement was signed on Sept. 30, 1938, and in it, the powers of Europe willingly conceded to Nazi Germany’s demands for the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to keep “peace in our time.”
Munich Agreement 1938
Sudetenland in the 30s.
The Coveted Sudetenland
Having occupied Austria beginning in March 1938, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to the ethnically German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Since its formation at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia had been wary of possible German advances. This was largely due to unrest in the Sudetenland, which was fomented by the Sudeten German Party (SdP).
The First Czechoslovak Republic was created in 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The Treaty of Saint-Germain recognized the independence of Czechoslovakia and the Treaty of Trianon defined the borders of the new state which was divided to the regions of Bohemia and Moravia in the west and Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus’ in the east, including more than three million Germans, 22.95% of the total population of the country. They lived mostly in border regions of the historical Czech Lands for which they coined the new name Sudetenland, which bordered on Germany and the newly-created country of Austria.
The Sudeten Germans were not consulted on whether they wished to be citizens of Czechoslovakia. Although the constitution guaranteed equality for all citizens, there was a tendency among political leaders to transform the country “into an instrument of Czech and Slovak nationalism“. Some progress was made to integrate the Germans and other minorities, but they continued to be underrepresented in the government and the army. Moreover, the Great Depression beginning in 1929 impacted the highly-industrialized and export-oriented Sudeten Germans more than it did the Czech and Slovak populations. By 1936, 60 percent of the unemployed people in Czechoslovakia were Germans.
In 1933, Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP), which was “militant, populist, and openly hostile” to the Czechoslovak government and soon captured two-thirds of the vote in the districts with a heavy German population. Historians differ as to whether the SdP was a Nazi front organisation from its beginning or evolved into one. By 1935, the SdP was the second-largest political party in Czechoslovakia as German votes concentrated on this party, and Czech and Slovak votes were spread among several parties.
Shortly after the Anschluss of Austria to Germany, Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28 March 1938, and he was instructed to raise demands that would be unacceptable to the democratic Czechoslovak government, led by President Edvard Beneš. On 24 April, the SdP issued a series of demands upon the government of Czechoslovakia that was known as the Karlsbader Program. Henlein demanded things such as autonomy for Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak government responded by saying that it was willing to provide more minority rights to the German minority but was initially reluctant to grant autonomy. The SdP gained 88% of the ethnic German votes in May 1938.
With tension high between the Germans and the Czechoslovak government, Beneš, on 15 September 1938, secretly offered to give 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 sq mi) of Czechoslovakia to Germany, in exchange for a German agreement to admit 1.5 to 2.0 million Sudeten Germans, which Czechoslovakia would expel. Hitler did not reply.[
Formed in 1931 and led by Konrad Henlein (1898–1945), the SdP was the spiritual successor of several parties that worked to undermine the legitimacy of the Czechoslovakian state in the 1920s and early 1930s. After its creation, the SdP worked to bring the region under German control and, at one point, became the second-largest political party in the country. This was accomplished as German Sudeten votes concentrated in the party while Czech and Slovak votes were spread across a constellation of political parties.
The Czechoslovak government strongly opposed the loss of the Sudetenland, as the region contained a vast array of natural resources, as well as a significant amount of the nation’s heavy industry and banks. In addition, as Czechoslovakia was a polyglot country, concerns were present about other minorities seeking independence. Long worried about German intentions, the Czechoslovakians commenced construction of a large series of fortifications in the region beginning in 1935. The following year, after a conference with the French, the scope of the defenses increased and the design began to mirror that used in the Maginot Line along the Franco-German border. To further secure their position, the Czechs were also able to enter into military alliances with France and the Soviet Union.
Why did Germany want the Sudetenland?
Most of the region’s 3.5 million citizens were ethnic Germans – that is to say, they were German speakers who had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its break up in World War One. Under orders from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, local branches of the Nazi Party had been stirring up support for unification with Germany.
This movement was known as the “Heim ins Reich” or “Home into the Empire” movement – ironic since the Sudetenland had never belonged to Germany in the first place. The Sudetenland was home to most of Czechoslovakia’s banking, industry, and power plants.
Much of the region was hilly, even mountainous, making it an ideal natural bulwark against any threat of invasion from Germany. The Czechoslovakian government had also heavily fortified the Sudetenland and the rest of the country was virtually defenceless without it. By getting the Western allies to give up of the Sudetenland, they were effectively giving Hitler de facto control of the whole country.
As the previous appeasement of Hitler had shown, France and Britain were intent on avoiding war. The French government did not wish to face Germany alone and took its lead from British Conservative government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He considered the Sudeten German grievances justified and believed Hitler’s intentions to be limited. Both Britain and France, therefore, advised Czechoslovakia to accede to Germany’s demands. Beneš resisted and, on 19 May, initiated a partial mobilization in response to a possible German invasion.
On 20 May, Hitler presented his generals with a draft plan of attack on Czechoslovakia that was codenamed Operation Green. He insisted that he would not “smash Czechoslovakia” militarily without “provocation”, “a particularly favourable opportunity” or “adequate political justification”. On 28 May, Hitler called a meeting of his service chiefs, ordered an acceleration of U-boat construction and brought forward the construction of his new battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, to spring 1940. He demanded that the increase in the firepower of the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau be accelerated. While recognizing that this would still be insufficient for a full-scale naval war with Britain, Hitler hoped it would be a sufficient deterrent. Ten days later, Hitler signed a secret directive for war against Czechoslovakia to begin no later than 1 October.
On 22 May, Juliusz Łukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador to France, told the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet that if France moved against Germany to defend Czechoslovakia, “We shall not move”. Łukasiewicz also told Bonnet that Poland would oppose any attempt by Soviet forces to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany. Daladier told Jakob Surits [ru; de], the Soviet ambassador to France, “Not only can we not count on Polish support but we have no faith that Poland will not strike us in the back”. However, the Polish government indicated multiple times (in March 1936 and May, June and August 1938) that it was prepared to fight Germany if the French decided to help Czechoslovakia: “Beck’s proposal to Bonnet, his statements to Ambassador Drexel Biddle, and the statement noted by Vansittart, show that the Polish foreign minister was, indeed, prepared to carry out a radical change of policy if the Western powers decided on war with Germany. However, these proposals and statements did not elicit any reaction from British and French governments that were bent on averting war by appeasing Germany”.
Czechoslovakia built a system of border fortifications from 1935 to 1938 as a defensive countermeasure against the rising threat of Nazi Germany.
Hitler’s adjutant, Fritz Wiedemann, recalled after the war that he was “very shocked” by Hitler’s new plans to attack Britain and France three to four years after “deal[ing] with the situation” in Czechoslovakia. General Ludwig Beck, chief of the German general staff, noted that Hitler’s change of heart in favour of quick action was Czechoslovak defences still being improvised, which would no longer be the case two to three years later, and British rearmament not coming into effect until 1941 or 1942. General Alfred Jodl noted in his diary that the partial Czechoslovak mobilization of 21 May had led Hitler to issue a new order for Operation Green on 30 May and that it was accompanied by a covering letter from Wilhelm Keitel that stated that the plan must be implemented by 1 October at the very latest.
In the meantime, the British government demanded that Beneš request a mediator. Not wishing to sever his government’s ties with Western Europe, Beneš reluctantly accepted. The British appointed Lord Runciman, the former Liberal cabinet minister, who arrived in Prague on 3 August with instructions to persuade Beneš to agree to a plan acceptable to the Sudeten Germans. On 20 July, Bonnet told the Czechoslovak ambassador in Paris that while France would declare its support in public to help the Czechoslovak negotiations, it was not prepared to go to war over Sudetenland. In August, the German press was full of stories alleging Czechoslovak atrocities against Sudeten Germans, with the intention of forcing the West into putting pressure on the Czechoslovaks to make concessions. Hitler hoped that the Czechoslovaks would refuse and that the West would then feel morally justified in leaving the Czechoslovaks to their fate. In August, Germany sent 750,000 soldiers along the border of Czechoslovakia, officially as part of army maneuvres. On 4 or 5 September, Beneš submitted the Fourth Plan, granting nearly all the demands of the agreement. The Sudeten Germans were under instruction from Hitler to avoid a compromise, and the SdP held demonstrations that provoked a police action in Ostrava on 7 September in which two of their parliamentary deputies were arrested. The Sudeten Germans used the incident and false allegations of other atrocities as an excuse to break off further negotiations.
Hitler greeting Chamberlain on the steps of the Berghof, 15 September 1938
On 12 September, Hitler made a speech at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg on the Sudeten crisis in which he condemned the actions of the government of Czechoslovakia. Hitler denounced Czechoslovakia as being a fraudulent state that was in violation of international law’s emphasis of national self-determination, claiming it was a Czech hegemony although the Germans, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Ukrainians and the Poles of the country actually wanted to be in a union with the Czechs. Hitler accused Beneš of seeking to gradually exterminate the Sudeten Germans and claimed that since Czechoslovakia’s creation, over 600,000 Germans had been intentionally forced out of their homes under the threat of starvation if they did not leave. He alleged that Beneš’s government was persecuting Germans along with Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks and accused Beneš of threatening the nationalities with being branded traitors if they were not loyal to the country. He stated that he, as the head of state of Germany, would support the right of the self-determination of fellow Germans in the Sudetenland. He condemned Beneš for his government’s recent execution of several German protesters. He accused Beneš of being belligerent and threatening behaviour towards Germany which, if war broke out, would result in Beneš forcing Sudeten Germans to fight against their will against Germans from Germany. Hitler accused the government of Czechoslovakia of being a client regime of France, claiming that the French Minister of Aviation Pierre Cot had said, “We need this state as a base from which to drop bombs with greater ease to destroy Germany’s economy and its industry”.
Chamberlain greeted by Hitler at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938
On 13 September, after internal violence and disruption in Czechoslovakia ensued, Chamberlain asked Hitler for a personal meeting to find a solution to avert a war. Chamberlain decided to do this after conferring with his advisors Halifax, Sir John Simon, and Sir Samuel Hoare. The meeting was announced at a special press briefing at 10 Downing Street, and led to a swell of optimism in British public opinion. Chamberlain arrived by a chartered British Airways Lockheed Electra in Germany on 15 September and then arrived at Hitler’s residence in Berchtesgaden for the meeting. The flight was one of the first times a head of state or diplomatic official flew to a diplomatic meeting in an airplane, as the tense situation left little time to take a train or boat. Henlein flew to Germany on the same day. That day, Hitler and Chamberlain held discussions in which Hitler insisted that the Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise the right of national self-determination and be able to join Sudetenland with Germany. Hitler repeatedly falsely claimed that the Czechoslovak government had killed 300 Sudeten Germans. Hitler also expressed concern to Chamberlain about what he perceived as British “threats”. Chamberlain responded that he had not issued “threats” and in frustration asked Hitler “Why did I come over here to waste my time?” Hitler responded that if Chamberlain was willing to accept the self-determination of the Sudeten Germans, he would be willing to discuss the matter. Hitler also convinced Chamberlain that he did not truly wish to destroy Czechoslovakia, but that he believed that upon a German annexation of the Sudetenland the country’s minorities would each secede and cause the country to collapse. Chamberlain and Hitler held discussions for three hours, and the meeting adjourned. Chamberlain flew back to Britain and met with his cabinet to discuss the issue.
After the meeting, Daladier flew to London on 16 September to meet with British officials to discuss a course of action. The situation in Czechoslovakia became tenser that day, with the Czechoslovak government issuing an arrest warrant for Henlein, who had arrived in Germany a day earlier to take part in the negotiations. The French proposals ranged from waging war against Germany to supporting the Sudetenland being ceded to Germany. The discussions ended with a firm British-French plan in place. Britain and France demanded that Czechoslovakia cede to Germany all territories in which the German population represented over 50% of the Sudetenland’s total population. In exchange for that concession, Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. The proposed solution was rejected by both Czechoslovakia and opponents of it in Britain and France.[clarification needed]
Czechoslovak Army soldiers on patrol in the Sudetenland in September 1938
On 17 September 1938 Hitler ordered the establishment of Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a paramilitary organization that took over the structure of Ordnersgruppe, an organization of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia that had been dissolved by the Czechoslovak authorities the previous day due to its implication in a large number of terrorist activities. The organization was sheltered, trained and equipped by German authorities and conducted cross-border terrorist operations into Czechoslovak territory. Relying on the Convention for the Definition of Aggression, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš and the government-in-exile later regarded 17 September 1938 as the beginning of the undeclared German-Czechoslovak war. This understanding has been assumed also by the contemporary Czech Constitutional court. In the following days, Czechoslovak forces suffered over 100 personnel killed in action, hundreds wounded and over 2,000 abducted to Germany.
On 18 September, Italy’s Duce Benito Mussolini made a speech in Trieste, Italy, where he declared “If there are two camps, for and against Prague, let it be known that Italy has chosen its side”, with the clear implication being that Mussolini supported Germany in the crisis.
On 20 September, German opponents within the military met to discuss the final plans of a plot they had developed to overthrow the Nazi regime. The meeting was led by General Hans Oster, the deputy head of the Abwehr (Germany’s counter-espionage agency). Other members included Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz [de], and other military officers leading the planned coup d’etat met at the meeting. On 22 September, Chamberlain, about to board his plane to go to Germany for further talks at Bad Godesberg, told the press who met him there that “My objective is peace in Europe, I trust this trip is the way to that peace.” Chamberlain arrived in Cologne, where he received a lavish grand welcome with a German band playing “God Save the King” and Germans giving Chamberlain flowers and gifts. Chamberlain had calculated that fully accepting German annexation of all of the Sudetenland with no reductions would force Hitler to accept the agreement. Upon being told of this, Hitler responded “Does this mean that the Allies have agreed with Prague’s approval to the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany?”, Chamberlain responded “Precisely”, to which Hitler responded by shaking his head, saying that the Allied offer was insufficient. He told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely dissolved and its territories redistributed to Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and told Chamberlain to take it or leave it. Chamberlain was shaken by this statement. Hitler went on to tell Chamberlain that since their last meeting on the 15th, Czechoslovakia’s actions, which Hitler claimed included killings of Germans, had made the situation unbearable for Germany.
Later in the meeting, a deception was undertaken to influence and put pressure on Chamberlain: one of Hitler’s aides entered the room to inform Hitler of more Germans being killed in Czechoslovakia, to which Hitler screamed in response “I will avenge every one of them. The Czechs must be destroyed.” The meeting ended with Hitler refusing to make any concessions to the Allies’ demands. Later that evening, Hitler grew worried that he had gone too far in pressuring Chamberlain, and telephoned Chamberlain’s hotel suite, saying that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland, with no designs on other territories, provided that Czechoslovakia begin the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from the German majority territories by 26 September at 8:00am. After being pressed by Chamberlain, Hitler agreed to have the ultimatum set for 1 October (the same date that Operation Green was set to begin). Hitler then said to Chamberlain that this was one concession that he was willing to make to the Prime Minister as a “gift” out of respect for the fact that Chamberlain had been willing to back down somewhat on his earlier position. Hitler went on to say that upon annexing the Sudetenland, Germany would hold no further territorial claims upon Czechoslovakia and would enter into a collective agreement to guarantee the borders of Germany and Czechoslovakia.
A new Czechoslovak cabinet, under General Jan Syrový, was installed and on 23 September a decree of general mobilization was issued which was accepted by the public with a strong enthusiasm – within 24 hours, one million men joined the army to defend the country. The Czechoslovak Army, modern, experienced and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications, was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance, provided that the Red Army would be able to cross Polish and Romanian territory. Both countries refused to allow the Soviet army to use their territories.
In the early hours of 24 September, Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum, which demanded that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany no later than 28 September, with plebiscites to be held in unspecified areas under the supervision of German and Czechoslovak forces. The memorandum also stated that if Czechoslovakia did not agree to the German demands by 2 pm on 28 September, Germany would take the Sudetenland by force. On the same day, Chamberlain returned to Britain and announced that Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland without delay. The announcement enraged those in Britain and France who wanted to confront Hitler once and for all, even if it meant war, and its supporters gained strength. The Czechoslovak Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Jan Masaryk, was elated upon hearing of the support for Czechoslovakia from British and French opponents of Hitler’s plans, saying “The nation of Saint Wenceslas will never be a nation of slaves.”
“Our enemies are small worms. I saw them in Munich.” – Adolf Hitler, on signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939
Having moved toward an expansionist policy in late 1937, Hitler began assessing the situation to the south and ordered his generals to start making plans for an invasion of the Sudetenland. Additionally, he instructed Konrad Henlein to cause trouble. It was Hitler’s hope that Henlein’s supporters would foment enough unrest that it would show that the Czechoslovakians were unable to control the region and provide an excuse for the German Army to cross the border.
Politically, Henlein’s followers called for the Sudeten Germans to be recognized as an autonomous ethnic group, given self-government, and be permitted to join Nazi Germany if they so desired. In response to the actions of Henlein’s party, the Czechoslovak government was forced to declare martial law in the region. Following this decision, Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland immediately be turned over to Germany.
When and where did the Agreement take place?
The agreement was signed on September 19th, 1938 after a discussion called the “Munich Conference”. It took place the day before the signing of the pact in Hitler’s Munich headquarters, the Führerbau. The building is still used today as the Hochschule fur Musik (Music Collage).
Who was there?
Present at the signing were: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his aide Galeazzo Ciano. No Czechoslovakians were invited to discuss the future of their own country.
name from a sign in the disputed region.
On 25 September, Czechoslovakia agreed to the conditions previously agreed upon by Britain, France, and Germany. The next day, however, Hitler added new demands, insisting that the claims of ethnic Germans in Poland and Hungary also be satisfied.
On 26 September, Chamberlain sent Sir Horace Wilson to carry a personal letter to Hitler declaring that the Allies wanted a peaceful resolution to the Sudeten crisis. Later that evening, Hitler made his response in a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast; he claimed that the Sudetenland was “the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe” and gave Czechoslovakia a deadline of 28 September at 2:00 pm to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. At this point the British government began to make war preparations, and the House of Commons was reconvened from a parliamentary recess.
On September 27, 1938, when negotiations between Hitler and Chamberlain were strained, Chamberlain addressed the British people, saying, in particular: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.
On 28 September at 10:00 am, four hours before the deadline and with no agreement to Hitler’s demand by Czechoslovakia, the British ambassador to Italy, Lord Perth, called Italy’s Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano to request an urgent meeting. Perth informed Ciano that Chamberlain had instructed him to request that Mussolini enter the negotiations and urge Hitler to delay the ultimatum. At 11:00 am, Ciano met Mussolini and informed him of Chamberlain’s proposition; Mussolini agreed with it and responded by telephoning Italy’s ambassador to Germany and told him “Go to the Fuhrer at once, and tell him that whatever happens, I will be at his side, but that I request a twenty-four-hour delay before hostilities begin. In the meantime, I will study what can be done to solve the problem.” Hitler received Mussolini’s message while in discussions with the French ambassador. Hitler told the ambassador “My good friend, Benito Mussolini, has asked me to delay for twenty-four hours the marching orders of the German army, and I agreed. Of course, this was no concession, as the invasion date was set for 1 October 1938.” Upon speaking with Chamberlain, Lord Perth gave Chamberlain’s thanks to Mussolini as well as Chamberlain’s request that Mussolini attend a four-power conference of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy in Munich on 29 September to settle the Sudeten problem prior to the deadline of 2:00 pm. Mussolini agreed. Hitler’s only request was to make sure that Mussolini be involved in the negotiations at the conference. Nevile Henderson, Alexander Cadogan, and Chamberlain’s personal secretary Lord Douglas passed the news of the conference to Chamberlain while he was addressing Parliament, and Chamberlain suddenly announced the conference and his acceptance to attend at the end of the speech to cheers. When United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned the conference had been scheduled, he telegraphed Chamberlain, “Good man”.
Sequence of events following the Munich Agreement:
1. The Sudetenland became part of Germany in accordance with the Munich Agreement (October 1938).
2. Poland annexes Zaolzie, an area with a Polish plurality, over which the two countries had fought a war in 1919 (October 1938).
3. Border areas (southern third of Slovakia and southern Carpathian Ruthenia) with Hungarian minorities became part of Hungary in accordance with the First Vienna Award (November 1938).
4. On 15 March 1939, during the German invasion of the remaining Czech territories, Hungary annexes the remainder of Carpathian Ruthenia (which had been autonomous since October 1938).
5. Germany establishes the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia with a puppet government, on 16 March 1939.
6. On 14 March 1939, a pro-Hitler Catholic–fascist government declares the Slovak Republic, as an Axis client state.
Discussions began at the Führerbau immediately after Chamberlain and Daladier arrived, giving them little time to consult. The meeting was held in English, French, and German. A deal was reached on 29 September, and at about 1:30 a.m. on 30 September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement. The agreement was officially introduced by Mussolini although in fact the Italian plan was nearly identical to the Godesberg proposal: the German army was to complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.
Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated (30 September) and agreed to abide by the agreement. The settlement gave Germany the Sudetenland starting 10 October, and de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia as long as Hitler promised to go no further. On 30 September after some rest, Chamberlain went to Hitler’s apartment in the Prinzregentenstraße and asked him to sign a statement calling the Anglo-German Naval Agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two countries never to go to war with one another again.” After Hitler’s interpreter translated it for him, he happily agreed.
On 30 September, upon his return to Britain, Chamberlain delivered his controversial “peace for our time” speech to crowds in London.
What happened after the pact was signed?
The Nazis took over the Sudetenland from October 1 to October 10 and put it under military administration. The region’s Jews started feeling the Nazi’s presence right away. Persecution began and synagogues were burned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9, 1938. The region became the most Nazi active area the Third Reich has ever had. At elections on December 4th, 97 per cent of voters chose the Nazi Party. The German Wehrmacht invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia on March 15th, 1938.
Czechoslovakian president Emil Hache was forced into a humiliating surrender. The Munich Agreement gave Hitler the impression that the Western powers were weak and would make large territorial concessions to Germany to avoid war. The Agreement paved the way for the Nazi warlord to invade Poland the following year and the outbreak of World War Two.
As the crisis grew, a war scare spread across Europe, leading Britain and France to take an active interest in the situation, as both nations were eager to avoid a war for which they were not prepared. As such, the French government followed the path set by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), who believed that the Sudeten Germans’ grievances had merit. Chamberlain also thought that Hitler’s broader intentions were limited in scope and could be contained.
In May, France and Britain recommended to Czechoslovakian President Edvard Beneš (1844–1948) that he give in to Germany’s demands. Resisting this advice, Beneš instead ordered a partial mobilization of the army. As tensions grew through the summer, Beneš accepted a British mediator, Walter Runciman (1870–1949), in early August. Meeting with both sides, Runciman and his team were able to convince Beneš to grant the Sudeten Germans autonomy. Despite this breakthrough, the SdP was under strict orders from Germany not to accept any compromise settlements.
Chamberlain Steps In
In an attempt to calm the situation, Chamberlain sent a telegram to Hitler requesting a meeting with the goal of finding a peaceful solution. Traveling to Berchtesgaden on Sept. 15, Chamberlain met with the German leader. Controlling the conversation, Hitler lamented the Czechoslovak persecution of Sudeten Germans and boldly requested that the region be turned over. Unable to make such a concession, Chamberlain departed, stating that he would have to consult with the Cabinet in London and requested that Hitler refrain from military action in the meantime. Though he agreed, Hitler continued military planning. As part of this, the Polish and Hungarian governments were offered a part of Czechoslovakia in return for allowing the Germans to take the Sudetenland.
Meeting with the Cabinet, Chamberlain was authorized to concede the Sudetenland and received support from the French for such a move. On Sept. 19, 1938, the British and French ambassadors met with the Czechoslovak government and recommended ceding those areas of the Sudetenland where Germans formed more than 50 percent of the population. Largely abandoned by its allies, the Czechoslovakians were forced to agree. Having secured this concession, Chamberlain returned to Germany on Sept. 22 and met with Hitler at Bad Godesberg. Optimistic that a solution had been reached, Chamberlain was stunned when Hitler made new demands.
Not happy with the Anglo-French solution, Hitler demanded that German troops be permitted to occupy the entirety of the Sudetenland, that non-Germans be expelled, and that Poland and Hungary be given territorial concessions. After stating that such demands were unacceptable, Chamberlain was told that the terms were to be met or military action would result. Having risked his career and British prestige on the deal, Chamberlain was crushed as he returned home. In response to the German ultimatum, both Britain and France began mobilizing their forces.
The Munich Conference
Though Hitler was willing to risk war, he soon found that the German people were not. As a result, he stepped back from the brink and sent Chamberlain a letter guaranteeing the safety of Czechoslovakia if the Sudetenland were ceded to Germany. Eager to prevent war, Chamberlain replied that he was willing to continue talks and asked Italian leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) to aid in persuading Hitler. In response, Mussolini proposed a four-power summit between Germany, Britain, France, and Italy to discuss the situation. The Czechoslovakians were not invited to take part.
Gathering in Munich on Sept. 29, Chamberlain, Hitler, and Mussolini were joined by French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier (1884–1970). Talks progressed through the day and into the night, with a Czechoslovakian delegation forced to wait outside. In the negotiations, Mussolini presented a plan that called for the Sudetenland to be ceded to Germany in exchange for guarantees that it would mark the end of German territorial expansion. Though presented by the Italian leader, the plan had been produced by the German government, and its terms were similar to Hitler’s latest ultimatum.
Desiring to avoid war, Chamberlain and Daladier were willing to agree to this “Italian plan.” As a result, the Munich Agreement was signed shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 30. This called for German troops to enter the Sudetenland on Oct. 1 with the movement to be completed by Oct. 10. Around 1:30 a.m., the Czechoslovak delegation was informed of the terms by Chamberlain and Daladier. Though initially unwilling to agree, the Czechoslovakians were forced to submit when informed that should a war occur they would be held responsible.
What were the reactions in….
…the United Kingdom and France?
The agreement was generally applauded. Prime Minister Daladier of France did not believe, as one scholar put it, that a European War was justified “to maintain three million Germans under Czech sovereignty.” Gallup Polls in Britain, France, and the United States indicated that the majority of people supported the agreement. President Beneš of Czechoslovakia was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1939.
The New York Times headline on the Munich agreement read “Hitler gets less than his Sudeten demands” and reported that a “joyful crowd” hailed Daladier on his return to France and that Chamberlain was “wildly cheered” on his return to Britain.
The British population had expected an imminent war, and the “statesman-like gesture” of Chamberlain was at first greeted with acclaim. He was greeted as a hero by the royal family and invited on the balcony at Buckingham Palace before he had presented the agreement to the British Parliament. The generally-positive reaction quickly soured, despite royal patronage. However, there was opposition from the start. Clement Attlee and the Labour Party opposed the agreement, in alliance with two Conservative MPs, Duff Cooper and Vyvyan Adams, who had been seen up to then as a reactionary element in the Conservative Party.
Daladier believed that Hitler’s ultimate goals were a threat. He told the British in a late April 1938 meeting that Hitler’s real long-term aim was to secure “a domination of the Continent in comparison with which the ambitions of Napoleon were feeble”. He went on to say: “Today it is the turn of Czechoslovakia. Tomorrow it will be the turn of Poland and Romania. When Germany has obtained the oil and wheat it needs, she will turn on the West. Certainly we must multiply our efforts to avoid war. But that will not be obtained unless Great Britain and France stick together, intervening in Prague for new concessions but declaring at the same time that they will safeguard the independence of Czechoslovakia. If, on the contrary, the Western Powers capitulate again they will only precipitate the war they wish to avoid.” Perhaps discouraged by the arguments of French military leaders and civilian officials regarding their unprepared military and weak financial situation, as still traumatized by France’s bloodbath in World War I, which he had personally witnessed, Daladier ultimately let Chamberlain have his way. On his return to Paris, Daladier, who had expected a hostile crowd, was acclaimed.
In the days following Munich, Chamberlain received more than 20,000 letters and telegrams of thanks, and gifts including 6000 assorted bulbs from grateful Dutch admirers and a cross from Pope Pius XI.
Chamberlain was cheered by the British royal family and public, who wanted to avoid another war with Germany. But the British people quickly turned against him, and Chamberlain’s signing of the Munich Agreement has become known as the single biggest act of appeasement of the 20th century. Winston Churchill damned the Agreement, labelling it a “total and unmitigated defeat”.
Poland was building up a secret Polish organization in the area of Zaolzie from 1935. In summer 1938, Poland tried to organize guerrilla groups in the area. On 21 September, Poland officially requested a direct transfer of the area to its own control. Polish envoy to Prague Kazimierz Papée marked that the return of Cieszyn Silesia will be a sign of a goodwill and the “redress of injustice” of 1920. Similar notes were sent to Paris and London with a request that Polish minority in Czechoslovakia should gain the same rights as Sudeten Germans. On the next day Beneš send a letter to Polish president Ignacy Mościcki with a promise of “border’s rectification”, but the letter was delivered only on 26 September. The answer of Mościcki delivered on 27 September was evasive, but it was accompanied with the demand of Polish government to hand over two Zaolzie counties immediately, as a prelude to ultimate settlement of the border dispute. Beneš answer wasn’t conclusive, he agreed to hand over the disputed territory to Poland, but argued that it cannot be done on the eve of German invasion, because it would disrupt Czechoslovak preparations for war. Poles recognised the answer as another playing for time.
Polish diplomatic actions were accompanied by placing army along the Czechoslovak border on 23–24 September and by giving an order to the so-called “battle units” of Zaolzie Poles and the “Zaolzie Legion”, a paramilitary organisation that was made up of volunteers from all over Poland, to cross the border to Czechoslovakia and attack Czechoslovak units. The few who crossed, however, were repulsed by Czechoslovak forces and retreated to Poland.
Polish ambassador in Germany learned about the results of Munich Conference on 30 September from Ribbentrop, who assured him that Berlin conditioned the guarantees for the remainder of Czechoslovakia on the fulfilment of Polish and Hungarian territorial demands. Polish foreign minister Józef Beck was disappointed with such a turn of events. In his own words the conference was “an attempt by the directorate of great powers to impose binding decisions on other states (and Poland cannot agree on that, as it would then be reduced to a political object that others conduct at their will)”. As a result at 11:45 p.m. on 30 September, 11 hours after the Czechoslovak government accepted the Munich terms, Poland gave an ultimatum to the Czechoslovak government. It demanded the immediate evacuation of Czechoslovak troops and police and gave Prague time until noon the following day. At 11:45 a.m. on 1 October the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry called the Polish ambassador in Prague and told him that Poland could have what it wanted but then requested a 24 h delay. On 2 October, the Polish Army, commanded by General Władysław Bortnowski, annexed an area of 801.5 km² with a population of 227,399 people. Administratively the annexed area was divided between Frysztat County and Cieszyn County.
The historian Dariusz Baliszewski wrote that during the annexation there was no co-operation between Polish and German troops, but there were cases of co-operation between Polish and Czech troops defending territory against Germans, for example in Bohumín.
The Polish ultimatum finally decided Beneš, by his own account, to abandon any idea of resisting the settlement. (Czechoslovakia would have been attacked on all sides.) The Germans were delighted with that outcome and were happy to give up the sacrifice of a small provincial rail centre to Poland in exchange for the ensuing propaganda benefits. It spread the blame of the partition of Czechoslovakia, made Poland a participant in the process and confused political expectations. Poland was accused of being an accomplice of Germany. However, there was no formal agreement between Poland and Germany about Czechoslovakia at any time.
The Chief of the General Staff of the Czechoslovak Army, General Ludvík Krejčí, reported on 29 September that “Our army will in about two days’ time be in full condition to withstand an attack even by all Germany’s forces together, provided Poland does not move against us”.
Historians such as H.L. Roberts and Anna Cienciala have characterised Beck‘s actions during the crisis as unfriendly to Czechoslovakia, but not actively seeking its destruction. Whilst Stalin-era Polish historiography typically followed the line that Beck had been a “German Agent” and had collaborated with Germany, post-1956 historiography has generally rejected this characterisation.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin crinkled his mighty eyebrow when he heard about the Agreement. Stalin saw it as an affront that he wasn’t invited to the meeting in Munich, as he had believed the Western Allies should have been working with Russia to stem the tide of Nazi expansionism. This led to Stalin turning against France and the United Kingdom and attempt to come to terms with Germany, in turn resulting in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of 1938.
The Czechoslovaks were dismayed with the Munich settlement. They were not invited to the conference, and felt they had been betrayed by the British and French governments. Many Czechs and Slovaks refer to the Munich Agreement as the Munich Diktat (Czech: Mnichovský diktát; Slovak: Mníchovský diktát). The phrase “Munich Betrayal” (Mnichovská zrada; Mníchovská zrada) is also used because the military alliance Czechoslovakia had with France proved useless. This was also reflected by the fact that especially the French government had expressed the view that Czechoslovakia would be considered as being responsible for any resulting European war should the Czechoslovak Republic defend herself with force against German incursions.
The slogan “About us, without us!” (O nás bez nás!; O nás bez nás!) summarizes the feelings of the people of Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia and Czech Republic) towards the agreement. With Sudetenland gone to Germany, Czecho-Slovakia (as the state was now renamed) lost its defensible border with Germany and the Czechoslovak border fortifications. Without them its independence became more nominal than real. Czechoslovakia also lost 70 per cent of its iron/steel industry, 70 per cent of its electrical power and 3.5 million citizens to Germany as a result of the settlement. The Sudeten Germans celebrated what they saw as their liberation. The imminent war, it seemed, had been avoided.
The Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann, took to pen and pulpit in defense of his surrogate homeland proclaiming his pride at being a Czechoslovak citizen and praising the republic’s achievements. He attacked a “Europe ready for slavery” writing that “The Czechoslovak people is ready to take up a fight for liberty and transcends its own fate” and “It is too late for the British government to save the peace. They have lost too many opportunities”. President Beneš of Czechoslovakia was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1939.
Though the British and French were pleased, a British diplomat in Berlin claimed he had been informed by a member of Hitler’s entourage that soon after the meeting with Chamberlain Hitler had furiously said: “Gentlemen, this has been my first international conference and I can assure you that it will be my last”. On another occasion, he had been heard saying of Chamberlain: “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers.” In one of his public speeches after Munich, Hitler declared: “Thank God we have no umbrella politicians in this country”.
Hitler felt cheated of the limited war against the Czechs which he had been aiming for all summer. In early October, Chamberlain’s press secretary asked for a public declaration of German friendship with Britain to strengthen Chamberlain’s domestic position; Hitler instead delivered speeches denouncing Chamberlain’s “governessy interference”. In August 1939, shortly before the invasion of Poland, Hitler told his generals: “Our enemies are men below average, not men of action, not masters. They are little worms. I saw them at Munich.”
Before the Munich Agreement, Hitler’s determination to invade Czechoslovakia on 1 October 1938 had provoked a major crisis in the German command structure. The Chief of the General Staff, General Ludwig Beck, protested in a lengthy series of memos that it would start a world war that Germany would lose, and urged Hitler to put off the projected conflict. Hitler called Beck’s arguments against war “kindische Kräfteberechnungen” (“childish force calculations”). On 4 August 1938, a secret Army meeting was held. Beck read his lengthy report to the assembled officers. They all agreed something had to be done to prevent certain disaster. Beck hoped they would all resign together but no one resigned except Beck. His replacement, General Franz Halder, sympathized with Beck and they both conspired with several top generals, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Chief of German Intelligence) and Graf von Helldorf (Berlin’s Police Chief) to arrest Hitler the moment he gave the invasion order. This plan would only work if Britain issued a strong warning and a letter to the effect that they would fight to preserve Czechoslovakia. This would help to convince the German people that certain defeat awaited Germany. Agents were therefore sent to England to tell Chamberlain that an attack on Czechoslovakia was planned, and of their intention to overthrow Hitler if this occurred. The proposal was rejected by the British Cabinet and no such letter was issued. Accordingly, the proposed removal of Hitler did not go ahead. On this basis it has been argued that the Munich Agreement kept Hitler in power—Halder remained bitter about Chamberlain’s refusal for decades after the war—although whether the attempted removal would have been any more successful than the 1944 plot is doubtful. Although the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland were extremely happy, everyone else in the country was shattered. The Czechoslovakian people must have felt that complete Nazi occupation was only days away, and they would have been right. Even today in Slovakia and the Czech Republic the Agreement is still sometimes known as the “Munich Betrayal”.
Joseph Stalin was upset by the results of the Munich conference. On 2 May 1935, France and the Soviet Union signed the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance with the aim of containing Nazi Germany’s aggression. The Soviets, who had a mutual military assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia, felt betrayed by France, which also had a mutual military assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia. The British and French mostly used the Soviets as a threat to dangle over the Germans. Stalin concluded that the West had colluded with Hitler to hand over a Central European country to the Germans, causing concern that they might do the same to the Soviet Union in the future, allowing the partition of the USSR between the western nations. This belief led the Soviet Union to reorient its foreign policy towards a rapprochement with Germany, which eventually led to the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.
In 1938, the Soviet Union was allied with France and Czechoslovakia. By September 1939, the Soviets were to all intents and purposes a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany, due to Stalin’s fears of a second Munich Agreement with the Soviet Union replacing Czechoslovakia. Thus, the agreement indirectly contributed to the outbreak of war in 1939. The Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons said, “We owe heartfelt thanks to all responsible for the outcome, and appreciate very much the efforts of President Roosevelt and Signor Mussolini to bring about the Munich conference of the Powers at which a united desire for peace has been shown.”
As a result of the agreement, German forces crossed the border on Oct. 1 and were warmly received by the Sudeten Germans while many Czechoslovakians fled the region. Returning to London, Chamberlain proclaimed that he had secured “peace for our time.” While many in the British government were pleased with the result, others were not. Commenting on the meeting, Winston Churchill proclaimed the Munich Agreement “a total, unmitigated defeat.” Having believed that he would have to fight to claim the Sudetenland, Hitler was surprised that Czechoslovakia’s erstwhile allies readily abandoned the country in order to appease him.
On 5 October, Beneš resigned as President of Czechoslovakia since he realized that the fall of Czechoslovakia was inevitable. After the outbreak of World War II, he formed a Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. On 6 December 1938, the French-German Non-aggression Pact was signed in Paris by French Foreign Minister Bonnet and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Quickly coming to have contempt for Britain’s and France’s fear of war, Hitler encouraged Poland and Hungary to take parts of Czechoslovakia. Unconcerned about retaliation from the western nations, Hitler moved to take the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. This was met with no significant response from either Britain or France. Concerned that Poland would be Germany’s next target for expansion, both nations pledged their support in guaranteeing Polish independence. Going further, Britain concluded an Anglo-Polish military alliance on Aug. 25. This was quickly activated when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, starting World War II.
German invasion of rump Czechoslovakia
In 1937, the Wehrmacht had formulated a plan, “Operation Green” (Fall Grün) for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was implemented shortly after the proclamation of the Slovak State on 15 March 1939. On 14 March, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia and became a separate pro-Nazi state. The following day, Carpatho-Ukraine proclaimed independence as well, but after three days, it was completely occupied and annexed by Hungary. Czechoslovak President Emil Hácha traveled to Berlin and was left waiting, and orders to invade had already been given. During the meeting with Hitler, Hácha was threatened with the bombing of Prague if he refused to order the Czech troops to lay down their arms. That news induced a heart attack from which he was revived by an injection from Hitler’s doctor. Hácha then agreed to sign the communiqué accepting the German occupation of the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia, “which in its unctuous mendacity was remarkable even for the Nazis”. Churchill’s prediction was fulfilled, as German armies entered Prague and proceeded to occupy the rest of the country, which was transformed into a protectorate of the Reich. In March 1939, Konstantin von Neurath was appointed as Reichsprotektor and served as Hitler’s personal representative in the protectorate. Immediately after the occupation, a wave of arrests began, mostly of refugees from Germany, Jews and Czech public figures. By November, Jewish children had been expelled from their schools and their parents fired from their jobs. Universities and colleges were closed after demonstrations against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Over 1200 students were sent to concentration camps, and nine student leaders were executed on 17 November (International Students’ Day).
By seizing Bohemia and Moravia, Nazi Germany gained all of the skilled labour force and heavy industry located there as well as all the weapons of the Czechoslovak Army. During the 1940 Battle of France, roughly 25% of all German weapons came from the protectorate. Nazi Germany also gained the all of Czechoslovakia’s gold treasure, including gold stored in the Bank of England. Of a total 227 tons of gold found after the war in salt mines, only 18.4 tons were returned to Czechoslovakia in 1982, but most of it came from Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was also forced to “sell” war material to the Wehrmacht for 648 million of prewar Czechoslovak koruna, a debt that was never repaid.
Chamberlain claimed the Prague annexation was a “completely different category” that moved beyond the legitimate Versailles grievances. Meanwhile, concerns arose in Britain that Poland, which was now encircled by many German possessions, would become the next target of Nazi expansionism. That was made apparent by the dispute over the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig and resulted in the signing of an Anglo-Polish military alliance. That made the Polish government refuse to accept German negotiation proposals over the Polish Corridor and the status of Danzig. Chamberlain felt betrayed by the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia, realized that his policy of appeasement towards Hitler had failed and so began to take a much harder line against Germany. He immediately began to mobilize the British armed forces to a war footing, and France did the same. Italy saw itself threatened by the British and French fleets and started its own invasion of Albania in April 1939.
Strengthening of Wehrmacht armaments
Since most of the border defenses had been in the territory ceded as a consequence of the Munich Agreement, the rest of Czechoslovakia was entirely open to further invasion despite its relatively-large stockpiles of modern armaments. In a speech delivered in the Reichstag, Hitler expressed the importance of the occupation for strengthening of German military and noted that by occupying Czechoslovakia, Germany gained 2,175 field guns and cannons, 469 tanks, 500 anti-aircraft artillery pieces, 43,000 machine guns, 1,090,000 military rifles, 114,000 pistols, about a billion rounds of small-arms ammunition, and 3 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition. That could then arm about half of the Wehrmacht. Czechoslovak weapons later played a major role in the German conquest of Poland and France, the last of which country had urged Czechoslovakia into surrendering the Sudetenland in 1938.
Birth of German resistance in military
In Germany, the Sudeten crisis led to the so-called Oster conspiracy. General Hans Oster, the deputy head of the Abwehr, and prominent figures within the German military opposed the regime for its behavior, which threatened to bring Germany into a war that they believed it was not ready to fight. They discussed overthrowing Hitler and the regime through a planned storming of the Reich Chancellery by forces loyal to the plot.
We Must Now Learn the Lesson of 1914, Not the Lesson of 1938
With proponents of military intervention and war, it’s always 1938, and every attempt to substitute diplomacy for escalation and war is “appeasement.”
Earlier in March, for example, Ukrainian legislator Lesia Vasylenko accused Western leaders of appeasement during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, stating, “This is the same as 1938 when also the world and the United States in particular were averting their eyes from what was being done by Hitler and his Nazi Party.” The week before that, Estonian legislator Marko Mihkelson declared, “I hope I’m wrong but I smell ‘Munich’ here.”
These, of course, are references to the notorious Munich conference of 1938, when UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain (and others) agreed to allow Adolf Hitler’s Germany to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia as a means to avoid a general war in Europe. The “appeasement,” of course, failed to prevent war because Hitler’s regime actually planned to annex much more than that.
Ever since, the “lesson of Munich” for advocates of military intervention is that it’s always best to escalate international conflicts and meet all perceived aggressors with immediate military force rather than embrace compromise or nonintervention.
Americans have made similar references, with pundits from Larry Elder to Peter Singer peppering their musings on the Ukraine war with the Munich analogy. One need only enter “Munich” and “1938” into a Twitter search to receive an apparently endless number of tweets from newly minted American foreign policy experts about how anything less than World War III is Munich all over again. Historically, countless American politicians have used the analogy as well. Cold Warriors of the 1980s denounced Ronald Reagan’s efforts to limit nuclear weapons as Munich-style appeasement. Republicans routinely claimed Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy was the same thing.
But it is not, in fact, the case that every act of diplomacy or compromise designed to avoid war is appeasement. Moreover, we can find countless examples in which nonintervention and a refusal to escalate a situation was — or would have been — the better choice.
In other words, it’s not always 1938. Rather than fixating on the “lesson of 1938” the better lesson to learn is often the “lesson of 1914” or perhaps even the lessons of 1853, 1956, or 1968. In all these cases, military escalation was — or would have been — the wrong response. Moreover, in the age of nuclear weapons — something that did not exist in 1938 — the world is a different place, and confrontation with a nuclear power could potentially bring about the end of human civilization. Casually bandying about demands for a “no-fly zone” — which would mean war with Russia — is both irresponsible and the sort of rhetoric fit for a nonnuclear world that ceased to exist many decades ago.
The Foundations of the “Lesson of Munich”
The supposed lesson of Munich is based on two basic pillars. The first is the assumption that any act of military aggression will lead to many more acts of military aggression if not forcefully countered. It is basically a variation on the now-discredited domino theory: if one nation submits to conquest by an aggressive neighbor, other nations will soon be forced to submit as well. This assumes every allegedly aggressive state has the same motivations as Nazi Germany and can plausibly seek a large, region-wide chain of military conquests across numerous states.
The second pillar of the lesson of Munich is that since every aggressive military act is likely to lead to many more, the only realistic option is to meet aggression with escalation and a no-compromise response.
This is precisely why Western advocates of military adventurism repeatedly equate every foreign leader Western elites don’t like with Hitler. Or, as noted at The Conversation in reference to the current framing of the Ukraine war as the latest battle against “Hitler”:
“This kind of parallelism is not new; it is used every time there is a new enemy the public opinion should focus on. In recent years, according to Western rhetoric, Adolf Hitler has already been apparently reincarnated several times — as Saddam Hussein, Mohammad Qaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more besides.”
In 2022, Putin is the new Hitler, which necessarily means to some that any failure by the West to respond to the Russian invasion with a full-blown military escalation is a Munich-style appeasement.
The fact that the events of 1938 are so well known by so many has helped considerably in pushing the narrative that compromise or nonintervention is appeasement. For most Americans, it’s likely the only event in the history of diplomacy they actually know anything about. Never mind the fact that the lesson of Munich has often been proven quite inapplicable to the modern world. As noted by Robert Kelly at the hardly noninterventionist publication 1945:
“This frightening image of falling dominoes is not actually historically common though, thankfully. It was in the 1930s, but it was not, for example, in the Cold War. Aggressors do not always read one victory in place to mean they can automatically push on other ‘dominoes.’ Deterrence is structured by local and historical factors; some commitments are much more credible than others. So even though the U.S. lost in Vietnam, North Korea or East Germany did not attack South Korea or West Germany, just as the U.S. did not attack Cuba or Nicaragua after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.
“In Ukraine that means that Western reticence to fight directly against the Russians in Ukraine does not automatically mean that Putin will test NATO’s collective security commitment or that China will attack Taiwan.”
But none of this matters when the public believes what it’s told by politicians and the media about how every rogue state is the equivalent of Nazi Germany. There is no foreign policy lesson to learn except that of opposing each new “Hitler.”
The Lesson of 1914
Yet there are competing lessons to be learned. Lessons can be found, say, in the lead-up to the Crimean War in 1853 or the July Crisis of 1914. (Ask the average American about either of these, and you will probably receive a blank stare.)
In both of these cases, regimes claimed they were countering aggression by foreign states and protecting either “allies” or oppressed minorities in the lands being subjected to conquest.
The lead-up to the First World War provides an especially cautionary tale about rushing to intervene in the name of supporting allies. The Austrian regime issued an ultimatum to the Serbians, and the Russians — with the support of France, Europe’s biggest democracy — mobilized in support of traditional ally Serbia. The Germans then mobilized in support of Austria-Hungary. Later, the regimes in the United Kingdom and the United States employed propaganda about alleged German war crimes in Belgium to ensure their respective countries entered the war. British politicians also claimed they must intervene to assist Britain’s Entente allies in resisting aggression. Four years of preventable and utterly pointless bloodshed ensued. Thanks to calls to oppose aggression and defend allies, what should have been a regional war in the Balkans became a major Europe-wide war. Even worse, with the Treaty of Versailles and the inclusion of the absurd “War Guilt” clause against Germany, the war set the stage for the far more destructive Second World War.
Yet the war was a result of regimes doing — from their own perspectives — what the “lesson of Munich” dictates: rush to war, immediately escalate, and confront “enemies” with military force in the name of countering aggression.
The lesson of 1914 is certainly instructive today. Escalation is extraordinarily unwise, especially if there is the potential of turning limited wars into megascale disasters. Moreover, in the case of the United States, the complexity of the war’s causes meant there was no justifiable reason at all for the United States to enter. There was no “good guy” in the war, and American participation only further extended the bloodshed.
Fortunately, in spite of its pretensions of being the global guarantor of freedom always and everywhere, the United States has, at least twice, behaved as if it had learned the lesson of 1914. The first time was in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary when the Hungarian regime — an ostensibly sovereign state — became too uppity to suit Moscow. So, Soviet military might moved in to ensure Hungary remained sufficiently under Moscow’s control. Thousands of Hungarians were killed. Did the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mobilize against this aggression? Did Dwight Eisenhower ready America’s bombers? No.
Then, in Prague in 1968, Czechoslovakian resistance to Moscow led to an invasion of 200,000 foreign troops and 2,500 tanks from the pro-Soviet regimes of the Warsaw Pact. Again, the United States took no action.
This, of course, was the right decision on the part of the U.S. and NATO. Heeding the Lesson of Munich, on the other hand, would have meant direct confrontation between NATO and the Soviet Union — a de facto confrontation between the United States and the USSR. This would have greatly increased the likelihood of global nuclear war.
Naturally, some anti-Soviet activists cried “Appeasement!” at the time. Fortunately, they were ignored. A curious difference between 1956 and now, however, is that at the time, most of the critics of American inaction were on the anti-Soviet Right. Today, it is mostly the Left where we find those howling about Munich and blithely pushing for a U.S.-Russia war while downplaying the risk of a nuclear apocalypse. But those who are now demanding World War III are a cautionary example of what happens when we obsess over the lesson of 1938 and ignore the lesson of 1914.
As the threats of Germany and of a European war became more evident, opinions on the agreement became more hostile. Chamberlain was excoriated for his role as one of the “Men of Munich”, in books such as the 1940 Guilty Men. A rare wartime defense of the agreement came in 1944 from Viscount Maugham, who had been Lord Chancellor. Maugham viewed the decision to establish a Czechoslovak state including substantial German and Hungarian minorities as a “dangerous experiment” in the light of previous disputes and ascribed the agreement as caused largely by France’s need to extricate itself from its treaty obligations in the light of its unpreparedness for war. After the war, Churchill’s history of the period, The Gathering Storm (1948), asserted that Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich had been wrong and recorded Churchill’s prewar warnings of Hitler’s plan of aggression and the folly of Britain’s persisting with disarmament after Germany had achieved air parity with Britain. Although Churchill recognized that Chamberlain acted from noble motives, he argued that Hitler should have been resisted over Czechoslovakia and that efforts should have been made to involve the Soviet Union.
In his postwar memoirs, Churchill, an opponent of appeasement, lumped Poland and Hungary, both of which subsequently annexed parts of Czechoslovakia containing Poles and Hungarians, with Germany as “vultures upon the carcass of Czechoslovakia”.
The American historian William L. Shirer, in his The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), took the view that although Hitler was not bluffing about his intention to invade, Czechoslovakia could have offered significant resistance. Shirer believed that Britain and France had enough air defenses to avoid serious bombing of London and Paris and could have pursued a rapid and successful war against Germany. He quotes Churchill as saying the agreement meant that “Britain and France were in a much worse position compared to Hitler’s Germany.” After Hitler personally inspected the Czech fortifications, he privately said to Joseph Goebbels that “we would have shed a lot of blood” and that it was fortunate that there had been no fighting.
During the Second World War, British Prime Minister Churchill, who opposed the agreement when it was signed, became determined that the terms of the agreement would not be upheld after the war and that the Sudeten territories should be returned to postwar Czechoslovakia. On 5 August 1942, Foreign Minister Anthony Eden sent the following note to Jan Masaryk,
In the light of recent exchanges of view between our Governments, I think it may be useful for me to make the following statement about the attitude of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom as regards Czecho-Slovakia.
In my letter of the 18th July, 1941, I informed your Excellency that the King had decided to accredit an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Dr. Beneš as President of the Czecho-Slovak Republic. I explained that this decision implied that His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom regarded the juridical position of the President and Government of the Czecho-Slovak Republic as identical with that of the other Allied heads of States and Governments established in this country. The status of His Majesty’s representative has recently been raised to that of an Ambassador.
The Prime Minister had already stated in a message broadcast to the Czecho-Slovak people on the 30th September, 1940, the attitude of His Majesty’s Government in regard to the arrangements reached at Munich in 1938. Mr. Churchill then said that the Munich Agreement had been destroyed by the Germans. This statement was formally communicated to Dr. Beneš on the 11th November, 1940.
The foregoing statement and formal act of recognition have guided the policy of His Majesty’s Government in regard to Czecho-Slovakia, but in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I desire to declare on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that as Germany has deliberately destroyed the arrangements concerning Czecho-Slovakia reached in 1938, in which His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom participated, His Majesty’s Government regard themselves as free from any engagements in this respect. At the final settlement of the Czecho-Slovak frontiers to be reached at the end of the war they will not be influenced by any changes effected in and since 1938.
To which Masaryk replied as follows:
I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the 5th August, 1942, and I avail myself of this opportunity to convey to your Excellency, on behalf of the Czecho-Slovak Government and of myself, as well as in the name of the whole Czecho-Slovak people who are at present suffering so terribly under the Nazi yoke, the expression of our warmest thanks.
Your Excellency’s note emphasizes the fact that the formal act of recognition has guided the policy of His Majesty’s Government in regard to Czecho-Slovakia, but, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, His Majesty’s Government now desire to declare that, as Germany has deliberately destroyed the arrangements concerning Czecho-Slovakia reached in 1938, in which His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom participated, His Majesty’s Government regard themselves as free from any engagements in this respect. At the final settlement of the Czecho-Slovak frontiers to be reached at the end of the war, they will not be influenced by any changes effected in and since 1938.
My Government accept your Excellency’s note as a practical solution of the questions and difficulties of vital importance for Czecho-Slovakia which emerged between our two countries as the consequence of the Munich Agreement, maintaining, of course, our political and juridical position with regard to the Munich Agreement and the events which followed it as expressed in the note of the Czecho-Slovak Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the 16th December, 1941. We consider your important note of the 5th August, 1942, as a highly significant act of justice towards Czecho-Slovakia, and we assure you of our real satisfaction and of our profound gratitude to your great country and nation. Between our two countries the Munich Agreement can now be considered as dead.
In September 1942 the French National Committee, headed by Charles de Gaulle, proclaimed the Munich Agreement to be null and void from the very beginning, and on 17 August 1944, the French government reaffirmed this. After Mussolini’s fascist leadership had been replaced, the Italian Government followed suit and did the same.
Following Allied victory and the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Sudetenland was returned to Czechoslovakia, while the German speaking majority was expelled.
“Ghost of Munich”
In the United States and the United Kingdom, the words “Munich” and “appeasement” are frequently invoked when demanding forthright, often military, action to resolve an international crisis and characterizing a political opponent who condemns negotiation as weakness. In 1950, US President Harry Truman invoked “Munich” to justify his military action in the Korean War: “The world learned from Munich that security cannot be bought by appeasement”. Many later crises has been accompanied by cries of “Munich” from politicians and the media. In 1960, the conservative US Senator Barry Goldwater used “Munich” to describe a domestic political issue by saying that an attempt by the Republican Party to appeal to liberals was “the Munich of the Republican Party”. In 1962, General Curtis LeMay told US President John F. Kennedy that his refusal to bomb Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis was “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” a pointed barb given that his father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. had supported appeasement in general in his capacity as Ambassador to Britain. In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson, in justifying increased military action in Vietnam, stated, “We learned from Hitler and Munich that success only feeds the appetite for aggression”.
Citing Munich in debates on foreign policy has continued to be common in the 21st century. During negotiations for the Iran nuclear agreement mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry, Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican Representative, tweeted the message “Worse than Munich”. Kerry had himself invoked Munich in a speech in France advocating military action in Syria by saying, “This is our Munich moment”.
“Munich and appeasement”, in the words of scholars Frederik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “have become among the dirtiest words in American politics, synonymous with naivete and weakness, and signifying a craven willingness to barter away the nation’s vital interests for empty promises”. They claimed that the success of US foreign policy often depends upon a president withstanding “the inevitable charges of appeasement that accompany any decision to negotiate with hostile powers”. The presidents who challenged the “tyranny of Munich” have often achieved policy breakthroughs and those who had cited Munich as a principle of US foreign policy had often led the nation into its “most enduring tragedies”.
The West German policy of staying neutral in the Arab–Israeli conflict after the Munich massacre and the following hijack of the Lufthansa Flight 615 in 1972, rather than taking a pro-Israel position, led to Israeli comparisons with the Munich Agreement of appeasement.
destination-munich.com, “Munich Agreement 1938.”; cnsnews.com, “We Must Now Learn the Lesson of 1914, Not the Lesson of 1938.” By Ryan McMaken; thoughtco.com, “World War II: Munich Agreement: How Appeasement Failed to Deter World War II.” ; en.wikipedia, ” Munich Agreement.” By Wikipedia Editors;
How We Sold Our Soul Postings