In October 1938, the Czech Sudetenland was ceded to Hitler after the Munich Agreement in a move now regarded as one of the worst cases of appeasement. The Czechs were not invited to the meetings and they refer to them as the Munich betrayal.
From the ashes of World War One
In the aftermath of World War One, the defeated Germans were subjected to a series of humiliating terms in the Treaty of Versailles, including the loss of much of their territory. One of the new states created by the treaty was Czechoslovakia, which contained an area inhabited by large numbers of ethnic Germans which Hitler termed the Sudetenland.
Hitler rose to power on a wave of ill-feeling generated by the treaty, which had always been considered too harsh in Britain. As a result, British governments largely turned a blind eye to Hitler’s promises to undo much of the treaty after he was elected in 1933.
By 1938, the Nazi leader had already re-militarised the Rhineland, which was meant to be a buffer zone between historic enemies Germany and France, and incorporated Austria into his new German Reich.
Hitler eyes the Sudetenland
After years of appeasement, Hitler’s aggressive stance towards his neighbours was finally beginning to cause concern in Britain and France. However, Hitler was not finished. He had his eyes set on the Sudetenland, which was rich in the natural resources necessary for war and was conveniently populated by ethnic Germans – many of whom genuinely wanted to return to German rule.
Hitler’s first move was to order the Sudeten Nazi Party to demand full autonomy for ethnic Germans from Czech leader Benes, knowing that these demands would be refused. He then circulated tales of Czech atrocities towards Sudeten Germans and emphasised their desire to once again be under German rule, in an effort to legitimise his annexation of the territory.
If his intentions weren’t already clear enough, 750,000 German troops were sent to the Czech border, officially in order to carry out manoeuvres. Unsurprisingly, these developments greatly alarmed the British, who were desperate to avoid another war.
With Hitler now openly demanding the Sudetenland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew out to meet him and Sudeten Nazi leader Henlein, on 12 and 15 September. Hitler’s response to Chamberlain was that the Sudetenland was refusing the Czech Germans the right to self-determination, and that British “threats” were not appreciated.
After meeting with his cabinet, Chamberlain met with the Nazi leader once more. He stated that Britain would not oppose a German takeover of the Sudetenland. Hitler, aware that he had the upper hand, shook his head and told Chamberlain that the Sudetenland was no longer enough.
He wanted the state of Czechoslovakia to be carved up and shared between various nations. Chamberlain knew that he could not possibly agree to these terms. War loomed on the horizon.
With hours to go before Nazi troops crossed the border into Czechoslovakia, Hitler and his Italian ally Mussolini offered Chamberlain what appeared to be a lifeline: a last-minute conference in Munich, where French Prime Minister Daladier would also be in attendance. The Czechs and Stalin’s USSR were not invited.
In the early hours of 30 September the Munich Pact was signed, and the Nazis gained ownership of the Sudetenland, which changed hands on 10 October 1938. Chamberlain was initially received as a heroic peacemaker upon returning to Britain, but the consequences of the Munich Pact would merely mean that the war, when it did begin, would start on Hitler’s terms.
War on the horizon
The loss of the Sudetenland crippled Czechoslovakia as a fighting force, with most of their armaments, fortifications and raw materials signed off to Germany without them having any say in the matter.
Unable to resist without French and British support, by the end of 1938 the whole of the country was in Nazi hands. Even more importantly, the pointed exclusion of the USSR at the meeting convinced Stalin that an anti-Nazi alliance with the western powers was not possible.
Instead, a year later he signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade eastern Europe knowing that he could count on Stalin’s support. From the British point of view, the only good to come out of Munich was that Chamberlain realised that he could not appease Hitler any longer. If Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France would have to go to war.