Military history

12. THE ROAD TO MUNICH

CASE GREEN WAS THE CODE NAME of the plan for a surprise attack on Czechoslovakia. It had first been drawn up, as we have seen, on June 24, 1937, by Field Marshal von Blomberg, and Hitler had elaborated on it in his lecture to the generals on November 5, admonishing them that “the descent upon the Czechs” would have to be “carried out with lightning speed” and that it might take place “as early as 1938.”*

Obviously, the easy conquest of Austria now made Case Green a matter of some urgency; the plan must be brought up to date and preparations for carrying it out begun. It was for this purpose that Hitler summoned Keitel on April 21, 1938. On the following day, Major Rudolf Schmundt, the Fuehrer’s new military aide, prepared a summary of the discussion, which was divided into three parts: “political aspects,” “military conclusions” and “propaganda.”1

Hitler rejected the “idea of strategic attack out of the blue without cause or possibility of justification” because of “hostile world opinion which might lead to a critical situation.” He thought a second alternative, “action after a period of diplomatic discussions which gradually lead to a crisis and to war,” was “undesirable because Czech (Green) security measures will have been taken.” The Fuehrer preferred, at the moment at least, a third alternative: “Lightning action based on an incident (for example, the murder of the German minister in the course of an anti-German demonstration).” Such an “incident,” it will be remembered, was at one time planned to justify a German invasion of Austria, when Papen was to have been the victim. In Hitler’s gangster world German envoys abroad were certainly expendable.

The German warlord, as he now was—since he had taken over personal command of the armed forces—emphasized to General Keitel the necessity of speed in the operations.

The first four days of military action are, politically speaking, decisive. In the absence of outstanding military successes, a European crisis is certain to rise. Faits accomplis must convince foreign powers of the hopelessness of military intervention.

   As for the propaganda side of the war, it was not yet time to call in Dr. Goebbels. Hitler merely discussed leaflets “for the conduct of the Germans in Czechoslovakia” and those which would contain “threats to intimidate the Czechs.”

   The Republic of Czechoslovakia, which Hitler was now determined to destroy, was the creation of the peace treaties, so hateful to the Germans, after the First World War. It was also the handiwork of two remarkable Czech intellectuals, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a self-educated son of a coachman, who became a noted savant and the country’s first President; and Eduard Beneš, son of a peasant, who worked his way through the University of Prague and three French institutions of higher learning, and who after serving almost continually as Foreign Minister became the second President on the retirement of Masaryk in 1935. Carved out of the Hapsburg Empire, which in the sixteenth century had acquired the ancient Kingdom of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia developed during the years that followed its founding in 1918 into the most democratic, progressive, enlightened and prosperous state in Central Europe.

But by its very make-up of several different nationalities it was gripped from the beginning by a domestic problem which over twenty years it had not been able entirely to solve. This was the question of its minorities. Within the country lived one million Hungarians, half a million Ruthenians and three and a quarter million Sudeten Germans. These peoples looked longingly toward their “mother” countries, Hungary, Russia, and Germany respectively, though the Sudeteners had never belonged to the German Reich (except as a part of the loosely formed Holy Roman Empire) but only to Austria. At the least, these minorities desired more autonomy than they had been given.

Even the Slovaks, who formed a quarter of the ten million Czechoslovaks, wanted some measure of autonomy. Although racially and linguistically closely related to the Czechs, the Slovaks had developed differently—historically, culturally and economically—largely due to their centuries-old domination by Hungary. An agreement between Czech and Slovak émigrés in America signed in Pittsburgh on May 30, 1918, had provided for the Slovaks’ having their own government, parliament and courts. But the government in Prague had not felt bound by this agreement and had not kept it.

To be sure, compared to minorities in most other countries even in the West, even in America, those in Czechoslovakia were not badly off. They enjoyed not only full democratic and civil rights—including the right to vote—but to a certain extent were given their own schools and allowed to maintain their own cultural institutions. Leaders of the minority political parties often served as ministers in the central government. Nevertheless, the Czechs, not fully recovered from the effects of centuries of oppression by the Austrians, left a great deal to be desired in solving the minorities problem. They were often chauvinistic and frequently tactless. I recall from my own earlier visits to the country the deep resentment in Slovakia against the imprisonment of Dr. Vojtech Tuka, at that time a respected professor, who had been sentenced to fifteen years’ confinement “for treason,” though it was doubtful that he was guilty of more than working for Slovak autonomy. Above all, the minority groups felt that the Czechoslovak government had not honored the promises made by Masaryk and Beneš to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to establish a cantonal system similar to that of Switzerland.

Ironically enough, in view of what is now to be set down here, the Sudeten Germans had fared tolerably well in the Czechoslovak state—certainly better than any other minority in the country and better than the German minorities in Poland or in Fascist Italy. They resented the petty tyrannies of local Czech officials and the discrimination against them that sometimes occurred in Prague. They found it difficult to adjust to the loss of their former dominance in Bohemia and Moravia under the Hapsburgs. But lying in compact groups along the northwestern and southwestern parts of the new Republic, where most of the industry of the country was concentrated, they prospered and as the years went by they gradually reached a state of relative harmony with the Czechs, continuing always to press for more autonomy and more respect for their linguistic and cultural rights. Until the rise of Hitler, there was no serious political movement which asked for more. The Social Democrats and other democratic parties received most of the Sudeten votes.

Then in 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, the virus of National Socialism struck the Sudeten Germans. In that year was formed the Sudeten German Party (S.D.P.) under the leadership of a mild-mannered gymnastics teacher by the name of Konrad Henlein. By 1935, the party was being secretly subsidized by the German Foreign Office to the amount of 15,000 marks a month.2 Within a couple of years it had captured the majority of the Sudeten Germans, only the Social Democrats and the Communists remaining outside it. By the time of the Anschluss Henlein’s party, which for three years had been taking its orders from Berlin, was ready to do the bidding of Adolf Hitler.

To receive this bidding, Henlein sped to Berlin a fortnight after the annexation of Austria and on March 28 was closeted with Hitler for three hours, Ribbentrop and Hess also being present. Hitler’s instructions, as revealed in a Foreign Office memorandum, were that “demands should be made by the Sudeten German Party which are unacceptable to the Czech government.” As Henlein himself summarized the Fuehrer’s views, “We must always demand so much that we can never be satisfied.”3

Thus, the plight of the German minority in Czechoslovakia was for Hitler merely a pretext, as Danzig was to be a year later in regard to Poland, for cooking up a stew in a land he coveted, undermining it, confusing and misleading its friends and concealing his real purpose. What that purpose was he had made clear in his November 5 harangue to the military leaders and in the initial directives of Case Green: to destroy the Czechoslovak state and to grab its territories and inhabitants for the Third Reich. Despite what had happened in Austria, the leaders of France and Great Britain did not grasp this. All through the spring and summer, indeed almost to the end, Prime Minister Chamberlain and Premier Daladier apparently sincerely believed, along with most of the rest of the world, that all Hitler wanted was justice for his kinsfolk in Czechoslovakia.

In fact, as the spring days grew warmer the British and French governments went out of their way to pressure the Czech government to grant far-reaching concessions to the Sudeten Germans. On May 3 the new German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, was reporting to Berlin that Lord Halifax had informed him of a démarche the British government would shortly make in Prague “which would aim at inducing Beneš to show the utmost measure of accommodation to the Sudeten Germans.”4 Four days later, on May 7, the British and French ministers in Prague made their démarche, urging the Czech government “to go to the utmost limit,” as the German minister reported to Berlin, to meet the Sudeten demands. Hitler and Ribbentrop seemed quite pleased to find that the British and French governments were so concerned with aiding them.

Concealment of German aims, however, was more than ever necessary at this stage. On May 12 Henlein paid a secret visit to the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin and received instructions from Ribbentrop on how to bamboozle the British when he arrived in London that evening to see Sir Robert Vansittart, chief diplomatic adviser to the Foreign Secretary, and other British officials. A memorandum by Weizsaecker laid down the line to be taken: “Henlein will deny in London that he is acting on instructions from Berlin … Finally, Henlein will speak of the progressive disintegration of the Czech political structure, in order to discourage those circles which consider that their intervention on behalf of this structure may still be of use.”5 On the same day the German minister in Prague was wiring Ribbentrop about the need of precaution to cover his legation in its work of handing over money and instructions to the Sudeten German Party.

Hugh R. Wilson, the American ambassador in Berlin, called on Weizsaecker on May 14 to discuss the Sudeten crisis and was told of German fears that Czech authorities were deliberately provoking a European crisis in order to try to prevent the “disintegration of Czechoslovakia.” Two days later, on May 16, Major Schmundt got off an urgent and “most secret” telegram to OKW headquarters on behalf of Hitler, who was resting at Obersalzberg, asking how many divisions on the Czech frontier were “ready to march within twelve hours, in the case of mobilization.” Lieutenant Colonel Zeitzler, of the OKW staff, replied immediately, “Twelve.” This did not satisfy Hitler. “Please send the numbers of the divisions,” he asked. And the answer came back, listing ten infantry divisions by their numbers and adding one armored and one mountain division.6

Hitler was getting restless for action. The next day, the seventeenth, he was inquiring of OKW for precise information on the fortifications which the Czechs had constructed in the Sudeten mountains on their borders. These were known as the Czech Maginot Line. Zeitzler replied from Berlin on the same day with a long and “most secret” telegram informing the Fuehrer in considerable detail of the Czech defense works. He made it clear that they were fairly formidable.7

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