The Munich Agreement was a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers, for which a new territorial designation “Sudetenland” was coined. The agreement was signed in the early hours of 30 September 1938 (but dated 29 September) after being negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany, among the major powers of Europe, excluding the Soviet Union. Today, it is widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement toward Germany. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the future of the Sudetenland in the face of ethnic demands made by Adolf Hitler. The agreement was signed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses, and banks were situated there, as well as heavy industrial districts. Part of the borderland was invaded and annexed by Poland.
Because the state of Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference, it considered itself to have been betrayed by the United Kingdom and France, so Czechs and Slovaks call the Munich Agreement the Munich Diktat (Czech: Mnichovský diktát; Slovak: Mníchovský diktát). The phrase “Munich Betrayal” (Czech: Mnichovská zrada; Slovak: Mníchovská zrada) is also used because the military alliance Czechoslovakia had with France and Britain proved useless and also known because of the phrase “About us, without us!” This phrase is most hurtful for people of Czechoslovakia (Czech republic, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia). Today the document is typically referred to simply as the Munich Pact (Mnichovská dohoda).
In Germany, the Sudeten crisis led to the so-called Oster Conspiracy. General Hans Oster, deputy head of the Abwehr, and prominent figures within the German military who opposed the regime for its behavior that was threatening to bring Germany into a war that they believed it was not ready to fight, discussed overthrowing Hitler and the Nazi regime through a planned storming of the Reich Chancellery by forces loyal to the plot.
Demands for Sudeten Autonomy
From 1918 to 1938, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, more than 3 million ethnic Germans were living in the Czech part of the newly created state of Czechoslovakia.
Sudeten German pro-Nazi leader Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP) that served as the branch of the Nazi Party for the Sudetenland. By 1935, the SdP was the second largest political party in Czechoslovakia as German votes concentrated on this party while Czech and Slovak votes were spread among several parties. Shortly after the anschluss of Austria to Germany, Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28 March 1938, where he was instructed to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government led by president Edvard Beneš. On 24 April, the SdP issued a series of demands upon the government of Czechoslovakia, that were known as the Carlsbad Program. Among the demands, Henlein demanded autonomy for Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovakian government responded by saying that it was willing to provide more minority rights to the German minority but it refused to grant them autonomy.
As the previous appeasement of Hitler had shown, the governments of both France and Britain were intent on avoiding war. The French government did not wish to face Germany alone and took its lead from the British government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain considered the Sudeten German grievances justified and believed Hitler’s intentions were limited. Both Britain and France, therefore, advised Czechoslovakia to concede to Germany’s demands. Beneš resisted and on 19 May initiated a partial mobilization in response to possible German invasion.
On 20 May, Hitler presented his generals with a draft plan of attack on Czechoslovakia codenamed Operation Green, insisting that he would not “smash Czechoslovakia” militarily without “provocation,” “a particularly favourable opportunity” or “adequate political justification.” On 28 May, Hitler called a meeting of his service chiefs where he ordered an acceleration of U-boat construction and brought forward the construction of his first two battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, to spring 1940, and demanded that the increase in the firepower of the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau be accelerated . While recognizing that this would still be insufficient for a full-scale naval war with Britain, Hitler hoped it would be a sufficient deterrent. Ten days later, Hitler signed a secret directive for war against Czechoslovakia, to begin not later than 1 October.
On 22 May, Juliusz Łukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador to France, told the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet that if France moved against Germany in defense of Czechoslovakia: “We shall not move.” Łukasiewicz also told Bonnet that Poland would oppose any attempt by Soviet forces to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany. Daladier told Jakob Surits, the Soviet ambassador to France: “Not only can we not count on Polish support but we have no faith that Poland will not strike us in the back.”
Hitler’s adjutant, Fritz Wiedemann, recalled after the war that he was “very shocked” by Hitler’s new plans to attack Britain and France 3–4 years after “deal[ing] with the situation” in Czechoslovakia. General Ludwig Beck, chief of the German general staff, noted that Hitler’s change of heart in favor of quick action was due to Czechoslovak defenses still being improvised, which would cease to be the case 2–3 years later, and British rearmament not coming into effect until 1941/42. General Alfred Jodl noted in his diary that the partial Czechoslovak mobilization of 21 May had led Hitler to issue a new order for Operation Green on 30 May, and that this was accompanied by a covering letter from Keitel stating that the plan must be implemented by 1 October at the very latest.
In the meantime, the British government demanded that Beneš request a mediator. Not wishing to sever his government’s ties with Western Europe, Beneš reluctantly accepted. The British appointed Lord Runciman, the former Liberal cabinet minister, who arrived in Prague on 3 August with instructions to persuade Beneš to agree to a plan acceptable to the Sudeten Germans. On 20 July, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, told the Czechoslovak Ambassador in Paris that while France would declare her support in public to help the Czechoslovak negotiations, it was not prepared to go to war over the Sudetenland question. During August the German press was full of stories alleging Czechoslovak atrocities against Sudeten Germans, with the intention of forcing the Western Powers into putting pressure on the Czechoslovaks to make concessions. Hitler hoped the Czechoslovaks would refuse and that the Western Powers would then feel morally justified in leaving the Czechoslovaks to their fate. In August, Germany sent 750,000 soldiers along the border of Czechoslovakia officially as part of army maneuvers. On 4 or 5 September, Beneš submitted the Fourth Plan, granting nearly all the demands of the Munich Agreement. The Sudeten Germans were under instruction from Hitler to avoid a compromise, and after the SdP held demonstrations that provoked police action in Ostrava on 7 September in which two of their parliamentary deputies were arrested, the Sudeten Germans used this incident and false allegations of other atrocities as an excuse to break off further negotiations.
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 behavior 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 large number of terrorist activities. The organization was sheltered, trained and equipped by German authorities and conducting 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.
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 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. The Czechoslovak army, modern and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications, was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance. Beneš, however, refused to go to war without the support of the Western powers, because he feared democracy would be over and communism would ensue in Czechoslovakia if they accept help from the Soviet Union only.
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 Czechoslovakian 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”.
A deal was reached on 29 September, and at about 1:30 am on 30 September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement. The agreement was officially introduced by Mussolini although in fact the so-called Italian plan had been prepared in the German Foreign Office. It was nearly identical to the Godesberg proposal: the German army was to complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.
Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated (30 September) and agreed to abide by the agreement. The settlement gave Germany the Sudetenland starting 10 October, and de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia as long as Hitler promised to go no further. On 30 September after some rest, Chamberlain went to Hitler and asked him to sign a peace treaty between the United Kingdom and Germany. After Hitler’s interpreter translated it for him, he happily agreed.
On 30 September, upon his return to Britain, Chamberlain delivered his infamous “peace for our time” speech to crowds in London.
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