After the events of May and the phantom invasion and Czechoslovakian mobilization, the overall vibe in the area was tense. It also had a real effect on many governmental ministers all over Europe as for the first time in 20 years they had been pushed to what felt like the brink of a European wide war.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 71 - The Munich Crisis Pt 3 - Summer of 1938. This week a big thank you goes out to Stephen, Charles, and Michael for choosing to support the podcast on Patreon where they get access to special Member only episodes roughly every month, like the upcoming episode which is a deep dive into British diplomatic communications during the May Crisis discussed in Episode 70. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members for more information. After the events of May and the phantom invasion and Czechoslovakian mobilization, the overall vibe in the area was tense. It also had a real effect on many governmental ministers all over Europe as for the first time in 20 years they had been pushed to what felt like the brink of a European wide war. The realization that they had been so close caused an increased emphasis on ensuring that it never happened again. Now, the key was that there were a lot of opinions about how best to make sure that it never happened again. There were some who believed that the best path was to resist Germany more openly, to make it clear that if they continued down their path there was a united Europe that would stand up to them. The other path would become more popular, and it was one not of conflict but of compromise. For example, on June 3 The Times in London would publish an article arguing that the best option was a plebiscite in the Sudeten areas of Czechoslovakia so that they could choose either to join Germany or stay where they were. This was really an example of the most extreme viewpoint, and what would develop over the summer was simply a renewed push for negotiations between Henlein, the Sudeten German Party, and Prague. There would be direct efforts to facilitate these negotiations, one of which was the Runciman mission that we will discuss shortly. We will then look at the events of August 1938, which would lead into the direct negotiations that would be such an important part of September.
Over the course of June and july negotiations in Prague continued between the government and the Sudeten Germans. One of the real sticking points was not even the question of autonomy, which had been a key point in previous discussions, but instead the specific political boundaries of the territories that would be given such autonomy. The government put forward a plan whereby three new Diets would be setup that would have autonomy over three provinces: Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia which were all ares of Western Czechoslovakia. This was unacceptable to Henlein and the Germans not because they disliked the concept of full autonomy, but because they were insistent that whatever political units that were created had to be mapped out in such a way that the Sudeten Germans held a massive majority in the resulting areas. While the three new provinces would roughly follow historic boundaries, and made sense on the map, they did not provide this kind of dominance for the Germans, and so they rejected it. They did not want logical political boundaries, they wanted bits and pieces carved out that met their specific demographic requirements. While these discussions continued, pressure from the British government began to increase as they wanted further concessions from the government. Meanwhile Henlein held strong to his detailed proposal of early June, in which he had laid down specific boundaries for the new autonomous territory which were structured around very clear racial boundaries, which would give the new Sudetenland the structure of a fully independent German state. Eventually this was accepted as the starting point for further discussions, but only after there were direct threats from London on the government in Prague, stating that if they did not enter into more negotiations with the German proposals as a basis, the offer and the rejection would be fully publicized. This was seen as a major threat because throughout the entire process the government wanted to appear to be very open to negotiation, and they did not want the discussions to be publicized out of fear that it would cause problems in other territories within Czechoslovakia. However, by the middle of July it was clear that they really were not really going anywhere.
In late July the British government decided that it was time to get more directly involved with the ongoing negotiations. To do so they would send an official representative of the British government, Lord Runciman, who had formerly been a member of the Cabinet and was a well known shipping magnate. The announcement of the dispatch of Runciman and a team of British negotiations was made to the House of Commons on July 26th. During his speech Chamberlain gave some, lets call them incredibly optimistic information about what he believed the mission could accomplish, which in many ways ignored the actual reality of the situation. As with about any other conversation in the Commons, this prompted a wide ranging discussion on the course of British actions related to Czechoslovakia, which you can read online if you so desire. There were many MPs who wanted to be on the record by saying their part, so I won’t bore you with many of them, but I will bring forward parts of what Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood would say in response. It would function as a rebuttal of appeasement, which was a constant refrain in the Commons during many of these events, but I think he does a good job in this one. “Anyone who has known Lord Runciman as long as I have will be delighted that he has been selected for this post. Indeed, I wish him so well that I will say nothing on earth in his 2993 favour. But I cannot congratulate the Government upon this particular method of achieving peace. It savours too much of the squeezes which the Government have applies to various other countries in the interest of peace. We squoze Abyssinia—if you prefer the Oxford accent, the squeeze was successfully applied by His Majesty’s Government to Abyssinia—of course, entirely in the interests of peace and of the dictators. For the last two years the same squeeze has been applied to Spain—of course in the interests of peace, but, also, as it happens, in the interest of the dictators. Now, using again the argument that this is in the interests of peace, we are beginning to squeeze Czechoslovakia. We are urging them to moderation in face of the German demands, and moderation means conceding some of the German demands, and I see that in the solutions proposed for the Czechoslovakian problem is the usual normal method of having autonomous areas for the Sudeten Germans.[…] What is the excuse for enabling the Nazi rule to be extended all round the frontiers of Czechoslovakia? The excuse is, as ever, that it is to be done in the interests of peace. I tell this House it is in the interests of war, inevitable war, and a war that we shall not be able to win. Every time you sacrifice one of your potential allies to this pathetic desire to appease the tyrants you merely bring nearer and make more inevitable that war which you pretend you are trying to avoid. At present, Czechoslovakia has a natural rugged frontier on three sides of her, and that frontier is armed. Cut off all that Sudeten area from Czechoslovakia and you put Germany across the frontier up against a perfectly easy advance to Prague.” The Runciman mission, once it occurred, would not be a stunning success, which should not surprise anyone. Just because a British representative was now present in the discussions did not remove any of the many problems and challenges that they had to overcome. Introducing a British mission, which was in all reality not even really fully connected with the situation solved none of them, and in some ways just made things worse. Part of the problem was a complete misunderstanding about the personalities involved and the relationships of the parties, for example one idea provided by the British mission was for Henlein, who they believed was obviously a moderate and honest fellow, to be sent to Berlin to negotiate with Hitler.Needless to say the Runciman mission, achieved essentially nothing.
While most of the focus was on events in Czechoslovakia, there were many other discussions that would occur between other nations as well. For example on August 22 Hitler would spend two days watching naval maneuvers and he would invite the Hungarian regent Admiral Miklos Horthy and the Hungarian Prime Minister Bela Imredy to join him. This was so that Hitler could discuss the possibility of the two nations launching a joint military invasion of Czechslovakia in the future. Hungary had many of the same disagreements with Czechoslovakia that Germany did, and after the First World War a good number of ethnic Hungarians had been included in the Czechoslovak state . Hitler hoped to play on these animosities to get Hungary to join in an invasion which would cause some extreme problems for the Czechoslovak military. The Hungarians were very hesitant to agree to anything, because in some ways they were in an even worse position than Germany was. They were surrounded by nations that had for the previous 17 years been members of the Little Entente, an alliance specifically created to contain any possible Hungarian expansion. The presence of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania within that alliance meant that Hungary was surrounded by enemies, and if troops were concentrated in the north against Czechoslovakia it was very likely that the others would take advantage of it. Hitler was very disappointed that he could not convince Horthy and the Hungarians to join in German aggression, but there was little more that he could do.
Another player in the events around May and for the rest of 1938 was France, which I realized we have not really discussed very much over the last few episodes. One of the reasons for this was because during this period the French government was not really in a position to influence events in a major way. They certainly knew what was happening, and they were in communication with all of the governments. During the May Crisis they had made statements that pointed to their desire to honor their treaty commitments to Czechoslovakia if Germany attacked, in conversations with Halifax Daladier would say “France’s treaty obligations are clear and inevitable… There wasn’t a single one of his fellow citizens who would readily betray.” On the heels of the non-event of the May Crisis France drew many of the same conclusions that the British did, mainly that a German invasion had been prevented by Western resolve. France was also influenced during this period by the commonly held belief that Germany was in a perpetual state of near economic collapse, and that this economic collapse would very rapidly come to pass if war began. When the British started to take a definitive lead with actions like the Runciman mission the French were happy to wait for it to come to a conclusion. This bought more time and allowed things to develop, and it would not be until the middle of September that the French began to take more than a passive role in events. Unfortunately they would find themselves in an almost entirely no win scenario. They were very set into a path where it was essential that they work closely with the British. But to do so they would be forced over the months of 1938 to work with the British policy of appeasement, which had devastating effects for French support in Central Europe. Jumping a head a bit here but here is a statement from Romanian Minister Adrien Thierry after the Munich agreement had been signed in September. “We must not hide the fact that since the Munich agreement Romanian opinion is very much divided regarding France. In private conversations those with left wing ideas say that our influence has ceased in Central Europe and they attack us violently, while extreme right wing elements proclaim that by calling for a close collaboration between Romania and the Reich they are backing a policy that reflects the country’s true interests.”. These would be the types of consequences of French actions in 1938, even though it is challenging to find convincing arguments for why they should have pushed for a different path.
Negotiations continued on through July and into August, and then for most of August as well. Runciman moved into a position of firmly and voraciously putting more and more pressure on the government to continue to give into Sudeten German demands. Eventually Benes and others had to just bow to this pressure, or at least they felt that they had to, and so more concessions were made. This would result in the Third Plan which was introduced on August 24th. The plan included further compromises with the demands previously put forward by Henlein and the Sudeten German Party. There was still a problem though, and that was the fact that Henlein and his direct deputy, Karl Hermann Frank were under clear instructions to not agree to any agreement. In fact Frank would be in charge, through direct orders of Hitler, that a campaign of incidents should begin which would cause more chaos and make the government in Prague far less likely to make any more concessions. These were an important part of the Case Green plan, as they were meant to prevent the kind of stability that was really needed if negotiations wanted to continue. The end goal was for their to be one final incident immediately before the start of Case Green which would be assisted by German SA officers that would move across the border. There they would meet up the Sudeten German agitators and they would take actions that would give the Germans a firm excuse to move into the country. At the same time there were also plans to move a group of Sudeten Germans into Germany so that they could be formed into a unit of the German invasion forces, for publicity reasons. Over the summer information about some of these plans began to also reach external parties. For example the British were able to obtain another set of details in early July of what the German plans were. There were also reports that Germany was quietly calling up more reservists, and then also cancelling all leave during the month of August to allow for a far greater state of readiness. The British ambassador in Berlin would also report that some of the German pilots that had been in Spain were being recalled specifically so they were available for Luftwaffe squadrons that would take part in the invasion. Henderson became more and more urgent in his appeals for action, for example on August 18th he would state that he was hearing from a German source that war was an absolute certainty unless the British decisively intervened.
There was also another source of information, and that was from Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, or simply Kleist. Kleist was a German lawyer who was not the largest fan of Hitler. During August he would be in communication with the British diplomat Vansittart, and would even travel to London. He was able to pass information to the British government, for example he would respond to Vansittart’s question of the date for the possible invasion as “After the 27th September, it will be too late.” He was also working closely with General Beck during his period attempts to get the German Army to resist Hitler’s push towards war. Kleist’s hope was that he could get a firm commitment and open statement from the British government that any German invasion of Czechoslovakia would result in Britain declaring war. His hope was to use this information to convince others within Germany to more firmly resist, and perhaps even openly revolt, against Hitler’s policies. This would be the goal of Kleist’s visit to London, for which Kleist was provided with a fake identity and passport, as well as British money for the trip. During his visit he would chat with several British politicians most famously Churchill, who apparently was very impressed with the conversation. The visit would be a complete failure though, the British government of August was in no mood to launch into any kind of preventative war or even to seriously threaten it, regardless of what the possible events in the future were that such an action could prevent. There were also several influential British leaders, including Chamberlain himself, who had decided that Kleist was simply not accurate in his portrayal of German politics at the time. Kleist was attempting to make the British believe that the problem with Germany was Hitler, and if he was removed things would move decisively away from war. This basic assumption was not supported by men like Chamberlain, Halifax, and Henderson who still believed that Hitler could be the vector through which peace was achieved. While by August 1938 several different attempts to greatly influence German policy had failed, they would still continue. One would be planned by Beck’s replacement a Chief of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder. Halder was a 54 year old Bavarian who came from a multi-generational military family. There were some problems though, because Halder did not actually have any troops under his direct command as Chief of the Army General Staff. This was a problem because it was only really the army that could lead any kind of revolt against Hitler’s leadership, every other organization and group that might have been in a position in previous years no longer existed. So Halder had to find men who had positions of command that could be used for a few very important operations in the case of a military coup. These could be found, and there were discussions with several critical commanders. General Erwin von Witzleben, commander of the troops that were in and around Berlin. General Count Erich von Brockdorff-Ahlefeld, who commanded the Potsdam garrison. General Erich Hoepner, who commanded an armored division that was positioned in Thuringia which could act as a blocking force against any SS troops moving from Munich. There was however one critical piece in this plan as it was at the end of August when it was at its most advanced state, and that was they believed it could only happen after Hitler had given the final orders to invade Czechoslovakia. This was mandatory because they planned to bring him before a German court with the charge that he was about to recklessly throw Germany into another war. So they needed that final invasion order to be given, while at the same time there were efforts in London and Paris to ensure that such an order was never given.
On August 26th Henderson was recalled to London for in person discussion with the cabinet which would occur on August 30th. Henderson was firmly supporting an appeasement approach with the Germans, and he believed that any real threats from Britain would only make war more likely, not less likely. Chamberlain would start the meeting on August 30 by apologizing for interrupting everybody’s summer holidays which the British government had been in the middle of, however he believed that it was important enough for them to come together to discuss events. Halifax would take the lead in explaining what he saw as the various scenarios that the British now found themselves in based upon German actions. The first was that Hitler and Germany was set on war due both to their territorial ambitions and the embarrassment of May. If the Cabinet believed this to be the case then “the only deterrent which would be likely to be effective would be an announcement that if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia we should declare war on her.". He would close by asking those in the meeting if they believed it was justifiable to “fight a certain war now in order to forestall a possible war later.” Chamberlain would follow up by saying “No State, certainly no democratic State, ought to make a threat of war unless it was both ready to carry it out and prepared to do so. This was a sound maxim.” I don’t think there should be too much argument at that conclusion, a nation should only really threaten war if they are ready to follow through. The conversations then went on for almost 3 hours. There were some criticisms that were later levied against Henderson due to his actions during this meeting and during this time period that he had given into his nerved and the Home Secretary would say “So anxious was he that war should be averted, as in the case of the Austrians, so in the case of the Czechs, he was undoubtedly convinced that, if international peace was to be maintained, their small countries must accept virtual absorption into the Reich.” No real decisions were made, and certainly the Cabinet was not closer to offering a definitive statement to Germany to warn it away from aggression. The meeting was in now way secret, and Chamberlain and made sure it was well known that Henderson was being recalled and in fact the very next morning the newspapers of London ran headlines that involved details of the meeting and that Henderson had been recalled to take part. The Daily Express would run the headline “THERE WILL BE NO WAR. … There will be no European war. Why? Because the decision of peace and war depends on one man, the German Führer. And he will not be responsible for making war at present.” While there was no definitive action decided at the meeting, there were already other conversations that were occurring that would lead to one of the most famous events of 1938, Chamberlain’s personal visit with Hitler, which we will begin to discuss next episode.