A crisis in Czechoslovakia threw Europe into turmoil in 1938.
Czechoslovakia had been created in 1919. The new nation was created out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and it contained numerous nationalities :
3,200,000 Germans 7,450,000 Czechs 2,300,000 Slovaks 720,000 Magyars 560,000 Ruthenes 100,000 Poles
It was almost inevitable that trouble would occur between the various nationalities. This was especially true of the Germans who resented living under the rule of foreigners. The Germans mostly lived in the region on the western border with Germany – the Sudetenland.
In 1931, they created the Sudeten Germans Peoples Party led by Konrad Henlein. Its most pressing demand was for the Sudetenland to be put under Germany control. i.e. that the region should be transferred to Germany. The party had great support among the Sudeten Germans but it was not recognised by the Czech government.
There were many reasons why the Czech government did not agree with the stance of the Sudeten Germans – if the area was handed over to the Germans, would it lead to other nationalities in Czechoslovakia wanting independence? Also, the Sudetenland contained many valuable resources such as lignite, coal and the area was just about the country’s most vital defensive zone as the Sudetenland contained many border fortifications with Germany.
The Sudeten Germans Peoples Party received both verbal and financial support from Hitler. Hitler had constantly talked about putting all Germans into one Reich and that no true German would have to live outside of Germany. In 1938, Hitler ordered his generals to start to make plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also ordered Henlein and his followers to start to create trouble in the Sudetenland, therefore proving to the outside world that the Czech government was incapable of maintaining order in its own state. Hitler planned to use this chaos to put his army into the Sudetenland to restore law and order.
Hitler’s plan was risky not least because the Czech army was strong and professional. The terrain from Germany to the Sudetenland was very steep and it was very likely that the Wehrmacht’s use of Blitzkrieg would have been of no value in such a hilly and wooded area. Likewise the fortifications at the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia would have given many advantages to the defending army.
Also, France had signed an agreement with Czechoslovakia offering support if the country was attacked. However, Hitler could all but guarantee that in 1938, the French would do nothing. The USSR had also given Czechoslovakia a promise of help but the USSR was in internal chaos during this time and unlikely to help Czechoslovakia out. If war did break out, it seemed likely that it would be between Germany and Czechoslovakia. However, victory for the German army could not be guaranteed.
The attitude of the British tended to reflect the view of the majority in Britain at this time. If there was the chance of negotiating a peace, then that chance should be taken. The policy of appeasement has been criticised over the years since 1938, but the fear of war in 1938 was very real. The images shown in the cinemas of the horrors seen in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War terrified many – and Germany had openly displayed the might of the Luftwaffe with its many bombers from 1936 on. It was also German bombers that had caused such devastation in Guernica.
Britain, under Neville Chamberlain, chose to negotiate with Hitler over the Sudenten crisis. Chamberlain knew very well that Czechoslovakia was a land-locked nation and that Britain’s military strength – its navy – could play no part in a conflict here. Britain’s army – though professional – was small. Britain’s air force was far from strong and undergoing change from a bi-planed force to using the new monoplanes which were still not ready for combat.
His military chiefs had advised Chamberlain that over one million people would be killed by bombing raids in just 60 days and that mass graves would be needed as there simply would not be enough wood for timber coffins. Any form of conflict with Germany was fraught with dangers – hence Chamberlain’s desire for a negotiated peace. Many British people supported Chamberlain at the time and before the meetings took place no-one would have known what it would be like negotiating with Hitler. It seemed right that a negotiated settlement should be tried and the attempts to succeed started in September 1938.
The first of three meetings took place at Bertesgaden, near Munich in southern Germany. At this meeting Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland should be handed over to Germany. Without consulting the Czechs, Chamberlain agreed that those areas containing more than 50% Germans within them should be handed back to Germany. Chamberlain managed to get the Czechs and the French to agree to this solution.
On September 22nd, Chamberlain flew to Bad Godesberg to meet Hitler so that the final details of the plan could be worked out. At this meeting Hitler made new demands that took Chamberlain by surprise. Hitler wanted German troops to occupy the Sudetenland. He also demanded that land containing a majority of Poles and Magyars should also be returned to Poland and Hungary. Britain and France rejected these demands and both the French and British governments prepared for war.
At the suggestion of Mussolini, a four-power conference was held to resolve the problems. This was the third meeting which was held at Munich. Germany, Britain, France and Italy were represented – Czechoslovakia was not. Neither was the Soviet Union, which greatly angered its leader, Joseph Stalin.
Without consulting the Czechs, the four powers agreed that the Sudetenland should be given to Germany immediately. The governments of Britain and France made it clear to Czechoslovakia that if the Czechs rejected this solution, they would have to fight Germany by themselves.
On October 1st 1938, the Czech frontier guards left their posts and German troops occupied the Sudetenland. Very shortly afterwards, Polish and Hungarian troops took areas of Czechoslovakia which contained a majority of Poles and Magyars.
Chamberlain had returned to Croydon Airport near London as a hero; the man who saved peace in Europe. His “Piece of Paper” , signed both by Chamberlain and Hitler, was later called a “scrap of paper” by Hitler.