Military history

THE SURRENDER AT MUNICH: SEPTEMBER 29–30, 1938

In this baroque Bavarian city where in the murky back rooms of rundown little cafés he had made his lowly start as a politician and in whose streets he had suffered the fiasco of the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler greeted, like a conqueror, the heads of governments of Great Britain, France and Italy at half past noon on September 29.

Very early that morning he had gone to Kufstein on the former Austro–German frontier to meet Mussolini and set up a basis for common action at the conference. In the train coming up to Munich Hitler was in a bellicose mood, explaining to the Duce over maps how he intended to “liquidate” Czechoslovakia. Either the talks beginning that day must be immediately successful, he said, or he would resort to arms. “Besides,” Ciano, who was present, quotes the Fuehrer as adding, “the time will come when we shall have to fight side by side against France and England.” Mussolini agreed.80

Chamberlain made no similar effort to see Daladier beforehand to work out a joint strategy for the two Western democracies with which to confront the two fascist dictators. Indeed, it became evident to many of us in contact with the British and French delegations in Munich as the day progressed that Chamberlain had come to Munich absolutely determined that no one, certainly not the Czechs and not even the French, should stand in the way of his reaching a quick agreement with Hitler.* In the case of Daladier, who went around all day as if in a daze, no precaution was necessary, but the determined Prime Minister took no risks.

The talks, which began at 12:45 P.M. in the so-called Fuehrerhaus in the Koenigsplatz, were anticlimactic and constituted little more than a mere formality of rendering to Hitler exactly what he wanted when he wanted it. Dr. Schmidt, the indomitable interpreter, who was called upon to function in three languages, German, French and English, noticed from the beginning “an atmosphere of general good will.” Ambassador Henderson later remembered that “at no stage of the conversations did they become heated.” No one presided. The proceedings unfolded informally, and judging by the German minutes of the meeting82 which came to light after the war, the British Prime Minister and the French Premier fairly fell over themselves to agree with Hitler. Even when he made the following opening statement:

   He had now declared in his speech at the Sportpalast that he would in any case march in on October 1. He had received the answer that this action would have the character of an act of violence. Hence the task arose to absolve this action from such a character. Action must, however, be taken at once.

   The conferees got down to business when Mussolini, speaking third in turn—Daladier was left to the last—said that “in order to bring about a practical solution of the problem” he had brought with him a definite written proposal. Its origins are interesting and remained unknown to Chamberlain, I believe, to his death. From the memoirs of François-Poncet and Henderson it is obvious that they too were ignorant of them. In fact, the story only became known long after the violent deaths of the two dictators.

What the Duce now fobbed off as his own compromise plan had been hastily drafted the day before in the German Foreign Office in Berlin by Goering, Neurath and Weizsaecker behind the back of Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, whose judgment the three men did not trust. Goering took it to Hitler, who said it might do, and then it was hurriedly translated into French by Dr. Schmidt and passed along to the Italian ambassador, Attolico, who telephoned the text of it to the Italian dictator in Rome just before he entrained for Munich. Thus it was that the “Italian proposals,” which provided the informal conference not only with its sole agenda but with the basic terms which eventually became the Munich Agreement, were in fact German proposals concocted in Berlin.*

This must have seemed fairly obvious from the text, which closely followed Hitler’s rejected Godesberg demands; but it was not obvious to Daladier and Chamberlain or to their ambassadors in Berlin, who now attended them. The Premier, according to the German minutes, “welcomed the Duce’s proposal, which had been made in an objective and realistic spirit,” and the Prime Minister “also welcomed the Duce’s proposal and declared that he himself had conceived of a solution on the lines of this proposal.” As for Ambassador Henderson, as he later wrote, he thought Mussolini “had tactfully put forward as his own a combination of Hitler’s and the Anglo–French proposals”; while Ambassador François-Poncet got the impression that the conferees were working on a British memorandum “drawn up by Horace Wilson.”83 So easily were the British and French statesmen and diplomats, bent on appeasement at any cost, deceived!

With the “Italian” proposals so warmly welcomed by all present, there remained but a few details to iron out. Chamberlain, as perhaps might have been expected from an ex-businessman and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, wanted to know who would compensate the Czech government for the public property which would pass to Germany in the Sudetenland. Hitler, who, according to François-Poncet, appeared somewhat pale and worried, and annoyed because he could not follow, as Mussolini could, the talk in French and English, replied heatedly there would be no compensation. When the Prime Minister objected to the stipulation that the Czechs moving out of the Sudetenland could not even take their cattle (this had been one of the Godesberg demands)—exclaiming, “Does this mean that the farmers will be expelled but that their cattle will be retained?”—Hitler exploded.

“Our time is too valuable to be wasted on such trivialities!” he shouted at Chamberlain.84 The Prime Minister dropped the matter.

He did insist at first that a Czech representative ought to be present, or at least, as he put it, be “available.” His country, he said, “could naturally undertake no guarantee that the [Sudeten] territory would be evacuated by October 10 [as Mussolini had proposed] if no assurance of this was forthcoming from the Czech government.” Daladier gave him lukewarm support. The French government, he said, “would in no wise tolerate procrastination in this matter by the Czech government,” but he thought “the presence of a Czech representative, who could be consulted, if necessary, would be an advantage.”

But Hitler was adamant. He would permit no Czechs in his presence. Daladier meekly gave in, but Chamberlain finally won a small concession. It was agreed that a Czech representative might make himself available “in the next room,” as the Prime Minister proposed.

And indeed during the afternoon session two Czech representatives, Dr. Vojtech Mastny, the Czech minister in Berlin, and Dr. Hubert Masarik, from the Prague Foreign Office, did arrive and were coolly ushered into an adjoining room. There, after they had been left from 2 P.M. to 7 to cool their heels, the roof figuratively fell in on them. At the latter hour Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, who had been a member of the Runciman mission and was now on Chamberlain’s staff, came to break the bad news to them. A general agreement had been reached, the details of which he could not yet give to them; but it was much “harsher” than the Franco–British proposals. When Masarik asked if the Czechs couldn’t be heard, the Englishman answered, as the Czech representative later reported to his government, “that I seemed to ignore how difficult was the situation of the Great Powers, and that I could not understand how hard it had been to negotiate with Hitler.”

At 10 P.M. the two unhappy Czechs were taken to Sir Horace Wilson, the Prime Minister’s faithful adviser. On behalf of Chamberlain, Wilson informed them of the main points in the four-power agreement and handed them a map of the Sudeten areas which were to be evacuated by the Czechs at once. When the two envoys attempted to protest, the British official cut them short. He had nothing more to say, he stated, and promptly left the room. The Czechs continued to protest to Ashton-Gwatkin, who had remained with them, but to no avail.

“If you do not accept,” he admonished them, as he prepared to go, “you will have to settle your affairs with the Germans absolutely alone. Perhaps the French may tell you this more gently, but you can believe me that they share our views. They are disinterested.”

This was the truth, wretched though it must have sounded to the two Czech emissaries. Shortly after 1 A.M. on September 30* Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier, in that order, affixed their signatures to the Munich Agreement providing for the German Army to begin its march into Czechoslovakia on October 1, as the Fuehrer had always said it would, and to complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by October 10. Hitler had got what had been refused him at Godesberg.

There remained the painful matter—painful at least to the victims—of informing the Czechs of what they had to give up and how soon. Hitler and Mussolini were not interested in this part of the ceremony and withdrew, leaving the task to the representatives of Czechoslovakia’s ally, France, and of Great Britain. The scene was vividly described by Masarik, in his official report to the Czech Foreign Office.

   At 1:30 A.M. we were taken into the hall where the conference had been held. There were present Mr. Chamberlain, M. Daladier, Sir Horace Wilson, M. Léger [secretary general of the French Foreign Office], Mr. Ashton-Gwatkin, Dr. Mastny and myself. The atmosphere was oppressive; sentence was about to be passed. The French, obviously nervous, seemed anxious to preserve French prestige before the court. Mr. Chamberlain, in a long introductory speech, referred to the Agreement and gave the text to Dr. Mastny …

   The Czechs began to ask several questions, but

   Mr. Chamberlain was yawning continuously, without making any effort to conceal his yawns. I asked MM. Daladier and Léger whether they expected a declaration or answer of our Government to the Agreement. M. Daladier was noticeably nervous. M. Léger replied that the four statesmen had not much time. He added hurriedly and with superficial casualness that no answer was required from us, that they regarded the plan as accepted, that our Government had that very day, at the latest at 3 P.M., to send its representative to Berlin to the sitting of the Commission, and finally that the Czechoslovak officer who was to be sent would have to be in Berlin on Saturday in order to fix the details for the evacuation of the first zone. The atmosphere, he said, was beginning to become dangerous for the whole world.

He spoke to us harshly enough. This was a Frenchman … Mr. Chamberlain did not conceal his weariness. They gave us a second slightly corrected map. Then they finished with us, and we could go.86

   I remember from that fateful night the light of victory in Hitler’s eyes as he strutted down the broad steps of the Fuehrerhaus after the meeting, the cockiness of Mussolini, laced in his special militia uniform, the yawns of Chamberlain and his air of pleasant sleepiness as he returned to the Regina Palace Hotel.

   Daladier [I wrote in my diary that night], on the other hand, looked a completely beaten and broken man. He came over to the Regina to say good-bye to Chamberlain…. Someone asked, or started to ask: “Monsieur le Président, are you satisfied with the agreement?” He turned as if to say something, but he was too tired and defeated and the words did not come out and he stumbled out the door in silence.87

   Chamberlain was not through conferring with Hitler about the peace of the world. Early the next morning, September 30, refreshed by a few hours of sleep and pleased with his labors of the previous day, he sought out the Fuehrer at his private apartment in Munich to discuss further the state of Europe and to secure a small concession which he apparently thought would improve his political position at home.

According to Dr. Schmidt, who acted as interpreter and who was the sole witness of this unexpected meeting, Hitler was pale and moody. He listened absent-mindedly as the exuberant head of the British government expressed his confidence that Germany would “adopt a generous attitude in the implementation of the Munich Agreement” and renewed his hope that the Czechs would not be “so unreasonable as to make difficulties” and that, if they did make them, Hitler would not bomb Prague “with the dreadful losses among the civilian population which it would entail.” This was only the beginning of a long and rambling discourse which would seem incredible coming from a British Prime Minister, even one who had made so abject a surrender to the German dictator the night before, had it not been recorded by Dr. Schmidt in an official Foreign Office memorandum. Even today, when one reads this captured document, it seems difficult to believe.

But the British leader’s opening remarks were only the prelude to what was to come. After what must have seemed to the morose German dictator an interminable exposition by Chamberlain in proposing further cooperation in bringing an end to the Spanish Civil War (which German and Italian “volunteers” were winning for Franco), in furthering disarmament, world economic prosperity, political peace in Europe and even a solution of the Russian problem, the Prime Minister drew out of his pocket a sheet of paper on which he had written something which he hoped they would both sign and release for immediate publication.

   We, the German Fuehrer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister [it read], have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo–German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe.

We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo–German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.

We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.

   Hitler read the declaration and quickly signed it, much to Chamberlain’s satisfaction, as Dr. Schmidt noted in his official report. The interpreter’s impression was that the Fuehrer agreed to it “with a certain reluctance … only to please Chamberlain,” who, he recounts further, “thanked the Fuehrer warmly … and underlined the great psychological effect which he expected from this document.”

The deluded British Prime Minister did not know, of course, that, as the secret German and Italian documents would reveal much later, Hitler and Mussolini had already agreed at this very meeting in Munich that in time they would have to fight “side by side” against Great Britain. Nor, as we shall shortly see, did he divine much else that already was fermenting in Hitler’s lugubrious mind.88

Chamberlain returned to London—as did Daladier to Paris—in triumph. Brandishing the declaration which he had signed with Hitler, the jubilant Prime Minister faced a large crowd that pressed into Downing Street. After listening to shouts of “Good old Neville!” and a lusty singing of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Chamberlain smilingly spoke a few words from a second-story window in Number 10.

“My good friends,” he said, “this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor.* I believe it is peace in our time.”

The Times declared that “no conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield has come adorned with nobler laurels.” There was a spontaneous movement to raise a “National Fund of Thanksgiving” in Chamberlain’s honor, which he graciously turned down. Only Duff Cooper, the First Lord of the Admiralty, resigned from the cabinet, and when in the ensuing Commons debate Winston Churchill, still a voice in the wilderness, began to utter his memorable words, “We have sustained a total, unmitigated defeat,” he was forced to pause, as he later recorded, until the storm of protest against such a remark had subsided.

   The mood in Prague was naturally quite different. At 6:20 A.M. on September 30, the German chargé d’affaires had routed the Czech Foreign Minister, Dr. Krofta, out of bed and handed him the text of the Munich Agreement together with a request that Czechoslovakia send two representatives to the first meeting of the “International Commission,” which was to supervise the execution of the accord, at 5 P.M. in Berlin.

For President Beneš, who conferred all morning at the Hradschin Palace with the political and military leaders, there was no alternative but to submit. Britain and France had not only deserted his country but would now back Hitler in the use of armed force should he turn down the terms of Munich. At ten minutes to one, Czechoslovakia surrendered, “under protest to the world,” as the official statement put it. “We were abandoned. We stand alone,” General Sirovy, the new Premier, explained bitterly in a broadcast to the Czechoslovak people at 5 P.M.

To the very last Britain and France maintained their pressure on the country they had seduced and betrayed. During the day the British, French and Italian ministers went to see Dr. Krofta to make sure that there was no last-minute revolt of the Czechs against the surrender. The German chargé, Dr. Hencke, in a dispatch to Berlin described the scene.

   The French Minister’s attempt to address words of condolence to Krofta was cut short by the Foreign Minister’s remark: “We have been forced into this situation; now everything is at an end; today it is our turn, tomorrow it will be the turn of others.” The British Minister succeeded with difficulty in saying that Chamberlain had done his utmost; he received the same answer as the French Minister. The Foreign Minister was a completely broken man and intimated only one wish: that the three Ministers should quickly leave the room.89

President Beneš resigned on October 5 on the insistence of Berlin and, when it became evident that his life was in danger, flew to England and exile. He was replaced provisionally by General Sirovy. On November 30, Dr. Emil Hácha, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a well-intentioned but weak and senile man of sixty-six, was selected by the National Assembly to be President of what remained of Czecho-Slovakia, which was now officially spelled with a hyphen.

What Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich had neglected to give Germany in Czechoslovakia the so-called “International Commission” proceeded to hand over. This hastily formed body consisted of the Italian, British and French ambassadors and the Czech minister in Berlin and Baron von Weizsaecker, the State Secretary in the German Foreign Office. Every dispute over additional territory for the Germans was settled in their favor, more than once under the threat from Hitler and OKW to resort to armed force. Finally, on October 13, the commission voted to dispense with the plebiscites which the Munich Agreement had called for in the disputed regions. There was no need for them.

The Poles and the Hungarians, after threatening military action against the helpless nation, now swept down, like vultures, to get a slice of Czechoslovak territory. Poland, at the insistence of Foreign Minister Józef Beck, who for the next twelve months will be a leading character in this narrative, took some 650 square miles of territory around Teschen, comprising a population of 228,000 inhabitants, of whom 133,000 were Czechs. Hungary got a larger slice in the award meted out on November 2 by Ribbentrop and Ciano: 7,500 square miles, with a population of 500,000 Magyars and 272,000 Slovaks.

Moreover, the truncated and now defenseless country was forced by Berlin to install a pro-German government of obvious fascist tendencies. It was clear that from now on the Czechoslovak nation existed at the mercy of the Leader of the Third Reich.

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