By Niall McArdle
In the early hours of September 30th, 1938, four men stood in a hotel in Munich and signed a piece of paper that changed the course of European history and set the continent on the inevitable road to war. The Munich Pact between Italy, Germany, France and Britain was hailed at the time by most as bringing “peace with honour”, but within a short time it was clear that honour had little to do with it and it would bring no peace.
The agreement sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s avarice in the name of a larger peace. What is remarkable is not that Germany’s demands were met so impassively by Britain and France (both anxious to avoid war), but that by the time that Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Edouard Daladier signed it, Hitler did not even have to pretend that he had any other agenda than the complete destruction of Czechoslovakia. In May of that year Germany had “embraced” Austria in the Anchsluss under the pretext that the destinies of Germans living outside Germany were to be allied with those living in the Reich. It was clear that Czechoslovakia would be next as three million Germans lived in the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the western Czechoslovakia.
The tragedy of how Czechoslovakia was betrayed by the West is that, in spite of the fact that it was a healthy, prosperous democracy that by all accounts treated its ethnic minorities quite fairly (fairer, certainly, than minorities elsewhere), in 1938 it was still a teenager, and like children not allowed to eat at the grown-ups table, the Czechs weren’t even included in the talks.
Czechoslovakia had been created in Paris in 1919 when the world’s powers were sorting out the mess of Europe after World War One. Prior to that it had been a Hapsburg stronghold and a melange of Bohemian fiefdoms. Now, all but surrounded by enemies, the republic stood in danger of partition. Though Czechs were the majority population, there were large numbers of Germans, Hungarians and Russians, to say nothing of the Slovaks, all of whom felt stronger ties to their “mother countries” than to Prague.
Czechoslovakia’s President, Edvard Beneš – Churchill always referred to him as “Herr Beans” – had been one of the country’s founders at Versailles. He was by nature an optimist. He said as much in early 1938 in an interview with George Gedye, in which he added
“You asked me, would the Hungarians move against us? What would we do if the Hapsburgs were restored? Where would we stand when the Little Entente collapsed? How could we go on if France dropped us? How could we face a German invasion? And each time I told you ‘Rest assured – nothing will happen.’ And I tell you again today, when the world’s press is uttering jeremiads again about Czechoslovakia, the same thing that I have told you before – nothing will happen.”
He believed that, as did many others, because France and Britain had declared themselves as allies of Czechoslovakia. Now he could only look on helplessly as they capitulated to German ambition. How could this happen? How could they not see what was obvious?
The occupation of Czechoslovakia had been in the offing for years. As early as 1933, when Hitler became Reich-Chancellor, the Sudeten Germans formed their own politcal party; by 1935 it was being funded by Berlin, and Hitler himself ordered that “demands should be made by the Sudeten German Party that are unacceptable to the Czech government”, fomenting internal political strife.
By 1938 Britain and France were opposing – on paper and in speeches at least – Germany’s increasingly martial chanting. At each turn, however, Germany’s ambassadors would smoothly explain that the Reich had no plans for war, that Germany was only interested in protecting her own interests, and that no German wished for a repeat of the bloodshed and carnage of 1914-18. Viewed from our standpoint 75 years later it seems almost impossible that anybody could have been fooled by this. Hitler was massing troops on the Czech border, ostensibly for training, and was giving rousing speeches to thousands at Nuremberg about how he wanted to reclaim Sudeten Germans for Germany’s sake. Goering denounced the Czechs as a “pygmy race” conspiring with Jews and Soviets. Nazi propaganda produced tales of Czechs attacking Germans, and headlines like “Women and Children Mown Down by Czech Armoured Cars” began appearing in Berlin newspapers.
In spite of all that, most leaders wished to believe the best of Hitler, just as several years earlier the League of Nations had acquiesced to Mussolini’s ridiculous claim to Abyssinia. Like Il Duce, Hitler was never more frightening than when he appeared normal. Upon meeting him, Neville Chamberlain wrote “he looked entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd.” It was Chamberlain’s naïvete, of course, that would prove his own downfall and seal Czechoslovakia’s fate.
Chamberlain, perhaps the least effective Prime Minister that Britain ever had, was hoodwinked by Hitler, and Czechoslovakia paid the price for his bumbling.
It is a wonder that Chamberlain ever became Prime Minister. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he fussed over pounds, shillings and pence like a bank clerk. Indeed there was something of the bank clerk about both his appearance and manner.
He had been a Birmingham businessman for most of his career and only entered politics aged fifty, and his leadership style was that of a company director, hardly the sort to deal with Hitler. His own father, the great Joseph Chamberlain, thought that “good old Neville” was unsuitable for politics. Lloyd George felt that his vision was worse than that of “a provincial manufacturer of bedsteads.” Churchill said he looked at foreign policy “through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe.” The French christened him Monsieur J’aime Berlin.
Chamberlain’s view of Hitler was rooted in what became known as “colonial appeasement”; return to Germany the colonies she had lost after Versailles, it was felt, and Germany would be content, and peace would reign on the Continent. It is shocking how popular this view was, and the verve with which British politicians and intellectuals sold it to the public. Limits imposed on Germany “twenty years ago” were now simply out of date, wrote R.W. Seton-Watson, and “the convenient thesis of Germany’s unfitness to administer colonies is as untrue as it is insulting, and should be recanted.”
Astonishingly, Chamberlain even offered Hitler colonies which were never German to begin with, including several African territories such Angola (Portuguese) and the Congo (Belgian). Hitler wondered aloud what would happen if Portugal or Belgium objected to such a handover. Chamberlain presumed they would “in the end cooperate in the settlement,” to keep the peace.
Chamberlain was determined to “save the peace” in Europe at any cost. He instituted “Plan Z”: he would fly to Germany at short notice and surprise Hitler, so that the two men could sit down and talk matters over. On September 13th he cabled der Fuhrer “I propose to come over at once to see you with a view to trying to find a peaceful solution.” Chamberlain’s cable, eager to please, exhibited, as Churchill’s biographer William Manchester wryly noted, “the sort of mood that sales clerks recognise in the customer who has decided to buy even before entering the store, and to pay any price.”
Manchester also wrote of Chamberlain’s world-view and his famous plan: “there is something almost touching about Neville Chamberlain’s faith in his cherished Plan Z, a simple scheme, redolent of those Chatterbox volumes in which the Chamberlain boys, like so many young Victorians of their class, had lost themselves on long Saturday afternoons when there were no playmates and Nanny was busy elsewhere. Pen-and-ink drawings identified the handsome, mesomorphic heroes, the helpless but winning heroines, and the scowling ruffians doomed, in issue after issue, to be foiled in the last paragraph. And how had they been outwitted? By Plan Z! Or Plan X, or Q.”
There followed a series of meetings in Germany – at Berchtesgaden, at Godesberg – between Chamberlain and Hitler, in which Germany asserted its rights over the Sudetenland, but was happy to discuss “whether a peaceful settlement is not possible after all.” Hitler mentioned the “liberation” of the Sudetens and talked of “self-determination”. These are terms that have been used to excuse more than one invasion in history, but Chamberlain believed he was sincere. Hitler assured him he had no designs on the rest of Czechoslovakia, stating he “wanted no Czechs in the Reich.” After the first meeting he returned to London and declared his belief that Hitler would be “rather better than his word.”
Chamberlain’s shuttle diplomacy was watched by an anxious Britain that was on a war-footing (there were rumours of trenches being dug in Hyde Park), but that had faith he could deliver the peace. Nobody knew what the cost would be, but his apparent need to secure peace at the expense of Czechoslovakia’s security had cynical wags joking
If at first you can’t concede
Fly, fly, fly again.
Chamberlain extracted a promise that Hitler would not proceed with any action until Britain had consulted with France, and after Beneš had been included. Hitler had nothing but contempt for the Czech President. The Czechs were excluded from the talks completely; they weren’t even allowed into the room to observe.
The French President Daladier was eager to go along with Chamberlain’s plan, and all of a sudden Prague found itself out in the cold. What followed was the forceful wearing down of a small state to please the bloodthirsty demands of Germany. It was like a bizarre schoolyard fight in which a bully gives a small kid an impossible choice: let me hit you or I’ll stand back and let someone else hit you.
British diplomats in Prague told Beneš that surrendering Sudetenland was the only way to avoid a German invasion, and that the Allies would hold Czechoslovakia responsible for war. Britain would remain neutral; the Anglo-French treaty would be broken; if Britain was neutral, then so would France be. In Washington Franklin Roosevelt was appalled at the plan. He urged a conference of world leaders in neutral territory. He was ignored.
Chamberlain returned to Germany to inform Hitler of the Anglo-French approval of the annexation of the Sudetenland. Hitler then stunned him by saying “that is no longer possible”; he expected Poland and Hungary to move into Czechoslovakia and claim territories, and “peace could not be firmly established until these claims had been settled.” Hitler produced a piece of paper outlining Germany’s demands. Beginning on September 26th, all Czechs had two days to evacuate Sudetenland; any remaining there after that would be shot. German troops would move in “to restore order.”
Horrified, Chamberlain said, “this is an ultimatum!” “Not at all,” Hitler replied, pointing to top of the sheet, “it is headed by the word ‘Memorandum’.” He then offered an immediate concession (Picture a cat toying with a mouse.) He said the Czechs could have until October 1st to evacuate. He also assured Chamberlain that the Sudetenland was his “last territorial demand” (Chamberlain had a young diplomat write that phrase in German so that the two leaders could be clear on what they were discussing.)
Chamberlain believed that he “had personal influence” over Hitler, and believed him when he said “you are the first man for many years who has got any concessions from me.” He urged Beneš to accept Germany’s demands. Beneš refused. Anxious to avoid having Britain embroiled in another war, Chamberlain effectively washed his hands of the matter and declared that the issue was now between Prague and Berlin. Czechoslovakia was now isolated and looking down the gun barrels of Germany, Hungary and Poland. She must capitulate or be torn apart, and nobody would stop it.
The news reached Prague that night, and journalist George Gedye was there. He described “an unforgettable spectacle of a nation stricken down in peacteime, moved with great sorrow and vast anger.” Trust in Beneš was absolute and overwhelming. How the crowd felt about the Allies was a different matter. One man bought all the British newspapers he could find just so he could tear them up and spit on them. Demonstrators carrying the national flag approached Hradschin Palace were met by police; when the police saw the flag “they sprang to attention, saluted, and fraternized with the crowd, allowing it to sweep on and offering no obstacle.”
Another journalist, Vincent Sheean, also witnessed the scene
It seemed as if the population of Prague had merely turned out into the street, stunned and grief-stricken, for lack of anything better to do. The blow was so crushing that the bewildered people could not realize it all at once… Many thousands of people were weeping all through the night. A less belligerent or revolutionary mass demonstration has never taken place, and yet it was reported in the German press as a ‘Red Riot in Prague.’
On September 27th Chamberlain spoke on the BBC to assure Britons that there would be no war over the issue of the Sudetenland, stating “how horrible, fascinating, incredible it is that we should be digging fences and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
After the war it was revealed that in 1938 the German army was not yet ready to fight on multiple fronts; Czechoslovakia had a strong army and the Nazis could probably never have defeated as long as Prague had support from Paris and London. Had Germany forced the Allies into war in October 1938, it’s probable that it would have been over quickly and decisively. What is more, there was an active plot within the German High Command against Hitler waiting to go into effect. It hinged on the Allies committing to support Czechoslovakia.
Beneš was in an impossible position. Prague had until September 28th to accept the “memorandum” that Hitler had presented to Chamberlain. German troops had already crossed the border. Hitler, meanwhile spouted vitriol about fictional Czech attacks on Sudeten villages. Addressing the crowd at Berlin’s Sportsplast, he roared “two men stand arrayed against one another. There is Mr. Benes and here stand I. Now let Mr Benes make his choice.” Hitler made a passing comment about Chamberlain. Chamberlain, deaf to the real meaning of the speech, said he appreciated Hitler’s “references to the efforts I have made to save the peace.” Eager to please as always, and confident he could “make those Czechos sensible,” he wanted to see Hitler again. Mussolini, of all people, arranged one more meeting, and on September 29th German, French and British diplomats met in Munich.
The meeting went on well into the night, and although the French and British delegation hammered and cajoled and offered compromises, Germany budged only on one issue, and not by much. The Czechs now had until October 10th to vacate Sudetenland. The other German demands remained the same. At one o’clock in the morning, Chamberlain and Deladier were finally worn down. A memorandum was drawn up; allegedly by Mussolini, in truth by Goering and others. It was dated for the day before, September 29th. Chamberlain signed it with a flourish. Deladier seemed defeated as he put pen to paper. Hitler was impatient to sign it and leave.
The document dismembered Czechoslovakia. Nobody knew quite how to break it to the Czechs. In an adjoining room, the text was read aloud to them. Daladier reportedly looked at the floor, ashamed of what he had wrought in the name of peace.
In London the news was already in the morning edition of the papers. Novelist E.M. Forster wrote “I knew at once the news was only good in patches. Peace flapped from the posters, and not upon the wings of angels.”
Chamberlain returned to London waving that famous piece of paper. Crowds cheered for him at the airport, shouting “Good Old Neville!” He went first to Buckingham Palace to be congratulated by the King as a man “who, by his patience and determination, has won the lasting gratitude of his fellow-countrymen throughout the Empire.” He waved the Munich Agreement from an upstairs window at No. 10, declaring it “peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”
The Times praised him as a victorious hero, saying “no conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield has been adorned with nobler laurels.” Paris-Soir offered him “a corner of French soil” where he could go trout-fishing (his favourite pastime); “there could be no more fruitful image of peace.” England, the Empire, and most of Europe cried with relief and joy that war had been averted.
Chamberlain would come to rue the words “peace for our time”. He was duped by Hitler, of course, because there was really only one man in Britain who had studied Hitler and knew how he thought, and that was Winston Churchill, and for most of the Thirties, while Hitler ascended to power in Germany, Churchill was lost in the political wilderness. For several years he had warned of the Nazi menace; few wanted to listen. Few heard him anyway; several of his BBC speeches were spiked by Lord Reith, and Fleet Street editors wouldn’t print some of his letters. Sulking on the backbenches, the great bulldog brooded.
On October 3rd, with Britain still singing the praises of Good Old Neville, Churchill rose to address the House of Commons, and promptly spoiled the mood. Amid catcalls and roars of “rude!” and “nonsense”, he said “we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat …the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course … All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies.” Ignoring the din around him, he gave a stern warning. “Do not suppose this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year, unless, by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
By the middle of October Germany had fully occupied the Sudetenland. In March 1939 Hitler invaded Prague.
75 years after the Munich crisis, Chamberlain’s actions are still debated