One of the major events leading up to the Munich agreement was a series of two personal conversations between the British Prime Minister Nivelle Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The original idea for these conversations originated in London during conversations that would occur in late August
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 72 - The Munich Agreement Part 4 - Plan Z. One of the major events leading up to the Munich agreement was a series of two personal conversations between the British Prime Minister Nivelle Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The original idea for these conversations originated in London during conversations that would occur in late August. These conversations would occur between Chamberlain and his inner circle of advisors and ministers, with Chamberlain describing the idea s “unconventional and daring” which was somewhat accurate. The concept of one national leader jumping on an airplane and going to directly meet and discuss an issue with another national leader with very little warning or preparation was something that was not really done at this point in history. Chamberlain hoped that it would just the kind of gesture that would cause the ongoing negotiations between the Czechoslovakian government and the Sudeten Germans to be shaken from their ongoing deadlock and to a resolution. Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, would be informed of the idea when he was in London in Late August, and it would be given the codename Plan Z. The visit was not going to happen immediate, and instead London would communicate with Henderson when it was felt that the plan should be activated, at which point Henderson would work directly with the German government to determine if they were interested and then work out the details. It would then be activated on the night of September 13th, when a message would be sent to Henderson in Berlin which he was then to forward to the German government, it would say in part “In view of the increasingly critical situation I propose to come over at once to see you with a view to trying to find a peaceful solution. I propose to come across by air and am ready to start tomorrow. Please indicate earliest time at which you can see me and suggest place of meeting. I should be grateful for a very early reply.” this episode will be all about the events of early September 1938 which connect the genesis of the plan to meet with Hitler and then the eventual message that setup the meeting, because in the two weeks between those to points in time, there would be several important developments.
It would begin with the Runciman mission. During the last days of August the British mission had been working with the government in Prague and the Sudeten German party on what would eventually be called the Third Plan. This was yet another attempt to bridge the game between the two groups, with the goal of meeting all of the Henlein’s terms as outlined by the Karlsbad demands. These were another round of real concessions for the Czechoslovak government, to the point where even the lead representative of the Sudeten German Party would say that they “could not be rejected out of hand”. While those conversations were happening the British mission suggested that Henlein travel personally to visit Hitler in person, with the idea that Henlein could help to sell the new plan to Hitler and get the support of the German government. This was a great plan, if you believed in one basic assumption, that Henlein wanted the negotiations to succeed, because if he did, and if Hitler wanted them to succeed, then having both of their support would essentially seal the deal. Of course neither of those men wanted the negotiations to work. Henlein would agree to make the trip, under the condition that it was made very clear to everyone involved that he was only travelling at the direct request of the British representatives. He would even say that he wanted this so that he could not be “accused of taking orders from Hitler”. These statements were of course completely hilarious because that is exactly what he was doing. So Henlein would travel to Germany as something as an official representative of the British government, where he would meet with Hitler for two days. During these meetings Henlein would gain the completely correct impression that Germany was on the path to war, but he was also told that negotiations much continue in Czechoslovakia to make it appear that Germany and the Sudeten Germans were still attempting a peaceful solution. Meanwhile, back in Prague, something that had a chance of completely derailing this plan occurred. There was a constant series of negotiations happening between the government, led by Benes, and the two representatives of the Sudeten German Party Kundt and Sebekowsky. On the morning of September 5th Benes invited the German representatives to another negotiating session, and then he opened with his final gambit. “Please write your party’s full demands, I promise you in advance to grant them immediately.". I do not know if Benes knew that what he was doing was probably the perfect tactic, but it was, because the Sudeten German representatives were under explicit orders not to agree to anything, and so they feared that there were being entrapped in some way. Benes would not be deterred and would say “Go on; I mean it, write”. And so they started dictating their demands, and it would be termed the Fourth Plan, and it had everything, Benes was true to his word, in the document was every single demand that Henlein had ever made, and Benes signed it. Benes would then go on to convince his cabinet that it was the only path, with a later statement to the press saying that it was only done due to “extraordinary pressure from foreign friends” a clear reference to the constant pressure put on the government by the British. Within the Sudeten German leadership the reaction could best be described as “My God, they have given us everything” which was the reaction of Karl Frank, one of the groups leaders. The Fourth plan provided full autonomy, the right of the Sudeten Germans to in some ways set their own political boundaries to ensure electoral dominance, and a whole host of other items. Henlein, the person who had made all of those demands over the course of the previous years, was furious. He had crafted demands that he believed would never be agreed to, and now they had been.
Back in Germany throughout September plans for Case Green continued at an accelerating pace. They had been on pace throughout the summer months for a kick off date of sometime during the later months of 1938, and a new date for the invasion was set for September 27th. This was slightly different from the original plan for October 1st, but was within the realm of possible. Hitler also wanted the German forces to be able to be ready to launch the invasion just two days after the order had been given should that date change. Hitler was also personally involved in the details of Case Green, especially during September, for example the day after Henlein left from his official visit he would have another lengthy discussion about Case Green with both Brauchitsch and Keitel. During that meeting Brauchitsch brought up some concerns about the state of German motorized divisions, and that perhaps they were not up to the tasks being placed in front of them. Hitler meanwhile was unhappy with how conservative the plans were, he wanted bolder plans and bolder action for the invasion. These meetings between Hitler and the military leaders would continue over the following weeks, often with Brauchitsch. Over the following week they would take on the additional aspect of occurring at the same time as the Nuremberg rallies, a celebration of the nazi party would would occur From September 5 through the 12th. The event always had an intoxicating effect on those involved, as really all large rallies do on their participants, and for Hitler it made him impatient with his generals. One night after attending the rally during the day he would meet with Brauchitsch, Keitel, and the new Chief of Staff General Halder. Halder was very much in the conservative camp when it came to invasion planning, something that continued to infuriate Hitler. The united front of Brauchitsch and Halder, who both defended Case Green is planned at the time, did little to deter Hitler from his position, and they would continue arguing until 4 in the morning. Eventually Hitler simply dismissed them and told them that he demanded that they simply do what he was asking and the discussion was over. The generals were not at all assisted back the fact that there were some other military leaders who agreed with Hitler. Both Keitel and and his chief of staff Jodl had fully bought into the Hitler as military genius idea. Keitel would take the logical approach and ask the other generals “Why do you fight with him, when you know that the battle is lost before it’s begun? Nobody thinks there is going to be any war over this, so the whole thing wasn’t worth all that bitter rearguard action.". Meanwhile in his private diary Jodl would write that There is only one undisciplined element in the army—the generals, and in the last analysis this comes from the fact that they are arrogant. They have neither confidence nor discipline because they cannot recognize the Führer’s genius.
While the Nuremberg rally was ongoing, and before Hitler’s speech that we will discuss shortly, back in Czechsolovakia a solution was being found to the problem of the Fourth Plan. On September 7th a riot of staged by the Sudeten German party during which they alleged that one of their deputies had been assaulted by the Czech policeman. Henlein would use this excuse to formally reject the Fourth Plan and suspend all ongoing negotiations. Their statement would say that “the proceedings of the State police at Mährisch-Ostrau are in direct contradiction to the proposals of the Government”. The policeman was dismissed, the local chief of police forced to resign, four police officials were suspended, and due to all of these events which once again met the demands made by the Sudeten Germans the negotiations were scheduled to once again resume on September 13th. This was again not the preferred outcome of Sudeten German leaders, they had hoped that their demands for the dismissals would not be met, but again they had been thwarted, and under the orders not to end negotiations without a plausible reason they were forced back to the table. Back in London the increase in tensions in the area would have ramifications, with Chamberlain stating on September 11th that Britain “could not stand aside if a general conflict were to take place in which the security of France might be menaced.”. There was also a partial mobilization of the British fleet, which caused great alarm at the German embassy. These events, all of which seemed to threaten greater violence and perhaps war, were all even before Hitler’s Nuremberg speech which would occur on September 12th.
The speech would take place in front of 30,000 Nazi party members and was on the heals of the events of what was known as Army Day at the Nuremburg rally. This had involved military parades in front of 100,000 strong crowd. These events were the peak of Nazi pagentry and propaganda. Then Hitler’s speech was the capstone. In it he would outline all of the events in Czechslovakia, at least his version of those events. He would call Benes a liar and then speak at length about both the oppression he believed the Sudeten Germans were experiencing and the duplicitous nature of Benes negotiations. “The conditions in this State, as is generally known, are intolerable. In economic life seven and a half millions are being systematically ruined and thus devoted to a slow process of extermination. This misery of the Sudeten Germans is indescribable. It is sought to annihilate them. As human beings they are oppressed and scandalously treated in an intolerable fashion. … The depriving of these people of their rights must come to an end. … I have stated that the Reich would not tolerate any further oppression of these three and a half million Germans, and I would ask the statesmen of foreign countries to be convinced that this is not mere rhetoric.” It goes on like that for quite some time. Many many accusations of unfair treatment and oppression at the hands of the Prague government aimed at the Sudeten Germans. But critically in all of his accusations, and all of the declarations that Germany would no longer stand for such treatment, he did not say that the outcome would be war or that Germany was declaring war. He specifically decided not to do so. There were certainly threats, and several times throughout the speech he makes it clear that if the Sudeten Germans did not receive some kind of justice, or what he considered some kind of justice, then Germany would ensure that they did.
After the Nuremberg Rally Henlein, who had been in Germany for the event, went back to Czechoslovakia with a new list of demands, the most important was simple: the Sudeten areas needed to just be straight up given to Germany. At the same time the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed to be getting out of control. The speech, which had been broadcast on German radio, caused an almost immediate series of demonstrations in the Sudeten areas. Violence against the police began, and over two hours turned into widescale rioting which would continue for the night. At the same time, fearing that open violence was reaching a point where drastic changes would be made, the Sudeten German Party closed their offices in Prague and prepared to flee the city. The total death toll for the 24 hours after Hitler’s speech was 23, with 13 of those being policement and 10 being Sudeten Germans. The government made the decision to declare a state of emergency and instituted martial law in all of the Sudeten areas . As official presence increased the Sudeten German groups just kind of melted away due to the fear of the military. What could have resulted in open rebellion was instead of failure, which was seen as something of a missed opportunity by Henlein and the Germans. A full on uprising would have been an acceptable outcome to both groups as it would have allowed either the German military to move in under the auspices of maintaining order. Instead Henlein would be forced into another round of demands, which would include “1) Withdrawal of the State police, 2) Repeal of martial law, 3) Confinement of the military to barracks and their withdrawal from the streets, and 4) Transfer of control of the police and Security Service to local authorities.”. These were once again agreed to, but with one important caveat, the government refused to simply leave the area without the assurance that there would be some method of maintaining law and order . To get this assurance they wanted to meet in Prague to discuss these arrangements, but the Sudeten Germans refused. With Henlein’s demands structured as a kind of ultimatum, there was some expectation that war might begin in the near future.
While the events in Germany and Czechoslovakia were progressing during the middle of September, in London support was growing for the activation of that Plan Z idea, of Chamberlain meeting with Hitler. During September 9th is when things really got moving, with a letter sent to Henderson during the afternoon which stated that they had “another look at Z, and at the moment are inclining to the view that the moment is approaching when it might have to be decided to adopt it.”. Even within Chamberlain’s select group of close associates, there was some concern about the plan, most of which boiled down to the fact that it was a huge personal risk for Chamberlain to involve himself so closely and personally with the troubled political problems occurring in Czechoslovakia. But Chamberlain was adamant that it must be done, saying that he “would never forgive himself if war broke out and he had not tried every expedient for averting it.”. Nothing would really happen until after the Nuremberg Speech on September 12th which was interpreted in London very positively. At the cabinet meeting the next morning Chamberlain would say that Hitler had not done anything irrevocable, which meant he had not declared war. And so it still seemed possible that negotiations were possible and were even likely to succeed. And it would be at this point that the idea for Plan Z was laid out for the full cabinet. Chamberlain fully believed that one of the real keys to Plan Z succeeding was the fact that it be a surprise that it be announced and then occur over a very brief period of time, and he used this as an excuse for why other ministers had not been properly informed of the planning. It was at this time that Chamberlain also introduced the idea of a straight up plebiscite to be held in the Sudeten areas which would decide its fate, and that he was willing to put the British government’s support behind the idea. His reasoning for this was that Czechoslovakia would never “have peace so long as the Sudeten Germans were part of the country.” If that was the basis to begin discussion, then the only two possible alternatives, a peaceful and a violent exit of those territories from Czechoslovakia were the only two options, and Chamberlain was firmly of the belief that a peaceful exit would be preferred. Chamberlain did however categorize the plebiscite as the lesser evil, not of a full on positive, it was a choice between peace or war, even if that peace was achieved by less than fantastic actions. There was strong opposition to this idea from members of the cabinet, most strongly voiced by Duff Cooper First Lord of the Admiralty. His primary concern was that what was being suggested simply would not solve the problem, and in fact would not satiate German desires for expansion. If he was correct, by giving over to the Germans more territory, the almost inevitable outcome of a plebiscite, then it would make the British situation worse on two counts. First of all it would remove Czechoslovakia as a meaningful ally, due to the territory that would be removed, and second it would cause every other smaller nation in Europe to belief that the British and French would not be there for them and so it was probably best to give into German demands. Or to summarize, he would argue that the “choice was not between war and a plebiscite, but between war now and war later.”
Regardless of any possible concerns among members of the cabinet, the meeting would go ahead, and a message was sent to Henderson in Berlin that he should deliver a message to Ribbentrop the next morning. And so on September the 14th it was delivered in the form of a personal message to Hitler from Chamberlain. It was not directly handed to Ribbentrop, but instead communicated to him by his deputy, because Ribbentrop was in Berchtesgaden, having not come back to Berlin after the events in Nuremberg. The response would come in the afternoon, when Henderson would inform London that Hitler would be “entirely at the disposal” of Chamberlain. In Paris the leaders knew nothing about any proposed meeting, but in the day after Hitler’s Nuremberg speech they would come to the conclusion that basically any solution to the problems in Czechoslovakia that did not involve war would be ont hat they would accept. They would use the excuse that the French people simply would not support a war over the current crisis. This was critical, because any threat of war simply had to have the backing of the French, and up to this point they had firmly stood by their pledge to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid if required. They would learn of Chamberlain’s plans from Ambassador Phipps after they were already set in stone. Back in London news of what was about to happen started to leak out. News that Chamberlain was flying directly to meet with Hitler would appear in the papers in the morning, and on September 15h Chamberlain would be on the steps of his aircraft. It would be at that position where he would give a short speech, purely for the soundbite value: “I am going to meet the German Chancellor because the present situation seems to me to be one in which discussions between him and me may have useful consequences. My policy has always been to try to ensure peace, and the Führer’s ready acceptance of my suggestion encourages me to hope that my visit to him will not be without results.”