Why Did Hitler Want to Annex Czechoslovakia in 1938?

History Hit Podcast with Tim Bouverie

3 mins

01 Aug 2019

This article is an edited transcript of Appeasing Hitler with Tim Bouverie on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 7 July 2019. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Everyone realised once Austria had been taken over, that Czechoslovakia was going to be the next item that Hitler wished to consume. And the reasons for this were fairly obvious.

The soft underbelly

All the fortifications defending Czechoslovakia were on the west, and by the absorption of Austria, Hitler had turned the Czech’s defences. He could now attack them from the south where they were very poorly defended.

There was also this minority, these 3,250,000 ethnic Germans who had never been part of modern day Germany – they were never part of Bismarck’s Reich. They were part of the Habsburg Empire, and they had been riled up by a sort of faux Nazi party to demand inclusion into the Reich.

Hitler wanted to include these people because he was the ultimate pan-German nationalist and he wanted to include all Germans within the Reich. But he also wanted to take over the whole of Czechoslovakia.

It was a very rich country, it had the world’s largest munitions site at Skoda, and if your aim is ultimately to conquer living space, ‘Lebensraum’, in Eastern Europe and Russia, then Czechoslovakia had to be dealt with first. So it was both a strategic and ideological obvious next step.

Czechoslovakia was the home of the world’s largest munitions centre at Skoda. Image Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Trusting Hitler’s word

Chamberlain and Halifax continued to believe that a peaceful solution could be found. Hitler was very careful at every stage of whatever he was demanding. From the Rhineland, to a larger army, to Czechoslovakia or Poland, he always made it seem like his demand was very reasonable.

His language and the way he delivered it in rants and raves and threats of war was unreasonable, but he always said it was only a specific thing; and each time he always said that this was his last demand.

The fact that nobody had realised that he’d continually broken his word by 1938 is fairly shocking, or the fact that Chamberlain and Halifax hadn’t woken up to the fact that this was a serial liar is pretty shocking.

They thought that a solution could be found and that there was a way of incorporating the Sudeten Germans into Germany peacefully, which ultimately happened. But they had not realised what others had realised: that Hitler wasn’t going to stop there.

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of 'America, Hitler and the UN', co-editor of 'Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations', and has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other media. His latest book is entitled 'Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes'.Listen Now

What did Chamberlain and Halifax propose?

Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t agree that Hitler should be allowed to take the Sudetenland. They thought that there could be some form of plebiscite.

In those days referendums were extremely popular devices for demagogues to get unpopular measures through.

They also thought that there could be some sort of accommodation. Hitler, until almost the middle of the Czech crisis in September 1938, was not demanding their absorption into the Reich. He was saying that they must have self-government, that there must be full equality for the Sudetens within the Czech state.

In fact, the Sudetan Germans already had that. Even though they were not the majority population and felt slightly humiliated having been in the ascendancy when the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, they enjoyed civil and religious liberties such as could only be dreamt of in Nazi Germany. So it was an incredibly hypocritical claim.

A 1938 terrorist action of Sudeten German Voluntary Force.

The crisis escalates

As the crisis developed and more and more intelligence of German forces building up along the Czech border flooded into the Foreign Office and the Quai d’Orsay, it became clear that Hitler was not going to just wait and allow some form of self-government for the Sudetens. He actually wanted to annex the territory.

At the height of the crisis The Times newspaper said that this should be allowed to happen: if that was what was going to stop war, then the Sudetens should just join with Germany. This was a really shocking thing.

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Back then The Times were so closely linked to the British government that it was viewed across the world as a declaration of government policy.

Cables were going across almost every single foreign capital saying, “Well, the British have changed their mind. The British have prepared to accept annexation.” Privately Lord Halifax, who was best friends with The Times’ Sir Geoffrey Dawson had agreed to this, but it was still not official British policy.

Featured image credit: Ethnic Germans in Saaz, Sudetenland, greet German soldiers with the Nazi salute, 1938. Bundesarchiv / Commons.