The Munich Conference was an assembly of the British, French, Italian and German leaders that gave The Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. It was a massive step on the road to World War II.
Within the northern, western and southern borders of Czechoslovakia were bands of territory collectively known as The Sudetenland, with an aggregate population of three and a half million ethnic Germans. Politically organised from 1933 under Konrad Henlein, these Sudetan Germans could easily be represented by Adolf Hitler as being oppressed by the Czech government. Hitler’s only problem was to judge whether France, which was in an alliance with the Czechs, and the United Kingdom would be willing to fight to defend Czech sovereignty. In the four weeks following the Anschluss with Austria, the UK and France were suggesting through the press that neither country would be willing to go to war to defend Czech interests.
On April 21, 1938, Hitler decided that his intended aggression must be preceded by heightened agitation within Czechoslovakia combined with diplomatic pressures from Germany. Henlein made a speech on April 23 demanding, among other things, Full self government for the German areas of Czechoslovakia and liberty to profess German nationality and political outlook, as well as a radical revision of Czechoslovak foreign policy; and on May 14, when he was summoned by Hitler to Berchtesgaden, rumours spread in Prague that German troops were massing near the frontier. Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš reacted on the night of May 20-21, by calling up five classes for military service and by having the border fortifications manned, thus enabling the Nazi press to raise an outcry about a Czech ‘provocation’. On May 28, Hitler decided that Germany’s military preparations were to be complete by October 2.
Chamberlain had already told the French statesmen in April of his belief that Czechoslovakia should be urged to surrender some territory to Germany, and Bonnet in May rebuffed a Polish suggestion that France, Poland, and the UK should together discuss the Czech issue. For two months the Czechs, under pressure of continual recrimination from Germany, negotiated with the Sudetan leaders; then, on August 3, 1938, Lord Runciman arrived in Prague as the British government’s emissary, to advise and mediate. Early in September he finally approved the last of four plans submitted to him by Beneš, as it embodied nearly everything that Henlein had demanded on April 23; but even this plan was rejected. On September 12, Hitler denounced Czechoslovakia as an artificial state and insisted that the Sudetan Germans should obtain their rights through self-determination, not as gifts from Beneš; rioting spread over the Sudetan areas, and German armies on the frontiers seemed about to invade Czechoslovakia.
On September 15, 1938, when Henlein declared that the Sudetan Germans now wanted to join Germany, Chamberlain was on his way to Berchtesgaden, hoping for a personal talk with Hitler. Convinced by Hitler that war could be averted only if self-determination were granted to the Sudetan Germans, he returned to London and on September 18, with Halifax, Daladier and Bonnet drafted a scheme whereby majority German areas in Czechoslovakia were to ceded to Germany. The Czechoslovak government firmly rejected this proposal on September 20. Slovakia was unhappy with the Czech dominance of the nation, and there were other minorities who disliked Czech rule. If one part of the nation were to cede there was a worry that other parts would too, leading to the disintegration of the Czechoslovak nation. When informed by the French and British foreign ministers that if these proposals were not accepted, the Czechs would have to stand alone, the Czechs accepted the proposal on September 21.
Visiting Hitler at Godesberg on September 22 to inform him of the success of the Anglo-French mediation and to discuss practical steps to implement it, Chamberlain was astonished to learn that Hitler now required the immediate evacuation by the Czechoslovaks of all Sudetan areas. The Czechoslovak government, having ordered a general mobilization on September 23, rejected the Godesberg ultimatum; and Daladier told the British that if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, France would assist the Czechs. Reluctantly, the UK agreed with the French stance. On September 26, when Hitler, after refusing another British offer of negotiation, had delivered a public speech threatening the Czechs, Halifax declared that France would be bound to come to the Czechs assistance and that the UK and Russia would stand by France.
On September 28, Chamberlain proposed a last attempt for peace: German, Czech, British, French and Italian representatives should meet to discuss the transfer of Sudetan areas. Hitler had his heart set on a military triumph but agreed to the proposal reluctantly, partly because of Benito Mussolini’s urgings.
The Munich meeting, from which the Czech diplomats were excluded, began on September 29 and lasted until the early hours of September 30, 1938. Its verdict was that the Czechoslovaks’ evacuation of the Sudetan areas should start on October 1, and be completed by October 10 under conditions laid out by an international commission; that the commission should also determine where plebiscites should be held and how frontiers should run; and that all existing fortifications in the surrendered territories should remain intact. The Czechs were told that the agreement was final, and Prague had to bow to the four powers’ decision. At the same time the 350 square miles of Teschen Silesia were ceded to Poland, which had exploited Czechoslovakia’s predicament in order to press for the cession. Benes resigned as President on October 5 and was succeeded Emil Hácha.
The Czechoslovakia of 1919 could not survive Munich. Slovak autonomists set up their own government in Bratislava on October 6, 1938, and the Ukrainians of sub-Carpathian Ruthenia followed suit on October 9. Hungary, thanks to a German-Italian arbitration of November 2, got nearly 4,600 square miles of Slovakian and Ruthenian border territory. There was left a newly federal ‘Czecho-Slovak’ state, comprising the Czech rump of Bohemia-Moravia, autonomous Slovakia, and autonomous Ruthenia.
The federation did not last long. Bratislava, quarreling with Prague, declared Slovakia’s independence on March 14, 1939. German forces occupied Bohemia-Moravia on March 15, after an appeal from Hácha to Hitler; and on March 16 a German protectorate over Bohemia-Moravia was proclaimed. Ruthenia, meanwhile, was annexed by Hungary, with Hitler’s consent.
The western powers, in impotent dismay at these transactions, failed to do anything meaningful to prevent Hitler from taking Memel and The Memelland from Lithuania on March 22, 1939. It is widely argued that the Munich conference was the last throw of the dice for Appeasement by the western powers; now convinced that Hitler was an expansionist unlikely to change his ways, both sides agreed that if Poland should be attacked, the UK and France would declare war on Germany.
- Crass, Frank, (Ed. Igor Lukes and Erik Goldstein) The Munich crisis, 1938 : prelude to World War II (London, 1999)
- Haigh, Robert Henry, Munich 1938: The Peace of Delusion (Sheffield, 1998)
- Sheperd, Robert, A class divided : appeasement and the road to Munich, 1938 (London, 1998)
- Taylor, Telford, Munich The Price of Peace The Definitive Account of the Fateful Conference of 1938 (1979)