The nation of Czechoslovakia, created in 1919, had amongst its diverse ethnic groups 3.5 million Germans living on the Czech-German border, the Sudetenland. When the Czechoslovakian president, Eduard Benes, visited Hitler in Germany he was subjected to one of Hitler’s harangues about oppression and the Sudeten German’s right to self-determination. Hitler wanted to use the Sudetenland as a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia despite his generals cautioning him against the idea.
Czechoslovakia: the “last major problem”
On September 15, 1938, Neville Chamberlain (pictured), Britain’s Prime Minister since May 1937, visited Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden and listened as Hitler proclaimed that Czechoslovakia was the “last major problem to be solved”. Despite his generals’ advice and nervousness, Hitler threatened war unless the Czech and British governments accepted his demands that the Sudetenland be peacefully incorporated into the Reich.
Chamberlain was not unsympathetic. Like many British politicians before him, he felt that the post-WWI treaty signed at Versailles had been unnecessarily unjust against Germany and the French’s determination to impose the Treaty to the letter overly harsh. Furthermore, a strong Germany, the British felt, would act as a useful buffer against the Soviet Union. Therefore, Chamberlain listened to Hitler and purposefully pursued a policy of appeasement.
When Chamberlain relayed Hitler’s demands to Benes, the Czechoslovakian president knew he had no choice. Neither Britain nor France would come to his rescue, despite their alliances, and his country could not face going to war single-handedly against the might of Germany. Reluctantly, Benes agreed to Hitler’s demands.
Chamberlain returned to Hitler, satisfied that, through his diplomacy, he had averted a war. But Hitler was now demanding more, namely the right to the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland.
Chamberlain was again prepared to accept these new demands but his government was not. A stalemate had been reached. Europe seemed on the brink of war until the unlikely figure of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, stepped in as mediator and suggested a meeting between himself, Hitler, Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier. The Czechoslovakian government was not invited.
The Munich Agreement
The four powers met for the one day in Munich on September 29, 1938. Germany, it was agreed, could have the Sudetenland in return for a guarantee that Hitler would make no further territorial demands – which would secure the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler agreed. Hitler and Chamberlain also signed a declaration of Anglo-German friendship, as “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”
“Peace For Our Time”
Benes protested but was firmly reminded that no one would go to war over Czechoslovakia. The triumphant Chamberlain, meanwhile, returned to Britain, waving the infamous piece of paper in his hand, declaring that the Munich Agreement had guaranteed “peace for our time” (not “peace in our time” as is often misquoted). Two days after the conference, the German army marched into the Sudetenland.
Hitler however was far from satisfied with the outcome of Munich: “That senile old rascal Chamberlain,” he complained, “has ruined my entry into Prague.” But six months later Prague would be his and the calamitous conflagration of the Second World War drew a significant step nearer.