On September 30th, just before 2AM, the Munich Agreement was signed. Territory transfers were scheduled to begin less than 24 hours later.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 76 - The Munich Agreement Part 8 - The Munich Agreement. This week a big thank you goes out to Simon, Max, Jeremy, timeczar, and Sam for their support on Patreon, where they now get access to ad-free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Also, that last individual, Sam is the host of the Pax Britannica podcast, which discusses the history of the British Empire, a history that some might say we are actively covering the final chapters of in this podcast. Head on over to paxbritannica.info to find out more. It also appears that Spotify has started allowing you to review podcasts, so if you are listening to this podcast on Spotify, and you are enjoying it, you can help out the show by giving it a five star rating. For the first time in quite some time I also have some corrections to discuss, I would like to thank Patron Thomas for pointing out that I have not been using the word disinterested correctly, and I should have instead used uninterested during episode 74 when discussing Hitler’s views on what he considered to be silly little details that Chamberlain kept trying to bring into their meetings at Bad Godesberg. I would also like to thank listener Ronald for pointing out that in the Warspite Special released in December 2020, I referred to the island of Walcheren as a Belgian island when it is in fact Dutch. I apologize to all of my listeners from the Netherlands, which according to the information I have access to is the nation with the fifth most listeners to the podcast. With all of those administrative things out of the way, back to the history. As the British and French delegations made their way to the meetings which would begin at 12:45pm on September 29th, the Sudeten crisis, which had occupied so many discussions over the previous months, was entering its terminal phase. They would meet with the German and Italian telegatioins at the Fuhrerbau in Munich, a building which the French ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, would describe as “a characteristic specimen of Hitlerian architecture, it repudiated detail, ornament, curve, and roundness of form, seeking to impress by the Doric simplicity of its lines and the massive aspect of its proportions.” The participatns in the meeting all had their own strategies that they would use during the discussions. The French had perhaps the easiest, with Daladier describe it to his own delegation with the words “Everything depends on the English…We can do nothing but follow them.” On the British side, Chamberlain and the British were simply trying to get the final signature on what had already been agreed to during the previous meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain. From the German and Italian perspective, they had a plan. Before the meetings they had discussions, and they had agreed to allow Mussolini to present a German developed plan as his own, detailing out the basic structure of the agreement. The goal was to get this text to be the basis for the upcoming discussions, and it was felt that if Mussolini presented it as an Italian plan, which it really was not, it would help to gain British and French acceptance. The acceptance of the British and French was critical, as the Italians were already onside with the Germans, and they were the only four delegations in the room. Missing from that list, and this is always worth repeating, was any representation from Czechoslovakia, the country that was about to have a sizeable portion of its total territory stripped from its control and handed over to Germany.
When the meeting finally got started, Hitler would invite the other leaders into his private study where the bulk of the conversations that would follow would occur. After some short introductions, Mussolini would present the plan that had been previously discussed with the Germans. It had been helpfully written out in detail by the German Foreign Office in Berlin during the previous day. It contained five basic points, which I won’t bother discussing in too much detail if only because they are in many ways reflected in the final agreement which we will discuss in a bit. They key here was that the British and French both agreed that Mussolini’s proposals could form the basis for the discussions on the day. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that these events were kind of a culmination of the relationship between the two western powers and Mussolini during the 1930s. For years they had been on very friendly terms with Mussolini and Rome, and the relationship between France and Italy had been foundational to French security, but over the years before 1938 Italian policy had started to decisively shift into the German orbit. Even after that shift occurred, Mussolini was still seen as a reasonably political leader, and one that could and would be a moderating influence in Hitler’s ear. This tainted the ability of the British and French to fully understand Mussolini’s actions and motivations in the years before the war. For example, British Ambassador Henderson would drescribe the proposals made by Mussolini as “tactfully put forward as his own a combination of Hitler’s and the Anglo-French proposals.” While the two Western powers were wrong in their evaluations in this case, Mussolini would often urge Hitler to caution over the following year, he just had no real power to actually influence the actions of the German leader. But at Munich his proposals had precisely the effect that they were designed for, and the conversations that followed would be a detailed debate of the specifics of Mussolini’s proposals. Some clauses were agreed to quite quickly, but others would be quickly mired in lengthy debates. One of the issues that would arise sevearl times in the discussions was around compensation both to the Czechoslovak government and non-German citizens that would be leading the territory that was being handed over to Germany. Chamberlain often led these discussions, constantly questioning how the government in particular would be compensated for so much infrastructre being ceded to Germany. Hitler, as ever, stood firm on the concept that in their retreat the Czechoslovakian government should take nothing with them and they should receive no compensation. Chamberlain was undeterred, and even at one point brought up the topic of how livestock should be handled, could it be moved out of the areas that Germany was moving into. Having to deal with such specifics, never Hitler’s strong suit, eventually moved him into losing his temper completely, yelling “Our time is too valuable to be wasted on such trivialities.” One thing that any student of these events had to keep in mind is that while today we translate everything quite easily, and everything on this podcast is in English, within the room itself there were several language barriers. Mussolini was really the only one of the leaders that could at least understand everything being said around him, while the others were completely dependent on translators for some portion of the discussion. This slowed everything down, and I am sure it also exaggerated any impatient feelings from participants as items they did not want to discuss were being talked bout, then translated, then replied to, then translated, then responded to, then translated, and on and on.
Just after 3PM the meeting paused for lunch, and it would begin again a bit over an hour later at 4:30PM. During the break Mussolini’s proposals were fully translated into all of the applicable languages, which made things a bit easier. But the disagreements about some of the details did not go away. Still up for debate was the precise time table during which the territory would be ceded during the initial occupation phase of October 1st through the 10th. There was also some wording around the guarantees that would be provided by the various nations to Czechoslovakia after the territory transfers had been made. In anticipation for the eventual ironing out of these details two representatives of the Czechslovak government would arrive, the Czech minister in Berlin Dr. Vojtech Mastny, and Dr. Hubert Masarik of the Czechoslovak foreign office. They were not actually brought into the meeting, of course not, but they were put in an adjoining room so that the final agreement could be detailed to them when the time arrived to do so. Their arrival did not bring the four leaders within the room any closer to some kind of conclusion. Hitler was becoming even omre impatient as the afternoon gave way to the evening. Maps had been brought out for purpose of discussion, and there had been several smaller groups that have broken off to discuss some of the details, but forward progress seemed like an illusion. The German plan had always been to have the entire thing sorted out by 9PM, and a dinner was scheduled to begin at that time to celebrate. As that time grew closer, the disagreements remained, and another pause was called. The British and French were invited to partake in the dinner anyway, but they declined. During this break, with the British delegation back in their own rooms, the two representatives of Czechoslovakia recevied their first firm information about what was being discussed. At 10Pm they were brought in to see Wilson, who outlined the agreement, gave them a map of the areas that would be immediately changing hands, and then left the room. Wilson left Frank Ashton-Gwatkin of the Foreign Office to answer any questions. The Czechoslovak ministers certainly had questions, comments, and concerns, but Ashton-Gwatkin would eventually just say, and quoting here “If you do not accept you will have to settle your affairs with the Germans absolutely alone, Perhaps the French will say this to you more kindly, but believe me they share our views. They are disinterested.” The Czechoslovak representatives were only informed of the agreement because by the time that the conference got going against after 10Pm there were some small wording changes still to be made, but the main structure of the agreement was already in place and would not change.
These details would all be worked out over the course of a few hours, and before 2AM on September 30th the four leaders would put their signatures on the agreement. Of course there was an attempt to have some level of ceremony even at such a late hour, with the typewritten agreement set on a mahogany table for the leaders to sign. But when Hitler walked up to the table to sign first, he found that inkwell that had been placed beside the agreement was empty, a problem that was quickly sorted and the signatures were then completed and the agreement was official. Instead of summarizing, since the agreement was pretty short, I am just going to read it here in full. Shoutout to the Yale Law School, which is a great source of full text, in English, for these types of documents. They even present them in very close to just plain text, which as a web developer, I greatly appreciate. Here is the full text of the Munich Agreement. “GERMANY, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, taking into consideration the agreement, which has been already reached in principle for the cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territory, have agreed on the following terms and conditions governing the said cession and the measures consequent thereon, and by this agreement they each hold themselves responsible for the steps necessary to secure its fulfilment: (1) The evacuation will begin on 1st October. (2) The United Kingdom, France and Italy agree that the evacuation of the territory shall be completed by the 10th October, without any existing installations having been destroyed, and that the Czechoslovak Government will be held responsible for carrying out the evacuation without damage to the said installations. (3) The conditions governing the evacuation will be laid down in detail by an international commission composed of representatives of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. (4) The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territory by German troops will begin on 1st October. The four territories marked on the attached map will be occupied by German troops in the following order: The territory marked No. I on the 1st and 2nd of October; the territory marked No. II on the 2nd and 3rd of October; the territory marked No. III on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of October; the territory marked No. IV on the 6th and 7th of October. The remaining territory of preponderantly German character will be ascertained by the aforesaid international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by the 10th of October. (5) The international commission referred to in paragraph 3 will determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held. These territories will be occupied by international bodies until the plebiscite has been completed. The same commission will fix the conditions in which the plebiscite is to be held, taking as a basis the conditions of the Saar plebiscite. The commission will also fix a date, not later than the end of November, on which the plebiscite will be held. (6) The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission. The commission will also be entitled to recommend to the four Powers, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, in certain exceptional cases, minor modifications in the strictly ethnographical determination of the zones which are to be transferred without plebiscite. (7) There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories, the option to be exercised within six months from the date of this agreement. A German-Czechoslovak commission shall determine the details of the option, consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population and settle questions of principle arising out of the said transfer. (8) The Czechoslovak Government will within a period of four weeks from the date of this agreement release from their military and police forces any Sudeten Germans who may wish to be released, and the Czechoslovak Government will within the same period release Sudeten German prisoners who are serving terms of imprisonment for political offences.” A few main pieces to discuss, obviously the international commission would be important, and would work out many of the precise details when the heads of state were not in a position to discuss. You will also note that none of Chamberlain’s concerns about renumeration made their way into the final text. Another important note, and a concession to Germany, was the reference to the conditions of the Saar plebiscite when setting the rules for the upcoming plebiscites in Czechoslovakia. This was in reference to the fact that new citizens of the Sudeten areas would not be allowed to votie, and only those that had been living in the areas for many yeras would be allowed to participate, a German attempt to reduce the effects of the fact that the areas had been in Czechoslovakia for almost 20 years.
With the agreement signed, there was still the task of presenting it to Czechoslovakia, and that started with those two representatives in the other room. Hitler and Mussolini did not participate in this meeting, and when Masarik and Mastny were brought in Masarik would describe the atmosphere as oppressive. By all accounts the French delegation was quite downcast during the meeeting, which makes sense given the fact that they had spent months reassuring the Czechoslovak government in every way possible that they would help defend them against German aggression. Now, they had just signed an agreement that gave away one fifth of the nation’s total territory, without any bloodshed. Unfortunately, at least when it came to how the information would be framed when Prague was informed, the information about the agreement would arrive first from the German representative in the Czechoslovak capital. It would be delivered at 6:20AM in the morning when the Foreign Minister was brought out of bed to receive the information from the German, with the full text of the agreement. This included not just the information that the occupation of various areas on the border would begin just 18 hours in the future, at midnight on October 1st, but also that the government had just a few hours to dispatch two representatives to the all important international commission which would meet at 5PM of that very day…in Berlin. Very shortly after this news was delivered to the Foreign Minister President Benes was also informed, to which he would say “It’s a betrayal which will be its own punishment, they [the Western democracies] think that they will save themselves from war and revolution at our expense. They are wrong.”
Back in Munich Chamberlain had one more goal of the meetings, and that was to meet with Hitler on the morning of September 30th. During this meeting his goal was to get hitler to sign an agreement, which Chamberlain considered to be politically quite important. The agreement, was written by Chamberlain and he planned to release it to the press immediately after Hitler agreed, it read “We, the German Fuehrer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister [it read], have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo–German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo–German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.". Chamberlain thought that such an agreement was critical, but by all accounts Hitler cared basically not at all with its contents. He read it, quickly signed it, and then by his future actions obviously made clear that he probably did not even remember its contents. Chamberlain would then leave Munich and had back to London, where he would arrive at 5:30PM. He was met once again by press at the airport, and he spoke very positively of the developments which had occurred, not just of the Munich Agreement but also the discussions and agreement with Hitler from that morning. When he arrived back at Number 10 Downing Street he would once more address the assembled press, and would utter his famous line: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.". In terms of soundbites that have aged very very poorly, this has to be in some kind of best of list. It is worth noting though, that no small part of Chamberlain’s cheery viewpoint was driven by the small agreement with Hitler that had been signed just before he left, and he was not strictly referring to the Munich Agreement.
Back in Prague on the morning of September 30th Benes would meet with the military and political leaders of Czechoslakia. A key part of the decision making process at this point was not based on the ability of Czechoslovakia to defend itself from German aggression, everybody including the Czechoslovak military knew how that would end. But instead the key belief, which Benes and many other leading ministers shared was that even if Czechoslovakia went to war, France and Britain would simply have abandoned the nation. This was the message that had been delivered time and time again during the previous month of negotiations, agreements, and coercion. I bring up this fact because it is very frequent that at roughly this point in the narrative somebody will ask the question of why Czechoslovakia did not just fight. Many critics of appeasement would ask this question maliciously, but even a more moderate and reasonable person might ask that question. And the answer is simple, they knew that they could not win, and they absolutely believed that if they did fight, it would just reinforce their complete abandonment by Britain and France. By accepting the agreemnet before them they at least might preserve Czechoslovakia as a nation, even if it was reduced in size and power. It was then possible that a war might start in the near future, and the remains of Czechoslovakia could profit from Germany’s hopeful defeat. What would happen after September 1930, and the complete destruction of Czechoslovakia in early 1939, were not something that was considered to be a likely course of action, and even if it was, that is just the same fate that would have befell Czechoslovakia if it decided on war on September 30th 1938. As it was Benes would tell the Council for the Defense of the Republic that history “no parallel for dealing with a sovereign state in such a manner…We are deserted and betrayed.". He would go on to say that Czechoslovakia had not been defeated by Hitler, but instead by her friends. The new premier of the government would deliver the message by radio broadcast at 5PM, stating that “I am experiencing the gravest hour of my life. I would have been prepared to die rather than to go through this. We have had to choose between making a desperate and hopeless defence, which would have meant the sacrifice of an entire generation of our adult men, as well as of our women and children, and accepting, without a struggle and under pressure, terms which are without parallel in history for their ruthlessness. We were deserted. We stood alone.". The official agremeement had been delivered earlier in the day, stating that it declared before the entire world its protest against the decisions that were made without its involvement. Back in Munich Masarik would record that “They were then finished with us, and we were allowed to go. The Czechoslovak Republic as constituted within the frontiers of 1918 had ceased to exist”. When the French ambassador in Prague met with the Foreign Minister, and attempted to provide some kind of explanation Krofta would say, in a statement that would prove as true as a statement can possibly be “We have been forced into this situation; now everything is at an end; today it is our turn, tomorrow it will be the turn of others.” There would be some small adjustments to the exact German concessions by thte International commission, and the final damage would be 11,000 square miles of territory, which included 2.8 million Sudeten Germans and 800,000 Czechs. The surrender of territory was also not complete after the Germn agreements, Poland would also continue its demands and would eventually receive 650 square lines around Teschen, while Hungary would get even more on November 2nd. Somehow, it was far worse than it looked on a map, and on a map it looked really really bad. Because from a military perspective, within that 11,000 square miles was the Czechoslovak fortifications which had been built up through so much time, labor, and money, and was considered the second strongest only to the Maginot Line in France. Economically the toll was also staggering, around 2/3 of all of the coal in Czechoslovakia now passed to Germany, over 3/4 of chemical production, cement, textiles, iron, steel, and electrical generation. Rail connections also proved to now be problematic, with many routing through German territory, effectively removing those rail lines as useful tools for the Czechoslovakian economy. Overall it was a disaster for what was left of the nation. Knowing what we know now, and what happens next in the story of Czechoslovakia which we will discuss next episode, it is likely that the decisions made by all parties on September 30th 1938 would have been different. But as with so many other moments of the interwar years, the decision makes in 1938 did not have that luxury. For France and Britain the full consequences of their actions in Munich would not be truly felt for almost a year, for Czechoslovakia that reckoning would come much much sooner.