(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)
The Soviet Union, now a member of the League of Nations, suggested a League conference to prepare a deterrence against further aggression by Hitler. Great Britain rejected the idea. There was in Britain's government distrust and dislike for the Soviet regime. Britain's prime minister since 28 May 1937 was Neville Chamberlain, up from Chancellor of the Exchequer following Stanley Baldwin's retirement. Chamberlain announced that he would not agree to any mutual pledge against aggression with the Soviet Union and that he would not make any commitment to the Soviet Union's allies: Czechoslovakia or France. But he announced that British armament must be accelerated. Historians defending Chamberlain would describe his sense that the Soviet Union could not be relied on to join Britain effectively in war and that he was concerned that the US could not be depended upon for help.
For the Germans, the spotlight in international affairs shifted to Czechoslovakia – a country created by the treaty signed at Versailles, a country consisting of Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Ruthenians, Poles and Germans. Barely half the population was Czech. About one-quarter were Germans, and Germans were a majority in that part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland which bordered Germany. The Sudetenland was highly industrialized, and the Sudeten Germans resented living under Czech officials and police. The Sudeten Germans were excited over Austria having been absorbed into a greater Germany. They demanded political equality and autonomy. The Czechoslovakian government in Prague rejected their demands. Hitler made a show of wanting to rescue the Sudeten Germans, and now that he was in control of Austria he had Czechoslovakia surrounded on three sides.
Neville Chamberlain and a disingenuous Hitler at Munich
On May 30, 1938, writes historian David Reynolds, Hitler told his generals: "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future." note50 Hitler told his generals that military action was to be implemented by October 1 "at the latest." In Germany, many people still remembered the ugliness and hardship of World War I, and the public responded nervously to the prospect of Hitler taking their nation to war over the Sudetenland. Some of Hitler's generals also were opposed to war over the Sudetenland. The commander-in-chief of the German armies, General Ludwig Beck, viewed the German problem with Czechoslovakia intolerable, but on August 18 he submitted his resignation in protest over Hitler's plan to go to war as a solution. On September 1 General Franz Halder succeeded him. Halder was also opposed to going to war, as were Hermann Goering and other German ministers and general staff. Beck and Halder thought Hitler imbalanced and they planned a coup against his rule.
Germany, in the view of its generals, was not yet ready for war, but Britain and France's inaction over Hitler's militarization of the Rhineland and his taking Austria had left Hitler confident that he could bluff his way into getting what he wanted. Hitler made demands on behalf of the Sudeten Germans that Czechoslovakia rejected, and Hitler proclaimed that Germans were being treated "like niggers." Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš (pronounced Benesh), welcomed the confrontation with Hitler, hoping to demonstrate to France and Britain the need to stand up to Hitler. The Czech government ordered the mobilization of its army and called on its allies to honor their agreements.
Some people in Britain had taken from the World War the belief that military alliances caused wars. At any rate there would be no move from Britain regarding treaty commitments. France wished to honor its treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, but without backing from Britain it demurred. And the Soviet Union backed away from helping defend Czechoslovakia because its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia was contingent upon France living up to its agreement.
With war between Germany and Czechoslovakia appearing imminent, Mussolini responded to an appeal to mediate. According to historian David Reynolds, Hitler was shaken in his determination to go to war by the anti-war sentiment he saw in Berlin. Reynolds writes that "Hitler pulled back and accepted a further summit" – at Munich. note51 On the 29th of September, Mussolini, Hitler, Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and France's premier, Daladier, agreed to meet in Munich. President Benes of Czechoslovakia was not invited. Neither was a representative of the Soviet Union.
Chamberlain abhorred the idea of another war. He believed there was a chance for peace and wanted to explore that possibility. At the conference in Munich, Hitler talked about Germany's great military machine that once in motion could not be stopped. In fact, Hitler's army was too weak at that time to fight against Czechoslovakia and France simultaneously, not to mention the Soviet Union and Britain. But Chamberlain was badly briefed about the strength of Germany's armies. The British overestimated Germany's ability to wage war. Britain gave Germany its acceptance of Germany occupying the Sudetenland. France and Italy went along with it, and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it had to accept Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland unless it wanted to stand up to Germany without their support.
Chamberlain and Daladier went home to cheers and praise, their popularity rising as a result of their being perceived as having preserved peace. Chamberlain told his advisor, Edward Halifax, "We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Daladier was distraught over Britain being unwilling to support France and their abandoning Czechoslovakia. His response to the cheering crowds was to say to the person next to him that the cheering people were crazy.
With the agreements by Italy, Britain and France in his pocket, on October 1, Hitler sent his troops into the Sudetenland, including what had been Czechoslovakia's mountainous military defense lines. It was a peaceful march, Hitler having been deprived of the war that he had wanted against the Czechs. Germans in the Sudetenland were delirious with joy. President Benes had thirty-five well-trained divisions, which was perhaps as formidable a force as Germany's armies, but he chose not to fight the Germans with only the Soviet Union on his side.
Chamberlain believed that war had been averted. He had once described Hitler half-crazy, but by now he believed that Hitler was a man of his word. Chamberlain spoke of "Peace In Our Time." General Halder, one of the German generals plotting a coup, believed that with Chamberlain and Daladier having given Hitler what they did, the best chance for overthrowing Hitler had been lost.
David Reynolds writes that Hitler was disappointed in having accepted the peace agreement at Munich, "kicking himself for losing his nerve." But others have written of Hitler being encouraged by what he saw as the weakness of his allies. Soon Hitler would be seeking more gains undeterred by France and Great Britain, about whom he would say, "Our opponents are poor creatures. I saw them at Munich."
In a speech in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said, "Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war."
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.