In May 1938 a rumor would begin circulating, based on intelligence gathered by Czechoslovak and British sources, that Germany was about to launch an invasion.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 70 - The Munich Agreement Part 2 - The May Crisis. This week a massive thank you goes out to Colin for the donation and to Russell, Daniel, Jesse, Soren, Jacob, and Brian for their support on Patreon. You can find out more over on historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Last episode we discussed some of the background items to the events in Czechoslovakia during 1938. This week we are going to discuss the first major crisis involving thenation, which occurred in May 1938. During the spring of 1938 there was a lot of tension around Germany and its neighboring nations thanks to the Anschluss which had occurred in March. At the same time the efforts of the Sudeten German Pary had been esclated with Henlein heading to Berlin on March 28th to meet with Hitler. It would be this meeting Henlein would summarize by saying that they would have to “demand so much we can never be satisfied”. On April 24th the Karlsbad program of 8 demands would be officially made to the government in Prague, this was the round of demands that insisted on full autonomy for the German dominated regions of Western Czechoslovakia. All of this was done with the agreement of the German foreign ministry, and Hitler of course, but there were far larger plans for Czechoslovakia circulating around the German military and political leadership.
For several years the German military had been working on a plan for a surprise invasion of Czechoslovakia, codenamed Case Green. On April 21st, General Keitel, the Chief of the High Command of the German Armed Forces would meet with Hitler to discuss Case Green. The idea of invading the country had been previously discussed by Hitler, but he wanted planning to be accelerated so that an invasion could be launched at a point in the near future. This would result in a month long planning frenzy whereby Keitel and his staff would work their way through more detailed planning for the operation given the information they had about their own strength and that of the Czechoslovak military. One of the goals of the operation was to move as quickly as possible with the invasion once it began, in the hopes of deterring other nations from entering the conflict. The target speed was to complete the invasion and be in control of the entire country in just a few days, and before Britain, France, or Russia, could really react. The final plan would be delived to Hitler on May 20th, with the plan delivered to his residence in Obersalzberg. Hitler would later sign the new and updated version of Case Green on May 30th including adding the paragraph at the beginning that read “It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future. It is the business of the political leadership to await or bring about the suitable moment from a political and military point of view. An unavoidable development of events within Czechoslovakia, or other political events in Europe providing a suddenly favourable opportunity which may never recur, may cause me to take early action.” Details of the plan had not been shared in great detail with other German military leaders, with Keitel telling Hitler that it would not be discussed until the details had been approved by Hitler. Part of this was due to just wanting to delay conversations due to concerns about the reaction of some German generals if it appeared that Germany was about to launch itself into an offensive war in the near future. No person would better verbalize their concerns about this than General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Army General Staff. While Beck had not been officially shown the new contents of Case Green, eh knew what was being worked on. He believed that any action against Czechoslovakia would result in a wider European war, just like what had happened in 1914. He did not think there was any chance that France and Britain did not enter into a conflict to defend Czechoslovakia and therefore he strongly belived that Germany, at least in 1938, had no chance of winning such a war because they would be at an insurmountable economic disadvantage. He would even go so far as to claim that Germany was in a position that was not just worse than in 1914, but even worse than in 1917 and 1918 when the war had turned decisively against Germany. While Beck’s views would not alter the course of German planning in early May, Beck would continue to have a major influence on the discussions that were occurring in German High Command over the following months.
While Beck was convinced that Britain would come into the war against Germany, in London the discussions of what Britain was going to do were also being had. The Foreign Policy Committee met on March 18th to discuss what was the best path of action. There were several that could be pursued: attemping to create a kind of Grand Alliance with France, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and others; announcing some kind of guarantee of Czechoslovakian territory, similarly to what would later be given to Poland; or the final option which was of a different nature entirely and instead would be to put pressure on Czechoslovakia to come to some kind of agreement with Germany under the best terms that could be obtained. At this time this final option seemed to far less risky, and they could count on the support of the French as well, or at least that was the assumption. There would have to be an attempt to reach out to the French, and French Foreign Minister Joseph Paul-Boncour so that he could add his voice to the discussions with Prague to get them to make an effort to come to an agreement with the Sudeten Germans. During this time the decision making of the British government was under the influence of military estimations of German intentions and Germany military abilities. For example on March 22, 1938 a report would be presented to the cabinet directly from the Chiefs of Staff which was imply titled “Military Implications of German Aggression against Czechoslovakia.” Which concluded that in the event of a German invasion “no pressure which this country and its possible allies could exercise would suffice to prevent the defeat of Czechoslovakia.” This would be one of many reasons that the British would push forward with the appeasement approach, and in that approach a critical piece of making it successful was the belief that it was possible that it could be successful, which sounds silly to say but stick with me here. Basically it could only work under the assumption that it could result in an outcome acceptable to the Germans and to Hitler. This belief was key, and it would have two major supporters in the form of British Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Premier Daladier, because they both subscribed to the belief that all Hitler wanted was to ensure that Germans with Czechoslovakia were treated well. This of course required some very selective reading of Hitler’s previous statements, and would prove to be greatly incorrect, but it was a position that could be argued at the time. The important part of this for our story is that very important political leaders held the belief that Germany and the Sudeten Germans could be satisified with small shifts in the internal politics of Czechoslovakia. And many politicians who could have argued a different path were not in a position to debate them. This was particularly apparent in London, where in many circles of politics, journalism, and the general public there simply was not a great handle on Central European politics or geogrphy. If you go searching through speeches made in parliament during this time you will see MPs not even using the correct name for Czechoslovakia. This pervasive amount of ignorance to events meant that people like Chamberlain, who was nothing if not very confident, but was also at least semi-knowledgeable about events, and this allowed him to hold serious sway on events. However, I do want to emphasize here that Chamberlain was in no way the sole voice for appeasement, and working with Germany both politically and with German societal norms was not something that was just happening at the highest reaches of politics. This led to situations where in May 1938 the English football, or soccer for us Americans, team, would give the Nazi salute during the German national anthem when they played in Germany. The order to give the salute originated in the Foreign office, but was generally not questioned as it went down the chain to the team.
While the Germans were developing their plans for Case Green, news of the developments of the plans were leaking out first to Czechoslovakia and then to its allies in Western Europe. The conduit for much of this information was Paul Thummel, an officer in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. He had been recruited and became an informant for the Czechs in February 1937, and by 1938 the type of intelligence that was being passed over included high grade, highly secret information. The topics ranged from the Abwehr itself, the actions of Nazi security service, mobilization plans, details of german frontier fortifications, and then also Wehrmacht battle orders, including Case Green. Over the course of late 1937 and early 1938 he would deliver multiple different revisions of Case Green at the same time that they were being created. These were then given to the British through a passport control officer in Prague, who was able to get them sent off to London. In London the information provided made for some worrying reading. There was obviously the background of the general plan of German operations, but in May 1938 it also began to point towards the Germans making actual preparations for the invasion. The invasion would begin with a campaign of violence within Czechoslovakia focused around the elections that would be held on May 22. Explosives and other weapons were to be provided to German agents within the country and then there were plans to move units of the SS and Wehrmacht up to and near the border. They would then move over the border as the sabotage operations got underway. The excuse that would then be used is that they were merely moving in as peacekeepers. As this information was solidified the typical diplomatic actions began, with the British ambassador in London confronting German State Secretary Weizsacker about the reports. Weizsacker claimed ignorance of any such plans, as could be expected, because while there were plans in place both for an invasion and for other supplementary activity, they was nothing planned for May 20th. This did nothing to dispel the fears among the British, French, and Czechs that a war was about to start.
It was due to these concerns that the government in Prague would order a mobilization. This was not a full mobilization of the entire military, but instead a prtial one that called up one year of reservists, which was about 70,000 strong, and then five classes of specialist troops, which added another 114,000, and then 15,000 security forces used to maintain order. Almost of the accounts that we have of these troops point to them having very high morale, and that they were very much ready and willing to fight. The decision to push forward with this step had been amde by the government on May 20th, and their reasoning was defensive in nature. They would move into the border fortifications over the course of the night and into May 21st, and by dawn the next day they were ready and waiting. Their greatest concern was that they did not want to end up like the Austrian government just a few months earlier, where the Germans were able to move in before any real response could be coordinated. While the ordering of the partial mobilization was made for rational reasons, it sent shockwaves around Europe. In Germany, when Hitler was informed he apparently went off into one of his furty filled tirades, meanwhile the German Foreign Office and at embassies all over Europe the German representatives were under almost constant diplomatic pressure to make an official statement that they had no plans of an invasion. In Prague the German embassy started the process of burining all important papers. Everyone was laying the problem at the feet of the Germans, and there was one thing that they were afraid of: a European wide war. The French put pressure on the Germans to clearly and publicly back down, while they also were in constant contact with London. Paul-Boncour woul dask the British Cabinet to make a public declaration that they would stand by France if it went to war for Czechoslovakia, under the idea that this assurance would force the German decision. Then rumors shot between the capitals that the British delegation in Berlin was in the process of evacuating the German capital, a clear indication that escalation was immiment. This rumor can be traced back to the fact that a British naval attache in Berlin was previously scheduled to make the trip back to London to visit family. Another member of the embassy staff then asked if his family could also travel back with the attache, which then cascaded into other families also hoping to head back to London via the same train. The party grew so large that an additional rail car had to be added to the train, and as soon as that happened the news got out of control. As things appeared to be spiralling out of control the Foreign Office in Berlin informed the Czechoslovakin government that there were no German troops movements happening or planned. To the governments of Europe it appeared that the Germans had backed down. We of course know that they didn’t, because they actually were not planning to invade, but nobody else knew that. And as is always the case, the truth did not matter, only perceptions and the perception in London, Paris, and Prague is that they had one a great diplomatic victory. They had put sustained political pressure on Germany, and it appeared that they had been turned from the course of invasion. The overall feeling in the capitals of Europe was one of relief that war had been averted, and that they had by their actions prevented it, making it seem to create a blueprint for the future. In Germany the events of May were seen as a a serious embarrassment. German strength had been questioned openly, and due to lack of preparations she had been forced to give into those questions. Of course the interesting piece is that the Germans were being accused of planning exactly what they were already planning. They were already in the final planning stages for Case Green, and while it was not scheduled for May 1938, the humiliation of those events caused Hitler to demand an acceleration of time frames. October 1938 was placed at the new date by which the Czechoslovakian question had to be answered.
This plan for an acceleration would really begin on May 28th when Hitler, after a bit of time secluded at the Berghof after the May Crisis, called a meeting for Germany’s military leaders. At the meeting he informed those present that by October 1 the invasion would be launched, and that in the meantime construction on the Westwall must be accelerated as much as possible to prevent possible Western intervention. Along with this, the German military must be ready to mobilize 96 divisions when the time game. He would also say many more things, his speech would go on for two hours, but these were the most important. Some shifts were made shortly after this meeting. Work on the West Wall would occupy half a million men over the course of the summer and into the autumn. The usual autumn maneuvers were moved forward into the summer which would allow them to both get out of the way of a possible invasion would but also result in the Wehrmacht being as prepared as possible for action. The German military was planning to go to war, even if it meant another European wide conflict. But there were still some who strongly believed that this was the path to disaster, and they were still led by General Beck. In the middle of July he would write another memorandum, this time directly to Brauchitsch, commander and chief of the German Army. He would personally deliver the memorandum directly to Brauchitsch. Beck believed that if the generals of the German Army could not persuade Hitler to alter course, then they simply must resign. There were, Beck would claim, limits to their allegiance to Hitler, and if they believed that he was leading Germany down the path to ruin they must resign, and leave the army without leadership to actually start a war. Beck believed that this was the only way to avoid a “general catastrophe”. In an attempt to get as much support as possible, Beck convinced Brauchitsch to bring together 20 of the Army’s highest generals. This would take place on August 4th and Beck’s original plan for the meeting was for Brauchitsch to give a speech that had been prepared by Beck. But when it came time for the meeting, Brauchitsch decided not to carry through with giving the speech. Instead Beck would read his memorandum of July 16th to the wider group. Becks’ concerns initially found a receptive audience, but there were always some serious roadblocks when it came to getting any kind of actual plan and agreement. Many of the generals present were simply not going to stand up to Hitler in any meaningful way, especially while he was on his current run of success. This meant that the only real outcome of the meeting was that Brauchitsch finally agreed to directly provide Beck’s July memorandum to Hitler, something he had strongly resisted up to that point.
When Hitler read the memorandum he was very, very, unhappy. Another rage fuelled tirade followed, directed both at the memorandum itself and also all of the generals who had participated in the meeting. Then he did something really interesting, he summoned a group of military officers to meet with him at the Berghof. But it was not the 20 generals who had met with Beck, but instead a bunch of younger staff officers who were working under those generals. He did this because he hoped that they would be a younger, more eager set of military officers who would be very interested in securing for themselves quick promotions. To this group he would give a three hour lecture on his military plans, but the audience proved far less enthusiastic than he hoped. The obvious play that Hitler was making, with the clear insult aimed at the leading generals, did not sit well with his audience. He was trying to bring them into circumventing the command hierarchy. On the same day as the meeting with those officers, Beck was also invited to meet with Hitler on August 10th. One of the participatns in the meeting with General Erich von Manstein, who will of course play an important role in so many of the German operations during the war. He would say after the war that this was the last meeting where Hitler allowed his generals to ask questions, or even allow serious discussion. It would not be a pleasant meeting between Hitler and Beck and at its conclusion little was changed. On August 18th Beck would then tender his resignation, believing that he could not sway the other officers, and still believing that Germany was on the wrong path. Even at this late stage, with little faith in Hitler or the future, Beck still agreed not to publicize his resignation, after being convinced that it would be dangerous for news of the resignation of the Chief of the army Staff to begin ciruclating during a period of such international tensions This robbed Beck of his last chance to influence events, and remove another piece of possible resistance to the plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which grew ever closer to becoming a reality.