…because we were left alone.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 73 - The Munich Agreement Part 5 - We had no other choice. This week a big thank you goes out to John and Allan for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they get access to special member only episodes plus ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Over the course of a little over two weeks in September 1938 the ongoing tension between the Czechoslovakian government on one side and the Sudeten Germans on the other would be solved. It would involve both personal meetings between the political leaders of various nations, followed by a four nation summit to finalize the agreement. These talks were initiated with the goal of coming to a definitive solution which would, at leeast it was hoped, be a lasting solution. The eventual outcome would be the cession of certain territories from Czechoslovakia to Germany. One of the nations that would not be involved in any of the discussions, was Czechoslovakia itself. The level of frustration in Czechoslovakia would grow as it would be forced by its supposed friends into greater and greater sacrifices in the name of possible peace. During September they would be presented with what amounted to multiple ultimatums, that if they did not agree to what was being suggested then Germany would likely declare war, and the British and French would not be there to assit them. The western nations were trying to avoid a war that they did not believe they could win, or even really contribute to in any way that would help Czechoslovakia. This martial helplessness was not just an opinion circulating around the political circles in London and Paris, but among both nation’s militaries. There would be a report from the British Chiefs of Staff making it clear that they did not believe that there was anything that Britain or France would do to hinder a German invasion and conquest of Czechoslovakia, something that they estimated would only take a few weeks. And it was with this very pessimistic view of the military options available that British Prime Minister Nivelle Chamberlain would set off for his first meeting with Hitler.
Chamberlain would begin his journey at 7:45 in the morning, when he would begin his trip from the Prime Minister’s residence at Number 10 to the airport. Then at 8:30 he would speak to the BBC before borading the plan, saying “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.” He would then fly to Germany were he would be greeted by several thousand spectators along with a fleet of 14 Mercedes cars that would take him to the rail station. By 5PM he had arrived at the Berghof where he was greeted by Hitler and Keitel. Hands were shaken and the group went inside, where it was decided that Chamberlain and Hitler would converse for the most part along, with only a translator. This is an important piece of information because almost all of the information we have about the conversation would follow would be sourced from notes written by Chamberlain after the meeting was over, and those notes would be from memory. While Chamberlain had been in transit, back in Czechoslovakia the ever fluid situation had changed again, with Henlein having made a proclamation stating that it was now the belief of the Sudeten German Party that the only viable path forward was the full annexation of the Sudeten areas by Germany. This robbed Chamberlain of any real ability to discuss the primary reason for his visit, the organization of some kind of agreement which would probably involve a plebiscite among the German areas so that they could decide their fate. When the meeting with Hitler started, as he would so often do, the German leader went off on a monologue reiterating all of the things that he had been complaining about for the better part of two decades. The Treaty of Versailles, unfair disarmament negotiations, the effects of the Great Depression, and many other items that he considered slights against Germany. Eventually he did get around to Anglo-German relations as well, and when that topic was finally broached, more criticism followed at the British positions and statements that had been made during the long Czechoslovak saga. He even openly questioned the future of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which had been signed in 1935. Hitler then turned to one of his favorite topics during this period, the treatment of Germans living outside German borders. Chamberlain then asked him for a clear statement that if the Sudeten Germans were included in Germany that there would be no further German expansion, which he did not receive a clear answer to. Hitler launched into another monologue, including that it was “impossible that Czechoslovakia should remain like a spearhead in Germany’s side [but] he did not want a lot of Czechs, all he wanted was Sudeten Germans.” This type of agreement, of course, ran into the same kinds of problems that had been encountered during similar discussions back at the Paris Peace Conference, how specifically to delineate wehere the border should be. Chamberlain was very interested in discussing these details, really hunting for some kind of indication of what Hitler considered to be a reasonable percentage benchmark for if an area should move over to Germany. Was it over 50%, which would probably mean following along plebiscite lines, or could it be higher. If the benchmark was set very high, say at areas that were 80% German, it would still mean the movement of many non-German individuals into Germany, and many Germans would remain in Czechoslovakia. Hitler, as would be the case in so many of these conversations, was not really interested in discussing the real nitty gritty details of possible solutions. Throughout the conversation he would also make several veiled threats, but he would eventually say after getting frustrated that “I shall not put up with this any longer. I shall settle this question one way or another. I shall take matters into my own hands.” To which Chamberlain sort of called his bluff really saying “If I’ve understood you correctly, then you’re determined in any event to proceed against Czechoslovakia. If that is your intention why have you had me coming to Berchtesgaden at all? Under these circumstances it’s best if I leave straight away. Apparently it’s all pointless.” Then Hitler, in the clearest statement of his future actions would say “I am ready to face a world war, I am forty-nine years old, and I want still to be young enough to lead my people to victory.” But while Hitler would escalate the conversation to one of war, he would also very clearly de-escalate saying “If you recognize the principle of self-determination for the treatment of the Sudeten question, then we can discuss how to put the principle into practice.” Chamberlain had finallly gotten Hitler’s agreement on what he wanted, an agreement not for a plebiscite but at least the desire to negotiate a peaceful settlement which would see some amount of territory change hands. With that Chamberlain would say that he had to return to London to discuss this solution with the British cabinet. He asked Hitler for his assurance that no military action would be taken until he had discusssed it with the cabinet and then more discussions could be arranged between the two leaders. This was readily agreed to by Hitler, as he was not planning on launching his invasion for another few weeks anyway, so the promise not to proceed with the invasion for a few days cost nothing but gained him a lot of goodwill. Chamberlain would then make his way back to London, and when he arrived he would make another statement to the BBC, and to the crowd that had gathered to great him: “I have come back again rather quicker than I expected, after a journey which, had I not been so preoccupied, I should have found thoroughly enjoyable. Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with Herr Hitler. It was a frank talk, but it was a friendly one, and I feel satisfied now that each of us fully understands what is in the mind of the other. You will not, of course, expect me to discuss now what may be the results of these talks. What I have got to do now is discuss them with my colleagues. Later—perhaps in a few days—I am going to have another talk with Herr Hitler; only this time he has told me that it is his intention to come half-way to meet me. That is to spare an old man such another long journey.”
When Chaberlain returned to London, he would first meet with the Inner Circle group where the idea for Plan Z had originated. During these discussions the overall evaluation of the meeting was quite a bit less optimistic than what Chamberlain had said to the press, which was expected. Then on Saturday, September 17th the full caibnet meetings would begin, and there would very quickly be some concerns raised about what had been discussed. The meeting did not get off to a great start, with the opening discussion actually being a report from Runciman in which he admitted that Henlein and Hitler had probably been working closely together for some time. Or as his report would say “had been in much closer touch with Hitler throughout the period of negotiation than he had previously imagined.” This was problematic as it had been the British who had pushed for Henlein to be used as a moderating influence on hitler during the negotiations. Then the topic shifted to the meeting. Duff Cooper would write that “The bare facts of the interview were frightful. None of the elaborate schemes that we had discussed in Cabinet … had even been mentioned. He had felt that the atmosphere did not allow of it. After ranting and raving at him, Hitler had talked about self-determination and asked the P.M. whether he accepted the principle. The P.M. had replied that he must consult his colleagues. The P.M. seemed to expect us all to accept that principle without further discussion because the time was getting on.” While resistance from individuals like Cooper was expected, he had always spoken out against the current course of British diploamcy, Chamberlain would also begin to lose some of his close supporters over the course of the last two weeks of September. Most of this breakdown would begin only after pressure began to be applied to Czechoslovakia. Before that pressure could be applied the French would have to be brought into the planning, and so a French delegation arrived in London on September 18th.
The meeting would begin at 11AM, at which point the French deletation wand a group of British leaders would meet to discuss events. To be clear, there was never any real throught of involving a representative from Czechoslovakia in these conversations, and any decisions would just be made by the British and French and presented to the government in Prague. The French were in a very different position to the British, at this point in September 1938 the British were not officially committed to do anything regards to Czechoslovakia, except for what was mandated by the League of Nations, which were lets be totally honest more like guidelines. Daladier and the French government were fully committed by treaties that had been in place since the 1920s, that they would come to the aid of Czechoslovakia if it was attacked by another nation. What the British were suggesting had a very real possibility of resulting in that kind of war, unless the Czechoslovak government agreed to the plan. Daladier was of two minds about any possible solution, on the one hand he desperately wanted to keep France out of a war, and he also hoped that the solution lay in getting Benes and his government to agree to a huge compromise. Or to quote Daladier he wanted to “discover some means of preventing France from being forced into war as a result of her obligations and at the same time to preserve Czechoslovakia and save as much of that country as was humanly possible.” A transfer of territory in some way appeared to be the only path forward, but the question did remain of whether or not the French would push for a plebiscite or a simple cession of some territory to Germany. Daladier was inclined towards the latter, out of fear that if a plebiscite was used for the Sudeten Germans it would set a precedent that would spiral out into many other areas all over Europe. This concern pushed the conversation definitively towards getting the Czechoslovak government to agree to a transfer of territory. After the initial conversations the group would break for lunch, and when they returned the final agreement would be crafted. At a basic level both governments resolved to push the Czechoslovak government to agree to “accept a position of neutrality [and] agreeing to act on our advice on issues of peace and war.” Essentially they were asking the government in Prague to just trust in their negotiations and to essentially agree to future decisions sight unseen. In return both governments would make an international guarantee of the new boundaries that would be made after the territory was transferred. This was seen by Chamberlain as a serious commitment by the British government, as it had until this point avoided most firm commitments on the continent, it would introduce what Chamberlain called “very serious additional liability.” On the question of getting their agreement Halifax would say “It should be stated pretty bluntly, that if Dr. Beneš did not leave himself in our hands we should wash our hands of him.” Or to put it into a more proper bit of diplomatic language “it should be made quite clear to Dr. Beneš that unless he gave a prompt acceptance of the present proposals the French and British Governments would not hold themselves responsible for the consequences.” While the decisions had been made, Daladier wanted to go back to Paris to discuss the possible solution with his cabinet and get their approval. When he arrived he found that his cabinet was perhaps a bit less happy with the proposals than the group of British ministers tht Daladier had met with in London. Daladier would alter his position somewhat in the face of such opposition, and whereas in London there had been discussion of putting pressure on Prague to arrive at the correct decision, in Paris Daladier would tell his cabinet that such pressure would not be appplied, and instead the Czechoslovakian government would be free to make its own choice. Back in London on the same morning there was once again a very serious disagreement in the full British caibnet when they were informed of the agreements with the French. There was a continued concern about any agreement with Germany, as a mentioned earlier, but now there was the added concern about adding a guarantee as well. The territory that would be removed was well known to play a critical role in the defense of Czechoslovakia, that was one of the reasons that it had been awards to the new country in the first place. so not only was the British government going to add a guarantee that committed it to a war should Czechoslovakia be invaded, it was first going to remove Czechoslovakia’s ability to defend itself. Or as Hore-Belisha, the secretary of state for war would say, Czechoslovakia would become “an unstable State economically, would be strategically unsound, and there was no means by which we could implement the guarantee. It was difficult to see how it could survive.”
The message that would be jointly delivered was finally on September 19th and communicated to Prague where it was received by the British and French ambassadors, who were instructed to deliver it together. They would arrive at noon and the message that they delivered made it clear that the British and French governments were going to propose to Germany that certain areas of Czechoslovakia be transferred immediately to German possession. This would be done in the interests of maintaining peace. Benes would bring together his cabinet, representatives from all of the parties that made up his coalition, and the military chiefs of staff to discuss the proposals. They would continue those discussions for almost a day and a half before they summoned the British and French representatives to recieve their answer. The message that was delivered was an official rejection of the Anglo-French plan. The reasons given were that they had not been consulted, that such a serious alteration of the frontier could not happen without full Parliamentary approval, and finally that they simply did not believe that it would result in peace. David Faber in Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II would describe what happened next “Soon after the meeting had ended, de Lacroix was summoned to see the Czech Prime Minister, Mílan Hodža. “Could Czechoslovakia count on French help or could she not?” he was asked. De Lacroix was initially too overcome to respond, and burst into tears. Although he had no definite instructions, he replied, his personal belief was that French military support would not be forthcoming. At this, Hodža insisted that de Lacroix obtain written confirmation from Paris, emphatically stating that France would back out of their treaty if it came to war. “It was the only way of saving the peace,” Hodža asserted.” After these conversations occurred the response would arrive from London and Paris early on the morning of September 21st. The new instructions were clear, once against the British and French ambassadors should speak to Benes and his government. They would ask that the previous answer be reconsidered, and that if it was not it would most likely lead to an immediate invasion by German forces. it would continue “We therefore beg Czech Government to consider urgently and seriously before producing a situation for which we could take no responsibility. If on reconsideration the Czech Government feel bound to reject our advice, they must of course be free to take any action they think appropriate. Please act immediately on receipt at whatever hour.” it was after 2AM when Benes was awoken to receive the message and reply was demanded. There was added time pressure as well, with Chamberlain wanting to provide a reponse to Hitler in person within the next 48 hours. Benes would eventually respond stating “after all the efforts which he and his government had made, they were being abandoned.” He woul dstate that all of the guarantees he had already received had been worthless, and that the solution now presented would not result in peace but simply in German domination. However, due to the contents of the proposals, he could not make the decision on his own and needed full cabinet approval, so once again Benes would meet with his close advisors. They would agree to accept the proposals and a full cabinet meeting was then called a few hours later. There was strong disagreement among the cabinet and the military, but in the end they would agree. Benes would ask for written confirmation of the Anglo-French guarantees, something that hd only been communicated to him verbaly, but he was told that it was dangerous to start placing new conditions on the agreement. When the offical acceptance was given to the delegations, Benes would state “We have been disgracefully betrayed.” Part of the official note that was provided to the British and French would read “The Czechoslovak Government, forced by circumstances, yielding to undread-of pressure and drawing the consequences from the communication of the French and British Governments of September 21, 1938, in which both Governments expressed their point of view as to help for Czechoslovakia in case she should refuse to accept the Franco-British proposals and should be attacked by Germany accepts the Anglo-French proposals with feelings of pain, assuming that both Governments will do everything in order to safeguard the vital interests of the Czechoslovak State in their application. It notes with regret that these proposals were elaborated without previous consultation with the Czechoslovak Government.” Then at 7PM a broadcast was made by the government to make a statement to the people, it would say in part “[The Czechoslovak Government was told] that Great Britain and France would be unable to afford any help to Czechoslovakia in the event of her being attacked by Germany, which would happen if Czechoslovakia did not immediately agree in principle to the cession of the territories with German population to the Reich. Since the Soviet Union could afford us military help only in company with France or, alternatively, if France would not act, until Germany had been declared an aggressor by the League of Nations, we found ourselves faced with the threat of a war, which would endanger, not merely the present boundaries of our State, but even the very existence of the Czechs and Slovaks as one indivisible nation. The Government is quite decided to maintain order with all the means at its disposal and protect in every way the independence and freedom of the nation under the new conditions which will consequently obtain. The President of the Republic, therefore, together with the government, could not do anything but accept the plans of the two Great Powers as the basis of further negotiations. We had no other choice, because we were left alone.”