The nation of Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 and among the diverse ethnic groups were the 3.5 million Germans living on the Czech-German border, the Sudetenland. An area of 11,000 square miles, the German population, represented by the Nazi, Konrad Heinlein, demanded to be incorporated into the German Reich. Following the Austrian Anschluss, and encouraged by Hitler, their demands became more vocal. As Heinlein said, ‘We must always demand so much that we can never be satisfied.’ When the Czechoslovakian president, Eduard Benes, visited Hitler in Germany he was subjected to one of Hitler’s harangues about oppression and the Sudeten Germans’ right to self-determination. Hitler wanted to use the Sudetenland as a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia but his generals cautioned him against the idea.
On 15 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister since May 1937, visited Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler told Chamberlain that Czechoslovakia was the ‘last major problem to be solved’ and, despite his generals’ advice and nervousness, threatened war unless the Czech and British governments accepted his demands that the Sudetenland be peacefully incorporated into the Reich. Chamberlain was not unsympathetic. Like many British politicians before him, he felt that Germany’s treatment at Versailles had been unnecessarily unjust and the French determination to impose it to the letter overly harsh. Furthermore, a strong Germany, the British felt, would act as a useful buffer against the Soviet Union. Therefore, Chamberlain listened to Hitler and purposefully pursued a policy of appeasement.
When Chamberlain relayed Hitler’s demands to Benes, the Czechoslovakian president knew he had no choice. Neither Britain nor France would come to his rescue, despite their alliances, and his country could not face going to war single-handedly against the might of Germany. Reluctantly, Benes agreed to Hitler’s demands.
Chamberlain returned to Hitler, satisfied that, through his diplomacy, he had averted a war. But Hitler was now demanding more, namely the right to the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland and that the rights of Poland and Hungary, who each had territorial claims in Czechoslovakia, should also be recognized.
Chamberlain was prepared to accept these new demands but his government was not. A stalemate had been reached. Europe seemed on the brink of war until the unlikely figure of Mussolini stepped in as mediator and suggested a meeting between himself, Hitler, Chamberlain and the French prime minister, Edouard Daladier. The Czechoslovakian government was not invited.
The Munich Agreement, 29 September 1938
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA
The four powers met for one day in Munich on 29 September 1938 (pictured above). Germany, it was agreed, could have the Sudetenland in return for a guarantee that Hitler would make no further territorial demands – which would secure the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler agreed. But it left Czechoslovakia vulnerable – she had lost the natural defences of the Sudetenland that had acted as a buffer against Germany and had surrendered tracts of land to Poland and Hungary. Hitler and Chamberlain also signed a declaration of Anglo-German friendship, as ‘symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again’.