Military history


Under the terms of the Munich Agreement Hitler got substantially what he had demanded at Godesberg, and the “International Commission,” bowing to his threats, gave him considerably more. The final settlement of November 20, 1938, forced Czechoslovakia to cede to Germany 11,000square miles of territory in which dwelt 2,800,000 Sudeten Germans and 800,000 Czechs. Within this area lay all the vast Czech fortifications which hitherto had formed the most formidable defensive line in Europe, with the possible exception of the Maginot Line in France.

But that was not all. Czechoslovakia’s entire system of rail, road, telephone and telegraph communications was disrupted. According to German figures, the dismembered country lost 66 per cent of its coal, 80 per cent of its lignite, 86 per cent of its chemicals, 80 per cent of its cement, 80 per cent of its textiles, 70 per cent of its iron and steel, 70 per cent of its electric power and 40 per cent of its timber. A prosperous industrial nation was split up and bankrupted overnight.

No wonder that Jodl could write joyfully in his diary on the night of Munich:

The Pact of Munich is signed. Czechoslovakia as a power is out … The genius of the Fuehrer and his determination not to shun even a World War have again won the victory without the use of force. The hope remains that the incredulous, the weak and the doubtful people have been converted, and will remain that way.90

Many of the doubtful were converted and the few who were not were plunged into despair. The generals such as Beck, Halder and Witzleben and their civilian advisers had again been proved wrong. Hitler had got what he wanted, had achieved another great conquest, without firing a shot. His prestige soared to new heights. No one who was in Germany in the days after Munich, as this writer was, can forget the rapture of the German people. They were relieved that war had been averted; they were elated and swollen with pride at Hitler’s bloodless victory, not only over Czechoslovakia but over Great Britain and France. Within the short space of six months, they reminded you, Hitler had conquered Austria and the Sudetenland, adding ten million inhabitants to the Third Reich and a vast strategic territory which opened the way for German domination of southeastern Europe. And without the loss of a single German life! With the instinct of a genius rare in German history he had divined not only the weaknesses of the smaller states in Central Europe but those of the two principal Western democracies, Britain and France, and forced them to bend to his will. He had invented and used with staggering success a new strategy and technique of political warfare, which made actual war unnecessary.

In scarcely four and a half years this man of lowly origins had catapulted a disarmed, chaotic, nearly bankrupt Germany, the weakest of the big powers in Europe, to a position where she was regarded as the mightiest nation of the Old World, before which all the others, Britain even and France, trembled. At no step in this dizzy ascent had the victorious powers of Versailles dared to try to stop her, even when they had the power to do so. Indeed at Munich, which registered the greatest conquest of all, Britain and France had gone out of their way to support her. And what must have amazed Hitler most of all—it certainly astounded General Beck, Hassell and others in their small circle of opposition—was that none of the men who dominated the governments of Britain and France (“little worms,” as the Fuehrer contemptuously spoke of them in private after Munich) realized the consequences of their inability to react with any force to one after the other of the Nazi leader’s aggressive moves.

Winston Churchill, in England, alone seemed to understand. No one stated the consequences of Munich more succinctly than he in his speech to the Commons of October 5:

We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat … We are in the midst of a disaster of the first magnitude. The road down the Danube … the road to the Black Sea has been opened … All the countries of Mittel Europa and the Danube valley, one after another, will be drawn in the vast system of Nazi politics … radiating from Berlin … And do not suppose that this is the end. It is only the beginning …

But Churchill was not in the government and his words went unheeded.

   Was the Franco–British surrender at Munich necessary? Was Adolf Hitler not bluffing?

The answer, paradoxically, to both questions, we now know, is No. All the generals close to Hitler who survived the war agree that had it not been for Munich Hitler would have attacked Czechoslovakia on October 1, 1938, and they presume that, whatever momentary hesitations there might have been in London, Paris and Moscow, in the end Britain, France and Russia would have been drawn into the war.

And—what is most important to this history at this point—the German generals agree unanimously that Germany would have lost the war, and in short order. The argument of the supporters of Chamberlain and Daladier—and they were in the great majority at the time—that Munich saved the West not only from war but from defeat in war and, incidentally, preserved London and Paris from being wiped out by the Luftwaffe’s murderous bombing has been impressively refuted, so far as concern the last two points, by those in a position to know best: the German generals, and especially those generals who were closest to Hitler and who supported him from beginning to end the most fanatically.

The leading light among the latter was General Keitel, chief of OKW, toady to Hitler and constantly at his side. When asked on the stand at the Nuremberg trial what the reaction of the German generals was to Munich he replied:

We were extraordinarily happy that it had not come to a military operation because … we had always been of the opinion that our means of attack against the frontier fortifications of Czechoslovakia were insufficient. From a purely military point of view we lacked the means for an attack which involved the piercing of the frontier fortifications.91

It has always been assumed by Allied military experts that the German Army would have romped through Czechoslovakia. But to the testimony of Keitel that this would not have been the case must be added that of Field Marshal von Manstein, who became one of the most brilliant of the German field commanders. When he, in his turn, testified at Nuremberg (unlike Keitel and Jodl, he was not on trial for his life) on the German position at the time of Munich, he explained:

If a war had broken out, neither our western border nor our Polish frontier could really have been effectively defended by us, and there is no doubt whatsoever that had Czechoslovakia defended herself, we would have been held up by her fortifications, for we did not have the means to break through.92*

   Jodl, the “brains” of OKW, put it this way when he took the stand in his own defense at Nuremberg:

   It was out of the question, with five fighting divisions and seven reserve divisions in the western fortifications, which were nothing but a large construction site, to hold out against 100 French divisions. That was militarily impossible.93

   If, as these German generals concede, Hitler’s army lacked the means of penetrating the Czech fortifications, and Germany, in the face of France’s overwhelming strength in the west, was in a “militarily impossible” situation, and further, since, as we have seen, there was such grave dissension among the generals that the Chief of the Army General Staff was prepared to overthrow the Fuehrer in order to avert a hopeless war—why, then, did not the French and British general staffs know this? Or did they? And if they did, how could the heads of government of Britain and France be forced at Munich into sacrificing so much of their nations’ vital interests? In seeking answers to such questions we confront one of the mysteries of the Munich time which has not yet been cleared up. Even Churchill, concerned as he is with military affairs, scarcely touches on it in his massive memoirs.

It is inconceivable that the British and French general staffs and the two governments did not know of the opposition of the German Army General Staff to a European war. For, as already noted here, the conspirators in Berlin warned the British of this through at least four channels in August and September and, as we know, the matter came to the attention of Chamberlain himself. By early September Paris and London must have learned of the resignation of General Beck and of the obvious consequences to the German Army of the rebellion of its most eminent and gifted leader.

It was generally conceded in Berlin at this time that British and French military intelligence was fairly good. It is extremely difficult to believe that the military chiefs in London and Paris did not know of the obvious weaknesses of the German Army and Air Force and of their inability to fight a two-front war. What doubts could the Chief of Staff of the French Army, General Gamelin, have—despite his inbred caution, which was monumental—that with nearly one hundred divisions he could overwhelm the five regular and seven reserve German divisions in the west and sweep easily and swiftly deep into Germany?

On the whole, as he later recounted,94 Gamelin had few doubts. On September 12, the day on which Hitler was thundering his threats against Czechoslovakia at the closing session of the Nuremberg rally, the French generalissimo had assured Premier Daladier that if war came “the democratic nations would dictate the peace.” He says he backed it up with a letter expressing the reasons for his optimism. On September 26, at the height of the Czech crisis following the Godesberg meeting, Gamelin, who had accompanied the French government leaders to London, repeated his assurances to Chamberlain and tried to substantiate them with an analysis of the military situation calculated to buck up not only the British Prime Minister but his own wavering Premier. In this attempt, apparently, he failed. Finally, just before Daladier flew to Munich, Gamelin outlined to him the limits of territorial concessions in the Sudetenland which could be made without endangering French security. The main Czech fortifications, as well as the rail trunk lines, certain strategic branch lines and the principal defense industries must not be given to Germany. Above all, he added, the Germans must not be permitted to cut off the Moravian Gap. Good advice, if Czechoslovakia was to be of any use to France in a war with Germany, but, as we have seen, Daladier was not the man to act on it.

A good deal was said at the time of Munich that one reason for Chamberlain’s surrender was his fear that London would be obliterated by German bombing, and there is no doubt that the French were jittery at the awful prospect of their beautiful capital being destroyed from the air. But from what is now known of the Luftwaffe’s strength at this moment, the Londoners and the Parisians, as well as the Prime Minister and the Premier, were unduly alarmed. The German Air Force, like the Army, was concentrated against Czechoslovakia and therefore, like the Army, was incapable of serious action in the West. Even if a few German bombers could have been spared to attack London and Paris it is highly doubtful that they would have reached their targets. Weak as the British and French fighter defenses were, the Germans could not have given their bombers fighter protection, if they had had the planes. Their fighter bases were too far away.

It has also been argued—most positively by Ambassadors François-Poncet and Henderson—that Munich gave the two Western democracies nearly a year to catch up with the Germans in rearmament. The facts belie such an argument. As Churchill, backed up by every serious Allied military historian, has written, “The year’s breathing space said to be ‘gained’ by Munich left Britain and France in a much worse position compared to Hitler’s Germany than they had been at the Munich crisis.”95 As we shall see, all the German military calculations a year later bear this out, and subsequent events, of course, remove any doubts whatsoever.

In retrospect, and with the knowledge we now have from the secret German documents and from the postwar testimony of the Germans themselves, the following summing up, which was impossible to make in the days of Munich, may be given:

Germany was in no position to go to war on October 1, 1938, against Czechoslovakia and France and Britain, not to mention Russia. Had she done so, she would have been quickly and easily defeated, and that would have been the end of Hitler and the Third Reich. If a European war had been averted at the last moment by the intercession of the German Army, Hitler might have been overthrown by Halder and Witzleben and their confederates carrying out their plan to arrest him as soon as he had given the final order for the attack on Czechoslovakia.

By publicly boasting that he would march into the Sudetenland by October 1 “in any case,” Hitler had put himself far out on a limb. He was in the “untenable position” which General Beck had foreseen. Had he, after all his categorical threats and declarations, tried to crawl back from the limb on his own, he scarcely could have survived for long, dictatorships being what they are and his dictatorship, in particular, being what it was. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for him to have backed down, and had he tried to do so his loss of prestige in Europe, among his own people and, above all, with his generals would, most likely, have proved fatal.

Chamberlain’s stubborn, fanatical insistence on giving Hitler what he wanted, his trips to Berchtesgaden and Godesberg and finally the fateful journey to Munich rescued Hitler from his limb and strengthened his position in Europe, in Germany, in the Army, beyond anything that could have been imagined a few weeks before. It also added immeasurably to the power of the Third Reich vis-à-vis the Western democracies and the Soviet Union.

For France, Munich was a disaster, and it is beyond understanding that this was not fully realized in Paris. Her military position in Europe was destroyed. Because her Army, when the Reich was fully mobilized, could never be much more than half the size of that of Germany, which had nearly twice her population, and because her ability to produce arms was also less, France had laboriously built up her alliances with the smaller powers in the East on the other flank of Germany—and of Italy: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Rumania, which, together, had the military potential of a Big Power. The loss now of thirty-five well-trained, well-armed Czech divisions, deployed behind their strong mountain fortifications and holding down an even larger German force, was a crippling one to the French Army. But that was not all. After Munich how could France’s remaining allies in Eastern Europe have any confidence in her written word? What value now were alliances with France? The answer in Warsaw, Bucharest and Belgrade was: Not much; and there was a scramble in these capitals to make the best deal possible, while there was still time, with the Nazi conqueror.

And if not a scramble, there was a stir in Moscow. Though the Soviet Union was militarily allied to both Czechoslovakia and France, the French government had gone along with Germany and Britain, without protest, in excluding Russia from Munich. It was a snub which Stalin did not forget and which was to cost the two Western democracies dearly in the months to come. On October 3, four days after Munich, the counselor of the German Embassy in Moscow, Werner von Tippelskirch, reported to Berlin on the “consequences” of Munich for Soviet policy. He thought Stalin “would draw conclusions”; he was certain the Soviet Union would “reconsider her foreign policy,” become less friendly to her ally France and “more positive” toward Germany. As a matter of fact, the German diplomat thought that “the present circumstances offer favorable opportunities for a new and wider German economic agreement with the Soviet Union.”96 This is the first mention in the secret German archives of a change in the wind that now began to stir, however faintly, over Berlin and Moscow and which, within a year, would have momentous consequences.

   Despite his staggering victory and the humiliation he administered not only to Czechoslovakia but to the Western democracies, Hitler was disappointed with the results of Munich. “That fellow [Chamberlain],” Schacht heard him exclaim to his S.S. entourage on his return to Berlin, “has spoiled my entry into Prague!”97 That was what he really had wanted all along, as he had constantly confided to his generals since his lecture to them on November 5 of the previous year. The conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia, he had explained then, was to be but the preliminary for a major drive for Lebensraum in the East and a military settlement with France in the West. As he had told the Hungarian Prime Minister on September 20, the best thing was “to destroy Czechoslovakia.” This, he had said, would “provide the only satisfactory solution.” He was only afraid of the “danger” that the Czechs might submit to all of his demands.*

Now Mr. Chamberlain, grasping his much-publicized umbrella, had come to Munich and forced the Czechs to submit to all his demands and thereby had deprived him of his military conquest. Such, it is evident from the record, were Hitler’s tortuous thoughts after Munich. “It was clear to me from the first moment,” he later confided to his generals, “that I could not be satisfied with the Sudeten-German territory. That was only a partial solution.”98

A few days after Munich the German dictator set in motion plans to achieve a total solution.

 The parentheses are in the original.

* General von Brauchitsch received his divorce during the summer and on September 24 married Frau Charlotte Schmidt.

* Hitler, according to Jodl’s diary, used the word Hundsfott, a stronger word.29 Telford Taylor, in Sword and Swastika, gives a fuller account based on General Adam’s unpublished memoirs.

* According to a German Foreign Office memorandum of August 6, Henderson, at a private party, had remarked to the Germans present “that Great Britain would not think of risking even one sailor or airman for Czechoslovakia, and that any reasonable solution would be agreed to so long as it were not attempted by force.”33

 Kleist returned to Berlin on August 23 and showed Churchill’s letter to Beck, Halder, Hammerstein, Canaris, Oster and others in the plot. In Nemesis of Power (p. 413), Wheeler-Bennett writes that, according to private information given him after the war by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Canaris made two copies of the letter, one for himself and one for Beck, and Kleist hid the original in his country house at Schmenzin in Pomerania. It was discovered there by the Gestapo after the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life and contributed to Kleist’s death sentence before a People’s Court, which was passed and carried out on April 16, 1945. Actually the contents of Churchill’s letter became known to the German authorities much sooner than the conspirators could have imagined. I found it in a German Foreign Office memorandum which, though undated, is known to have been submitted on September 6, 1938. It is marked: “Extract from a letter of Winston Churchill to a German confidant.”35

* “I honestly believe,” the ambassador had written Lord Halifax from Berlin on July 18, “the moment has come for Prague to get a real twist of the screw … If Beneš cannot satisfy Henlein, he can satisfy no Sudeten leader … We have got to be disagreeable to the Czechs.”38 It seems inconceivable that even Henderson did not know by this time that Henlein was a mere tool of Hitler and had been ordered by him to keep increasing his demands to such an extent that Beneš could not possibly “satisfy” him.

* Even the severest critics of Chamberlain’s foreign policy in the British press and in Parliament warmly applauded the Prime Minister for going to Berchtesgaden. The Poet Laureate, John Masefield, composed a poem, a paean of praise, entitled “Neville Chamberlain,” which was published in the Times September 16.

* Both in his talk with Hitler and in his report to the Commons, Chamberlain, whose knowledge of German history does not appear to have been very wide, accepted this false use of the word “return.” The Sudeten Germans had belonged to Austria, but never to Germany.

* Though the main points of Runciman’s recommendations were presented to the cabinet on the evening of September 16, the report itself was not officially made until the twenty-first, and not published until the twenty-eighth, when events had made it only of academic interest. Wheeler-Bennett points out that certain parts of the report give the impression of having been written after September 21. When Runciman left Prague on the morning of September 16, no one, not even Hitler or the Sudeten leaders, had gone so far as to suggest that the Sudetenland be turned over to Germany without a plebiscite. (Wheeler-Bennett, Munich, pp. 111–12. The text of the Runciman report is in the British White Paper, Cmd. 5847, No. 1.)

* It is worth noting that neither the British nor the French government published the text of this Czech note when they later, issued the documents justifying their policies which led up to Munich.

 The treachery of Bonnet at this juncture is too involved to be related in a history of Germany. Among other things, he contrived to convince the French and British cabinet ministers of the falsehood that the Czech government wanted the French to state they would not fight for Czechoslovakia so that it would have a good excuse for capitulating. For the story, see Wheeler-Bennett’s Munich; Herbert Ripka, Munich, Before and After; Pertinax, The Grave Diggers of France.

* It was from this hotel, run by Herr Dreesen, an early Nazi crony of Hitler, that the Fuehrer had set out on the night of June 29–30, 1934, to kill Roehm and carry out the Blood Purge. The Nazi leader had often sought out the hotel as a place of refuge where he could collect his thoughts and resolve his hesitations.

 Hitler knew that the Czechs had accepted the Anglo–French proposals. Jodl noted in his diary that at 11:30 A.M. on September 21, the day before Chamberlain arrived in Godesberg, he had received a telephone call from the Fuehrer’s adjutant: “The Fuehrer has received news five minutes ago that Prague is said to have accepted unconditionally.” At 12:45 Jodl noted, “Department heads are informed to continue preparation for ‘Green,’ but nevertheless to get ready for everything necessary for a peaceful penetration.”52 It is possible, however, that Hitler did not know the terms of the Anglo–French plan until the Prime Minister explained them to him.

* Czech mobilization began at 10:30 P.M. on September 23.

* The memorandum called for the withdrawal of all Czech armed forces, including the police, etc., by October 1 from large areas indicated on a map with red shading. A plebiscite was to determine the future of further areas shaded in green. All military installations in the evacuated territories were to be left intact. All commercial and transport materials, “especially the rolling stock of the railway system,” were to be handed over to the Germans undamaged. “Finally, no foodstuffs, goods, cattle, raw material, etc., are to be removed.”54 The hundreds of thousands of Czechs in the Sudetenland were not to be allowed to take with them even their household goods or the family cow.

* The Czech reply is a moving and prophetic document. The Godesberg proposals, it said, “deprive us of every safeguard for our national existence.”56

* At the conclusion of the Godesberg talks, the British and French correspondents—and the chief European correspondent of the New York Times, who was an English citizen—had scurried off for the French, Belgian and Dutch frontiers, none of them wishing to be interned in case of war.

* Wilson’s assurance is given in English in the original of Schmidt’s German notes.

* These proposals were also transmitted by Ambassador Henderson to the German Foreign Office at 11 P.M. with the request that they be immediately submitted to Hitler.

* These include firsthand accounts by Halder, Gisevius and Schacht.69 Each of them contains much that is confusing and contradictory, and on some points they contradict each other. It must be remembered that all three of these men, who had begun by serving the Nazi regime, were anxious after the war to prove their opposition to Hitler and their love of peace.
Erich Kordt, chief of Ribbentrop’s secretariat in the Foreign Office, also was an important participant in the plot who survived the war. At Nuremberg he drew up a long memorandum about events in September 1938, which was made available to this writer.

* There is considerable confusion among the historians and even among the conspirators about Hitler’s whereabouts on September 13 and 14. Churchill, basing his account on a memorandum of General Halder, states that Hitler arrived in Berlin from Berchtesgaden “on the morning of September 14” and that Halder and Witzleben, on learning of it, “decided to strike at 8 that same evening.” They called the operation off, according to this account, when they learned at 4 P.M. that Chamberlain was flying to Berchtesgaden. (Churchill, The Gathering Storm, p. 312.) But Halder’s memory—and hence Churchill’s account—is certainly in error. Hitler’s daily schedule book, now in the Library of Congress, has several entries showing that he spent the thirteenth and fourteenth in Munich, where, among other things, he conferred with Ribbentrop at Bormann’s home and visited the Sonnenwinkel, a cabaret, departing for the Obersalzberg at the end of the day of the fourteenth.

* The British ambassador in Rome.

 As we have seen, Hitler already had mobilized all the troops available.

* Alan Bullock (Hitler—A Study in Tyranny, p. 428) says: “Almost certainly it was Mussolini’s intervention which turned the scale.”

* For example, the explanation for the failure of the revolt given by General Georg Thomas, the brilliant chief of the Economic and Armaments Branch of OKW, and one of the conspirators: “The execution of this enterprise was unfortunately frustrated because, according to the view of the commanding general appointed for the task [Witzleben], the younger officers were found to be unreliable for a political action of this kind.” See his paper, “Gedanken und Ereignisse,” published in the December 1945 number of the Schweizerische Monatshefte.

* At 6:45 the evening before, Chamberlain had sent a message to President Beneš informing him officially of the meeting at Munich. “I shall have the interests of Czechoslovakia,” he stated, “fully in mind … I go there [to Munich] with the intention of trying to find accommodation between the positions of the German and Czechoslovak governments.” Beneš had immediately replied, “I beg that nothing may be done at Munich without Czechoslovakia being heard.”81

* Erich Kordt recounted the German origins of Mussolini’s proposals in his testimony before U.S. Military Tribunal IV at Nuremberg on June 4, 1948, in the case of U.S.A. v. Ernst Weizsaecker. Documents on German Foreign Policy, II, p. 1005, gives a summary from the official trial transcript. Kordt also tells the story in his book Wahn und Wirklichkeit, pp. 129–31. Dr. Schmidt (Hitler’s Interpreter, p. 111) substantiates Kordt’s account and remarks that translating the Duce’s proposals “was easy” because he had already translated them the day before in Berlin. Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, in a diary entry of September 29–30 from Munich, tells of Mussolini producing his document “which in fact had been telephoned to us by our Embassy the previous evening, as expressing the desires of the German Government.” (Ciano’s Hidden Diary, 1937–38, p. 167.)

* The agreement was dated September 29, though not actually signed until the early-morning hours of September 30. It stipulated that the German occupation “of the predominantly German territory” should be carried out by German troops in four stages, from October 1 through October 7. The remaining territory, after being delimited by the “International Commission,” would be occupied “by October 10.” The commission was to consist of representatives of the four Big Powers and Czechoslovakia. Britain, France and Italy agreed “that the evacuation of the territory shall be completed by October 10, without any existing installations having been destroyed, and that the Czechoslovak Government will be held responsible for carrying out the evacuation without damage to the said installations.”

Further, the “International Commission” would arrange for plebiscites, “not later than the end of November,” in the regions where the ethnographical character was in doubt and would make the final determination of the new frontiers. In an annex to the accord, Britain and France declared that “they stand by their offer … relating to an international guarantee of the new boundaries of the Czechoslovak State against unprovoked aggression. When the question of the Polish and Hungarian minorities … has been settled, Germany and Italy, for their part, will give a guarantee to Czechoslovakia.”85

The pledge of plebiscites was never carried out. Neither Germany nor Italy ever gave the guarantee to Czechoslovakia against aggression, even after the matter of the Polish and Hungarian minorities was settled, and, as we shall see, Britain and France declined to honor their guarantee.

* The reference is to Disraeli’s return from the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

* Even Hitler became at least partly convinced of this after he had inspected the Czech fortress line. He later told Dr. Carl Burckhardt, League of Nations High Commissioner of Danzig, “When after Munich we were in a position to examine Czechoslovak military strength from within, what we saw of it greatly disturbed us; we had run a serious danger. The plan prepared by the Czech generals was formidable. I now understand why my generals urged restraint.” (Pertinax, The Grave Diggers of France, p. 5.)

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