It will be the Munich Agreement’s 80th anniversary next month. On 30 September 1938, returning from the Munich Conference, Neville Chamberlain famously boasted that he had achieved “peace for our time”.
But Hitler had demanded that a large swathe of Czechoslovakia’s border regions be handed over to him and as a result, that friendly, well-armed country was left defenceless. Yet the peace that Chamberlain and his French counterpart Edouard Daladier had bought was an illusion. Six months later, Hitler reneged on his promises and ordered his armies to march into Prague. Within a year, Britain and France were at war with Germany.
Appeasement is now part of everyday political vocabulary. The appeasers, who hoped to avert a Second World War, faced a combination of moral and strategic choices. Should they agree to deliver to Hitler the populations he wanted, which were mostly German-speaking but also included numerous Czechs, Jews, and anti-Nazi Germans? What would be the effect on the delicate military balance? What was the alternative: war? It is this combination of hard choices that accounts for the fascination appeasement holds both for supporters of Ideal and Realpolitik, for foreign policy realists and their idealist opponents.
An often-ignored aspect of the Munich Agreement is the faulty decision-making, the incompetence, even, that characterised it. The French and British premiers were fooled by Hitler, who was always bent on a war of conquest. The Czechoslovak perspective is enlightening. The Czechoslovaks had a long experience of German encroachment, and they saw pan-Germanism for what it was. Their country was ringed by a defensive line of fortifications made of pillboxes and bunkers, but these lay almost entirely in the areas Hitler wanted to annex. From the beginning, they understood that Hitler was after their country as a whole, and that surrendering their border regions was self-defeating.
Hitler used a pro-Nazi party, the Sudetendeutsche Partei (SdP) and its chief, Konrad Henlein, who established themselves as the leaders of the German-speaking community in Czechoslovakia to spread his message. The Interior Ministry in Prague was aware that they were funded from Berlin. While on visits to London, Henlein talked about democracy and his disagreements with Nazi ideology, but at home he went around with a platoon of bodyguards dressed in uniforms modelled after the SS and was greeted everywhere with the raised hand salute. The Czechoslovaks rightly saw him as a Nazi pawn and a Trojan horse. Negotiating with him, they knew, was a pointless exercise that could only confer legitimacy on the Nazi project of detaching the border regions, or “Sudetenland”.
Putting this message across to the French and British, however, was more difficult. Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and the ambassador in Prague Basil Newton believed that the solution was for the Czechoslovak government to settle with Henlein. The Sudeten Germans were being mistreated, they believed, and Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president, was dragging his feet instead of looking for a remedy. More broadly, Chamberlain refused to see that Hitler had any aggressive intentions. The Germans had a legitimate dislike of encirclement, he thought. In the terminology of the time, this was genuinely a “racial issue” for Hitler, and his claims would be resolved after he had integrated neighbouring German minorities. Convincing Chamberlain otherwise was, for the Czechoslovaks, agonisingly difficult and in the end impossible.
France was a Czechoslovak ally, unlike Britain which was merely an interested third party. In the weeks just before Munich, it looked like war was the more likely outcome. That September, France and Czechoslovakia each mobilised more than a million men. The French, though, were terrified of fighting without British backing, and in the end they preferred to renege on their treaty commitments.
Here also, looking at things from Prague’s perspective is useful. The Czechoslovak general staff believed it had Hitler on the run. Czech historians have painstakingly recovered the data on the size and disposition of the national forces in September 1938. France’s offensive plans can be found in its Defence Ministry archives. As it turns out, the Czechoslovak army was about evenly matched with the German numbers assigned to the invasion of their county. Germany also had some reserves, but its problem was that it had only been three years since Hitler had reintroduced conscription in 1935. The Wehrmacht remained understaffed, with shortages in officers and NCOs as well as in key weapons and raw materials. France alone could align more divisions than Germany. The attack on Czechoslovakia would have employed the bulk of the German forces, leaving the Reich’s western border almost undefended against that million-strong French army.
A persistent defence of appeasement has been that it bought time for France and Britain to rearm. This is myth-making. It was Germany that was allowed to continue rearming, among other things by confiscating Czechoslovakia’s armament factories, tank force, and other weapons for its own use. The strategic case for appeasement never existed.
History sometimes is a tale of human error, with awful consequences. After Munich, Czech refugees poured in in their tens of thousands into the railway stations. The Gestapo stepped in, setting up a network of branches throughout the annexed regions and promptly rounding up political opponents and other undesirables for packing off to concentration camps. In Britain and France, public opinion, which had been divided until September 1938, began to feel revulsion at the prospect of any further co-operation with the Italian and German dictators. The scales fell from the appeasers’ eyes in March 1939, when Hitler destroyed the rest of Czechoslovakia. War was coming at last. As a result of the price paid at Munich, it would be much longer and more bitterly fought than anyone could have imagined
P.E. Caquet is author of The Bell of Treason: the 1938 Munich Agreement in Czechoslovakia