The Czech government in Prague was not particularly concerned. Unlike Austria, the Czechs had strong military and defensive alliances with France and the Soviet Union. The Sudetenland was an industrial area and hurt by the world economic depression, which only worsened discontent created by the sense that the Czech government discriminated against its German citizens. A Nazi movement emerged in the Sudetenland, and its leader, Konrad Henlein, met with Hitler in late March 1938 and called for immediate justice for his people. The Führer, well aware of Czech advantages, preferred what he called a more "evolutionary" arrangement.
Nonetheless, only a month later, Henlein made a speech at Karlsbad demanding autonomy and other concessions for the Sudetenland. Disturbances and clashes between German Czechs and the police followed. The French government openly said that France would fight if Germany intervened. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had previously warned that such a conflict would draw in other nations. Chamberlain did not, however, believe that the Czech situation justified war. He questioned the viability of an artificial multinational state created only as a consequence of World War I. He convinced French Premier Édouard Daladier to join in pressing Prague to make a deal, while at the same time hinting to Berlin that intervention could lead to war.
Czech President Eduard Benes offered a conciliatory approach to meeting the Sudeten German demands, and on 18 May, there were talks between representatives of the Sudeten Germans and the Czech government. The next day, however, reports of German troop movements caused widespread confusion. Over the next few days, Prague ordered partial mobilization, Sudeten Germans clashed with police, and France and Britain warned Germany about intervention. Hitler, outraged by press implications that he had been forced to back down, told German military leaders on 28 May that he would finish with the Czechs by 1 October.
With tension growing, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet told Chamberlain that he was prepared to force concessions from Prague, although officially, France stood by its commitments to defend Czechoslovakia. For his part, Chamberlain was more than ever determined to avoid war, though he remained committed to supporting France. Chamberlain then received Czech permission to send Lord Runciman as mediator, while continuing to warn Hitler of the threat of war. Runciman had about six weeks until Nazi Party meetings in the second week of September, where Hitler was expected to publicly demand concessions. Bonnet assured Chamberlain that if Runciman's efforts led to a British proposal, Paris would support it, and Prague could go along or stand alone. On 4 September, Runciman informed Benes that the Czechs would have to accept Henlein's Karlsbad points, and two days later, Benes yielded. Then talks broke down because of reports that Czech police had abused a Sudeten official.
On 12 September, Hitler spoke in Nuremberg, demanding redress for the Sudetenland but suggesting no specific remedy. Riots followed immediately thereafter in the Sudetenland, raising the specter of insurrection, which the Germans had long said would provoke their intervention.
On 13 September, Chamberlain requested a meeting with Hitler, which took place three days later at Berchtesgaden; Chamberlain made his first flight in an aircraft to attend. Hitler posed as a moderate, calling only for self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. Although he could secure no specifics, Chamberlain decided that annexation of areas with populations that were 50 percent or more German would satisfy the Führer. Hitler then agreed not to act unless there was a major incident, and Chamberlain returned to London to consult colleagues and allies. Once the French agreed to the 50 percent plan, Benes was told to accept it or face German invasion.
On 22 September, Chamberlain again met Hitler, this time at Godesberg, only to find that the Führer now had upped the ante. He had a map showing areas Germany would occupy by 1 October, and he demanded that all Czech officials be withdrawn from them by that date and that all military, economic, or traffic establishments be removed. The Sudeten Free Corps was already occupying towns. Chamberlain then balked, asserting that this was neither self-determination nor what had been agreed on. London and Paris reluctantly decided to withdraw their advice to Prague not to mobilize, and the Godesberg Conference ended on 24 September. War seemed inevitable.
Over the next few days, the British and French looked for a solution. Although they continued to warn Hitler in rather vague terms, they also made clear to Benes that the only way to avoid a German attack was to accept the German demands. Hitler continued to insist on concessions. It thus appeared that he might have to carry out his threat to use force and that a general European war might result.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt then made a direct appeal to Hitler, urging an international conference. On 28 September, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini talked to Hitler and secured his agreement for such a meeting. Perhaps Hitler's acceptance was prompted, in part, by the unenthusiastic reception Berliners accorded to a German motorized division moving through Berlin on 27 September, which left the German leader in a rage.
Chamberlain, Daladier, and Mussolini met with Hitler in Munich on 29 September. The USSR was not invited, and Czechoslovakia itself was not officially represented; this was because the object was to give Hitler the Sudetenland and avoid war. At Munich, Hitler was on his worst behavior, treating Chamberlain in the most brusque and peremptory fashion. After the conference, Hitler vowed to his confidants that he would never again be cheated out of a military victory and that he would attack and destroy the British and the French. This astonishing reaction to his diplomatic triumph showed clearly that Hitler sought war.
The Munich Agreement, dated 30 September but actually signed just after midnight on 1 October, gave Hitler everything he demanded: evacuation would take place between 1 and 10 October under conditions arranged by an international commission, which would also determine plebiscite areas. Early on the morning of 1 October 1938, German troops marched across the frontier, and two days later, Hitler made a triumphal entry into Eger, the unofficial capital of the Sudeten Germans. Other nations of central Europe also joined in the division of Czechoslovakia. Poland demanded and received some 400 square miles around Teschen with roughly 240,000 people, only 100,000 of whom were Poles, and in November, Hungary annexed some 4,800 square miles of Czechoslovakia with a population of about 1 million people.
Seen in retrospect—and psychological and morale factors notwithstanding—the West, unprepared as it was, would have been better off fighting in September 1938 rather than capitulating at Munich. Britain and France might have secured as allies the Soviet Union and Poland, but even discounting them, the German army would have been forced to fight on two fronts: against both France and Britain and against Czechoslovakia. Despite Hitler's boasts, Germany was unprepared for war in September 1938. The Luftwaffe possessed 1,230 first-line aircraft, including 600 bombers and 400 fighters, but nearly half of them were earmarked for use in the East, leaving the remainder too thinly stretched to counter any serious aerial offensive by the French Air Force and the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Luftwaffe also suffered from deficiencies, including a shortage of bombs. On the ground, Germany had only five fighting divisions and seven reserve divisions available to stand against eight times that number of French divisions.
Of course, the Western democracies were also weak militarily. Britain's rearmament program had begun only in 1937. France had many more artillery pieces than Germany, but it was deficient in aircraft, with only 250 first-quality fighters and 350 bombers of perhaps 1,375 front-line aircraft. If the Allies had fought Germany in 1938, however, they could have counted on 35 well-armed and well-equipped Czech divisions, supported by substantial numbers of artillery pieces and tanks and perhaps 1,600 mixed-vintage aircraft.
Those responsible for the Munich debacle later claimed that it bought time for the Western democracies to rearm. Winston Churchill noted in his memoirs that British fighter squadrons equipped with modern aircraft rose from only 5 in September 1938 to 26 by July 1939 (and 47 by July 1940), but he also observed: "The year's breathing space said to be Ôgained' by Munich left Britain and France in a much worse position compared to Hitler's Germany than they had been at the Munich crisis."
The Munich Conference had far-reaching international influence. Chamberlain and Daladier were warmly received by welcoming crowds when they returned home, especially the British prime minister when he reported that he believed he had achieved "peace in our time." The Munich Agreement, however, effectively ended the French security system. Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia now all doubted French commitments to defend them, and Stalin was further alienated from the West. He told associates that Chamberlain and Daladier had given in to Hitler in order to facilitate Germany's Drang nach Osten (drive to the east) and bring about a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. For the German Resistance, Munich was also a disaster. Even the most diehard of plotters realized that the opportunity to eliminate Hitler had vanished.
Despite Hitler's pledges that the Sudetenland was his last territorial demand in Europe, events soon proved the opposite. The very day after Munich, Hitler told his aides that he would annex what remained of Czechoslovakia at the first opportunity. Within a few months, he took advantage of the internal situation in that country. In March 1939, he supported the leader of the Slovak Popular Party, Jozef Tiso, who sought complete independence for Slovakia. On 14 March, Slovakia and Ruthenia declared their independence from the rest of Czechoslovakia. That very day, Hitler summoned Czech President Emil Hácha to Berlin. One day later, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring threatened the immediate destruction of Prague unless Moravia and Bohemia were made Reich protectorates. Hácha fainted. When he was revived, he signed a communiqué placing "the fate of the Czech people and country in the hands of the Führer of the German Reich." On 15 March, Nazi troops occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia. The Czech lands became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia became a vassal state of the Reich, with little more independence than Bohemia-Moravia. Fred R. van Hartesveldt and Spencer C. Tucker
Middlemas, Keith. The Strategy of Appeasement. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.; Noguères, Henri. Munich: The Phoney Peace. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963.; Taylor, Telford. Munich: The Price of Peace. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.; Thompson, Laurence. The Greatest Treason: The Untold Story of Munich. New York: William Morrow, 1968.; Wheeler-Bennett, John. Munich: Prologue to Tragedy. New York: Duell, Sloane and Pearce, 1948.
Fred R. van Hartesveldt and Spencer C. Tucker