The Czech Crisis of 1938

The Czech Crisis of 1938

Background

Czechoslovakia was created in 1919. It was formed out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and contained several nationalities:

7,450,000 Czechs
3,200,000 Germans
2,300,000 Slovaks
720,000 Magyars
560,000 Ruthenes
100,000 Poles
Ethnic Germans in the city of Sudetenland town of Cheb greet Hitler using the Nazi salute in 1938.
Ethnic Germans in the city of Sudetenland town of Cheb greet Hitler using the Nazi salute in 1938.

The Germans mainly lived in the Sudetenland, a region on the Western border with Germany. Many disliked living under the rule of foreigners. In 1931, they formed the Sudeten Germans People’s Party led by Konrad Henlein. It demanded that the Sudetenland be placed under German control. This party gained considerable support among the Sudeten Germans but was not recognised by the Czechoslovakian government.

The government was reluctant to recognise the party for several reasons. If the area was handed over to the Germans, they worried that other nationalities living in Czechoslovakia would want to leave. The Sudetenland was also rich in natural resources such as lignite and coal. Finally, the area was a vital defensive zone: the Sudetenland's border with Germany was lined with fortifications.

Adolf Hitler and the events of 1938

Hitler enthusiastically encouraged the Sudeten Germans People’s Party verbally and financially. A leitmotif in Hitler's speeches was the idea that all Germans should live within one unified Reich. In 1938, he ordered his generals to draw up plans for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

He told Henlein and his party cronies to start agitating and causing unrest in the Sudetenland. This would demonstrate to the rest of Europe that the Czech government was incapable of maintaining order in its own state. Hitler would then use this chaos as an excuse for placing his army in the Sudetenland. Troops would enter under the pretext that they were there to restore law and order.

It was a risky plan. The Czech army was strong and professional, and the strong Czech fortifications on the border gave the defending army a significant advantage. Germany’s Luftwaffe would also not be able to use the tactic of Blitzkrieg effectively in the steep and wooded terrain from Germany to the Sudetenland.

Czechoslovakia, however, could not count on any international support in the face of a German invasion. France had promised (e.g. In the Locarno Treaties) to help defend Czechoslovakia in the event of an invasion. But Hitler predicted that the French would do nothing - after all, they had barely batted an eyelid at the re-militarisation of the Rhineland, which was in their own backyard. The USSR had also guaranteed its help Czechoslovakia, but it was in the midst of a period of domestic turmoil and was unlikely to keep this promise.

Neville Chamberlain and Hitler

Britain again decided to follow the doctrine of appeasement. The devastation inflicted upon Guernica in Spain by the German Luftwaffe terrified international onlookers. Chamberlain's military chiefs scared Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain further when they told him that over one million people could be killed by bombing raids in just 60 days. Death on such a scale would require mass graves. Nobody wanted another war.

Chamberlain therefore chose to negotiate with Hitler over the Sudeten crisis. Britain’s military strength – its navy – could play no part in a conflict on the land-locked Czechoslovakia. Britain’s army was professional but small. Britain’s air force was far from strong; it was also going through a period of transition as bi-planes were switched to the new monoplanes, some of which were not ready for combat.

Negotiations started in September 1938. The first of three meetings took place at Bertesgaden, near Munich in southern Germany. Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland should be handed over to Germany. Chamberlain agreed, without consulting the Czechs, that areas containing more than 50 per cent ethnic Germans could be taken over by Germany. After Chamberlain discussed the matter with the French prime minister, the British and French tried to convince Czechoslovakia to agree to this solution. After initial resistance she capitulated to the demand.

On 22 September, Chamberlain flew to Bad Godesberg to meet Hitler to work out the final details of the plan. Hitler surprised Chamberlain by making new demands. Hitler wanted German troops to occupy the Sudetenland. He also demanded that lands containing a majority of Poles and Magyars be returned to Poland and Hungary. This would essentially dissolve Czechoslovakia. Britain and France rejected these demands.

The Munich Agreement

At the suggestion of Mussolini, a conference was held to resolve the burgeoning crisis. Germany, Britain, France and Italy were all represented. Czechoslovakia was excluded, as was the Soviet Union, much to the ire of its leader, Joseph Stalin.

Here it was agreed by the four powers - who did not consult Czechoslovakia – that the Sudetenland should be given to Germany immediately. An international commission would be appointed to decide what would happen to Czechoslovakia's other disputed areas. The governments of Britain and France made it clear to Czechoslovakia that if she rejected the agreement, she would be left to fight Nazi Germany on her own. The Munich Agreement was signed on 30 September 1938.

On 1 October 1938, the Czech frontier guards left their posts and German troops occupied the Sudetenland. Shortly after, Poland annexed the Zaolzie region of Czechoslovakia and Hungarian troops control of the Southern Slovakia region.

Chamberlain returned to England convinced that he had avoided another war. When he emerged from his plane at Croydon Airport, he proudly waved in the air his 'piece of paper', signed by himself and Hitler, which he thought held the promise of an enduring peace. But Hitler would disregard the Munich Agreement. He later scorned the paper, which Chamberlain had brandished so confidently in front of his nation's' press, as a mere 'scrap'.

See also: Scrap of Paper

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Czech Crisis of 1938". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.