On September 30, 1938 one of the more controversial events of the interwar period would occur. But first, some background.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 69 - The Munich Agreement Pt. 1 - Background. This week a big thank you goes out to Julie and Scott for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Members only episodes released once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. The Munich Agreement, where four European nations came together to preserve peace at a time when war seemed to be slipping ever closer. The Munich Betrayal, where four European nations cae together to destroy another, not through military force but through diplomatic proclamation. A foolist attempt to negotiate and placate a German dictator who was insatiable in his lust for expansion. A pragmatic negotiation that recognized the weakness of Germany’s enemies, and bought additional time for rearmament. A deft application of foreign policy to protect the peace in Europe that had lasted for 20 years. All of these and many more have been applied to what is most likely the most constroversial single moment of the prewar years. On September 30, 1938 representatives from France, Britain, Germany, and Italy would sign the Munich Agreement. It would be the outcome of a lengthy series of discussions that had occurred over the spring and summer of the year. The primary outcome would be the second expansion of German territory in less than a year, with Czechoslovakia forced to cede certain territories to German control. The path to September 30th was a long one, and it will take us several episodes to get to that point. Today we are going to start by laying some groundwork with discussion of a few important pieces of the Munich Saga: the formation of Czechoslovakia, the Sudeten Germans, and British views on Appeasement. Each of these three pieces would plan an important role over the course of the events that would eventually result in the Munich Agreement.
Like many other nations in Eastern Europe at this time, Czechoslovakia had been created in the aftermath of the First World War. The areas that would make up Czechoslovakia had previously been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two primary ethnic groups in the area, and the two that would drive the creation of the new nation were the Czechs and the Slovaks, but there were many other groups that would be included within its borders. One of the major challenges involved in the creation of not just Czechoslovakia but other nations like Poland and Yugoslavia was exactly where the borders of the new nations should be. It started with the assumption that the Czechs and Slovaks wanted to include as many Czechs and Slovaks as possible, this meant that certain pieces of territory had to be included, the areas that were almost entirely made up of people of those ethnicities. But as the conversations moved away from these areas things became more challenging. The easy answer that would be given at the Paris Peace Conference was that these questions should be handled by the people who lived in the various areas, a simple plebiscite to determine which nation to join. But this was not a magic bullet strategy because it mean that an area could be given to one nation or the other based on the slimmest of majorities. At a generic level this seemed acceptable, but in reality there were many cases where it simply was not, there were local and regional rivalries that sometimes dated back centuries, there were economic and defense considerations, and then there was simply the matter of who controlled what. In the chaos as the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed, several of the successor nations took matters into their own hands, and they grabbed as much territory as they could control. When it came time to certify this territory, those in Paris often found their ability to make drastic changes limited, and instead had to make due with small shifts in borders instead of drastic revision. For Czechoslovakia all of this meant that there were both the core territories that contained a large majority of Czechs and Slovaks, and then there were a host of border territories where other ethnic groups were the majority. In the western half of the nation this ethnic group was Sudeten Germans, in the east it was Ukrainians and in the south it was the Hungarians. There were also smaller areas that contained other groups as well, like the small Polish area in the north which would play an important role in 1939. This multi-ethnic makeup of the nation, especially in those border territories would be critical to later events, but they were included in the nation for a variety of reasons. In many areas there were large Czech and Slovak populations, even if they were a minority, in others there were historical claims that could date back centuries. In the West, and the most important part of this series of episodes, the reason that so much territory was included was based around historic claims and then also giving the government in Prague the ability to defend itself. The terrain in the region was great for defense, and the new nation would take full advantage of this when preparing for a possible conflict with Germany. Overall, Czechoslovakia was one of the big winners of the Eastern European shuffle, as they had taken control of what had been very valuable Austro-Hungarian territory. The new nation included 70 to 80 percent of all the industry of the former empire, and was instantly the 10th largest economy in the world. Almost 20 years later the nation was much the same, which was somewhat remarkable given the events in other nations. Most surprisingly Czechoslovakia was still a democracy, which is unique because many of the other nations around it had shifted into some form of Authoritarianism or military dictatorship. Political stability with a growing problem though. The Czech’s, who made up the majority of the population, were quite happy, but many of the minority ethnictiies, including the Germans, Hungarians, and even the Slovaks were becoming less than thrilled about the arrangement inside the nation. This growing agitation was particulary powerful in areas where neighboring countries existed that matched that ethnicities, so the Hungarians and Hungary, the Germans and Germany, or the Poles and Poland.
One of those ethnic minorities were the Germans that lived in the Sudetenland, an areas that occupied the far western areas of Czechoslovakia, and kind of warpped around the country from the north to the south. Before the First World War this area had been a very properous one, and within the Empire the Sudeten Germans had enjoyed a lot of influence. Even after the war relations between the Sudeten Germans and the Czech government had not immediately soured. The Sudetenland was a heavily industrialized area, and in the years of economic recovery during the 1920s things went well, but then the Great Depression hit, and it hit the Sudetenland very hard. Industry in the area declined at a far faster rate than elsewhere in the country, mostly due to the fact that the industries that had been very heavily represented in the Sudetenland were consumer industries, which were the hardest hit by the economic decline. By 1933 unemployment was over 25 percent, and almost two thirds of all unemployed people in Czechoslovakia were ethnic Germans. In the years after 1933 economic hardship continued, there were social welfare programs available, but just like in so many other nations these were totally overwhelmed by events, resulting in the help that could be provided sill leaving recipients in poverty. This hardship resulted in discontent. For the Sudeten Germans there was this discontent was exacerbated by the fact that they lived sometimes just miles away from Germany, where Hitler would take power in 1933 and then it would appear tha tthe German economy was beginning to revive at a faster rate than that of Czechoslovakia. The difference between the two economies would then accelerate as Germany entered serious rearmament in the mid-1930s.
These feelings would lead to the creation of the Sudetendeutsche Partei, or Sudeten German Party, which was founded in 1933 under the leadership of Konrad Henlein. The party would tape into a common feeling among Sudeten Germans that they were being repressed by the government. To just clearly address this up front, it was mostly untrue, and while the Sudeten Germans were a minority within Czechoslovakia, they were not oppressed in any meaningful way, and they would be treated as good as any group in Eastern Europe. However, the persecution complex was a way for the Sudeten German Party to gain power, and it would do so very quickly. Another great boost to party support came from Germany, where money was given to the Sudeten German Party on a monthly basis in the form of a 15,000 per month stipend, and then for major events like the elections in 1935 they were given an additional lump sum of 330,000 reichmarks. This helped the party to seem far more popular and properous that it actually was. For the elections Henlein took the approach of abstaining from being a candidate himself, instead taking notes from Hitler’s leadersihp of the Nazi party before 1933 and just focusing on being the party leader. Another similarity was the personal oath of loytal to Henlein that all Sudeten German Party members that were elected to the government had to swear before they could take up their positions. Over the years Henlein would visit Germany, and have personal meetings with Hitler, several times. All of these visits were to coordinate strategy, with Hitler providing Henlein with directions and Henlein expected to follow them. As Henlein himself would later summarize, the general thrust of these orders were “We must always demand so much, that we can never be satisfied.” In 1936 the first set of deamdns would be made on the government in Prauge. The demands were for greater territorial autonomy, the right of Sudeten Germans to consider themselves part of Germany, and then a new round of elections. These were the baseline, and over the next two years they would just escalate. While Henlein was making these demands, back in Germany Hitler was already planning for large changes in the region. By June 1937 the German Military was hard at work on Case Green, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Hitler was looking for a full take over of the territoy, but the role of the Sudeten German Party was still critical in the short term because it would help to destablize the critical border regions.
When the Anschluss occurred tensions in Czechoslovakia almost instantly escalated. The German absorbtion of Austria had introduced a long new shared border to Czechoslovakia’s south, and this made the wester reagion of the nation even more conspicuously placed within Germany. This made the threat of invasion even more severe, just from the fact that it would also be launched from the south. Meanwhile Henlein and his party were also in the process of escalating. In March 1938 Henlein was told to move is demands again, and this time so much that they would be completely unacceptable to Prague. This message was delivered to Henlein in Berlin where he met with Hitler, Ribbentrop, and Rudolf Hess. Along with the simple idea of escalation, the new demands were formulated to be more broad and open to interpretation. This would allow Henlein to constantly shift their meaning and ensure that they were never really satisfied. These would be presented to the government on April 24, 1938 in what would be known as the Carlsbad Program. One of the demadns was simply full autonomy for the Sudetenland region, and while the government in Prague would entertain discussions about greater minority rights, full autonomy was off the table. What the Czechoslovakian government was willing to agree to represented real and meaningful compromises, but Henlein took a hard line and any compromises were simply seen as unacceptable. By September 1938, during which most of the following episdoes will take place, the situation was almost out of control. On September 13th the government would declare martial law in several areas of the Sudetenland after the Sudeten German Party shifted to loudly and publicly agitating to join Germany. The party was then for a period of time outlawed, before this was reversed under pressure from the Western Nations. We will certainly dive back into all of those events in further episodes, but I also wanted to mention that one of the major problems that the Sudeten German Party placed on the government in Prague was not just their demands, but the problems it caused elsewhere. If the Germans were given greater autonomy, then there was a whole list of other minorities that were going to want the same thing. If they were allowed to join Germany, then there was a similarly long list of border regions that would demand the same. The eventual outcome, at least Prague feared, was the simply destruction of Czechoslovakia as a nation.
While events in Czechoslovakia were an important driver of events, the people in Czechoslovakia and their political leaders would not play an important role in the discussions that led to the Munich agreement. Instead the agreement would be presented to them as an ultimatum after the agreements had already been made by the British, German, French, and Italian governments. An important part of those discussions was a very controversial term: appeasement. The appeasement movement would be criticized at the time, but that criticism would be massively amplified by the fact that the war started less than a year after the great act of appeasement, the Munich agreement itself. Criticism of appeasement exists on a spectrum, at its worst critics of appeasement claim that it helped cause the war, while on the other end is the argument that whose who believed in appeasement were just idiots. Further conversation on the outcomes of appeasement are probably better left until the end of this series, but it is a very well covered topic, and you can still find books being published on it to this very day. The roots of the appeasement movement, especially in Britain where it would find some of its strongest support, can be found in the peace movements of the 1920s and 1930s. After the creation of the League of Nations there were large groups in Britain and other nations that saw the League as a path to a world without war. This would force the British government to participate in disarmament conferences and other events, even if it was very unlikely that such events would result in any real outcome. Along with the powerful support for British to lead the drive for continued peace, there was also the simple fact that when it came to Eastern Europe the British government believed in a general lack of involvement. It is too reductive to say that they did not care, but given the very tenuous economic and political relations with Eastern Europe, events in the region were far less of a concern than several other areas around the globe. For many in the governmen the most important thing was that the Western Powers, including Germany, were in agreement about what was happening in the region, the specifics of what that was were negotiable. Or as British Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon would say in 1934 “Our own policy is quite clear. We must keep out of trouble in Central Europe at all costs. July 20 years ago stands as an awful warning.” If anything, the increased power of the Nazi party in Germany, and this its shift towards expansionist rhetoric merely caused the British greater concerned not that it should be resisted, but that the British was at danger of being drawn into a European conflict. There was strong support for almost any border revision in the area if it averted a wider war. It was not certain that such revision would lead to a future war, and government after government of British leaders believed that revision might actually help avoid further war. And this policy would have effects far beyond just border revision, British led alterations to the Versailles agreements, caution in the face of the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and other changes were all part of the idea that it was better to make small changes to the European landscape if it avoided war. In hindsight we know that this policy would not work, and in fact most of British actions over the year after Munich involve the British political landscape trying to come to terms with that fact, but it was not destined to fail from the start.
If anything, British efforts can at times be viewed as a simple misunderstanding of how politics had changed over the previous decades. Nowever is this better exemplified than in the multiple conversations that would occur between Britain and Germany about colonies. Starting in the late 1920s there was the basic assumption in London that the German government wanted to revise some of the changes made to their colonies back in the Versailles treaty. In that treaty all German overseas possessions had been removed from its control and portioned out to several different countries. This has always felt like a very 1800s kind of view of how to handle European political disputes, do you have a disagreement in Europe? Would a few hundred thousand square kilometers somewhere in Africa made you happy?. There was some basis for this view, at least before Hitler took power, and there were active discussions about providing Germany with and Mandate much like what the British and French had in the Middle East. These possibilities dried up until 1938, when they were again presented to Hitler, who basically just dismissed them out of hand, a huge blow to the British who were more than willing to give over colonies to preserve peace. It should also be said that such beliefs and actions were also probably outdated when it came to the colonies themselves, or as Sir George Gater, Permanent under-secretary at the Colonial office in 1943: “Out of fear of Germany, we were prepared to hand over large tracts of colonial empire to Germany without consuling the wishes of the inhabitants…playing straight into the hands of those sections of the colonies that wish to throw off Downing Street control.”
If appeasement is villified as a concept, it is personified by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain would occupy the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer after 1931, and would retain the office until May 1937. During that time he would be an important participant in the early stages of British rearmament before taking the position of Prime Minister. Chamberlain felt that his focus had to be on Foreign Policy, and especially after the resignation of Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in February 1938 Chamberlain exerted great personal influence on foreign affairs. Here is a quote from ‘Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler by Adrian Phillips’ “Chamberlain’s positive approach to policy was the hallmark of his diplomacy. He wanted to take the initiative at every turn, most famously in his decision to fly to see Hitler at the height of the Sudeten crisis. Often his initiatives rested on quite false analyses; quite often the dictators pre-empted him. But Chamberlain was determined that no opportunity for him to do good should be allowed to escape.” This very personal and very proactive method of conducting foreign policy was not really how things were done at this time, and instead things were often done slowly and consensus was built before people like Prime Ministers even got involved. Chamberlain had many strengths, but when it came to negotiations, espeically with men like Hitler, he had one very important shortcoming: he believed people when they said they would do something. We will discuss several meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler over the coming episodes, and in each of them Chamberlain believed that he had built a reltionship with the German dictator. The famous ‘peace for our time’ moment was based on a joint declaration between Hitler and Chamberlain that the two nations would never go to war. This optimistic assumption of words meaning things, could not have met a worse person to apply them to in Adolf Hitler. Hitler could be erratic but one of his most consistent behaviors for the entirety of the 1930s was to say whatever needed to be said to get to an agreement, and then change that agreement at the first opportunity. Chamberlain, in his search for peace, would fall into this trap, of coming to an agreement time and time again, only for the terms to be changed at the next meeting. Even the most impactufl of these agreements, the Munich Agreement that we will continue our discussion of for the next 7 to 8 episodes would last for a grand total of 166 days before the full German invasion of what was left of Czechoslovakia. Was it naivety? blind optimism? the complete inability to read personal interactions? those are some of the questions that we will need to answer, starting next episode.