Abandonment of Czechoslovakia

Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich, September 29, 1938

The Times-Picayune gave extensive coverage to the Munich conference and the Abandonment of Czechoslovakia in September 1938.

Throughout the summer of 1938 Hitler increased his demands that Czechoslovakia hand over the Sudetenland, which was heavily populated by ethnic Germans. Directed by local Nazis acting on orders from Berlin), they clamored for a “return” to the Reich, despite the fact that had been citizens of Austro-Hungary and not Germany. Hitler deftly used this emotional issue to give his naked aggression the cover of self-determination. The Treaty of Versailles, Hitler piously observed, had emphasized the principle of “self-determination.” Hitler wanted all of Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland issue was a means to that end. He learned to despise the Czechs during his unhappy sojourn as a failed artist in Vienna. France was allied to Czechoslovakia through a series of treaties, and England was allied to France. Reflecting the attitude of its people, the leaders of these two countries did not want to risk a war against Nazi Germany, least of all over the issue of Czechoslovakia.

On September 29-30, 1938, on his third trip to negotiate with Hitler, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi Party. He and his French counterpart, Eduourd Daladier, sat down with Hitler and Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. Without consulting Czechoslovakia which had already mobilized for war, the two Western leaders agreed to Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland and compelled Czechoslovakia to comply. Hitler had previously rejected Chamberlain’s willingness to hand over Czechoslovakia because he wanted a war in 1938 when German rearmament still had an advantage over the other countries. But at Munich he backed down and agreed to accept a peaceful settlement.

Chamberlain flew back to London with a signed pledge from Hitler attesting to peaceful relations in the future between Germany and England. He addressed those gathered on the tarmac with the unforgettable words, “I believe this is peace in our times.” Chamberlain and Daladier were hailed by their respective countrymen, except for Winston Churchill who was then in the political wilderness and thought a quack by many people.

The Sudetenland comprised the mountainous border lands of Czechoslovakia and an intricate system of fortifications had been built there precisely in anticipation of war with Germany. These fortifications were lost to Germany as a result of the Munich Conference. The people of small, brave Czechoslovakia had been willing to fight the Nazis in defense of their homeland but were abandoned by an ally and a supposed friend. “Munich” came symbolize “appeasement,” an era when the Western democracies submitted to Hitler’s aggression in order to preserve the peace. Hitler later complained bitterly about the Munich settlement, believing that he had been tricked into agreeing with the accord. As for Chamberlain and Daladier, Hitler remarked, “I have seen our enemies at Munich. They are worms.”

Germans cross Sudetenland border, October 1938

German troops occupied the Sudetenland in early October 1938. The Jews and Czechs were brutally expelled from their homes and sent to the rump state of Czechoslovakia. A lonely Churchill intoned: “You had a choice between shame and war. You have chosen shame and you will get war.”