17: The May Crisis


This time I am trying something new as we take a deep dive into some of the diplomatic communications that occurred among the British government and its embassies in Berlin and Prague during the May Crisis in 1938.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members episode number 17. This episode is going to be a bit different, which I talked bout at the end of Members epiosde 16, but I wanted to reiterate here. As the podcast moves forward, and we march inexorably toward the start of the war on the mainline episodes, I am trying to determine the future course of these member episodes, especially as we transition from an interwar podcast into a wartime podcast. There are certainly more pre-war topics that can be covered, I have notes on several of them, including several episodes on further naval topics like submarines and aircraft carriers, but at some point that interwar content will run out, and I would like to experiment a bit with tying the Member episodes together a bit more with the mainline episode. This episode and its structure is one of those experiments. Basically in this episode we are going to look at some of the specific pieces of official communication that would occur between London and its ambassadors in Germany and Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1938. This time period includes the aftermath of the Anschluss and then the May Crisis which we discussed in episode 70. The idea here is that instead of a Member episode that goes off and talks about something completely different, it instead gives a whole bunch of really detailed background information that pulls very strongly from primary sources and builds upon the broader conversations that occur in the podcast proper. There are all kinds of different scenarios in which this format can apply beyond just diplomatic communications, if I can get my hands on them things like detailed operational plan dives, diaries and memoirs, basically any set of primary documents that can be acquired. Spoilers for about a year from now, but I am already starting to gather up some sources for two episodes like this that will drop of the Member’s feed as part of the Polish campaign, with one looking at how the invasion was reported in the newspapers around the world in the days after it occurred. As always, and especially on this a new type of episode, I am always looking for feedback either in the comments on the Patreon page or through email. Now some information that you will need to know for thie episode, I am going to be mentioning a lot of dates and times about the messages, and these are all the time that they were sent, not when they were received. In some instances there is a pretty hefty lag, up to 7 days, between when the message was sent and when it was received and processed by the Foreign Ministry in London. This lag time varies a lot, and during the really stressful days of the May Crisis it gets down to just a few hours, but in more relaxed times it seems to stretch out quite a bit. Also, some names that are going to come up a lot: Viscount Halifax who is at this point the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Basil Newton, the ambassador to the Czechoslovakian government in Prague, and Sir Neville Henderson, the ambassador to the German government in Berlin. That is Halifax in London, Newton in Prague, Henderson in Berlin.

While many of the most important events that would occur in Czechoslovakia during 1938, even earlier in the year there was already a growing sense of concern. This escalated very quickly after the Anschluss occurred in March. During that time there reports of German troop movements in many areas close to teh frontier due to German forces moving in for the invasion of Austria. Here is Newton on March 16, at 7PM “Czechoslovakian General Staff have received following substantiated reports regarding German military activity: An Excessive number of reservists of various classes have been called up for training especially in Bavaria and Saxony. B. Reserve remounts and mechanical transport have been remustered in Bavaria, Saxony, and Silesia. C. Reserve officers in Saxony and bavaria have been called up. D. Militia units have been identified in frontier zones of Bavaria and Saxony. E. Troops have been concentrated in frontier regions at Zinnwald, annaberg, Weiden, and Cham. F. Frontier garrisons have been placed on a footing of preparedness. G. Strength of troops now in Austria appears far in excess of requirements. German military attache was informed by General Staff this morning of these reports and invited to explain how they tallied with assurances to Czechoslovak Minister. In reply he denied knowledge of any abnormal measures beyond those required for dealing with Austrian situation and gave personal reaffirmation of Field-Marshal Goring’s assurances. He stated that German troops now in Austria consisted only of four infantry division and one Panzer division which in his opinion was not excessive.” The success of the Austrian Nazi party in its agitation in the weeks before the Anschluss would also have an effect on Henlein’s actions. Newton again on March 17th at 2:25pm “Henlein has published appeal to all Sudeten Germans to join Sudeten German party pointing to events in Austria showing that by unity and [something unreadable] a people will triumph over all methods of force and injustice.” Less than 10 days after German troops had moved into Austria there was already a recognition in London and Paris of what would probably be next. On March 22, 1938 Halifax would write to the ambassador in Paris, Phipps “His Majesty’s Government have given anxious consideration to the situation created by the incorporation of Austria in the German Reich, and, in particular, to the possibility of German action in Czechoslovakia similar to that already taken in Austria. They fully share the preoccupations of the French Government at the present time, and although neither the French Government nor the Czechoslovak Government have requested from them any declaration of the attitude they would adopt in the event of an unprovoked attack being made upon Czechoslovakia, His Majesty’s Government have carefully reviewed their present commitments in the light of the present situation, and have earnestly considered whether it is in their power to give any further undertaking which might help to stabilise the position in Europe.”

This was also not just a feeling of leaders in London, from Berlin Henderson would reinforce these views with information far closer to the action, he would write to Halifax on April 1 “Just as it has always been obvious that Hitler’s first objective was Austria, so it is to-day not one whit less clear that his next main objective is a settlement of the question of the Sudetendeutschen; on the basis–if possible–of the right of self-determination, but by force if that right is permanently withheld.” Henderson then discusses the German desires for Danzig and Memel before continuing “The above programme represents what I would describe as Hitler’s definite and set foreign policy. I do not believe that, whatever may be the dreams of some of his more ardent followers, he himself contemplates for the time being any other. It may be summed up as the unity of Great Germany and as the natural limits of the divine mission with which Hitler considers himself to have been entrusted in order to complete the work which Frederick the Great and Bismarck left unfinished. Any material advance beyond those limits, except so far as colonies are concerned, which come into a separate category, is, in fact, not only hypothetical but contrary to Hitler’s own doctrine of nationality and of a pure German race.” “For all his fanaticism and his mysticism, Hitler is a realist in the pursuit of his mission.” As tensions continued to rise the pressure on the government in Prague to compromise for a Sudeten Solution grew, and they were ready to make real compromises. Newton to Halifax on April 22 “In the course of long audience M. Benes explained to me that during the last weeks he had been discussing the necessity of radical solution of Sudeten German question with Czech coalition parties. He had now just secured their concurrence in the far-reaching programme drawn up by himself which will be formally but confidentially communicated to you by Czechoslovak Minister immediately on his return to London.” I think the important part of messages like the one I just read is to make it clear that the Czechoslovakian government was not just being forced into these discussions, there was a real understanding that negotiations were the best way forward, or at least the way that was least likely to end in open conflict.

Now we come to May and its crisis. A critical part of this crisis were the reports of German troop movements and their preparations for an invasion. Henderson to Halifax on May 29th “Acting Consul at Dresden reports that he has strong reason to believe that German troops are concentrating in Southern Silesia and Northern Austria. Leave suspended next Sunday.” I simply had to include the following communication, remember this is an official British communication from ambassador in Berlin to the Foreign Secretary. Henderson to Halifax May 19th, 9:45 pm “A British subject came specifically from Garmisch to-day to report that a waitress at hotel where he is well known told him yesterday that soldiers from the district are being moved during the weekend to Czech frontier in order to be ready for elections.” While I do not doubt that the waitress at the hotel knew what they were talking about, the number of hops that the information took is indicative of some of the challenges involved in obtaining timely intelligence. With information about a possible German move becoming more and more solidified, within Czechoslovakia there was pressure to start pushing back against German demands. Newton to Halifax May 20 “The Czech press of all parties has lately been strongly urging the Government to take stern measures. It is moreover obvious that the State cannot afford to allow its authority to lose all respect in German and mixed areas and that the longer discipline is relaxed the more difficult its reassertion will be. Nor would surrender of its authority help Czechoslovak Government for long in their difficulties with Sudetens who would only be encouraged to demand a more complete degree of authority and to treat the Prague Government with increasing contempt.” Eventually they would confront German officials about the news of troops concentrations and their movements. Newton to Halifax May 20th “Ministry of Foreign Affairs have just telephoned that information which is believed to be well founded has reached Czechoslovak Government of a concentration of troops in Saxony. German Minister at Prague has been asked if he can elucidate. Czechoslovak Government are also uneasy in regard to German troops movements in Bavaria which do not, however, so far as is yet known amount to a concentration.”

As more data points came into Prague, Berlin, and then to London about the German moves there was a continual effort to try and verify the information, which was a logical next step. One method involved further conversations with the Germans, which were of course of dubious value. Henderson to Halifax May 20th “I called on State Secretary this afternoon and drew his attention to these indications of German military activity in Saxony. State Secretary described the rumors as nonsense since, as he said, Germany had no ulterior designs, but rang up Ministry of War in my presence and mentioned my enquiry which is being referred to General Keitel, Chief of Staff of Germany army. […] Whatever the reply of Ministry of War which is scarcely likely to be other than of a reassuring nature, I hope my enquiry may at least have some effect. Nevertheless if there were a really serious incident on Sunday during the elections I have no doubt myself but that Herr Hitler would give orders for the German troops to cross the frontier immediately.” The French were also getting involved in the hunt to ascertain the true course of events, here is Phipps to Halifax on May 20th “M. de Brinon the well known journalist told a member of my staff that he had lately been to Germany where he had seen General Goring who had told him that the Czech affair would be liquidated this summer, amicably, if Benes saw reason, but liquidated.” Meanwhile in Prague the push to escalate the situation, out of concerns for the defense of the nation, were becoming very close to pushing for mobilization. Newton to Halifax, May 21 12:40am “Following are views expressed by an informant at Czech General Staff. [a few different bits about troop movements and assumptions of German intentions] There is feeling in Czech General Staff that Czechoslovakia cannot tolerate German provocation much longer and Chief of Staff himself is said to favour immediate mobilization as a deterrent to the Germans. This view is being put before Czechoslovak Government and a decision may be taken tonight or tomorrow.”

When the mobilization did occur, news of the events started spreading quickly, with official notification provided to Newton on the morning of May 21st. Newton would then write to Halifax “I have received an official message from Czechoslovak General Staff that early this morning the Czechoslovak Government decided in face of continual provocation to which they have been subjected since May 1 to put into force paragraph 22 of Defence Act which permits them to call up one class.” One of the reasons that the mobilization was done before anybody really knew about it was due to the particulars of how it was done under the Czechoslovak constitution, which Newton then outlined for Halifax later in the day “Under the constitution without consulting Parliament they could, I understand from his Excellency, call up five classes, but in view of assurances received from German Government that German action is in no way directed against Czechoslovakia it has been decided to call up only one class, a step which is necessary to reassure public opinion at home and to ensure the maintenance of authority of the state in the frontier areas.” Meanwhile in Berlin the hunt for the German preparations continued, and there was some serious skepticism that was starting to grow as more concrete evidence continued to elude everyone. Henderson to Halifax on May 21 “State Secretary again described stories of German troop movements as completely unfounded. Nor has my Military Attache been able to discover any authentic information to confirm them (I do not in fact believe that they were true yesterday but it is highly probably that they are today as result of Czechoslovak Government have called up reservists).” While there were concerns about the mobilization spilling out into a wider war, domestically it was seen as a success. Newton to Halifax May 22, 11:55pm “The military measures taken, according to [the accounts of the President of Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs] from all sources, had produced a good deal of effect in sudeten areas. The authority of the State had been enhanced. The radical elements had been unpleasantly surprised by the Government’s measures as had been confirmed to Government officials in confidence by moderate elements to whom this assertion of State power was welcome.”

After the crisis had for the most part passed, serious efforts were made to try and determine why it had happened in the first place, and also if there really was a German invasion that had been prevented. This would go on for several days, with Newton voicing his growing skepticism to Halifax on May 24th, 3 days after the mobilization had been ordered. “While the first reports of German troops movements may have been exaggerated, and conceivably even purposely exaggerated, by the Czech General Staff, who may have had the ulterior motive of seeking an opportunity to conduct a trial military exercise as well as to reassert State authority in the Sudeten areas, nevertheless it is difficult to believe that they had not some genuine reason for uneasiness.” Meanwhile in Germany, where real evidence would be found if it could be found, Henderson had his military attache Colonel F.N Mason-MacFarlane write up a lengthy description of what he believed to have happened. I won’t repeat all of that information here, but here are a few chosen excerpts. “The fact, however, remains that as long as German units continue to be moved about as much as they are being moved this spring, it will be difficult in moments of great tension to avoid sinister conclusions being drawn, and it is not always possible to obtain rapid confirmation or otherwise of what may well appear to be at the time legitimate deductions. […] I understand that the past critical days happened to coincide with a period during which reliefs of units at Training Grounds were being carried out all over the country. I can well imagine that the General Staff at Prague received any number of seemingly alarming reports.” Needless to say the entirety of Mason-MacFarlane’s report is completely dismissive of there being a real invasion planned, but he does make it clear that he understands how such a mistake could be made.

Of course there were many outcomes of these events, in all of the nations involved. In Germany these outcomes were not limited to official channels or official statements, and they very quickly spilled out into the press. Worth mentioning that the press in Germany, especially by 1938 was completely controlled by the Nazi Party and the government, and Henderson would report the following on May 28th “German press attacks on England have been principally due to three causes: resentment at ready acceptance all over the world of theory that Germany concentrated troops with intention of attacking Czechoslovakia and was only restrained by energetic action of England, the general jubilation at diplomatic defeat of Germany and rebuff of Herr Hitler, and belief that firm British attitude and in particular insistence on probability of Great Britain being unable to stand aside in the event of a conflict will have encouraged M. Benes to be recalcitrant.” To try and prevent any further incidents, almost as soon as the mobilization had been ordered pressure began to be placed on Prague to order an end to the mobilization. This would take some time due to concerns about the logistics of such a move but also how it would look both domestically and internationally to so quickly pull back from what was such a provocative move. Almost a week later there would finally be some changes to the forces that were active in Czechoslovakia Newton to Halifax on May 28th “General Staff informed Military Attache this morning that by reason of receipt of satisfactory reports on military situation in Germany orders were about to be issued for the gradual thinning of screen of troops near the frontier. They would return, bit by bit, to their peace garrisons in the rear, provided internal and external situation remained normal. The reservists who had been called to the colours under Article 22, would finish their period of training of twenty-eight days before being disbanded.” When that mobilization ended, the crisis had fully and completely passed although of course its legacy would continue over the next several months in the lead up to Munich.