Chamberlain would triumphantly arrive at Bad Godesberg with the agreements from Prague in hand, the Munich Crisis was now over….and then it absolutely was not.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 74 - The Munich Agreement Part 6 - I Am Altering the Deal. This week a big thank you goes out to Sam, Joseph, and Pete for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, where they now get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes roughly once a month. You can also gain access to these Member episodes through Apple Podcast Subcriptions. Head over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Also, and I do not do this often, but shout out to listener Andrei for the excellent email, thank you for listening and thank you for reaching out with the comments and questions. Back to our story. All of the drama that had led up to the agreement of the Anglo-French proposals by the Czechoslovak government on September 21st, which resulted in the statement that ended the last episode “we had no other choice, because we were left alone.” However, that was only step 2 of the process, the first step being Chamberlain meeting with Hitler, and the third step would be another meeting with Hitler. At this second meeting Chamberlain planned to present the Czechoslovak agreement and then gain German acceptance of that agreement. In the best case scenario this would practically be the end to the entire Sudeten Crisis, with little left but political details and treaty finalization. This best case scenario would not be the course of events. In fact, Chamberlain’s second meeting with Hitler would be an almost worst case scenario, and then everything would very quickly appear to fall apart. During this episode we will discuss the series of meetings taht took place in Bad Godesberg, which would result in the Bad Godesberg Memorandum, which Chamberlain would attempt gain acceptance for in London before Paris and Prague were brought on board.
We start the episode back in the Sudeten areas, where something very interesting had happened, things had reverted to something like normal. After Henlein had made his proclamation calling for an outright and immediate German annexation during the previous week he had fled the country, along with several other leading figures of the Sudeten German Party, along with some of their more extremist supporters. This had been done because frankly they were concerned that they were about to be arrested. When they arrived in Germany they were all put into a new Sudeten German Freikorps, and then they were sent back into Czechoslovakia. This was seen as an essential move because after they had initially left the Sudeten areas, there had been a period of calm, which was exactly what the Germans did not want, because they needed constant and consistent agitation as a pretext for their planned invasion. In a somewhat humorous twist, when the new Freikorps units began to operate in Czechoslovakia they would be almost too successsful, and they were answered by the movement of large units of the Czechoslovak army into the border region, which was also not a desirable outcome for the German plans. This resulted in another order telling them to essentially calm down a bit. While the German government was trying to manage the level of chaos in the border areas, they were also in active conversations with Hungary and Poland who would play an important role in the upcoming negotiations. These two nations were critical because the German government planned to use them as an additional source of pressure on Czechoslovakia. To do this they would suggest to both governments that they could do basically exactly what the German government was doing. For Poland this involved demanding that the Teschen district in northern Czechoslovakia be handed over. This area had been hotly contested in the years after the First World War, with there being armed clashes between Czech and Polish military units at that which. Eventually the area was awarded to Czechoslovakia by an international committee. Now the Polish government would make a demand for a new plebiscite in the region, and to add emphasis to this demand some Polish military units were moved upnear the border. The Hungarian government would make similar demands on some areas of southern Czechoslovakia. These demands would all arrive on September 21st, at the same time that the Czechoslovak government was being pushed into a decision on the Anglo-French arrangement. They would then play an important part in the Anglo-German discussions at Bad Godesberg, because they would be used by Hitler as additional demands that he insisted had to be included in any agreement. Of course during all of this time the plans for the German invasion, which was slated to begin on october 1st, were moving forward with additional details being sent to all of the armies that would participate in the invasion on September 18th.
In London on September 21st there were also many discussions that would happen during a cabinet meeting that was held in the afternoon. The meeting was, in general, proceeding under the assumption that the Czechoslovak government would agree to the Anglo-French proposals, even if that agreement had not yet arrived. Because of this the meeting would focus on what Chamberlain would say and suggest in his next meeting with Hitler. News had also arrived in London of the Polish and Hungarian demands, with there being the general belief that Hitler would almost certainly add those demands into his own. Chamberlain did not agree with this assumption, but he did agree that if it was brought up Chamberlain should refuse to discuss the topic, and if Hitler was insistent then Chamberlain would simply relay that he would have to return to London for consultations on the matter. In a somewhat divided cabinet, this was one of the few items that gained fully unanimous support among the cabinet. Another important piece of the British position was that Britian, France, and Russia would all become joint guarantors of the new borders of Czechoslovakia, and that Germany would sign a nonaggression pact. When it came to a discussion of how Chamberlain should approach his conversations with Hitler there would be a strong group within the cabinet that urged, reiterated, implored, and other such words to Chamberlain to use direct and unambiguous statements with Hitler, statements that made it clear that the deal that was being presented was all that could be done, and if Germany did not accept the options in front of them then the only option was war. This push back against any form of revision of the agreement as it existed is an important piece of information to keep in mind as the situation develops. I also mentioned last episode that there would be a trend of Chamberlain’s close allies within the cabinet moving into greater opposition to his continued negotiations and their outcomes. Instead, they would begin to join with the ministers that had always been present in the cabinet who had spoken out against the course of events, some with more or less strength in their words. These changes will come back into play in some major ways once Chamberlain left for Bad Godesberg and meetings in the cabinet would occur without Chamberlain being present.
Chamberlain would be on his flight to his second meeting with Hitler at 10:45AM on the morning of September 22nd. The good news for Chamberlain was that the trip was much shorter this time, with the meeting taking place in Bad Godesberg, which was near Cologne. This meant that the plan landed just after 12:30PM. On the journey were a few secretaries as well as the head of the Legal Department, the head of a Central department, and an interpreter. Unlike the celebratory atmosphere that had presaged their previous meetings, on their way to this second meeting the mood was generally more tense. Even the German charge d’affaires in London noticed that the tenor of the party was very different as they arrived at the airport on September 22nd. He would inform Berlin that “Chamberlain and his party have left under a heavy load of anxiety … Unquestionably opposition is growing to Chamberlain’s policy.” The fact remained that he was bringing with him the confirmation from Prague that they would agree to the German demands, which meant that at least the Germans should be reasonably happy about things. After arrriving at their hotel Chamberlain would take a ferry across the Rhine to meet with Hitler at the Hotel Dreesen where the meetings would take place. The conference room was generally unremarkable, although apparently the view of the river was fantastic. Hitler was already in the meeting room when he arrived, and both Chamberlain’s and Hitler’s intepreters took their place at the same table. Chamberlain, ever well prepared, would start in on his prepared opening statement, which he wanted to read out in full before the conference really got going. This included a comprehensive outline of the plan that had been drafted, and a lengthy description of how it had been agreed to in London, then Paris, and finally in Prague. Within the outline was a conversation about the uage of an international commission to determine precise boundaries, including its composition. There were also details about some of the systems that would be put in place to handle those that found themselves on the side of the border they found undesirable, and what would happen with state owned property. All of these topics were very much the precise implementation details that Chamberlain felt were essential to nail down, whild Hitler was almost toally disinterested. It would end with the details of the international guarantees that would be provided by Britain and France as well as a proposal for the German nonaggression pact and an invitation to join the guarantee of the new borders. This completed Chamberlain’s opening statement, with the clear expectation that this was all acceptable to Hitler and the German government.
The response was not precisely what Chamberlain hoped for. Hitler would speak in German, and then push himself back to the table, while Schmidt his interpretter said in English “I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Chamberlain, but this is not possible any more. I can no longer discuss these matters. This solution, after the developments of the last few days, is no longer practicable.” In a single sentence Hitler had completely undone all of the previous work that had involved so many conversations in London, Paris, and Prague. Now of course we just spent about 1 and a half episodes discussing that deal, knowing that it would immediately be vetoed by Hitler, so the just because he said he wanted to change the deal did not mean that the conversations would end, but instead Hitler would take the agreements of the other nations, really a capitulation, and then increase his demands. First up was the simple fact that he wanted to massively speed up the entire timetable on the territory transfer, as he would say the situation “must be completely and finally solved by October first, at the latest.”. Instead of waiting for some international tribunal to determine the exact borders he wanted a German occupation to begin at once. Obviously he wanted to do this so that the Germans were in the position of power should that international tribunal be setup and start messing with the borders. A map would even be produced for this demand and Hitler would say “a frontier line must be drawn at once … from which the Czechs must withdraw the army, police and all State organs; this area would at once be occupied by Germany.” It was only after this occupation was complete that any changes or plebiscites could begin, and they would use the 1918 census, which was of course before Czechoslovakia even existed. Any Germany who had left the area since 1918 would also be allowed to vote, even if they had not lived in the area for the last 20 years. Hitler also wanted the territorial demands that had been made by Hungary and Poland to be accepted. This was of course exactly the kind of thing that many in London had been afraid of. Hitler’s alterations were also not limited strictly to additions, he did have some concerns about some of the items that had found their way into the agreement since the last time he had spoken with Chamberlain. For example he refused to play the Czechoslovak government for any property that was handed over to the Germans. He also refused to join in any international guarantee of the new borders. Chamberlain would replay that he was “both disappointed and puzzled. He could rightly say that the Fuehrer had got from him what he had demanded.” With these new demands and changes now on the record, the meeting broke up and Chamberlain headed back across the river to contemplate. Sir Horace Wilson, who was at Bad Godesberg due to his close relationship with Chamberlain would report to London that “conversations today had been ‘pretty difficult’ and they were all rather exhausted.” One of the major challenges that Chamberlain was laboring under at this point was the growing push from Czechoslovakia to fully mobilize its armed forces. This is something that had been close to happening during the previous meeting, and had been averted, but it was a serious risk again. It had only been pressure from London and Paris that had prevented a full mobilization in the first place, and the news from Bad Godesberg meant that many of the leaders in London were hesitant to apply that pressure again. At 2AM in the morning news arrived in London that Chamberlain had decided to write a letter to Hitler which would online why, in Chamberlain’s mind, his proposals simply would not work. When it was delivered the planned meeting for just a few hours later was cancelled, by the Germans, without any indication of what would happen next.
At 3PM the German response would arrive in the form of another letter that Schmidt would deliver in person. The document was five pages long, and it had not been translated from German into English, and so Schmidt would do a bit of live translation of what was written. One piece of the letter made it clear that Hitler was not going to accept any kind of staged or slow approach but “solely the realization of this principle … which both puts an end in the shortest time to the suffering of the unhappy victims of Czech tyranny, and at the same time corresponds to the dignity of a Great Power.” Overall, Chamberlain would later say that the “tone was not as courteous or as considerate as one would wish, but it was worth remembering that the Germans were apt to express themselves curtly.” Chamberlain, still hoping to push for a solution, sent another letter across the river which stated that he was still willing to work with Hitler and his new demands, but he wanted them clearly stated in a memorandum, and for a map to also be included. He then planned to present these new requests to his government and begin the entire process of gaining acceptence from Prague all over again. After this somewhat conciliatory message, Ribbentrop suggested that the two leaders meet once again to discuss the contents of the memorandum in person. While Chamberlain was struggling to find some kind of reasonable and concrete position from Hitler, back in London the situation was starting to spool away from him, even if he did not yet know it. As those still in London, and particularly Halifax who had been an important supporter of Chamberlain’s tactics, got more information about the events happening at Bad Godesberg they were becoming more and more concerned. This concern caused them to take very real actions, which would have ramifications when Chamberlain and Hitler later met. Halifax and the others decided that they would dispatch a message to Prague, which would advise the British Ambassador to officially withdraw the previous advice given to avoid a mobilization. Duff Cooper, from his position at the Admiralty, would also authorize a partial mobilization of the Royal Navy, with men recalled from leave, all ships being given full crews, and for 2,000 men to head for the ships in the Mediterranean. A message would arrive in London at 9:30PM that Chamberlain and Hitler were preparing for their final meeting, Wilson woul dsay that if it was possible to find an agreement they would “If not we shall come home. We are telling Prague that we are expecting a Memorandum later this evening and that they may like to defer their decision until they see it when they get it tonight.” This would be answered by what was the clearest statement of the growing concern among the governmnet in London, with Halifax attaching his name, as a point of emphasis to Chamberlain: “It may help you if we give you some indication of what seems predominant public opinion as expressed in press and elsewhere. While mistrustful of our plan but prepared perhaps to accept it with reluctance as alternative to war, great mass of public opinion seems to be hardening in sense of feeling that we have gone to limit of concession and that it is up to Chancellor to make some contribution. … From point of view of your own position, that of Government, and of the country, it seems to your colleagues of vital importance that you should not leave without making it plain to Chancellor if possible by special interview that, after great concessions made by Czechoslovak Government, for him to reject opportunity of peaceful solution in favour of one that must involve war would be an unpardonable crime against humanity.”
The final meeting at Bad Godesberg would begin at 10:30PM on September 23. True to their word the memorandum and map was presented to Chamberlain which detailed the German demands, along with a new time limit. Schmidt would once again be called upon for a bit of live translation. They demanded that Prague evacuate all military forces from the area beginning just two days later on September 26th, and that the evacuation would be completed in 2 days. They were to take nothing with them in terms of government property. Chamberlain could not believe it, and he called the entire memorandum an ultimatum, which was pretty much exactly what it was. It was around this moment, that a bit of new arrived. It was first given to Hitler who read the message and then told Schmidt to translate it for Chamberlain. It was the notification that Benes and the Czechoslovak government had just announced a general mobilization. This had been done in a radio broadcast to the entire nation, which involved it being repeated in six different languages. Roughly 1 million men woul dbe mobilized over the following days. The exact thoughts of those at the meeting were not recorded, but it could not have been far from anyone’s mind that perhaps war was bout to begin. Then Hitler, ever the oppportunist, used the news to his advantage. He would say “In spite of this provocation, this unheard-of provocation, I shall keep to my undertaking not to proceed against Czechoslovakia, not to use force while these negotiations are on—at any rate while you, Mr. Chamberlain, remain on German soil.” This was the perfect response, because once again it appeared to Chamberlain that Hitler was being quite reasonable. Chamberlain then sat down and started to go through the new memorandum line by line before getting a few minor textual changes to be made, and then a short adjustment to the deadline, with the new date being October 1st, the day that Hitler had always been targeting. Once this process was complete the meeting was over, after three and a half hours of work. Chamberlain would then leave and go back to London, and on his arrival he would say “My first duty, now that I have come back, is to report to the British and French Governments the result of my mission, and until I have done that it will be difficult for me to say anything about it. I will only say this: I trust that all concerned will continue their efforts to solve the Czechoslovakia problem peaceably, because on that turns the peace of Europe in our time.” During this meeing he went through the new agreement that had been made, which took an hour as he also detailed his perceptions of all of the meetings in general. He would state that he felt that “Herr Hitler had certain standards … he would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation, and he was sure that Herr Hitler now felt some respect for him.” The audience for this discussion was reaching new levels of disagreement, and when Chamberlain ended his portion of the discussion Hore-Belisha called for the army to be mobilized, and he was supported by several others. Duff Cooper stringently agreed, stating that the Chiefs of Staff were calling for mobilization and that if it was not done “we might some day have to explain why we had disregarded their advice.”
The conversation in the cabinet would be taken up yet again at 10:30AM on September 25th. It would continue for five hours, during which the conversations would be just as heated as in the previous meetings. The fact that Halifax had changed his position over the previous days and was now firmly in opposition to the new agreement provided new impetus to the resistance. This mostly just led to deadlock, with no majority being possible. Eventually Cooper would even offer his resignation stating that his “continual presence in the Cabinet was only a source of delay and annoyance.” Chamberlain rejected this offered resignation, with there being some evidence that Cooper only offered it knowing that it would be rejected. Even after a break for lunch the course was already set and there was no possibility of anyone really being convinced to change their position. Later in the evening another meeting would occur with the French, with Daladier and Bonnet again meeting with the Inner Circle. One attendee would call this meeting “the most painful which it has ever been my misfortune to attend.” Most of this pain was apparently driven by Chamberlain’s mood after having been in the meetings with Hitler and then finding very little support among his Cabinet earlier in the day. Daladier also did not have great news for Chamberlain, who he would inform that the French cabinet had also not just rejected the new proposals, but had done so unanimously. This firm rejection was based on the fact that the new belief among the French government was that Hitler’s objective was “to destroy Czechoslovakia by force, enslaving her, and afterwards realising the domination of Europe.” The three essential questions, in Daladier’s mind was whether the British would accept the proposal, whether they were willing to put the pressure on Czechoslovakia that would undoubtedly be required to gain their acceptance, and if Chamberlain truly believed that the French should not do anything to defend its ally. Chamberlain would only agree to inform Hitler in the event of a war between Czechoslovakia and Germany, France would honor its treaty commitments, and Britain would enter the war in their support. With this agreement the meeting was adjourned after a bit over 2 hours. Once again the British cabinet would meet, with the first topic of discussion being a letter that should be sent to Prague immediately. It would be addressed directly from Chamberlain to Benes, and would say in part: “I feel bound to tell you and Czechoslovak Government that the information His Majesty’s Government now have from Berlin makes it clear that German forces will have orders to cross Czechoslovak frontier almost immediately, unless by 2 P.M. tomorrow Czechoslovak Government have accepted German terms. That must result in Bohemia being overrun and nothing that any other Power can do will prevent this fate for your own country and your people, and this remains true whatever may be the ultimate issue of a possible world war. His Majesty’s Government cannot take responsibility of advising you what you should do but they consider this information should be in your hands at once.” At roughly the same time a letter would also be sent to Hitler, which would state in very clear and unambiguous language that if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, France would declare war, and if that occurred the British would be obliged to support them. While these messages were being delivered, in Eastern Europe the Hungarian government was informed that if it went to war with Czechoslovakia, both Yugoslavia and Rumania would declare war. In Paris a partial mobilization would also be ordered, with the German military attache in Paris informing his government that this was very close to a full mobilization. Europe had not been this close to the start of a war since 1914.