When Austria became a part of Nazi Germany, little Czechoslovakia, a democratic country formed out of the victory of the Western Allies over Germany in the first World War, found itself surrounded on three sides. And though Britain and France had barely reacted to the previous Anschluss, Hitler knew full well he could not invade Czechoslovakia without a reason.
By May, things began to heat up. Rumors were flying around Europe that German troops were massing near the Czech border. For its part, the Czech Republics's reserves were being called up in case it became necessary to defend their homeland. Adolph Hitler traveled to Italy to secure the backing of its Facist leader, Mussolini, should he invade Czechoslovakia. Finally, Britain, France and Russia began to put some pressure on the Nazi leader. Meanwhile, little Czechoslovakia primarily through the quiet example of its president, Eduard Benes (pronounced Ben-ish), continued to stress moderation and calm. Though he was furious, Hitler backed away, claiming he had no aggressive intentions toward the Czechoslovak Republic.
However, in Berlin on May 28, he told his generals, "It is my unshakable will that Czechoslovakia shall be wiped off the map." He instructed them to develop a plan for completing this by October 1st.
To the Brink
The plan that would bring Europe once again to the brink of war was through the Sudentenland. This tiny section of the Czech Republic lay on the border of Germany. Many of the inhabitants were of German background as the land was at one time part of the German empire. One of the representative parties in Czech parliament was the Henlein party, which was composed of these Sudenten Germans. Named after the founder and leader of the party, Konrad Henlein, it would prove, as would Henlein himself, instrumental in bringing about the destruction of the tiny country.
With training from Himmler's SS troops, many pro-Nazi Sudenten Germans began in late summer to stir up things for the Prague government. Constant terrorist attacks as well as marches and rallies in the Sudentenland kept the Czech militia active. Again, while the goverment called for calm, that territory was anything but that.
Using these attacks as a front, the German propaganda machine began to cry for justice for these so-called persecuted Germans in Czechoslovakia. It was expected that Britain would once again cede to the wishes of the Fuhrer. In June, Chamberlain spoke "off the record" that Britain favored turning over the Sudetenland to Germany "in the interest of peace." The League of Nations, it seemed, was dead as they failed to intervene. Chamberlain sent his representative, Lord Runciman, to Czechoslovakia to mediate between that country and the Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain had forced Runciman on the Czechs by warning of dire circumstances if they did not accept his coming. Runciman sought more and more concessions for the Sudeten Germans from the Czech president, Eduard Benes. Benes was rapidly growing tired of the whole affair.
By September 5th, he asked to see the Sudeten German representatives asking them to draw up their demands and that he would accept them. But Hitler knew this would foil his plans. On September 7th, he ordered Henlein to break off all negotiations. War, it seemed, was on once again.
On the 10th, Benes broadcast to the world an appeal for calm and peace. Benes asked the Czech people to be "firm and have faith in our state, in its health and its strength, in the indestructible spirit and devotion of its people." Was Benes dreaming? Without a clear declaration of support from Great Britain, nothing was definite. That evening a speech by Goering pointed the way. Goering said of the Czechs "This miserable pygmy race without culture, no one knows where it came from, is oppressing a cultured people [Sudeten Germans] and behind it is Moscow and the eternal mask of the Jew devil..."
The following Monday evening Hitler gave a speech to the Nazi Congress in Nuremberg. While he ranted against the Czechs and its President Benes speaking of "justice" for the Sudeten Germans, he stopped short of talk of war. Once again, it seemed, crisis had been averted. But a side effect of Hitler's speech [inflamed by the German propaganda machine] caused outbreaks of fighting in the Sudetenland. So much so that by the 14th, Czechoslovakia had declared martial law and was recalling reserves. The BBC reported that Chamberlain sensing the new tension offered to travel to Germany to talk to Hitler. At 6 p.m. Karl Henlein, the Sudetenland leader gave an ultimatum to Benes: rescind martial law, recall the reserves to their barracks, withdraw the state police from the territory, and accept this by midnight or all negotiations would be called off. Czechoslovakia, he said, would be responsible for "further developments" if they failed to do so. And because Henlein took his lead from Hitler, the press and others concluded he meant war.
The Czech government rejected the ultimatum and the standoff continued. Late in the day, Chamberlain announced that he would go to Germany to meet with Hitler.Though the Czech's still felt they had things under control, the British government felt they needed to intervene. A war of words continued between Nazi Germany's radio and the Czech Republic shortwave station. Even Hungary, Germany's ally, was perpetuating rumors about events in the Sudetenland which Prague radio refuted. When Chamberlain traveled to Berchtesgaden, he met Hitler at the leader's mountain retreat. The meeting was cordial and Chamberlain and Hitler decided to meet again in a few days in Godesberg. It was feared that the two had agreed that a plebiscite should take place.
"...Keep your patience. Do not let yourself be weakened by rumored doubts..."
September 18th brought a speech from the Premier of Czechoslovakia, Milan Hodza (Hoed-yah). He declared that if Chamberlain and Hitler had agreed upon a plebiscite, it was unacceptable to his country. Hodza implied that if need be Czechoslovakia would go it alone against Hitler. Meanwhile in London, the French Premier Deladier was meeting with Chamberlain to discuss the Czechoslovakian situation. They would agree that a plebiscite must be held. And in Italy, Mussolini was calling for a plebiscite for all the races within Czechoslovakia. The vultures certainly smelled blood.
Monday, the 19th was generally quiet. France and Britain had given their proposal for a settlement to the Czechoslovak Government. In a 7:30 pm news broadcast, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow outlined what it appeared the settlement included:
"Here is a synthesis of the speculation in today's London papers. First, the Sudeten majority districts are to be turned over to Germany. Some newspapers mention that those areas having more than 50% Sudetens will be turned over. Second, Britain is to take part in an international guarantee of what is left of Czechoslovakia. And third, the Franco-Czech and the Russian-Czech Alliance is to be abandoned."
All the countries were in wait mode to see what the Czech government, and Hitler, would do next.
As Tueday, the 20th dawned, there was still no word from either government. Finally, at approximately 2:45 pm Eastern Standard Time, Maurice Hindus broadcasting for CBS from Prague interrupted his broadcast to announce the Czech communique.
"The Czechoslovak government has handed to the British and French ministers in Prague a note which the government expresses its point of view with regard to the proposal which has been interpreted to it by Great Britain and France. This point of view makes further negotiations possible in the spirit of conciliation, which the Czechoslovak government has always shown."
But the Czech answer proved unsatisfactory to the British and French. They issued a joint declaration that the Czech decision was not acceptable and that Czechoslovakia must deliver unconditional acceptance within 24 hours or bear the consequences of invasion. Meanwhile, the scheduled second meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain, though delayed, was about to begin in Godesberg.
"...We intend to fulfill our obligations under the pact..."
The day before the meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain was held, Maxim Litvinoff, the Soviet Union's Foreign Minister, addressed the League of Nations in Geneva. Litvinoff accused Britain and France of avoiding a problematical war today in return for a larger war later. He declared that the Soviet Union's "War Department is ready immediately to participate in a conference with representatives of the French and Czechoslovakian War Departments to discuss measures appropriate to the moment." Russia, it seemed was ready to meet her obligations with the Czech government. But that would prove futile. By the end of the day, the Czech government announced that they would accept the second ultimatum from Britain and France and surrender the Sudeten territory.
By the time Wednesday, the 22nd began the turmoil was increasing. The previous night there were crowds int he streets of Prague calling for the Czech military government to take control and defend their country from aggression. The crowd denounced France and Britain. And the Czech cabinet presented its resignation to President Benes, who was left with trying to form a new government. Meanwhile, the scheduled meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler got underway. No sooner had it begun than Hitler announced to the Prime Minister that the previous terms were no longer acceptable. Though the British, French and Czechs had all agreed to the secession of land, Hitler now demanded a German military occupation of the Sudetenland by October 1st (which had been his plan all along).
Once more the day ends in turmoil. Benes had chosen Jan Syrovy, the heroic Czech general, as his Premier and War Minister. And on the Czech-German border, there was back and forth fighting as Sudeten Germans took over the town of Eger, then lost it as the Czech military regained control. German troops were reported moving near the border and French troops also moved to protect their province, Alsace. The follow-up meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain was postponed as Chamberlain delivered a letter to the Fuhrer and an answer returned. Russia was making sounds that it would defend Czechoslovakia against both Polish and German aggression. France was making noises that if early movement into the Sudetenland by Germany took place, it would move to protect the Czech Republic. War seemed closer than ever before.
On Saturday, Chamberlain flew back to London after negotiations with Hitler had broken off. Mussolini declared that Czechoslovakia must give up the Sudetenland by October 1. In Paris, France mobilized its military as a protective measure. Before he left, Hitler delivered a memorandum to Chamberlain for him to present to Czechoslovakia. In effect he demanded immediate control of the Sudetenland, release of all German prisoners, a plebiscite be held without the presence of military troops from either side, and release of all resources within the territory. The brutal occupation he demanded was tempered with the plebiscite offer though it later proved hollow. The world went to bed that night wondering if they would wake up to world war. On the 27th Chamberlain took to the airwaves to deplore the way he was treated and the change in Hitler's earlier aggreements.
"a last effort..."
Over the next few days, events grew critical. Not only had France mobilized and the Soviet Union threatened to help Czechoslovakia, but now Great Britain said it too would step in to stop Germany if France is forced to act. President Roosevelt sent a second cablegram to Hitler stating:
"The question before the world today, Mr. Chancellor, is not the question of errors of judgments or of injustices committed in the past, it is the question of the fate of the world today and tomorrow..."
Against such a rising tide, Hitler faltered slightly and offered to meet with France, England, and Italy in Munich. Chamberlain agreed to go calling it a "last effort."
On Thursday, September 29, the four powers, Germany, England, France and Italy met in Munich to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia. After about eight hours, an agreement was signed. The joint paper in effect still stated that Germany would take over the Sudetenland, but more slowly. Chamberlain who thought he had avoided war announced the "piece of paper" that both he and Hitler signed agreeing that Hitler's desires over Europe would stop with the Sudetenland. Hitler would later demean the agreement as a "scrap of paper." On October 1, German troops would come in to occupy the most German areas. Then each day additional movements would take place under jurisdiction of the four powers who would determine just how much territory was to be ceded. The less German areas would hold a plebiscite to determine if they want to stay a part of the Reich. Additional settlements were made over claims from Hungary and Poland. Czechoslovakia in effect had been carved up and was much smaller than previously, a much weaker state. Hitler had won.
By March 15th, 1939, through manipulations of the weakened Czech government, Hitler would peacefully occupy all of the country.
Later that year, Hitler would invade Poland.
Britain and France would declare war on Germany.
Audio Timeline - Downloads
Czech Radio Announces the Austrian Anschluss
- March 12, 1938
- May 23, 1938
President Benes Speech
- September 10, 1938
Martial Law Declared
(Fulton Lewis) - September 13, 1938
(Nazi Radio) - September 13, 1938
Chamberlain offers to travel to Germany
(BBC) - September 14, 1938
War of Words
- September 16, 1938
Czech Radio Rejects Hungarian Claims
- September 18, 1938
Premier Hodza Speaks
- September 18, 1938
On the brink
- September 23, 1938
Fred Bates from London
- September 27, 1938
Chamberlain Took to the Airwaves
(BBC) - September 27, 1938
- September 27, 1938
Max Jordan on Big Four Meeting
- September 29, 1938
Chamberlain Avoids War?
- September 30, 1938