It seemed clear that nobody wanted to force the government in Prague to accept the Godesberg Memorandum and its demands, and war loomed on the horizon.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 75 - The Munich Agreement Part 7 - To the Brink. During the last week of September 1938, Europe seemed to be incredibly close to descending into war. On the morning of September 26th the details of the Godesberg memorandum would be printed in The Times of London, with rumors that their information was sourced directly from Prague. It was also public knowledge all over Europe that governments were preparing for a conflict. Just the day before gas masks had begun to be distributed around Britain from the Air Raid precaution stations out of fear that the first moves in any conflict would be German air raids. On the continent the Czechoslovakian army had been mobilized, including 500 aircraft, and in France 23 divisions had been placed in readiness on the German border for defensive purposes, with the additional hope that their mere presence would deter German aggression. War appeared to be imminent, and there appeared to be no way to avert it.
The French and British governments were still in close communication, and after their meetings on the evening of September 25th General Gamelin, the French Chief of Staff, would also be brought to London to participate in further talks. What was clear by this point was that the government in Prague would not accept the Godesberg proposals, and if they did not then Germany would invade and then France would be pulled into the war, and then Britain would as well. The British had reassured the French that they would in fact join in the war in her defense, but even with this assurance Daladier was pretty concerned about French chances during the opening stages of any war. Gamelin, in a role reversal from some earlier events, brought with him some positivity. He promised that the French army was ready and willing to attack the German defenses just five days after the start of hostilities. I am not completely sure if Gamelin actually believed this, or if he was just putting on a good show, but from everything we know today about French military preparations such an attacks seems very unlikely. Similar assurances would be made to Poland in August 1939, and well, I guess we will get there eventually. On September 26th the British cabinet would meet once again, mostly to discuss the ongoing preparations for war. Topics like the manning of anti-aircraft defenses, ensuring that coastal defense units were in place, and arrangements were made to call up Territorial units. It was also decided to recall all members of the Royal Air Force who were on leave. Wilson would also be readied for a trip to Berlin to deliver the message we discussed last episodes, concerning the unity of Britain and France should Germany attack Czechoslovakia. He would have this meeting mere hours before Hitler was scheduled to give a speech in Berlin which some were concerned would be the moment that Hitler would declare war.
In Berlin Hitler, returning to Berlin from Obersalzberg, was not exactly happy about all of the developments in Paris and London. For months the plans had been for a quick invasion of Czechoslovakia on or near the start of October, but the sudden massive increase in tensions caused some issues with that plan. The purpose for the quick invasion was to have it all done before other nations could respond, but with both the Czechoslovak army mobilized, and the French army partially mobilized, and the British now obviously preparing for war, things were becoming more difficult. This forced some changes to the German invasion plans, with a shift to a two phase invasion, with the Sudeten areas first occupied before launching into the full invasion. This two phase approach allowed for changes to be made, or discussions to occur with other nations if required. It was in this atmosphere that Wilson would arrive to deliver his message, which did nothing to put Hitler in a better mood. The core of the message was simply that France would honor her treaty commitments to Czechoslovakia and Britain would join her. This apparently threw Hitler into another one of his rage induced ranting sessions. The targets for the rant were Benes, the Czechs, British, and French. He made it clear to Wilson that he would only enter negotiations with Prague if they were accepted the Godesberg memorandum in full, and to German troops being in the Sudeten Areas no later than October 1st. When Wilson asked if there was a message that he should deliver to London, Hitler would shout, and Schmidt would translate “If France and England strike, let them do so. It is a matter of complete indifference to me. I am prepared for every eventuality. I can only take note of the position. It is Tuesday today, and by next Monday we shall all be at war.” This meeting occurred a bit after noon on September 26th, and just to make it clear what the time frame was on this discussions, Hitler had put a deadline for the acceptance of the Godesberg Memorandum on September 28 at 2PM, so about 48 hours after the meeting with Wilson was happening. The implication that non-acceptance by that date would lead to war was very clear. Later that evening Hitler would give his speech, with 20,000 Nazi supporters in attendance and it broadcast via radio all over Germany. The content was, by this point, typical Hitler talking points. Direct insults thrown at Benes saying “This Czech State began with a single lie and the father of this lie was named Beneš. … I have demanded that now after twenty years Mr. Beneš should at last be compelled to come to terms with the truth. On 1 October he will have to hand over to us this area. … Now two men stand arrayed one against the other: there is Mr. Beneš and here stand I”. There was a lot of similar type of discussions about related topics as well that I won’t bother you with. Apparently the speech made quite the impression, with several Germans who listened to it on radio commenting on his brutal delivery. At the same time, when it was translated for the government in London the overall feeling was that the speech did not justify an immediate order for mobilization. This was quite a favorable outlook on the speech, which was clearly preparing the German people for war.
Wilson would return to London and would attend meetings where updated evaluations on the German and Czechoslovak militaries were presented to Chamberlain and other leaders. The information provided was that the Czechoslovaks did not have a great chance of putting up a prolonged and successful defense. An update on the mood of the Dominions was also provided, with Stanley Bruce trying to impress upon others that the Dominion government were not at all pleased with the idea of going to war, and felt that the Godesberg terms should be accepted. Finally, discussions were had with the First Sea Lord about the preparations made by the Royal Navy should a war be just a few days away. It was requested by the First Sea Lord that he be allowed to fully mobilize the Navy, which Chamberlain agreed to. After all of these meetings Chamberlain would make his own radio broadcast, the contents would be a general summation of Chamberlain’s views, although they were not delivered as articulately as they could have been . “However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted … war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defence, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.” Those within the government who you might expect to react negatively to this message certainly did, with Churchill for example telephoning Cooper saying that it represented “preparation to scuttle.” After the speech another Cabinet meeting would be held. This meeting was primarily based around Wilson informing the others how his meeting with Hitler had gone, which was of course not well. He would then suggest that “the only plan which could prevent the country from being over-run would be for the Czechoslovak Government to withdraw their troops from the red areas and allow Germany to occupy them without loss of life.". As with earlier suggestions of applying such pressure to Prague, this was not well received by many within the Cabinet. I realize I have quoted Duff Cooper quite a bit during these episodes, which can be attributed to the fact that David Faber in Munich 1938: Appeasement and World War II heavily utilizes Cooper quotes to represent the anti-appeasement viewpoint within the British cabinet, but I will give just one more here. After Wilson had made his suggestion, Cooper would say “If we were now to desert the Czechs, or even advise them to surrender, we should be guilty of one of basest betrayals in history.”
Back in Berlin preparations for the invasion were ongoing. After his meeting with Wilson ended, Hitler had given the orders that the troops that would be involved in the invasion, which involved seven divisions, would be moved from their exercise areas up to their jumping-off points. Beyond this move there was the reaffirmation that they be fully prepared and ready to be given the final orders on September 30th, and then to begin the invasion just after 6AM the next day. Orders were also sent out by the OKW for five divisions to be moved into the western defenses to protect against any possible French aggression, this movement was done in secret as much as possible. Along with this the final preparations for full mobilization were made. In Germany this meant that one of the primary pieces of this preparation was for all of the local Nazi Party authorities to be notified that they might be receiving direct orders from the OKW in the coming days. It was made clear to those Nazi party authorities that these orders could and should be obeyed without question or without checking with Nazi party authorities. While these orders were being relayed to the various German groups, around Europe there was a constant series of communications and conversations happening in all of the capitals. Italy was also becoming far more involved, having been mostly on the outside of any discussions up to this point. Mussolini was very keen to bring Hitler together with the other leaders to try and find some way to avoid war, with Italy certainly was not ready to participate in. Early in the morning of September 28th Chamberlain wrote to Hitler with his last series of offers, which included a phased occupation of the Sudetenland and for some immediate territory transfers on the border. This information was relayed not just to Paris but also to Rome, with Chamberlain asking Mussolini to use whatever influence had on Hitler to try and bring him to the negotiating table. These final messages set the stage for the events on the morning of September 28th, which the ultimatum was due to expire. At 11:15 Hitler would meet with the French ambassador, Andrew Francois-Poncet, who was fully briefed by Paris on the contents of Chamberlain’s final propositions. He hoped to get Hitler to agree to them, and even offered to expand the zones of immediate occupation, which represented a much larger percentage of the total Sudeten territory. While their meeting was still occurring, at roughly 11:40 the Italian ambassador in Berlin, Attolico, would arrive at the German Chancellery. He brought with him a message directly from Mussolini in Rome. Mussolini had asked Attolico to meet with Hitler as soon as possible, and relay to him that Mussolini and Italy favored accepting the proposals. However, the message also made clear that Mussolini supported Hitler in any decision he would make. At this point the future lay directly in Hitler’s hands. War seemed inevitable all over Europe, armies were mobilizing, trenches were being dug all over the continent, in eastern France and Western Germany trains were packed with people trying to get out of cities out of fear of air attack. But it was also at this moment, so close to the expiration of the ultimatum, that Hitler decided to postpone mobilization and the invasion. He invited British ambassador Henderson to speak with him just before 2PM on the 28th and informed him of two things. The first was that he was delaying mobilization by 24 hours. Second he was going to send invitations to London, Paris, and Rome for government leaders to meet with him in Munich the following day. This would give everyone the opportunity to come to an agreement and avoid war. What was also made clear was that the threat of German military action was in no way removed, just delayed until after that meeting could occur. This request was then relayed to London at 3:15, with Henderson telephoning the foreign office and saying that “Herr Hitler invites the Prime Minister to meet him in Munich tomorrow morning. He has also invited Signor Mussolini, who will arrive at 10 A.M., and M. Daladier.". Similar messages would also be relayed to Paris and Rome. One of the challenges for the British government was that when this arrived Chamberlain was at that moment in the Commons giving a speech. Chancellor of the Exchequer Simon was informed via a note, but was unsure how to give the information to Chamberlain, not wanting to interrupt him mid monologue. A brief break in his speaking, to allow for a spot of applause, provided an opportunity and the note was passed to Chamberlain. Chamberlain then decided, and Simon agreed, that the Commons should be informed at that very moment, and when he began speaking again he announced that Hitler had agreed to postpone mobilization . He would finish up by saying “That is not all. I have something further to say to the House yet. I have now been informed by Herr Hitler that he invites me to meet him at Munich tomorrow morning. He has also invited Signor Mussolini and M. Daladier. Signor Mussolini has accepted and I have no doubt M. Daladier will also accept. I need not say what my answer will be” Chamberlain would then write to Hitler: “After reading your letter, I feel certain that you can get all essentials without war, and without delay. I am ready to come to Berlin myself at once to discuss arrangements for transfer with you and representatives of the Czech Government, together with representatives of France and Italy, if you desire.” With this letter an the agreement of the German, Italian, French, and British governments to meet in another round of negotiations, the final stage of the Munich saga was about to begin.
With the threat slightly postponed, one only tangentially related topic that we should discuss. A few episodes ago we discussed the possibility of a German coup detat led by General Halder, the Chief of the General Staff. We left that conspiracy at a point where they knew the military leaders they needed to convince and then how they would use them in the case of the plan being put in place. However, if you remember one of the key prerequisites for the scheme to work is that they needed Hitler to actually bring Germany into a war. They felt that this was the only way they could ensure support for their overthrow of his government, because it was felt that the German people did not want war. They also needed Hitler to be present in Berlin, just because that is where their military strength was, and it was essential that he be kidnapped as part of the process. During these final days before the ultimatum expired Hitler was in Berlin, so that was taken care of, and it appeared that war about to begin, so things appeared to be going well. But then, Hitler backed down and suggested further negotiations. This destroyed the plans that were in place. Beyond the simple logistical problems, Hitler was now preparing for a trip to Munich, there were two other problems. The first was simply that war would not be declared, which meant that nothing could actually be done to Hitler. But more importantly it was impossible for them to act in any way while Hitler had asked for further negotiations with other European leaders, and they had accepted. They could not arrest Hitler and accuse him of being a war criminal and taking Germany into a war when it was Hitler who was at least publicly attempting to preserve peace. As one of the conspirators would say “The effect on our plans, was bound to be disastrous. It would have been absurd to stage a putsch to overthrow Hitler at a moment when the British Prime Minister was coming to Germany to discuss with Hitler ‘the peace of the world”. While of course it is impossible to know if the conspirators, and their plan to overthrow Hitler would have worked, personally I don’t rate its success possibilities very highly due to the general support Hitler seems to have had among the German people and German government. What seems absolutely certain is that this was probably the last point at which there was even a small chance of such an overthrow succeeding. As we will discuss over the next two episodes Hitler would during the discussions in Munich only increase his prestige and appearances of his ability to expand Germany’s power without resorting to war. By the next major war scare with Poland, Hitler would be even more unassailable.
In London, Czechoslovakia’s ambassador, Jan Masaryk, who was the son of Tomas Masaryk who had been so important to the creation of Czechoslovakia, was informed of the upcoming plans for the meeting. He had also been informed of the proposals that had been made to Hitler over the previous days, as more and more of his country had been bargained away in the hopes of maintaining peace. Now there would be a conference of four European leaders where it appeared that the fate of Czechoslovakia would be decided, and there would be no representative of Czechoslovakia present. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, which as a source can be problematic, but it does have some good zingers, in this case Shirer would say that “The Czechs were not even asked to be present at their own death sentence.” Initially Masaryk did not know that no one from his nation would be present, but when he was informed by Chamberlain and Halifax of this fact he would simply say “If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls.”