A few months after the Anschluss, Germany annexed the Sudetenland, the ethnic German territory lining the periphery of western Czechoslovakia. The transfer of the region to German control provoked a serious war scare. The controversy traced its origin to the 1919 Versailles system.
During World War I, Czechs served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Immigrants in London and Paris established the Czech Committee on November 14, 1915. Two Czechs in exile, Tomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes, won the Entente’s endorsement for a future Czechoslovak state to be carved from portions of the Hapsburg realm. On October 18, 1918, Czechs in Paris and in the USA claimed Czechoslovakian independence.
The new country had three components. Furthest east was Ruthenia, the population of which voluntarily joined Czechoslovakia. In the center was Slovakia, and many Slovaks wanted independence or at least considerable autonomy. The western part consisted of Bohemia and Moravia, where three million German Austrians dwelled with the Czechs. These Germans wished to remain with Austria.
Masaryk and Benes enjoyed prevailing influence in fashioning the post-war structure of Czechoslovakia. Masaryk persuaded Wilson to alter his 14 points, which promised each nationality of Austria-Hungary the opportunity for autonomous development, to exclude Germans. Benes consciously underestimated the number of Sudeten Germans by nearly a million. He falsely claimed that they were not a unified minority, but lived in settlements integrated with Czechs. “The Germans in Bohemia are only colonists,” he asserted.74
Rich in raw materials and industry, the border territory offered Czechoslovakia a topographical defensive barrier against Germany. Benes based his deliberations more on economic and strategic advantages than on the natural rights of the population. The 1910 census offered a comparison of the number of German “colonists” wishing to remain with Austria in the affected areas to Czechs residing there. In Bohemia lived 2,070,438 Germans to 116,275 Czechs; in the Sudetenland 643,804 Germans to 25,028 Czechs; in the Bohemian Forest 176,237 Germans to 6,131 Czechs; in southern Moravia 180,449 Germans compared to 12,477 Czechs.75
Since the Paris peace conference continued until mid-1919, the German provinces were technically still part of Austria when the Austrian republic held its first democratic election that February 16. The Sudeten Germans prepared ballots to participate. The Czech army forcibly disrupted the arrangements. On March 4, thousands of Sudeten Germans organized peaceful demonstrations in their towns and villages to protest. Czech soldiers fired into the unarmed crowds, killing 54 Germans, 20 of them women.76
The Allies finalized a compact with Czechoslovakia formally recognizing her statehood. The preamble to the document endorsed the arrangement, “in consideration that the peoples of Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia, as well as the people of Slovakia have decided of their own free will to join into a lasting union.” Benes promised the Allies “to give the Germans all rights they are entitled to. . . . It will all in all be a very liberal regime."77
Denigrating the ethnic German population to “immigrant” status, the Czech government instituted a policy of “rapid de-Germanizing” in Bohemia and in the Sudetenland. Prague transferred military garrisons, railroad personnel, civil servants, prison populations and even hospital patients in large numbers there to manipulate the census figures. Czech officials tallied Czech transients as residents, even though “residency” seldom extended beyond two days. In Trautenau in northern Bohemia, a 600-man Czech infantry battalion spent one winter day in an unfinished barracks to be counted in the survey. The resulting statistics deprived German districts of adequate representation in parliament. Prague occasionally employed less subtle means to maintain its minorities' political impotence. At an election rally of the Sudeten German Party in Teplitz-Schönau in 1937, the key speaker, Karl Frank, criticized Benes. Czech police scattered the assembly. Fifty-three Germans died in the melee and hundreds suffered injuries.78
Prague authorities closed smaller German schools throughout the Sudetenland. They replaced them with Czech language institutions, often requiring German youngsters to attend. The government closed nine of Bohemia’s 19 German universities. Only 4.7 percent of state financial assistance went to German college students, although ethnic Germans comprised nearly a fourth of Czechoslovakia’s population. The government issued all public forms and applications in Czech language, even in the Sudetenland. Half the German municipal and rural officials lost their jobs, 41 percent of German postmen and 48.5 percent of railroad personnel.79
The Czechoslovakian government’s Land Reform Act redistributed real estate so that every rural family would receive sufficient acreage to subsist from the soil. The head of the program, Karel Viskovsky, defined the results as follows: “The soil is passing from the hands of the foreigners into the hands of the Czech people."80 Most went to Czech legionnaires and their families. Viskovsky auctioned off the balance to affluent Czechs and Slovaks. They purchased the properties below market value, allowing the former owners to return as tenant farmers. The Germans in Bohemia and Moravia lost 25 percent of their land to Czechs through the state-sponsored land reform.
Approximately one third of the Sudetenland consisted of woodlands, of which the state took over administration. The authorities dismissed some 40,000 German forestry workers, replacing them with Czechs. By 1931, the number of ethnic German tradesmen out of work was three times that of Czechs. Relief efforts concentrated on areas with predominantly Czech populations. A study by the British Foreign Office in 1936 estimated that Czechoslovakia’s German colony - approximately 22 percent of the population - comprised 60 percent of the unemployed.81 Among the most economically distressed areas was Reichenberg, once home to a thriving glass and textile industry. Between 1922 and 1936, 153 factories there closed. Prague awarded contracts for construction and other public works projects for Reichenberg to foreign companies who brought in their own labor.82
Benes described his people as “mortal enemies of the Germans."83 In May 1919, during the inauguration ceremony in Piisen for President Tomas Masaryk, Czechs broke into an apartment not displaying a flag in the window for the occasion. The resident, a German widow and mother of four, was bedridden from illness. The intruders dragged her down the staircase feet first and into the street, her head bouncing off the steps during the descent. She died from her injuries.84
In 1921, Masaryk deployed Czech troops in German settlements without provocation. In Grasslitz, four miles from the frontier with Germany, protestors clashed with entering Czech military personnel. The soldiers shot 15 Bohemian Germans dead. Under the “Law to Protect the Republic,” Czech authorities arrested Sudeten Germans demanding self-determination as traitors or spies. They jailed for espionage tourists from Germany visiting Czechoslovakia for sports competitions or for ethnic festivals. Between 1923 and 1932, the state conducted 8,972 legal proceedings against dissident members of ethnic minorities. Defendants in sedition trials often included Sudeten Germans belonging to sports leagues, youth groups, singing societies, or backpacking clubs.85
Prague established an immense “border zone” in which lived 85 percent of all Sudeten Germans, the entire Polish and Ruthenian populations, and 95 percent of the Hungarian colony. It came under permanent martial law. The army supervised the administration of factories, major construction projects, public works, the telephone service and forestry. Military authorities limited the civil liberties of citizens in the “border zone,” which comprised 56 percent of the entire country. This did not prevent Benes from lauding Czechoslovakia as a “lighthouse of democracy."86
Although during the first years of Hitler’s chancellorship, few among the German public were concerned with Czechoslovakia, for Hitler himself, the fate of the Sudetenland symbolized the tragedy of Germans under foreign rule. The Sudeten people waged a dogged, solitary struggle to maintain their German identity. Hitler made it his personal mission to recover the Sudetenland. He introduced the topic during the Reichstag speech on February 20, 1938: “As long as Germany was herself weak and defenseless, she had to simply accept the continuous persecution of German people along our borders. . . . The interests of the German Reich also include the protection of those fellow Germans who are unable on their own, on our very frontier, to insure their right to basic human, political and ideological freedoms."87
Another circumstance turned Hitler’s attention to Czechoslovakia. Geographically, the country resembled a spear point penetrating deeply into Reich’s territory. This constituted a potential national security threat no responsible leader could ignore. In January 1924, Paris and Prague concluded a “friendship pact” containing a military clause. This envisioned mutual general staff talks to prepare a joint defensive strategy in case of attack by a common enemy. The signatories followed with a formal military treaty in October 1925.
Benes replaced the 85-year old Masaryk as president of the republic in December 1935. Only months before becoming president, Benes as foreign minister had concluded a military alliance with the Soviet Union. The pact provided for significant Czech-Russian cooperation. By the beginning of 1936, the Czechs had completed 32 air fields sited near the German frontier as bases for the rapidly expanding Red Air Force.88 They established depots to stockpile aviation fuel, aerial bombs and other war materiel.
The Red Army stationed troops in Bohemia and Moravia to undergo parachute training for a possible airborne assault against Germany.89 It transferred officers to the Czechoslovakian War Ministry in Prague and to local command centers. On February 12, 1937, the London Daily Mailreported that immediately after ratification of the Prague-Moscow pact, Russian flight officers inspected Czech air bases and fuel dumps for their air force.90
Prague was a converging point for Communist immigrants who had fled Germany in 1933 and Austria after the Anschluss. Sir Orme Sargent of the British Foreign Office called Czechoslovakia a “distribution center” for Stalin’s Comintern propaganda against Germany.91 With France, Czechoslovakia and the USSR connected by military alliances since 1936, the Führer felt boxed in. When he re-garrisoned the Rhineland on March 7 of that year, Benes offered France the support of the Czechoslovakian army for a joint invasion of Germany. During the months to follow, it swelled to a force of 1,453,000 men.92
The Germans were undecided on how to recover the Sudetenland. In 1938, the British ambassador in Prague, Sir Basil Newton, advised the Foreign Office, “How precisely they will proceed it is impossible to prophesy, but the indications are that they will at first seek to achieve their aims by friendly diplomacy rather than by physical or economic terrorism."93 On May 6, British newspaper magnate Lord Harold Rothermere praised the Germans as “very patient people” in an editorial in the Daily Mail94
The Austrian Anschluss encouraged the Sudeten German Party, the SdP. Under the leadership of its founder, Konrad Henlein, it had already won 44 seats in the Czechoslovakian chamber of deputies and 23 in the senate in the May 1935 elections. At an SdP assembly in Carlsbad on April 25, 1938, Heinlein demanded autonomy for the ethnic German region. With 90 percent of Sudeten voters behind him, he had sufficient influence to compel the Czechs to enter negotiations.
Henlein and Karl Frank had met with Hitler on March 28, but were unable to persuade the Führer to pressure the Czechs. Ribbentrop told the two guests that it was not Germany’s task “to offer individual suggestions as to what demands should be made of the Czechoslovakian government.” Berlin instructed the German embassy in Prague to limit support of the SdP to private talks with Czechoslovakian statesmen, “if the occasion presents itself."95 The allegation of post-war historians that at the meeting, Hitler ordered Henlein to impose impossible terms in order to provoke the Czechs, is without substance.
The British government monitored the escalating controversy. “The plain fact is that the Sudetendeutsche are being oppressed by the Czechs,” noted Vansittart.96 Newton sent London a detailed analysis from Prague on March 15. He predicted that as long as they can reckon with Anglo-French support in the event of an armed clash with Germany, the Czechs will pursue their present policy. The Germans cannot be deterred from aggression if they consider it necessary. If Paris and London encourage Prague to resist compromise, war is inevitable.
England and France, Newton continued, cannot prevent Czechoslovakia from being overrun. At most they can wage war to restore a status quo that is already proving unworkable. He concluded that no German government will accept “a hostile Czechoslovakia in their flank.” Having read Newton’s report, the British ambassador in Berlin, Henderson, cabled his ministry on May 17, “I share unreservedly and in all respects views expressed by Mr. Newton in his telegram."97
The Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy discussed Newton’s analysis the following day. As its minutes record, “The Minister for Co-ordination of Defence said that he had been struck by Mr. Newton’s view that Czechoslovakia’s present political position was not permanently tenable and that she was in fact an unstable unit in Central Europe. If, as he believed, this truly represented the position he could see no reason why we should take any steps to maintain such a unit in being."98
On March 21, the chiefs of staff submitted a report to the committee explaining that the British and French armies were too weak to go to war against Germany, Italy, and Japan in an expanding conflict over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain and Halifax considered the military assessment “an extremely melancholy document.” Halifax summarized on April 27, “Neither we nor France were equipped for a war with Germany."99
France’s new prime minister, Eduard Daladier, visited London on April 28 to persuade Chamberlain to publicly guarantee English protection for Czechoslovakia. His British colleague retorted that Benes has never treated the German minority in the territories he annexed in a liberal manner as promised. Chamberlain declared that the people of England would never begin a war to prevent the nationalities of central Europe from expressing their will in a plebiscite.
That month, Hitler ordered General Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Armed Forces Supreme Command (OKW), to prepare a study on the possible invasion of Czechoslovakia. He told Keitel that he did not at present intend to invade.100 Guidelines Hitler furnished the OKW emphasized that he would reject any scenario proposing a “strategic surprise attack out of the clear sky without grounds or possibility of justification.” The Führer described “an untenable situation for us should the major confrontation in the East. . . with Bolshevism ever come.... Czechoslovakia would then be the springboard for the Red Army and a landing place for its air force."101
On May 20, Benes called up over 150,000 military reservists to active duty, claiming that the measure was necessary because of a secret mobilization of the German armed forces. The Czech war office charged that eight to ten German divisions were marching toward the common frontier. The French military attaché in Berlin cabled his government that he saw no evidence of larger troop movements. Henderson sent two British army officers on his Berlin embassy staff on an extensive reconnaissance through the German border provinces of Saxony and Silesia. He wrote later, “They could discover no sign of unusual or significant Germany military activity, nor indeed could any of the military attachés of other foreign missions in Berlin, who were similarly engaged in scouring the country."102
Hitler more or less ignored Benes' provocation and took no action, military or otherwise. Journalists in Paris, Prague, London, and New York accepted Benes' spurious allegations about German troop deployments. They published stories about how the Führer had massed his divisions to bluff the Czechs into submitting to his demands. When Benes defiantly countered with his own partial mobilization, Hitler supposedly “backed down” and recalled his formations, a profound humiliation for a dictator who was “incapable of acting on his own threats."103 His declarations regarding the Sudetenland were “nothing but hot air.”
Halifax warned Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador in London, that a Czech-German war would bring France and Britain into the conflict against the Reich. The foreign secretary then composed a personal letter to Ribbentrop admonishing him of the hazards any “rash actions” would lead to for European civilization.104 Henderson recorded, “What Hitler could not stomach was the exultation of the press. . . . Every newspaper in Europe and America joined in the chorus. 'No' had been said, and Hitler had been forced to yield. The democratic powers had brought the totalitarian states to heel, etc."105 The British conducted partial mobilization of their fleet and the French garrisoned their fortifications along the German border, even though both knew that their Czech ally had instigated the crisis. For Hitler, threats and accusations of cowardice were his reward for the forbearance he had exercised.
The May crisis impressed Hitler with how hostile the western democracies and Czechoslovakia were toward Germany. Even the USSR had publicly reaffirmed its military obligation to the Czechs. He concluded that a peaceful settlement of the Sudeten issue was unlikely. On May 30, he revised the earlier armed forces directive addressing potential war with the Czechs to begin with the sentence, “It is my unalterable resolve to smash Czechoslovakia through a military action in the foreseeable future.” The document stressed that “preparations are to be implemented without delay."106
Historians present this statement as proof of Hitler’s warlike intentions. Yet just 18 days later, he revised the classified directive, deleting the sentence about the resolve to smash the Czechs. He stated instead that the “solution of the Czech question” was “the near-term objective.” There is little evidence here of a clear intent to wage war. Henderson wrote Halifax, “It stands to reason that Hitler himself must equally be prepared for all eventualities. But from there to say that he has already decided on aggressive action against Czechoslovakia this autumn is, I think, untrue."107The British ambassador wrote again in August, “But I do not believe he wants war.” In his own memoirs, Henderson later reflected on the May crisis: “When we were thinking only that Germany was on the point of attacking the Czechs, the Germans were apprehensive lest the latter meant to provoke a European war before they themselves were ready for it."108
Hitler still possessed a diplomatic trump; democracy’s own arguments about human rights. The Führer publicly stated, “What the Germans insist on is the right to self-determination that every other nation also possesses. ... I demand that the oppression of the three-and-a-half million Germans in Czechoslovakia stop, and that in its place the free right to self-determination step in."109 This was the Achilles heel of his adversaries. Henderson confessed, “On the broadest moral grounds it was thus difficult to justify offhand the refusal of the right to self-determination to the 2,750,000 Sudetens living in solid blocks just across Germany’s border. Its flat denial would have been contrary to a principle on which the British Empire itself was founded, and would consequently never have rallied to us the wholehearted support either of the British People or of that Empire."110 The permanent undersecretary for the Foreign Office, Alexander Cadogan, concluded that the Sudeten problem “was not an issue on which we should be on very strong ground for plunging Europe into war."111
Chamberlain assessed England’s position: His country had not yet sufficiently rearmed to honor the commitment to support France in the event of war. To allow Hitler a free hand to settle accounts with Benes would have marred British esteem abroad; “We shall be despised forever,” ventured Halifax’s secretary, Sir Oliver Harvey.112 A plebiscite for the Sudetenland also had pitfalls. Prague opposed the idea because the precedent would encourage the Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, and Ruthenians to demand one as well. Since these minorities suffered under-representation in government and from oppression, the result would likely dissolve Czechoslovakia.
Daladier proposed a compromise: Czechoslovakia would cede the Sudetenland to Germany without conducting a plebiscite. In this way, the Czech state would remain reasonably intact. Its importance to France, as Daladier explained to Chamberlain, was that “in any military operation there are wonderful possibilities for attacking Germany from Czechoslovak territory."113 French Aviation Minister Pierre Cot echoed this attitude with a remark quoted in London’s News Chronicle of July 1, 1938. Cot stated that France and England needed Czechoslovakia, “because from this state the German economy and the German industry are most easily to be destroyed with bombs. . . . Joint attacks of the French and Czech air forces can very quickly destroy all German production facilities."114
In August, Chamberlain proposed travelling to Germany to meet with Hitler to settle the Sudeten question together. He elicited a promise from his host that Germany would take no military action during the negotiations. Czech Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta told the British and French governments that his country refused to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. London countered bluntly, “The Franco-British plan is the only means of preventing the threat of a German attack,” and that if Prague rejects it, England and France will not intervene if Germany invades Czechoslovakia. 115 On September 21, Benes unconditionally acquiesced to the proposal.
During September, Chamberlain visited Germany three times. The first meeting with Hitler took place in Berchtesgaden on September 15. The session was cordial and constructive. Chamberlain approved Hitler’s proposals for the Sudeten areas to be annexed. Halifax wrote his ambassadors, “In fact it corresponded very closely to the line we have been examining."116 Chamberlain spent the following week in meetings with Daladier and the Czechs to obtain their consent. In Berlin, the German monitoring station in the Reich’s Ministry of Aviation eavesdropped on a telephone conversation between Benes and French Colonial Minister Georges Mandel. Undermining Daladier, Mandel told Benes, “Paris and London have no right to dictate your attitude to you. If your territory is violated, you should not wait a second to issue orders to your army to defend the homeland. . . . If you fire the first shot in self-defense... the cannons of France, Great Britain and also Soviet Russia will begin firing on their own."117 The Germans also intercepted communications between Prague and its London and Paris embassies. The Benes government had instructed them to stall for time until the “war parties” in England and in France topple Chamberlain and Daladier.
On September 22, Hitler conferred with Chamberlain at the Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg. Reports of mounting unrest in the Sudetenland clouded the atmosphere. Henlein had formed an ethnic German militia, numbering nearly 40,000 men, which skirmished with Czech soldiers and police.118 The Czech government correspondingly implemented more repressive measures. In 14 days, 120,000 Sudeten Germans crossed into the Reich to escape the violence. Henlein appealed to Hitler to send in the German army, “to put an end to any more murders resulting from Czech fanaticism."119
At Bad Godesberg, the Führer demanded the right to militarily occupy the territory to be annexed in four days. He cited mounting turmoil there as justification. Chamberlain was taken aback. Bitter haggling followed. The tension pervaded the next night’s conference, until an orderly interrupted with news that Benes had just declared general mobilization. Another 1.2 million Czech reservists were returning to active duty. Hitler thereupon reassured his English guest that he would keep his promise to withhold any military response, “despite this unheard-of provocation."120 This relaxed the atmosphere and the discussion assumed a friendlier tone.
In the days following the conference, Chamberlain negotiated with the Czechs. British and French diplomats ultimately prevailed upon Hitler to relax his additional demands. Göring showed Henderson transcripts of the telephone dialogs between Benes and Jan Masaryk illuminating the Czech intrigues. Neither the British nor the French doubted their authenticity.121 At Munich on September 28, Chamberlain, Hitler, Daladier, and Mussolini finalized details of the annexation of the Sudetenland which Prague had agreed to on the 21st.
Angry with Chamberlain, Jan Masaryk could only bluster, “What bad luck that this stupid, badly informed person is the English prime minister."122 French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet praised Hitler for softening his Godesberg terms. The Führer also reaped an accolade in the London Times on October 2 for his concessions and for reducing military measures to “solely a symbolic partial occupation."123 Choosing exile in London, Benes later told an associate, “We needed a war and I did everything to bring the war on."124
Once Benes was gone, Germany attempted to improve relations with Prague. There remained 378,000 ethnic Germans in portions of Bohemia-Moravia not annexed by the Reich. Hitler ordered on October 3 that this minority, while nurturing its cultural heritage, was to relinquish political activity toward autonomy or returning its lands to German sovereignty. He met with the new Czech foreign minister, Frantisek Chvalkovsky, on the 14th. Hitler urged him to help “normalize relations in a friendly way."125
In November, the legal department of the German Foreign Office submitted a draft for a Czech-German friendship treaty. Though Hitler postponed the matter until January 1939, the initiative indicates his interest in working with Prague. His first gesture to the new regime was a generous policy toward Czech residents of the annexed Sudetenland. There were 743,000 of them who initially came under German dominion. 260,000 Czech soldiers, civil servants and their families returned to Czech territory under orders from their government. Another 160,000 not wishing to live under German jurisdiction migrated voluntarily.
A treaty the two states ratified on November 20 permitted Czechs and Slovaks remaining in the Sudetenland to choose their citizenship. Men at least 28 years of age, together with their wives and children, received German citizenship upon request. The Reich’s Government allowed people opting to remain Czechoslovak nationals to stay on as guest residents. People leaving the Sudeten territory retained ownership of private property there with the option to sell or rent it. Under the treaty’s provisions, the German and Czech governments respectively could expel foreigners considered a political risk. Out of the more than 300,000 Czechs choosing to continue to live in the Sudetenland, the Germans deported just 140 “undesirable persons.” Hitler exempted Czechs and Slovaks absorbed into the Reich from service in its armed forces.126
The ethnic German minority residing in Prague-controlled sections of Bohemia-Moravia experienced the resentment of the Czechs after their defeat at Munich. Thousands of Germans lost their jobs. Many were unnecessarily watched by the police. The government denied them and their families unemployment benefits. Czech health insurance companies refused claims for the German university clinic in Prague. Hitler confronted Chvalkovsky on January 21, 1939, with a list of grievances resulting from what he called a lingering “Benes mentality” throughout the republic. Citing the hostile tone of the Czech press, the Führer warned that no Great Power can tolerate a smaller neighboring country representing a perpetual threat in its flank. He stressed once more the necessity of improving relations.127
Ribbentrop read Chvalkovsky passages from prominent Czech newspapers. One predicted, “Four months after Munich it is already clear that a war is unavoidable.” Another read, “The momentary political situation will not be regarded as unchangeable and a permanent circumstance."128Henderson advised Voytech Mastny, the Czech ambassador in Berlin, to urge his government to avoid abuse of its ethnic German residents. In exile in London, Benes sought to maintain political influence through his contacts in Prague. His followers there conducted a press campaign criticizing the present regime for compliance toward Berlin.129
None of the rivalries in this political constellation would matter long. The Munich Accord, engineered by the western democracies to save Czechoslovakia, was ironically her death sentence. Its precedent for self-determination encouraged the country’s other captive minorities to follow the example of the Sudeten Germans. Most prominent among them were the Slovaks. The Czech army and militia had occupied their land in 1919. Tomas Masaryk failed to deliver on his promise of regional autonomy. Nor were Slovaks equally represented in public administration; of 8,000 civil servants in Prague’s government offices, just 200 were Slovak.130
Hitler wished to remain neutral in the friction dividing Czechs and Slovaks. On November 19, the Reich’s Foreign Office directed its mission in Prague to watch events with reserve. The German press received instructions to maintain a non-partisan attitude in reporting on tensions in Slovakia. Hitler ordered, “For the time being, no political talks with the Slovaks are opportune."131
Prague lost its grip on the disaffected minorities. In October, the Slovaks and Ruthenians established regional parliaments; a right finally conceded by the central government as a step toward autonomy. Delegates used their influence and authority to steer the regions more toward independence. The new Czech president, Dr. Emil Hacha, resorted to the usual hammer methods. On March 6, he deployed troops in the Carpato-Ukraine and appointed General Lev Prchala, their commander, minister of the interior and finance. In Slovakia, Hacha dissolved the regional parliament. He placed the capital, Pressburg, under martial law and jailed 60 Slovakian politicians. Czech soldiers and police transferred to Pressburg. Hacha faced mounting chaos and the threat of open rebellion. He appealed to Dr. Joseph Tiso, whom the Slovaks had elected their prime minister, to help restore order.
On March 13, Tiso visited Berlin to ask Hitler how he would react to a Slovakian declaration of independence. The Führer replied only that he has no interest in occupying Slovakia, since the land had never belonged to the German Reich. Tiso returned to Pressburg. He proclaimed national independence in parliament the next day. Fearing that the Hungarian army would invade and annex Slovakia, Tiso asked for German protection. Hitler replied, “I acknowledge the receipt of your telegram and hereby assume the security of the Slovakian state.” On this day, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a republic. The German chancellor pacified the Hungarians by allowing them to occupy the Carpato-Ukraine.
Hacha requested an audience with Hitler. He and Chvalkovsky arrived in Berlin by train the night of the 14th. Since taking office, both men had worked to improve relations with Germany. The machinations of Benes’s remaining associates, the anti-German press, and a public attitude tainted by nearly 20 years of Czech chauvinism promoted by Benes had sabotaged their efforts. Prior to meeting Hitler, Hacha told Ribbentrop that he had come to “place the fate of the Czech state in the hands of the Führer."132
During their subsequent conversation, Hitler told Hacha that he was sending the German army across the frontier the following day. He had ordered the OKW to prepare the operation three days earlier. The Führer advised his guests to order the Czech army not to resist: “In this case your people still have good prospects for the future. I will guarantee them autonomy far beyond what they could ever have dreamed of in the time of Austria."133 Hacha duly relayed instructions to his army chief, General Jan Syrovy, to stand down. The German troops who entered Czech territory at 6:00 a.m. on March 15 had orders forbidding them to fire their weapons.
Advanced elements of the German army occupied the Morava-Ostrava industrial complex near the Polish frontier. Warsaw was about to exploit the momentary turmoil in Czechoslovakia to militarily seize the center and hold it for Poland. Local Czech residents understood the German initiative and offered no resistance.134 The Polish government was angry with Hitler for this rebuff of its ambitions.
The Germans mollified the initial hostility of the Czech people, largely thanks to the efforts of the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt (NSV), Germany’s national social welfare organization. In the first ten days of the occupation, it distributed RM 7,000,000 worth of food to the distressed population. The NSV freely handed out RM 5,000,000 worth of clothing. The organization concentrated on cities and industrial regions, where shortages were more likely to occur than in rural areas. The German military authorities also arranged for the prompt restocking of grocery and department stores. Relief efforts favored the Czech populace and not the remaining ethnic German colony. The army also guarded against spontaneous attempts by members of the local Volksdeutsche Partei (Ethnic German Party) to gain control of the economy or of public administration.135
The Germans entered a land with 148,000 unemployed. Demobilization of the Czech army substantially increased the number. The Reich’s Ministry of Labor established offices in the Czech Protectorate - as it now became known - to recruit out-of-work persons for German industry. During the first month of the occupation, 15,000 people took advantage of the opportunity and found jobs. Over the next few months, unemployment continued to decline, and in June, the Czech government negotiated trade agreements with Norway, Holland, and several other nations to boost commerce.136
Hitler ordered the Czech’s peacetime standing army of 150,000 men reduced to 7,000 including 280 officers. Only citizens of Czech nationality could serve. In consideration of the mortification suffered by officers dismissed by the reduction in force, he arranged for them to receive a full military pension regardless of their length of service.137 The German military administration lasted just one month. The German army commander, Walther von Brauchitsch, dispersed the permanent garrisons to ethnic German communities to reduce offense to the Czechs. At no time during the 1939-1945 war did the Germans induct Czech nationals into their armed forces. Their country remained virtually unscathed throughout the devastating world conflict.
Hacha and his new cabinet resumed control of the government on April 27, 1939. Czech remained the official language. Administrative responsibilities included the interior, education, agriculture, justice, transportation, culture, social services, and public works. Germany managed foreign policy and finance. Hitler appointed Konstantin von Neurath to discharge these duties. In his long diplomatic career, Neurath had often demonstrated sympathy and admiration for the Czechs.
German Army Group Command 3 estimated there were roughly 140,000 German refugees and immigrants in the Sudetenland and Bohemia-Moravia who had settled there to escape National Socialist rule. The German police arrested 2,500 Communists. The assistance of the Czech police facilitated the round-up. On June 7, Hitler declared general amnesty for all Czech political prisoners in the Sudetenland and in their own country.138 The Germans maintained a permanent force of 5,000 police officers throughout the Protectorate to combat sabotage and Communist subversion. The Czech population experienced more autonomy, civil liberty and absence of discrimination under German hegemony than Tomas Masaryk and Benes had accorded the Sudeten German, Slovak, and Hungarian minorities during the earlier years of the republic.
The Germans confiscated most Czech army ordnance and integrated it into their own armed forces. German troops briefly entered Slovakian territory to empty Czech military depots near the frontier. The vast quantity of war materiel substantiated Hitler’s protest that Czechoslovakia in a coalition with other European powers represented a threat to Germany. During the first week of the occupation, the Germans shipped 24 freight trains filled with military hardware into the Reich. They estimated 500 trains would be necessary to complete the transfer.
Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner wrote his wife on March 30 that the quantity of combat ordnance discovered in this small country was “downright frightening."139 The inventory included 1,582 aircraft, 2,175 field guns, 468 tanks, 501 anti-aircraft guns, 785 mortars, 43,856 machine guns, over a million rifles, three million artillery rounds, a considerable array of military specialty items such as bridge building equipment and searchlights, plus over a billion rifle rounds for the infantry. It consisted of up-to-date, well-designed weaponry. Modern production facilities such as the Skoda plant were expansive enough to simultaneously fill defense contracts for the USSR.
Ribbentrop sent Dr. Friedrich Berber to Prague with a special research staff to peruse documents in the Czech diplomatic archives dating from March 1938 to March 1939. The team examined records “related to the English and French approach to the Czech question.” Based on an abundance of documentary evidence assessed both in Prague and a few months earlier in Vienna, Berber’s analysis concluded that London had systematically intervened “in the politics of these countries” in order to “maintain their independence and weaken Germany.” The records also revealed that the British “have acted in the same manner regarding Poland,” the report deduced. Hitler concluded from the findings that “England wants war."140