Remembering Munich Conference of 1938

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! “(George Santayana-1905)

Nevile Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Count Ciano
29 Sep 1938 (German Federal Archives)

What is going on today regarding the Ukraine recalls one of the greater mistakes made prior to the outbreak of general war in 1939. Hitler had been in power since 1933 and re-fashioned the new German state on the ideas of National Socialism based on the Italian version of fascism. This new Germany began to rebuild itself fast repudiating the limitations of the Versailles Treaty imposed on them. Everything was changed to conform to the new order from education to what music they could listen to. Religious schools were shuttered forcing all children to attend public schools where the ideals of the new order would be taught. The Nazi’s (a shortening of a much longer name of the political party) had a special desire to exclude those who did not fit into their idea of what a person was. Jewish people were the top targets along with a long list of others (Polish, Gypsies, anyone of African descent, homosexuals, pacifists etc.) With full control of the print, radio, and film media, everyone got the party line no matter where they went. Opposition media was silenced and only by listening to forbidden foreign radio could you learn what was going on.

Despite how Germany broke its agreements, not one of the major powers (France, Great Britain, or the United States) officially said much nor really try to stop them (such as when they marched into the Rhineland on 7 Mar 1936)) Sure there were some politicians or opinion writers who expressed alarm and concern, but no one really cared at that point what Winston Churchill had to say since his own party ignored him. Nazi leaders were ecstatic when in August 1936 the world came to see the summer Olympics. They were pleased to show the world how much Germany had come back from its defeat after World War I. Sure people criticized holding the Olympics in a country that was violently antisemitic, but it went on anyway giving the Nazi’s a platform to show off the new Germany to the world. And many bought into it and even admired Hitler, with all his faults, for his accomplishments.

As Germany re-armed, it looked to expand its frontiers and bring into being a Greater Germany. Hitler was Austrian and both countries had close ties sharing a common language and culture. Many in Austria already supported such an idea long before the Nazi’s came into power. The Nazi’s had tried in 1934 in supporting a coup attempt, but it failed. By 1938 Germany was in a better position. Politicians and groups sympathetic to Hitler and unification in Austria were loudly calling for it. Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg hoped that a referendum on the issue set for 13 March 1938 would resolve. Hitler instead threatened to invade and through his agents asked him to resign. The referendum was canceled and on 12 Mar 1938, German troops entered Austria and were unopposed. The long-wanted Anschluss had finally occurred. Neither Great Britain nor France was willing to offer any assistance to stop it from happening. In fact, many uttered support for it.

That brings us to the events of the Munich Conference of September 1938. Around the same time that Austria was being swallowed up, Hitler began also saying that the German speaking people in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer times with Germany. He began speaking publicly that this region should also be part of the Greater Germany as well. And he ominously spoke of forcibly acquiring if Czechoslovakia did not hand this area over to him. Austria had been taken without a fight and in London and Paris there was concern of a real war that might break out.  The position of both governments was to avoid total war; they did not want another World War I that devastated Europe. This policy of appeasement had many supporters in politics, academia, and the media. Those who argued against it were called warmongers, or worse. The problem was that both countries had signed treaties with Czechoslovakia that if they were attacked, their enemy became theirs.

They simply decided to abandon it by negotiating with Germany without any consultation with the Czechoslovakian government. They made a deal in which any area where fifty percent or more of German Sudetens that it would go to Germany. Hitler though sensed correctly that both the British (led by prime minister Neville Chamberlain) and the French (premier Édouard Daladier) were willing to give up more if it meant avoiding war. He knew the French had the best trained troops on the continent and the British an excellent navy. Yet neither were willing to put any of that up as a possible stop to his ambitions. They never offered that they would defend Czechoslovakia if he did not make a deal to avoid war. That was not ever on the table and Hitler knew he could get want he wanted just by making threats.

By threatening to move German troops into Czechoslovakia, he forced the British and French to call for a conference to settle the issue. And that begot the Munich Conference of 29 Sept 1938 in which the British, French, Italians, and Germans attended to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. Absent from this was anyone the Czechoslovakian government. The British and French agreed to hand over the area demanded by Hitler to Germany. The Czechoslovakians were told they had to accept or be invaded. It was a great victory for Hitler. Two great powers had groveled before him giving him land that had rich industrial resources that would feed the German war machine.

Neville Chamberlain was welcomed back to resounding applause in Britain. The agreement got applause from many in Parliament, academia, and the press. The public seemed to like it as well. After Chamberlain got off his plane and read the statement signed by Hitler, he famously said it was “peace in our time.” Other leaders in Europe breathed a sigh of relief thinking it would curtail German ambitions. It was one of the greatest misjudgments in history and that clip would famously show how Chamberlain was duped by a tyrant. That image would become so ingrained that appeasement completely fell out of the vocabulary only being used in history books or to accuse someone of going down that dangerous path again.

Czechoslovakia was abandoned by its allies. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill had warned the Munich Agreement was a bad omen and it proved accurate. Both the British and French handed Hitler his prize on a plate without him ever firing a shot. With his taking over Czechoslovakia, it showed how appeasement was a failed policy.

In both countries, and in other European capitals, it became obvious Germany was on the move to expand with its growing military power. Suddenly the prospect of real war became a reality. Chamberlain had to change policy and start agreements with other countries to deter Hitler. But the die was cast, and war would come officially in September 1939. This time the British and French offered their support to Poland if Germany invaded. Hitler was not worried as neither power moved any military in defense of Poland. His only worry was the French. If they moved against him while the bulk of his troops were in the east, it would be a big problem. He gambled-and he was right-that the French would not launch an attack as they did not  want war yet. Both countries did declare war on Germany as the result of invading Poland, but they did nothing to stop it.

The lesson from what happened in Munich still applies today.  You negotiate from strength and not from weakness. Once Hitler knew neither of the great powers would do anything to stop him, he pretty much could get everything he wanted since he knew they wanted to avoid war and willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia. Had Chamberlain showed up saying they would blockade German ports, cut them off from the world-wide banking system if he did this, Hitler would have had to pause to consider his options. Perhaps he would have backed away. We will never know. If you are foolish enough to take off the table anything that will deter the aggressor, and only threaten to punish after the fact, it is not likely to work. Everyone knew Germany would invade Poland, but no one knew when and were dumbfounded by the pact between German and the Soviet Union that divided up that country. Stalin too was fooled by Hitler and shows even other tyrants can be foolish as well.

As we march into another European war, our leaders better remember the lessons of Munich. It led to a long brutal war that tore Europe apart leaving wounds to this day that have not completely healed. And six million Jews dead because those same leaders also foolishly thought it just careless words he wanted to rid the world of Jews.