Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Munich Conference (29–30 September 1938)

Conference held at Munich during 29–30 September 1938 in an effort to avert war among Germany, France, and Britain. In March 1938, German troops had marched into Austria and added it to the Third Reich. German leader Adolf Hitler next demanded that the Sudetenland, the predominantly German part of western Czechoslovakia, also be given to Germany. The Prague government was prepared to make considerable concessions to Hitler regarding the rights of its German minority but not to the extent of national dismemberment.

Hitler applied tremendous economic pressure on the Czechs and, when that did not work, threatened war. Although France had a mutual defense pact with Czechoslovakia, under British pressure Paris asked the Czechs to yield. Hitler's demands were excessive, calling for the immediate transfer of territory with military defenses left in place. London and Paris held his demands unacceptable, and it looked as if there might be war. Moscow announced its support for the Czech position.

With Hitler threatening war, the Western powers had second thoughts and decided to pressure the Czechs to give way. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, chief architect of appeasement, believed that if Hitler's demands were met, there need be no war. French Premier Édouard Daladier was more sanguine than his British counterpart, who had scant experience in foreign affairs, but Daladier came under heavy pressure from London. Public opinion in both France and Britain also held that preservation of Czechoslovakia, a state created by World War I, was not worth war. Both France and Britain were rearming, and military leaders in both nations had an exaggerated sense of German military strength. In these circumstances, Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to one last attempt to avert war, and, repairing to Munich during 29–30 September 1938, they in effect gave Hitler everything he demanded. Although Hitler had promised to guarantee the territorial integrity of what remained of Czechoslovakia, in March 1939 he took over Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech portions of the country, while Slovakia became an independent ally. Hitler thus showed that his most solemn guarantees were worthless and that his aspirations extended beyond ethnic Germans.

Many have argued since that it would have been better to have fought Germany in 1938. The argument that a year's delay bought time for the British to rearm has been proven specious. In fact, the military imbalance facing the West a year later when World War II began was actually worse than at Munich. Substantial Czech military forces and armaments had been lost. Another consequence of Munich was that the Soviet Union had been alienated from the West. Moscow went on to conclude a nonaggression pact with Berlin, making it possible for Hitler to invade Poland in September 1939 and begin World War II.

The Munich Conference led to the Munich Analogy, a belief shared by virtually all Cold War Western leaders that it is a serious error to give way to the demands of dictators and that in fact such concessions only whet their appetites for additional demands, with resulting war at a higher price. In the period of the Cold War, the Munich Conference was often cited by American leaders, who voiced a determination never to see it repeated.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Tucker, Spencer C. The Second World War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.; Wheeler-Bennett, John W. Munich: Prologue to Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1966.
 

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