The Munich Agreement had been signed, the territory transfers had started, it was time for the whole area to calm down….right?
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 77 - The Munich Agreement Part 9 - Aftermath. This week a big thank you goes out to Diego for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member. Members get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member only episodes roughly every month, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. On September 30th, the Munich Agreement had been signed, but the journey was not even close to being over for the people of Czechoslovakia. As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, over the first 10 days of October a massive amount of territory that had previously been part of Czechoslovakia was transferred over to Germany, roughly 11,000 square miles. This was made even worse by the fact that shortly after the territory was lost to Germany, the new power that Germany held allowed them to force through Polish claims around Teschen and then Hungarian claims in the south, with both claims being forced through by early November. What was left of the nation would very rapidly find itself completely under the thumb of the German government, whatever possibility Czechoslovakia ever had of resisting a German invasion quickly evaporated, and this resulted in Prague losing any ability to resist new German demands. One of these demands would be the resignation of Benes, who was forced to resign at Hitler’s direct insistence. Benes had been the second president of Czechoslovakia, having taken over from Thomas Masaryk as the second President of Czechoslovakia. Both men had been absolutely pivotal figures in the creation of the nation, and with them would leave a good amount of the prestige and trust that had held the nation together through the turbulent post First World War years, and then through the problems of the mid 1930s. Benes would be replaced by General Syrovy, who was then replaced by Emil Hacha in late November. Hacha was a 66 year old Chief Justice of the Czechoslovak Supreme Court, and he very quickly found himself in an impossible situation.
After the agreement had been signed, there was at least a few serious sighs of relief among the German High Command. Most of the information about their reactions, and the general state of the German military at the time, comes from after the war, but they are extremely uniform in their evaluations that the invasion would not have been a quick and easy march into Prague, but it would have instead been incredibly challenging for the German army to make real progress. Their own evaluations of their capabilities in September 1938 were that the German army was maybe ready for the invasion, but was in no way ready for possible responses from other nations. Here is von Manstein, who would later be elevated to the rank of Field Marshal, again this is after the war: “If a war had broken out, neither our western border nor our Polish frontier could really have been effectively defended by us, and there is no doubt whatsoever that had Czechoslovakia defended herself, we would have been held up by her fortifications, for we did not have the means to break through.” General Jodl would have a similar level of concern about the position of the German military, saying “It was out of the question, with five fighting divisions and seven reserve divisions in the western fortifications, which were nothing but a large construction site, to hold out against 100 French divisions. That was militarily impossible.” It is important to take these post war statements with some amount of criticism, because they were obviously given after so many years of war and after the German defeat, but even evaluations from 1938 were also not super positive. But many of the strongest concerns were often more focused about how the war might spill out from Czechoslovakia and into other nations, creating the 1914 scenarios all over again. We will discuss the Soviet Union in a bit, but in September 1938 there was the belief that the Soviet Union would have entered into the war on the size of Czechoslovakia, which is a major divergence from what would eventually happen in September 1939, which it was clear that the Soviet Union would at the very least stay out of the conflict. Also key was that all of the members of the German High Command believed that had the Munich Agreement a war would have started, and Germany would have attacked in October 1938. Interestingly enough, even though things had apparently gone so well for Germany, all of the benefits of taking over the territory with none of the downsides of a conflict, Hitler was not perfectly happy. Everyone else was thrilled, German military leaders, the German people, and everybody in between, but Hitler was instead furious. He would be recorded as saying “This has been my first international conference, and I can assure you that it will be my last. If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of photographers.” One of the reasons for this frustration is that Hitler had allowed himself to be robbed of the ability to showcase German military strength. This is one of the reasons that when the German military did move into the Sudeten Areas they did so with a level of force that was totally unnecessary. Instead of a relaxing ride across the border, the invasion would instead be done at the highest level of military preparedness, with the message circulated among military leaders that it was always possible that it might transition into full invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia at any moment. Because he felt that the victory was incomplete, Hitler would immediately move into a mindset of implementing the next steps for the complete destruction of what was left of Czechoslovakia.
A critical component of the Munich Agreement had been the creation of an international commission to work out some of the very fine details of the territory transfers, plebiscites, and other rules nad regulations for the people involved. It would meet for the first time on October 1st, not long after the first German troops crossed the border to begin their occupation of the first zone. Reading about the experienced of those involved in the commission, it makes it seem like a pretty bleak series of conversations. The British representative, Ambassador Henderson, would say that it was “ungrateful in principle and distasteful in detail.” The French ambassador, Francois-Poncet, also on the commission, would describe it as “surgical operation, the cutting up of the panting victim.” The German representatives took as hard of a stance as possible in all conversations on the commission, refusing even very reasonable compromises. Part of this was driven by the fact that the German position was driven almost entirely by military concerns and military requirements. There would be many decisions driven by these requirements, but most importantly, and shockingly, eventually the commission would agree to simply do away with plebiscites altogether. Instead they would given the Germans all of the territory that they believed had a simple German majority. Critically, this was the territory that the Germans believed had a German majority, which was quite a bit different than the line that the Czechoslovakian representatives might have drawn if given the opportunity. The result was that all expectations of territory transfer were destroyed, and in fact Czechoslovakia lost more territory than even Prague would have ever expected after the agreement was signed.
While the reaction in Prague and Czechoslovakia was incredibly negative and downcast, outside of the German areas, in London and Paris many of the initial reactions had been very positive. When the two Prime Ministers, Daladier and Chamberlain, returned to their capitals they were both greets as if they were triumphant conquerors. This optimism was initially driven primarily by the continued peace in Europe, but for the political leaders in both governments there were some very worrying developments about what the final settlement meant for the future. We know what the future holds, but even at the time there were members of both governments that were voicing concerns about what had happened and how it would influence the future course of events. For example, Halifax would speak about the fact that he was concerned that the British government had surrendered any ability to influence events in southeast Europe. It was very possible that if Germany’s eyes fell further afield, then London would be able to do nothing about it. In Paris there were similar concerns, which are concerns we have spoken about at length in past episodes, which were now made very real. It was not just the numbers of the Czechoslovak army, or the strength of the border fortifications that they could no longer sit behind, but simply a surrendering of the ability of the nations in the region to count on France in any way in the future. Romania, Poland, and Yugoslovia all had alliance with France that had been signed to bolster their defense, but now it appeared that those alliances might be worth nothing, because Czechoslovakia had signed something very similar and it had been to no avail. In London the new status quo in Europe would be a major topic of conversation in the Commons during early October. There would be many many speeches, as there always were, both supporting the decisions of the government and criticizing them in the strongest possible terms. One speech, by a somewhat obscure MP, which I had not heard of being, some chap named Winston Churchill, who would say on October 5: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat … We are in the midst of a disaster of the first magnitude. The road down the Danube … the road to the Black Sea has been opened … All the countries of Mittel Europa and the Danube valley, one after another, will be drawn in the vast system of Nazi politics … radiating from Berlin … And do not suppose that this is the end. It is only the beginning.”
Along with reactions in the European capitals, the Munich Agreement prompted reaction in other nations as well, nations that we have not really discussed during these episodes due to their distance from events, the largest two being the United States and the Soviet Union. On the other side of the Atlantic, during this period the overall thrust of American foreign policy was one of distance from European events. The American president at the time, Roosevelt, was far more concerned and engaged with European politics than others in the United States, but there would always be limits to his direct involvements regardless of his own personal feelings. From the more official response of the American government, there was some level of optimism, in the same way that there was some optimism in the European capitals. Peace was maintained, which was the most important thing, and it would only be later and the events of early 1939 that Roosevelt and others would firmly shift to the opinion that German aggression probably was not over. While the United States was distanced from events, both geographically and due to its own politics, the Soviet Union was distanced from the events of Munich in a purposeful effort of those involved to keep them outside of the discussions. The Soviet Union was in a position to be very involved in any discussions about Czechoslovakia, they were after all allied with Czechoslovakia and France. However, instead of being intimately involved in the negotiations, they were shut out by the agreement of Germany, Britain, and France. Moscow was ready and willing to contribute to the discussions, they made repeated offers to join the conversations, and they were repeatedly rejected. While they were very willing to be involved in those political conversations, when it came to becoming involved militarily in the defense of Czechoslovakia, the information we have about the military stance of the Soviet Union is a bit more mixed. It is very hard to parse exactly what the policies were, and what was communicated to Czechoslovakia through the embassies during the critical days of September 1938, mostly due to the pollution of the story of all those involved by the political realities of both the time and then the later political developments after the war. The most important of this pollution was due to the relationship between the Czechoslovakian Communist Party and the government in Prague. They would both have different versions of events during those critical conversations. There is also some indication that the Soviet government was still somewhat concerned that the entire crisis was designed to pull the Soviet Union into the European war. But this is really just the reflection of the concerns that were present in Western European capitals, which was that the Soviet Union wanted to pull western Europe into the war. In both cases it came down to concerns about the future of their various political ideologies, and how they related to each other. Looking forward from Munich, the treatment of Soviet interests by Paris and London would have some influence on their eventual conversations with Germany.
Among German leadership both the political leadership around Hitler, and then the military leadership as well, almost immediately after the Munich Agreement the conversations immediately shifted to taking further advantage of the situation, primarily involving the complete destruction of what was left of Czechoslovakia. On October 9th, which was even before the final territory transfers had taken place HItler asked Keitel what would be needed, force wise, to capture and control the rest of Czechoslovakia. A response would be provided on October 11th, and the news was, at least from Hitler’s point of view, very good. There were 24 German divisions stationed in their areas of Czechoslovakia, which was believe to be enough to finish the job. Some small number of reinforcing divisions might eventually be required, but according to Keitel “OKW believed, that it would be possible to commence operations without these reinforcements, in view of the present signs of weakness in Czech resistance.". However, it was seen as critical that Czechoslovakia not be allowed to craft another set of fortifications, to replace those that the Germans now had in their possession, with one German memorandum from October 12th stating: “The building of a new system of fortifications facing Germany could not be tolerated by us. On the other hand neither did we intend to construct a German system of fortifications along the new frontier. We must arrive at the point where, in any conflict between Germany and the Western powers, Czechoslovakia would no longer be of importance as an opponent of Germany. If she were allowed full freedome in military affairs, she would even now, in the event of war, pin down some 25 German divisions at the beginning.” While these discussions were happening internally, the information provided to the new Czechoslovak government made it clear what the Germans now expected. Hilter would meet with the Czechoslovak Foreign Secretary, with the notes of that meeting summarizing the conversation as “The Fuhrer answered that in the present circumstances there were only two alternatives facing Czechoslovakai. One was that she might try to arrive at a friendly settlement with the Reich. In doing so, she must realize that she was in the German sphere, and it was in her own interest to adapt herself to the conditions of this sphere. […] The other alternative was for Czechoslovakia to renew her efforts to act as an enemy of Germany. This would undeniably result in calamity for the country in a very short time, at the latest in the event of a general conflict. […] If Czechoslovkia were to make even the slightest move in this direction, Germany would immediately take energetic action.” When communicated to the German military the message was very simple, the German Army must be ready at any moment to move across the new frontier. Or to quote a Directive from Hitler to the Army High Command from October 21st: “Liquidation of the Remander of the Czech State. It must be possible to smash at any time the remainder of the Czech state, should it pursue an anti-German policy. […] The organization, order of battle, and degree of preparedness of the units earmarked for that purpose are to be prearranged in peace time for a surprise assault so that Czechoslovakia herself will be deprived of all possibility of organized resistance.” Plans would be shifted and refined over the following months, and by December the hope was that any new invasion could be completed without having to resort to a period of mobilization. Or as a military directive on December 17th would say “The case is to be prepared on the assumption that no appreciable resistance is to be expected. Outwardly it must be quite clear that it is only a peaceful action and not a warlike undertaking. The action must therefore be carried out only with the peacetime Wehrmacht, without reinforcement by mobilization.” This was seen as critical both because it would increase the speed of action that was possible, and also because it would reduce the ability of any other nation to respond.
A critical part of the German plans revolved around working with Slovak leaders, to fan the flames of their existing separatist and independence movements. This plan was, much like the military operations, put in place during the first week of October, with the Wehrmacht writing “It is assumed that in the future the “Czech and Slovak” Rump State will of necessity depend to a considerable extent on Germany. […] Consequently, it is in our military interest that Slovakia should not be separated from the Czechoslovak union but should remain within Czechoslovakia under strong German influence.” This would begin a lengthy series of discussions between Slovak and German leaders, which began with meetings between Goering and Slovak leaders in mid October and would continue until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March. The Slovaks were clear from the beginning that they wanted complete independence from Prague, and for Germany’s help they were willing to setup very close economic and military agreements. These demands were not immediately pressed, at least by the Germans, but acceptance of the Slovak demands would be included as one of many that the Germans would make over the last several months of 1938. The demands that were made were all over the place in terms of content, but all had one purpose which was to weaken central authority from Prague and reduce the entire country into the position of a German puppet state. The Community party was outlawed, Jewish teachers were removed from many schools, the size of the army was reduced, preferential trade agreements were signed, a list of officials and newspaper editors were removed, anti-semitic laws were passed, no new foreign policy changes could be made without German consent, these and many were were made. Within the Czechoslovak government there was a growing state of despondency as many began to realize that there was probably only one way the story was going to end. Then in late January and Early February Hitler moved forward with the Slovak question, meeting with Dr.Vojtech Tuka, a Slovak leader who had been imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. A note on the Slovaks here is probably required, the independence movement for the Slovaks dated all the way back to the founding of the nation after the First World War. While there had been solid relations between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the latter had always been the minority partner, which would continue into the new nation. However, when the nation was founded, and with the amount of chaos happening in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, keeping the two groups together was seen as the least bad option for the Slovaks. This was very similar to what would happen in other nations created at that same time, with for example Yugoslavia having similar disagreements between the various ethnic groups that were included within the borders of the new nation. Compromises would occur between Prague and the Slovaks, but in early march this policy would be quickly and rapidly reversed, as it was felt that it was very close causing a full disintegration. On March 9th, the Czechslovak president Dr. Hacha would announce that the Slovakian government which had been setup was being dissolved. The theory was that this would greatly reduce the push for Slovak independence, at least for some period of time. To ensure that this was followed through, martial law was also declared throughout Slovakia, and the Slovak political leader Father Jozef Tiso was placed under house arrest. He would then escape from the house arrest and make his way to Berlin. When news of the events reached the German government they were caught flat footed, as they did not expect such decisive action. But they quickly recovered, and it was decided to use the situation as the conduit through which to send an ultimatum to Prague. Tiso would also play a part, with his goal being to make it back to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, where he would proclaim Slovakia’s independence, and also publicly request German protection. This would then give the German government the cover to send that ultimatum, out of protection of the new state of Slovakia. This plan was completed, and worked precisely as Berlin desired. It moved the entire relationship between Germany and Czechoslovakia to one of crisis, and very soon the Czechoslovakian president Dr. Hacha would request a meeting with Hitler.
Dr. Hacha would come to Berlin by Train, along with the Foreign Minister Chvalkovsky. They would arrive at 10:40PM, but it would be several more hours before their presence was requested. The meeting would then occur after 1AM on March 15th. First, lets look at the official statement made by the German government about this meeting, which was released later in the day on March 15: “At their request, the Fuehrer today received the Czechoslovak President, Dr. Hácha, and the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Dr. Chvalkovsky, in Berlin in the presence of Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. At the meeting the serious situation created by the events of recent weeks in the present Czechoslovak territory was examined with complete frankness. The conviction was unanimously expressed on both sides that the aim of all efforts must be the safeguarding of calm, order and peace in this part of Central Europe. The Czechoslovak President declared that, in order to serve this object and to achieve ultimate pacification, he confidently placed the fate of the Czech people and country in the hands of the Fuehrer of the German Reich. The Fuehrer accepted this declaration and expressed his intention of taking the Czech people under the protection of the German Reich and of guaranteeing them an autonomous development of their ethnic life as suited to their character.” So that was the German portrayal of events, but what actually happened was that as soon as Hacha entered the room, a room full of German political leaders, Hitler started firing away in one of his famous rants, laying out all of the perceived insults that had been done to Germany by Czechoslovakia since its creation. He warned Hacha that the Wehrmacht was going to invade the country at 6AM, and that the Luftwaffe would precde them. Anytime Hacha attempted to say anything Hitler simply yelled louder. In the shouting he guaranteed that if the Wehrmacht moved into the nation, and it encountered any resistance, the result would be catastrophic violence. If they instead told the Czechoslovak government to stand down, and accept the German invasion, then perhaps some level of autonomy could be guaranteed. This discussion continued for an hour before Hitler was done, and the Czechoslovak leaders were moved to another room. Once in that room they were then subjected to almost two hours of constant threats and by Goering and Ribbentrop. The message was clear, that there were only two choices either violent death for their countrymen, or to stand aside. It is worth noting here that Hacha was not a healthy man by this point in time, and it is possible that he even suffered a heart attack during all of these meetings. Even if that was not so, it was early in the AM hours, after days of constant stress, and then several hours of tense meetings. At 3:55AM, Hacha finally signed the German demands, and a few hours later German troops invaded, they met with no resistance. Hitler finally had his triumphant military conquest, and was able to parade through Prague, in a series of events that by and large looked much like the Anschluss. Czechoslovakia, as an independent nation, ceased to exist. The remaining territory of the nation was split, with Slovakia continuing its independence, Germany taking over the majority of Bohemia and Moravia, and then Hungary taking over some territory in the far eastern areas of the country. And as for all of those guarantees that had been included in the Munich Agreement, that were felt to be so important and upon which so much of Czechoslovakia’s future had been based? Well nothing happened. The following day in the Commons Chamberlain would state that the guarantee was never actually in force, because the terms had not been finalized. “I may say that recently His Majesty’s Government have endeavoured to come to an agreement with the other Governments represented at Munich on the scope and terms of such a guarantee, but up to the present we have been unable to reach any such agreement. In our opinion the situation has radically altered since the Slovak Diet declared the independence of Slovakia. The effect of this declaration put an end by internal disruption to the State whose frontiers we had proposed to guarantee […] and His Majesty’s Government cannot accordingly hold themselves any longer bound by this obligation. […] Hitherto the German Government in extending the area of their military control have defended their action by the contention that they were only incorporating in the Reich neighbouring masses of people of German race. Now for the first time they are effecting a military occupation of territory inhabited by people with whom they have no racial connection. These events cannot fail to be a cause of disturbance to the international situation. They are bound to administer a shock to confidence, all the more regrettable because confidence was beginning to revive and to offer a prospect of concrete measures which would be of general benefit.” There can be criticisms leveled against Czechoslovakia for its actions during 1938 and 1939. But at the end of the day it is a great example of what can happen to smaller nations when a larger nations wants the smaller nation to no longer exist. At the end of the day, unfortunately, the choices made by Czechoslovakia did not matter, all that mattered was that the German lust for expansion was unsated by the sacrifices in the Munich Agreement, and those that had promised protections were unwilling or unable to deliver. To once again quote the radio broadcast from September 21st, and the Czechoslovak government had agreed to the first set of agreements with Germany: “We had no other choice, because we were left alone.”