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Conference held on September 28 and 29, 1938, by the government leaders of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, in which agreement was reached on the transfer to Germany of regions of Czechoslovakia
Convening of the Conference
The Munich conference was convened following a prolonged crisis involving the political status of the German minority in Czechoslovakia and was preceded by intense negotiations, primarily between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German chancellor Adolf Hitler. French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Italian Premier Benito Mussolini played only secondary roles. Czechoslovakia itself was not invited to the conference and did not take part in its decisions, which were presented to it as definitive and final, and against which there was no appeal.
A Shifting Balance of Power
Five months later, as a direct consequence of the Munich conference, the Czechoslovak Sate was liquidated when Germany seized control of it with all its economic resources and armed forces. Consequently, the balance of power in Europe shifted in favour of Germany, and Europe's rush into war gathered momentum. In economic and military terms, Czechoslovakia was the strongest of the countries separating Germany from the Soviet Union. From 1925, it had had a mutual defence pact with France, and from 1935, a defence treaty with the Soviet Union; its fall signified the collapse of the international system set up in 1918.
"Munich" as a Concept
"Munich" became a concept, a political term denoting an immoral policy: the surrender of a friendly nation to its enemies, a shameful betrayal of an ally at a decisive moment, a cowardly capitulation to an aggressive tyrant, and, above all, a short-range policy that was supposed to buy peace but in fact hastened the outbreak of war. The term "Munich" is frequently used in oratory and polemic writings as an admonitory lesson taught by history. Processes. Three processes were brought into focus in the Munich agreement: developments in Nazi foreign policy, which aimed, in the first instance, at seizing control of two neighbouring states, Austria and Czechoslovakia, as a basis for further conquests and the expansion of the German people's Lebensraum ("living space"); a development in British foreign policy aimed at the appeasement of Germany, on political, economic, and moral grounds.
The Evolving Relations between the Government of Czechoslovakia and its Large German Minority
At first, these Germans had resisted inclusion in the new state, but in the course of the 1920s, at least some of them had accepted the situation and were negotiating national minority rights with the government. These three processes had developed independently, but in November 1937 they converged as the result of a series of significant developments. Hitler, in a secret meeting on November 5, 1937, gave specific orders to the chiefs of the armed forces and the top government ministers to conquer Austria and Czechoslovakia at an opportune moment. Neville Chamberlain, the new British Prime Minister, decided that Britain would no longer restrict itself to passive appeasement but would take the initiative for a comprehensive agreement with Nazi Germany, based on the revision of the Treaty of Versailles by peaceful means. On November 19, a member of the British cabinet, Lord Edward Halifax, was sent on a secret mission to Berlin to ascertain the German demands.
The German Minority in Czechoslovakia
In Czechoslovakia, the economic depression had seriously affected the German-inhabited industrial areas and had increased the German residents' resentment of the government, especially when they compared their own situation with that in Nazi Germany, with its achievements in the economic sphere and in foreign policy. The leader of the Nazi Party in the Sudetenland (the section of Bohemia and Moravia in which the German population was concentrated) was Konrad Henlein. Henlein had at first worked toward the attainment of power in Czechoslovakia from within, but in 1937 he changed his policy and, in a letter to Hitler dated November 19, put himself at Hitler's disposal for the conquest of Czechoslovakia. France had already adopted a policy designed to save itself at the expense of its allies in Eastern Europe. Daladier, who became premier in April 1938, vacillated between toughness and appeasement, but his foreign minister, Georges Bonnet, supported the British foreign policy and sought to avoid, at all costs, having to go to war for the sake of Czechoslovakia, especially a war at the side of Soviet Russia. French army generals and politicians were in a defeatist state of mind and lent their support to the policy advocated by the foreign minister.
The Accelerating Crisis
These attitudes crystallised in the course of 1938 and accelerated the Czechoslovak crisis. The Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938) had met with only a mild reaction in the West, and it paved the way for a German attack on Czechoslovakia. The British cabinet decided that it would not give Czechoslovakia any guarantees against an attack by Germany. In April 1938, the German minority in Czechoslovakia raised new and radical demands, encouraged by Hitler to ask for more than the Czechs could possibly give them and thereby to sharpen the crisis. In May, Czechoslovakia reacted to reports of troop movements in Germany by mobilising its army, and the Western capitals issued stern warnings to Berlin. Hitler vented his rage by altering the existing operational plans against Czechoslovakia and emphasising his determination to crush Czechoslovakia by force at an early date.
British Initiative for a Peaceful Agreement
As the crisis involving Czechoslovakia intensified, the British government resolved that the changes that had to be made would not be brought about by violent means, but rather by international agreement. In August, the British, with the agreement of France, sent Viscount (Walter) Runciman, a member of the government, on a mediation mission to Czechoslovakia. By early September, Runciman had gained the Czechoslovak government's consent to the demands for autonomy that the Sudeten Germans had made in April of that year. Now, however, Henlein, acting in compliance with Hitler's orders to escalate the crisis, rejected the solution that he himself had proposed earlier. Chamberlain decided to go to Germany in person to prevent the outbreak of war, and on September 15 he met with Hitler at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. The official British position was that Britain supported autonomy for the Sudeten Germans, but the truth was, as has since come to light, that Chamberlain and some of his advisers, in and outside the government, had long accepted the need for the Sudetenland to be annexed to Germany in order to appease Hitler. Both Conservative and Socialist newspapers expressed their support for annexation even before the issue came to the cabinet. Like many others, Chamberlain felt his policy was a just and morally correct solution, and he knew that British public opinion would support him in this stand.
The First Hitler-Chamberlain Meeting
This first meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler was both pathetic and dramatic, with the British Prime Minister anxious to preserve peace and resolve conflicts in a decent manner, and the German dictator scheming to attain his immediate end by cunning and deceit. Germany's military strength, and especially its air force, was highly overrated at this point; in Britain, there was widespread fear that an air strike would wipe out whole cities in one fell swoop, killing hundreds of thousands. The British military chiefs recommended that the government delay any involvement in war, anticipating that Britain was about to launch a massive rearmament program. British interest in Czechoslovakia as a bulwark against Germany was also waning. Britain no longer looked upon Europe as divided into two hostile camps, as it had under the 1919 peace arrangements, but as acontinent whose stability was based on co-operation between the British and the Germans, and on the settlemeof all questions. The Czechs felt that they had been betrayed; they protested, but they submitted, and on September 22 Chamberlain went to Germany for a second meeting with Hitler, this time at Bad Godesberg.
The Second Hitler-Chamberlain Meeting
In the meantime, there had been more claims on Czechoslovak territory: by Poland for the Teschen area, and by Hungary for the Transcarpathian Ukraine. At this second meeting, Chamberlain, to his great consternation, found that Hitler was no longer content with the fulfilment of his earlier demands and was now insisting on the immediate occupation of the Sudeteland. Moreover, some humiliating conditions were added, e.g., that no valuables and no livestock were to be removed from the territory before it was handed over.
On the Brink of War
Confronted by this German intransigence, the British, French, and Czechs hardened their attitude. The Czech government, under Gen. Jan Sirovy, rejected the Bad Godesberg memorandum and ordered the general mobilisation of the Czech army; the French called up reserves; and the British put their navy on the alert. On September 26, foreign secretary Halifax sent the Germans a stern message which lent itself to the interpretation that Britain was ready to fight. For a while, it seemed that a red line had been drawn which could be crossed only at the risk of war. The Western powers also told the Czechs that they were no longer advising Czechoslovakia not to mobilise its forces.
The Chamberlain Broadcast - September 27, 1938
Chamberlain's basic attitude, however, had not changed. Having agreed to annexation in principle, he could not now go to war over the modalities of the territorial transfer. In a broadcast to the British on September 27, he said: 'How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing!' This sentence, which has gone down in history, faithfully reflected British reluctance to guarantee the borders of countries in Eastern Europe.
The Four-Power Conference
To prevent further deterioration, which might lead to war, Chamberlain wrote to Hitler and Mussolini, proposing a four-power conference. The next day, while addressing Parliament, Chamberlain was dramatically handed an invitation to a conference in Munich, to be held the following day. He did not finish his speech but left for yet another mission, with the enthusiastic blessings of the British people. The implication of the invitation was that Hitler, having lost the element of surprise, had at the last minute decided to forego military invasion and to accept a negotiated settlement, surprise having been an essential element in the Blitzkrieg he had planned. Hitler also came to realise that his generals were against a war in which they might have to face the British and the French, and that public opinion in Germany was not at all eager for military action. On the face of it, therefore, the Munich conference was a victory for Chamberlain's initiative and his insistence that the partition of Czechoslovakia be implemented by means of an international agreement. The conference did not take long, and the agreement reached was essentially identical with the one offered and rejected a few days earlier at Bad Godesberg. The difference was that at Munich an international commission was set up to supervise the transfer of territory and the plebiscites that were to be held in additional areas, and that the new borders were to be guaranteed by the four powers participating in the conference. The Czechs were not invited to take part in the negotiations, and when these were concluded, they were handed a document to sign that was a fait accompli.
The Role of Czechoslovakia
The Czechs, headed by President Edvard Benes, played a passive role in the crisis. Czechoslovakia, by contractual ties and by virtue of its political tradition, was committed to co-operation with the Western democracies. It asked the West not to abandon it, but did not even consider trying to force France to abide by its treaty of alliance and go to war on Czechoslovakia's behalf. Such a step would have been a deviation from Czechoslovakia's traditional line in foreign affairs, and, the Czechs believed would not have achieved its end. Czechoslovakia was even less inclined to call on its other ally, the Soviet Union, for help. That nation had not been asked to take part in the Munich conference or in any of the preceding moves. Benes even believed that if he were to accept Soviet help against Germany, the West would side with Germany against him. As one of the architects of the French-sponsored treaty system in Eastern Europe, Benes was well aware that this system was no longer in existence and that Czechoslovakia's fate was sealed. "Peace in our Time." On his return from Munich to London, Chamberlain brandished the declaration he had signed with Hitler, claiming that it heralded "peace in our time." Britain and France sighed with relief at having been saved from the horror of war. Only a few were opposed to the Munich agreement; in the British cabinet, only Alfred Duff Cooper, first lord of the Admiralty, resigned in protest. It did not take long, however, for public opinion to become disillusioned. The Munich agreement and the completion of the conquest of Czechoslovakia, in March 1939, turned the balance of forces in Hitler's favour and made Western statesmen realise that war was now certain. Hitler had been handed the strongest line of fortifications in Europe, plus a thriving industrial complex, a centre of communications, rich coal mines, and highly developed cities, as well as a sorely needed supply of gold reserves. The West had lost an ally with two thousand aircraft and a first-class army of thirty-five well-equipped divisions and 1.5 million men at its disposal. Britain and France also lost their credibility in the eyes of their existing and potential allies.
The End of Appeasement
Hitler's take over of a truncated Czechoslovakia laid bare his real intentions and put an end to the era of illusions and appeasement. The new balance of power enabled Hitler to keep up his aggression, secure in the knowledge that if he had to fight for his goals he could stand his ground even against the Western forces. The old saying "Whoever rules Bohemia rules Europe" proved justified for several years.
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