The Edge of War: What Was the Munich Agreement of 1938? | History Hit

The Edge of War: What Was the Munich Agreement of 1938?

Harry Sherrin

25 Jan 2022
Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured shortly before signing the Munich Agreement, September 1938.
Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In September 1938, Europe was teetering on the edge of war. Nazi Germany had troops ready to invade Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten region and claim it for Germany. Britain and France, on the other hand, wanted to avoid war at all costs. After a series of heated meetings involving Britain, France, Italy and Germany, the Munich Agreement was signed on 30 September 1938.

The pact stipulated that Adolf Hitler be allowed to annex the Sudetenland in exchange for a promise of peace and an end to his expansionist policies. Half a year later, Hitler annexed all of Czechoslovakia. Poland soon followed, and before long Europe was at war.

While some interpreted the Munich Agreement as Britain and France simply buying time to prepare for World War Two, many regard it as a unanimous failure, in which the Sudetenland was surrendered for a peace that never held.

Here’s the history of the Munich Agreement.

Join James this week for a special episode of Warfare, chatting to the writer and cast of the new film 'Munich - the Edge of War'. Set in 1938, the movie follows Chamberlain's attempts to appease Hitler, desperate to avoid another Great War. Joining James is author Robert Harris, along with lead actors George Mackay and Jannis Niewöhner. Together they discuss the historical significance of Chamberlain and Hitler's relationship, Munich's role in contemporary politics, and the pressures of having to learn German in a week. Munich – The Edge of War is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from January 21st 2022.
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Hitler’s plans for the Sudetenland

Hitler annexed Austria into Germany in March 1938, part of his plan to absorb the German-speaking regions surrounding the country into a ‘greater Germany’. After his successful annexation of Austria, Hitler turned his attention to the Sudetenland, a border region of Czechoslovakia with 3 million people of German ancestry living there.

Hitler’s encroachment into the region began with political agitation there in the spring of 1938, and by May of that year, Hitler and his henchmen were readying for an invasion. If war became a reality, Czechoslovakia would expect military assistance from France as the two countries had an alliance.

France and Britain unprepared

But neither France nor Britain was prepared for war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier met in April 1938 and reluctantly agreed that the best option to avert war would be for Czechoslovakia to cede its Sudeten region to Hitler.

Later in the year, Chamberlain and Daladier prepared a joint proposal for Hitler in which they outlined those terms: they would grant Hitler the Sudeten region for a promise of peace. Czechoslovakia, originally not even consulted on the matter by Britain and France, agreed to these terms on 21 September 1938.

While Chamberlain and Daladier were determined to maintain peace with Germany, many politicians and members of the public in Britain, France and further afield supported war, believing conflict to be the only feasible way to stifle Hitler’s expansionist policies.

Czechs protest in New York against the Munich Agreement, 1938.

Image Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Europe on the edge of war

The very next day, on 22 September 1938, Hitler met with Chamberlain and upped his demands. He ordered the secession of Sudetenland within the week, demanded German troops be allowed to occupy the region and insisted that all Czechoslovakians in the area be evacuated. The British parliament refused the request, as did France and Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia responded by mobilizing its troops on 23 September 1938. France began a partial mobilization the following day. Suddenly, war seemed imminent.

Broaching a deal

An emergency meeting was convened in Munich on 29 September, with Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler and also Italy’s Benito Mussolini present. Czechoslovak diplomats in the city weren’t invited.

Ultimately, an agreement was reached, stipulating that Czechoslovakia surrender the Sudetenland to the German Army by 10 October 1938. In return, Hitler promised peace and agreed that any future territorial disputes would be reviewed by an international council. The terms were essentially the same as the harsher demands Hitler had made a week earlier.

The outbreak of World War Two has been blamed on the policy of 'appeasement' - with the Great Powers of Europe failing to stand up to German leader Adolf Hitler's aggressive foreign policy until it was too late. Tim Bouverie comments on the gathering storm of the 1930s, unleashed in September 1939.
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If the Czechoslovak government refused, it was made clear, Britain and France would not offer them military support. France’s refusal to provide military support to Czechoslovakia undermined both a 1924 alliance and 1925 military pact between the two countries. This became known by some Czechoslovaks as the Mnichovská zrada, or the ‘Munich betrayal’.

Ultimately, Czechoslovakia accepted the terms of the deal. The Munich Agreement was signed on 30 September 1938 by Chamberlain, Hitler, Daladier and Mussolini.

‘Peace for our time’

Shortly after the group meeting, Chamberlain met with Hitler privately and both parties signed a further statement expressing the joint “desire of our two countries never to go to war with one another again”. Peace between Britain and Germany, as Chamberlain saw it, was all but guaranteed.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proudly waving the ‘Munich Agreement’ in September 1938. 2 years later, Conservative MP Leo Amery would direct the words “…in the name of God, go” at him in the House of Commons. Chamberlain resigned in May 1940.

Image Credit: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

When he returned to London, Chamberlain notoriously declared that the Munich Agreement promised “peace with honour” and “peace for our time”. Daladier wasn’t so jubilant: he was revolted by the secessions made to Hitler.

A failed peace pact

In March 1939, Hitler annexed the whole of Czechoslovakia. Then, on 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Britain declared war on Germany two days later, and before long Chamberlain was replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill.

Though the Munich Agreement did grant Britain and France several months with which to better prepare for war, it was an incontestible failure: Nazi Germany soon reignited its expansionist policies and war engulfed Europe.

Harry Sherrin