Military history

CHAMBERLAIN AT BERCHTESGADEN: SEPTEMBER 15, 1938

“Good heavens!” (“Ich bin vom Himmel gefallen!”) Hitler exclaimed when he read Chamberlain’s message.42 He was astounded but highly pleased that the man who presided over the destinies of the mighty British Empire should come pleading to him, and flattered that a man who was sixty-nine years old and had never traveled in an airplane before should make the long seven hours’ flight to Berchtesgaden at the farthest extremity of Germany. Hitler had not had even the grace to suggest a meeting place on the Rhine, which would have shortened the trip by half.

Whatever the enthusiasm of the English,* who seemed to believe that the Prime Minister was making the long journey to do what Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey had failed to do in 1914—warn Germany that any aggression against a small power would bring not only France but Britain into war against it—Hitler realized, as the confidential German papers and subsequent events make clear, that Chamberlain’s action was a godsend to him. Already apprised by the German Embassy in London that the British leader was prepared to advocate “far-reaching German proposals,” the Fuehrer felt fairly certain that Chamberlain’s visit was a further assurance that, as he had believed all along, Britain and France would not intervene on behalf of Czechoslovakia. The Prime Minister had not been with him more than an hour or so before this estimate of the situation became a certainty.

In the beginning there was a diplomatic skirmish, though Hitler, as was his custom, did most of the talking.43 Chamberlain had landed at the Munich airport at noon on September 15, driven in an open car to the railroad station and there boarded a special train for the three-hour rail journey to Berchtesgaden. He did not fail to notice train after train of German troops and artillery passing on the opposite track. Hitler did not meet his train at Berchtesgaden, but waited on the top steps of the Berghof to greet his distinguished visitor. It had begun to rain, Dr. Schmidt, the German interpreter, later remembered, the sky darkened and clouds hid the mountains. It was now 4 P.M. and Chamberlain had been on his way since dawn.

After tea Hitler and Chamberlain mounted the steps to Hitler’s study on the second floor, the very room where the dictator had received Schuschnigg seven months before. At the urging of Ambassador Henderson, Ribbentrop was left out of the conversation, an exclusion which so irritated the vain Foreign Minister that the next day he refused to give Schmidt’s notes on the conference to the Prime Minister—a singular but typical discourtesy—and Chamberlain thereafter was forced to rely on his memory of what he and Hitler had said.

Hitler began the conversation, as he did his speeches, with a long harangue about all that he had done for the German people, for peace, and for an Anglo–German rapprochement. There was now one problem he was determined to solve “one way or another.” The three million Germans in Czechoslovakia must “return” to the Reich. *

He did not wish [as Schmidt’s official account puts it] that any doubts should arise as to his absolute determination not to tolerate any longer that a small, second-rate country should treat the mighty thousand-year-old German Reich as something inferior … He was forty-nine years old, and if Germany were to become involved in a world war over the Czechoslovak question, he wished to lead his country through the crisis in the full strength of manhood … He would, of course, be sorry if a world war should result from this problem. This danger, however, was incapable of making him falter in his determination … He would face any war, even a world war, for this. The rest of the world might do what it liked. He would not yield one single step.

Chamberlain, who had scarcely been able to get a word in, was a man of immense patience, but there were limits to it. At this juncture he interrupted to say, “If the Fuehrer is determined to settle this matter by force without waiting even for a discussion between ourselves, why did he let me come? I have wasted my time.”

The German dictator was not accustomed to such an interruption—no German at this date would dare to make one—and Chamberlain’s retort appears to have had its effect. Hitler calmed down. He thought they could go “into the question whether perhaps a peaceful settlement was still possible after all.” And then he sprang his proposal.

Would Britain agree to a secession of the Sudeten region, or would she not? … A secession on the basis of the right of self-determination?

The proposal did not shock Chamberlain. Indeed, he expressed satisfaction that they “had now got down to the crux of the matter.” According to Chamberlain’s own account, from memory, he replied that he could not commit himself until he had consulted his cabinet and the French. According to Schmidt’s version, taken from his own shorthand notes made while he was interpreting, Chamberlain did say that, but added that “he could state personally that he recognized the principle of the detachment of the Sudeten areas … He wished to return to England to report to the Government and secure their approval of his personal attitude.

From this surrender at Berchtesgaden, all else ensued.

That it came as no surprise to the Germans is obvious. At the very moment of the Berchtesgaden meeting Henlein was penning a secret letter to Hitler from Eger, dated September 15, just before he fled across the border to Germany:

   MY FUEHRER:

I informed the British [Runciman] delegation yesterday that the basis for further negotiations could … only be the achievement of a union with the Reich.

It is probable that Chamberlain will propose such a union.44

   The next day, September 16, the German Foreign Office sent confidential telegrams to its embassies in Washington and several other capitals.

   Fuehrer told Chamberlain yesterday he was finally resolved to put an end in one way or another to the intolerable conditions in Sudetenland within a very short time. Autonomy for Sudeten Germans is no longer being considered, but only cession of the region to Germany. Chamberlain has indicated personal approval. He is now consulting British Cabinet and is in communication with Paris. Further meeting between Fuehrer and Chamberlain planned for very near future.45

   Toward the end of their conference Chamberlain had extracted a promise from Hitler that he would take no military action until they had again conferred. In this period the Prime Minister had great confidence in the Fuehrer’s word, remarking privately a day or two later, “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”46

While the British leader was entertaining these comforting illusions Hitler went ahead with his military and political plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Colonel Jodl, on behalf of OKW, worked out with the Propaganda Ministry what he described in his diary as “joint preparations for refutation of our own violations of international law.” It was to be a rough war, at least on the part of the Germans, and Dr. Goebbels’ job was to justify Nazi excesses. The plan for his lies was worked out in great detail.47 On September 17 Hitler assigned an OKW staff officer to helpHenlein, who was now operating from new headquarters at a castle at Dondorf, outside Bayreuth, to organize the Sudeten Free Corps. It was to be armed with Austrian weapons and its orders from the Fuehrer were to maintain “disturbances and clashes” with the Czechs.

September 18, a day on which Chamberlain occupied himself with rallying his cabinet and the French to his policy of surrender, was a busy one for Hitler and his generals. The jumping-off schedule for five armies, the SecondEighthTenthTwelfth and Fourteenth, comprising thirty-six divisions, including three armored, was sent out. Hitler also confirmed the selection of the commanding officers for ten armies. General Adam, despite his obstreperousness, was left in over-all command in the west. Surprisingly, two of the plotters were recalled from retirement and named to lead armies: General Beck the First Army, and General von Hammer-stein the Fourth Army.

Political preparations for the final blow against Czechoslovakia also continued. The captured German Foreign Office documents abound with reports of increasing German pressure on Hungary and Poland to get in on the spoils. Even the Slovaks were brought in to stir up the brew. On September 20 Henlein urged them to formulate their demands for autonomy “more sharply.” On the same day Hitler received Prime Minister Imredy and Foreign Minister Kanya of Hungary and gave them a dressing down for the hesitancy shown in Budapest. A Foreign Office memorandum gives a lengthy report on the meeting.

   First of all, the Fuehrer reproached the Hungarian gentlemen for the undecided attitude of Hungary. He, the Fuehrer, was determined to settle the Czech question even at the risk of a world war … He was convinced [however] that neither England nor France would intervene. It was Hungary’s last opportunity to join in. If she did not, he would not be in a position to put in a word for Hungarian interests. In his opinion, the best thing would be to destroy Czechoslovakia …

He presented two demands to the Hungarians: (1) that Hungary should make an immediate demand for a plebiscite in the territories which she claimed, and (2) that she should not guarantee any proposed new frontiers for Czechoslovakia.48

   Come what might with Chamberlain, Hitler, as he made clear to the Hungarians, had no intention of allowing even a rump Czechoslovakia to long exist. As to the British Prime Minister:

The Fuehrer declared that he would present the German demands to Chamberlain with brutal frankness. In his opinion, action by the Army would provide the only satisfactory solution. There was, however, a danger of the Czechs submitting to every demand.

   It was a danger that was to haunt the dictator in all the subsequent meetings with the unsuspecting British Prime Minister.

Egged on by Berlin, the Polish government on September 21 demanded of the Czechs a plebiscite in the Teschen district, where there was a large Polish minority, and moved troops to the frontier of the area. The next day the Hungarian government followed suit. On that day, too, September 22, the Sudeten Free Corps, supported by German S.S. detachments, occupied the Czech frontier towns of Asch and Eger, which jutted into German territory.

   September 22, in fact, was a tense day throughout Europe, for on that morning Chamberlain had again set out for Germany to confer with Hitler. It is now necessary to glance briefly at what the Prime Minister had been up to in London during the interval between his visits to the Fuehrer.

On his return to London on the evening of September 16, Chamberlain called a cabinet meeting to acquaint his ministers with Hitler’s demands. Lord Runciman was summoned from Prague to make his recommendations. They were astonishing. Runciman, in his zeal to appease the Germans, went further than Hitler. He advocated transferring the predominantly Sudeten territories to Germany without bothering about a plebiscite. He strongly recommended the stifling of all criticism of Germany in Czechoslovakia “by parties or persons” through legal measures. He demanded that Czechoslovakia, even though deprived of her mountain barrier and fortifications—and thus left helpless—should nevertheless “so remodel her foreign relations as to give assurances to her neighbors that she will in no circumstances attack them or enter into any aggressive action against them arising from obligations to other States.” For even Runciman to be concerned at this hour with the danger of aggression from a rump Czech state against Nazi Germany seems incredible, but his fantastic recommendations apparently made a deep impression on the British cabinet and bolstered Chamberlain’s intention to meet Hitler’s demands.*

   Premier Daladier and his Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, arrived in London on September 18, for consultations with the British cabinet. No thought was given to bringing the Czechs in. The British and the French, anxious to avoid war at any cost, lost little time in agreeing on joint proposals which the Czechs would have to accept. All territories inhabited more than 50 per cent by Sudeten Germans must be turned over to Germany to assure “the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia’s vital interests.” In return Britain and France agreed to join in “an international guarantee of the new boundaries … against unprovoked aggression.” Such a guarantee would supplant the mutual-assistance treaties which the Czech state had with France and Russia. This was an easy way out for the French, and led by Bonnet, who, as the course of events would show, was determined to outdo Chamberlain in the appeasement of Hitler, they seized upon it. And then there was the cant.

   Both the French and British governments [they told the Czechs in a formal note] recognize how great is the sacrifice thus required of the Czechoslovak Government in the cause of peace. But because that cause is common both to Europe in general and in particular to Czechoslovakia herself they have felt it their duty jointly to set forth frankly the conditions essential to secure it.

   Also, they were in a hurry. The German dictator could not wait.

   The Prime Minister must resume conversations with Herr Hitler not later than Wednesday [September 22], and earlier if possible. We therefore feel we must ask for your reply at the earliest possible moment.49

   And so at noon on September 19 the British and French ministers in Prague jointly presented the Anglo–French proposals to the Czech government. They were rejected the next day in a dignified note which explained—prophetically—that to accept them would put Czechoslovakia “sooner or later under the complete domination of Germany.” After reminding France of her treaty obligations and also of the consequences to the French position in Europe should the Czechs yield, the reply offered to submit the whole Sudeten question to arbitration under the terms of the German–Czech treaty of October 16, 1925.*

But the British and French were in no mood to allow such a matter as the sanctity of treaties to interfere with the course they had set. No sooner was the note of rejection received by the Anglo–French envoys in Prague at 5 P.M. on the twentieth than the British minister, Sir Basil Newton, warned the Czech Foreign Minister, Dr. Kamil Krofta, that if the Czech government adhered to it Britain would disinterest herself in the fate of the country. M. de Lacroix, the French minister, associated himself with this statement on behalf of France.

In London and Paris, in the meantime, the Czech note was received with ill grace. Chamberlain called a meeting of his inner cabinet and a telephone link with Paris was set up for conversations with Daladier and Bonnet throughout the evening. It was agreed that both governments should subject Prague to further pressure. The Czechs must be told that if they held out they could expect no help from France or Britain.

By this time President Beneš realized that he was being deserted by his supposed friends. He made one final effort to rally at least France. Shortly after 8 P.M. on the twentieth he had Dr. Krofta put the vital question to Lacroix: Would France honor her word to Czechoslovakia in case of a German attack or would she not? And when at 2:15 on the morning of September 21 Newton and Lacroix got Beneš out of bed, bade him withdraw his note of rejection and declared that unless this were done and the Anglo–French proposals were accepted Czechoslovakia would have to fight Germany alone, the President asked the French minister to put it in writing. Probably he had already given up, but he had an eye on history, 

All through the next day, September 21, Beneš, aching from fatigue, from the lack of sleep and from the contemplation of treachery and disaster, consulted with his cabinet, party leaders and the Army High Command. They had shown courage in the face of enemy threats but they began to crumble at the desertion of their friends and allies. What about Russia? As it happened, the Soviet Foreign Commissar, Litvinov, was making a speech that very day at Geneva reiterating that the Soviet Union would stand by its treaty with Czechoslovakia. Beneš called in the Russian minister in Prague, who backed up what his Foreign Commissar had said. Alas for the Czechs, they realized that the pact with Russia called for the Soviets to come to their aid on condition that France did the same. And France had reneged.

Late in the afternoon of September 21, the Czech government capitulated and accepted the Anglo–French plan. “We had no other choice, because we were left alone,” a government communiqué explained bitterly. Privately, Beneš put it more succinctly: “We have been basely betrayed.” The next day the cabinet resigned and General Jan Sirovy, the Inspector General of the Army, became the head of a new “government of national concentration.”

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