Monday, October 09, 2006
Germany Occupies The Sudetenland, October 10, 1938
Today in 1938, Nazi Germany formally took possession of the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia whose majority population was of German ancestery. This secession of territory came as a result of the Munich Agreement, a treaty signed by Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Intended to avert a war on the European continent, it ultimately emboldened Adolf Hitler and gave him time to strengthen his growing war machine.
Hitler's plan to take the Sudetenland from the Czechs was formalized in March, 1938 when he met with Konrad Helein, head of the Sudeten-German political party in Czechoslovakia. Helein offered the party and his personal influence to the German leader, who was soon to give the political leader his personal instructions. Soon after, Helein issued the Carlsbad Decrees, a list of demands made to the Czech government. The most important demands were that the Sudetenland was to be an autonomous region and that its citizens were to be free to pursue membership in Germany's Nazi Party. Hitler knew, of course, that the Czech government would find these demands unreasonable. This gave the government in Berlin and the Sudeten-Germans reason to claim that ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia were being oppressed. Nazi Germany demanded that the Sudetenland be incorporated as part of that nation.
For their part, Great Britain and France wished to avoid a war in Europe only twenty years after the end of the last one. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed the German accusations about Czech oppression were true, as did the French. Both nations advised Czechoslovakia to give in to Germany's demands. After all, Hitler claimed that his intentions were limited to the Sudetenland, and this only because ethnic Germans were in danger. Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia, knew better. He resisted the pressure to give in to the Nazis and in May, 1938, ordered the mobilization of his nation's military in response to reported German troop movements. Europe was on a path to war.
At news of the mobilization, Prime Minister Chamberlain, speaking for all the western European powers, demanded that President Benes try to mediate the situation. Benes did not want to lose the friendship of England and France, and so he did as they requested. The Czech government soon issued the Fourth Plan, which granted the Germans nearly everything they asked for. Still, the Germans in the Sudetenland protested and violence erupted across the region. Czech troops were called in to restore order, a move that the Nazis used to strengthen their argument of oppression in the region.
On September 15th, Prime Minister Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler and the gloves came off. Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland be granted to Germany or war would be the result. Chamberlain spoke with both London and Paris; both agreed to Hitler's demands. The Czech government still resisted, causing England and France to issue an ultimatum: give up the area or lose any future assistance from western Europe. The Czechs gave in on September 21st.
The Czechoslovakian people wanted no part of the capitulation. A new military cabinet was installed in the country and another order of mobilization was issued. At that time, the Czech army was modern, well-equipped and protected the nation with the most effective border fortifications in Europe. The Soviet Union stepped into the ring with an offer of military assistance. However, President Benes would not even consider going to war without the support of his western friends, Great Britain and France. A stalemate ensued.
On September 29, Hitler met with the governmental heads of Great Britain, France and Italy. The Czech government was excluded from the negotiations. The four parties signed the Munich Agreement, which demanded that Czechoslovakia give all the Sudetenland to Germany. Short on allies, the Czechs agreed to abide by the agreement the next day.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was greeted like a conquering hero upon his return to England. He proclaimed that the agreement had created "peace for our time". Little did he know that Hitler was angered by the fact that he had had to negotiate at all; to him, Germany had the right to annex the area. In Moscow, Josef Stalin also held a dim view of the proceedings. First, he was not consulted in the matter at all, even though it occurred almost at his front door. Second, he questioned the loyalty of England and France, since they had just proven that they would turn on an ally in order to avoid a military confrontation.
Had a military showdown occurred over the Sudetenland, it is very likely that Germany would have lost. Both Great Britain and France fielded larger armies than Germany in 1938 and the Czech defensive works were first-rate. Even Hitler, who was loathe to admit weakness, admitted privately that a military invasion of the Sudentenland would have been extremely costly. In the end, however, appeasement only helped fuel German feelings of invincibility and entitlement and helped lead, indirectly, to the most costly war in human history.