Summits And Promises – Crisis In Munich – September 27-30, 1938 – Past Daily Reference Room
The recent world developments have brought a plethora of speculation and comparisons. One that stands out is a series of events which took place in 1938, some 80 years ago, between then-Czechoslovakia, France, Britain and Nazi Germany. Protagonist for Germany was Adolf Hitler, who had demanded an area of land sitting on the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia to be known as Sudeten Germany. It was all about giving in to demands in order to prevent a full-scale war and a promise from Hitler that it was his last territorial demand, as well as signed documents to that effect. Chamberlain believed Hitler and Hitler probably did his level-best to be convincing. Here is a bit of background via Wikipedia as to the events from mid-September on:
On 12 September, Hitler made a speech at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg on the Sudeten crisis in which he condemned the actions of the government of Czechoslovakia. Hitler denounced Czechoslovakia as being a fraudulent state that was in violation of international law’s emphasis of national self-determination, claiming it was a Czech hegemony where neither the Germans, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Ukrainians, nor the Poles of the country actually wanted to be in a union with the Czechs. Hitler accused Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Beneš of seeking to gradually exterminate the Sudeten Germans, claiming that since Czechoslovakia’s creation over 600,000 Germans were intentionally forced out of their homes under the threat of starvation if they did not leave. He claimed that Beneš’ government was persecuting Germans along with Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks, and accused Beneš of threatening these nationalities with being branded traitors if they were not loyal to the country. He claimed that he, as the head of state of Germany, would support the right of the self-determination of fellow Germans in the Sudetenland. He condemned Beneš for his government’s recent execution of several German protesters.He accused Beneš of being belligerent and threatening behaviour towards Germany which, if war broke out, would result in Beneš forcing Sudeten Germans to fight against their will against Germans from Germany. Hitler accused the government of Czechoslovakia of being a client regime of France, claiming that the French Minister of Aviation Pierre Cot had said “We need this state as a base from which to drop bombs with greater ease to destroy Germany’s economy and its industry”.
On 13 September, after internal violence and disruption in Czechoslovakia ensued, Chamberlain asked Hitler for a personal meeting to find a solution to avert a war. Chamberlain arrived by plane in Germany on 15 September and then arrived at Hitler’s residence in Berchtesgaden for the meeting. The Sudeten German leader Henlein flew to Germany on the same day. On that day, Hitler and Chamberlain held discussions in which Hitler insisted that the Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise the right of national self-determination and be able to join Sudetenland with Germany; Hitler also expressed concern to Chamberlain about what he perceived as British “threats”. Chamberlain responded that he had not issued “threats” and in frustration asked Hitler “Why did I come over here to waste my time?”. Hitler responded that if Chamberlain was willing to accept the self-determination of the Sudeten Germans, he would be willing to discuss the matter. Chamberlain and Hitler held discussions for three hours, after which the meeting adjourned and Chamberlain flew back to the UK and met with his cabinet to discuss the issue.
After the meeting, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier flew to London on 16 September to meet British officials to discuss a course of action. The situation in Czechoslovakia became more tense that day with the Czechoslovak government issuing an arrest warrant for the Sudeten German leader Henlein, who had arrived in Germany a day earlier to take part in the negotiations. The French proposals ranged from waging war against Germany to supporting the Sudetenland being ceded to Germany. The discussions ended with a firm British-French plan in place. Britain and France demanded that Czechoslovakia cede to Germany all those territories where the German population represented over fifty percent of the Sudetenland’s total population. In exchange for this concession, Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia.The proposed solution was rejected by both Czechoslovakia and opponents of it in Britain and France.
On 17 September 1938 Hitler ordered the establishment of Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a paramilitary organization that took over the structure of Ordnersgruppe, an organization of ethnic-Germans in Czechoslovakia that had been dissolved by the Czechoslovak authorities the previous day due to its implication in a large number of terrorist activities. The organization was sheltered, trained and equipped by German authorities and conducted cross border terrorist operations into Czechoslovak territory. Relying on the Convention for the Definition of Aggression, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš and the government-in-exile later regarded 17 September 1938 as the beginning of the undeclared German-Czechoslovak war. This understanding has been assumed also by the contemporary Czech Constitutional court.
On 18 September, Italy’s Duce Benito Mussolini made a speech in Trieste, Italy, where he declared “If there are two camps, for and against Prague, let it be known that Italy has chosen its side”, with the clear implication being that Mussolini supported Germany in the crisis.
General Hans Oster, deputy head of the Abwehr met with other German military officers on 20 September 1938 to discuss final plans of a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime.
On 20 September, German opponents to the Nazi regime within the military met to discuss the final plans of a plot they had developed to overthrow the Nazi regime. The meeting was led by General Hans Oster, the deputy head of the Abwehr (Germany’s counter-espionage agency). Other members included Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, and other military officers leading the planned coup d’etat met at the meeting.
On 22 September, Chamberlain, about to board his plane to go to Germany for further talks, told the press who met him there that “My objective is peace in Europe, I trust this trip is the way to that peace.” Chamberlain arrived in Cologne, where he received a lavish grand welcome with a German band playing “God Save the King” and Germans giving Chamberlain flowers and gifts.
Chamberlain had calculated that fully accepting German annexation of all of the Sudetenland with no reductions would force Hitler to accept the agreement. Upon being told of this, Hitler responded “Does this mean that the Allies have agreed with Prague’s approval to the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany?”, Chamberlain responded “Precisely”, to which Hitler responded by shaking his head, saying that the Allied offer was insufficient. He told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely dissolved and its territories redistributed to Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and told Chamberlain to take it or leave it. Chamberlain was shaken by this statement. Hitler went on to tell Chamberlain that since their last visit on the 15th, Czechoslovakia’s actions, which Hitler claimed included killings of Germans, had made the situation unbearable for Germany.
Later in the meeting, a prearranged deception was undertaken in order to influence and put pressure on Chamberlain: one of Hitler’s aides entered the room to inform Hitler of more Germans being killed in Czechoslovakia, to which Hitler screamed in response “I will avenge every one of them. The Czechs must be destroyed.” The meeting ended with Hitler refusing to make any concessions to the Allies’ demands. Later that evening, Hitler grew worried that he had gone too far in pressuring Chamberlain, and telephoned Chamberlain’s hotel suite, saying that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland, with no designs on other territories, provided that Czechoslovakia begin the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from the German majority territories by 26 September at 8:00am. After being pressed by Chamberlain, Hitler agreed to have the ultimatum set for 1 October (the same date that Operation Green was set to begin).Hitler then said to Chamberlain that this was one concession that he was willing to make to the Prime Minister as a “gift” out of respect for the fact that Chamberlain had been willing to back down somewhat on his earlier position. Hitler went on to say that upon annexing the Sudetenland, Germany would hold no further territorial claims upon Czechoslovakia and would enter into a collective agreement to guarantee the borders of Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, a new Czechoslovak cabinet, under General Jan Syrový, was installed and on 23 September a decree of general mobilization was issued which was accepted by the public with a strong enthusiasm – within 24 hours, one million men joined the army to defend the country. The Czechoslovak army, modern, experienced and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications, was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance, provided that the Soviet Army would be able to cross Polish and Romanian territory. Both countries refused to allow the Soviet army to use their territories.
In the early hours of 24 September, Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum, which demanded that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany no later than 28 September, with plebiscites to be held in unspecified areas under the supervision of German and Czechoslovak forces. The memorandum also stated that if Czechoslovakia did not agree to the German demands by 2 pm on 28 September, Germany would take the Sudetenland by force. On the same day, Chamberlain returned to Britain and announced that Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland without delay. The announcement enraged those in Britain and France who wanted to confront Hitler once and for all, even if it meant war, and its supporters gained strength. The Czechoslovak Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Jan Masaryk, was elated upon hearing of the support for Czechoslovakia from British and French opponents of Hitler’s plans, saying “The nation of Saint Wenceslas will never be a nation of slaves.”
On 25 September, Czechoslovakia agreed to the conditions previously agreed upon by Britain, France, and Germany. The next day, however, Hitler added new demands, insisting that the claims of ethnic Germans in Poland and Hungary also be satisfied.
On 26 September, Chamberlain sent Sir Horace Wilson to carry a personal letter to Hitler declaring that the Allies wanted a peaceful resolution to the Sudeten crisis. Later that evening, Hitler made his response in a speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin; he gave Czechoslovakia a deadline of 28 September at 2:00pm to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war.
On 28 September at 10:00am, four hours before the deadline and with no agreement to Hitler’s demand by Czechoslovakia, the British ambassador to Italy, Lord Perth, called Italy’s Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano to request an urgent meeting. Perth informed Ciano that Chamberlain had instructed him to request that Mussolini enter the negotiations and urge Hitler to delay the ultimatum. At 11:00am, Ciano met Mussolini and informed him of Chamberlain’s proposition; Mussolini agreed with it and responded by telephoning Italy’s ambassador to Germany and told him “Go to the Fuhrer at once, and tell him that whatever happens, I will be at his side, but that I request a twenty-four hour delay before hostilities begin. In the meantime, I will study what can be done to solve the problem.” Hitler received Mussolini’s message while in discussions with the French ambassador. Hitler told the ambassador “My good friend, Benito Mussolini, has asked me to delay for twenty-four hours the marching orders of the German army, and I agreed. Of course, this was no concession, as the invasion date was set for 1 October 1938. ” Upon speaking with Chamberlain, Lord Perth gave Chamberlain’s thanks to Mussolini as well as Chamberlain’s request that Mussolini attend a four-power conference of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy in Munich on 29 September to settle the Sudeten problem prior to the deadline of 2:00pm. Mussolini agreed. Hitler’s only request was to make sure that Mussolini be involved in the negotiations at the conference. When United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned the conference had been scheduled, he telegraphed Chamberlain, “Good man”.
Here is a capsule version of the events, which will be covered in full starting in September to mark the 80th anniversary of the Munich Crisis.