WWII Turning Points: Munich Agreement

After the end of WWI, and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a new state called Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, consisting of the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia, and Carpathian Ruthenia. Many different ethnicities resided within this newly formed country, including Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Ruthenians, living alongside the majority Czech population.

In the western-most region of the country, in the provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, there lived a majority German-speaking population, many of whom had been former subjects of the Kaiser before the fall of the Second Reich. This region was known in German and English speaking countries as Sudetenland, named for the Sudeten mountain range that ran thru Silesia along the Polish border.

At the end of WWI, these Sudeten Germans, known as Sudetendeutsche, pushed hard for unification with Austria, in the ultimate hopes of being incorporated into Weimar Germany. The Czechs, however, pushed US President Woodrow Wilson equally hard for the annexation of Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia. Wilson responded by sending an ambassador to the region to access the situation. At this time in European history, oppression of ethnic and religious minorities was common, and the situation was no different in a figurative melting pot like Czechoslovakia. After witnessing a violent crackdown on Sudeten German protesters by the Czech authorities, Wilson’s ambassador suggested that most of Sudetenland would be better off under German or Austrian rule, but his suggestion was ignored. Those observing the situation knew that Sudetenland would one day become a problem in the future, either for the Czechs at the hands of Germany, or for the Sudeten Germans at the hands of Czechoslovakia, but given the region’s ample resources, and massive industry, which the Czechoslovak State would come to depend on, the Prague government insisted that Czechoslovakia could not survive without it.

During the years after the end of WWI, the Czechoslovak government undertook a massive program of fortifying the Sudetenland along their border with Germany, in fear of invasion. Many of these fortifications were nestled into the Sudeten mountains, and were thought by most military analysts at the time to be even more formidable than the infamous Maginot Line in France. Naturally assuming that any German invasion would have to come thru Sudetenland, the Czechoslovak government didn’t spend nearly as much time, money, or resources fortifying the rest of the country, although there were a similar, though less formidable set of defenses along the Hungarian border as well.

When the Great Depression devastated the worldwide economy in the 1930’s, Sudetenland was hit particularly hard by the downturn, as most all of Czechoslovakia’s industry was located there; armaments, textiles, glassworks, etc… Many ethnic Germans lost there jobs when the factories were forced to lay off workers, and a majority of them blamed the Czech government for their problems. Given their newfound hardships, they became all the more susceptible to communist and socialist messages. Marxist and Fascist parties gained popularity amongst the Sudeten Germans and many Pan-German organizations were formed. One party in particular, called the Sudetendeutsche Party (SdP), an ultra-nationalist/separatist group led by Konrad Henlein (ironically an anti-Nazi until the pro-Nazi element within Czechoslovakia attained power), gained a rather large following amongst Sudeten Germans, after aggressively agitating for union with Nazi Germany and making impossible demands that the Czechoslovak government couldn’t possibly accept. His philosophy was summed up by the following statement; “We must make demands that cannot be satisfied”. Adopting the Nazi phrase “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (one people, one empire, one leader) as his own, Henlein’s SdP attained a majority vote in Sudetenland by the late ’30s, and was behind a number of terrorist attacks and coup attempts against the Czechoslovak government. These attacks failed and Henlein was forced to flee to Nazi Germany in 1938, where he then became a guerilla leader and launched covert attacks on Czechoslovakia from the north. He was instrumental in influencing Hitler’s enthusiasm in regards to the Sudeten Crisis and also played a major role in shaping the Munich Agreement. 

On Sept. 30th, 1938, Hitler signed the Munich Agreement, or Munich Pact, with a number of other signatories, including British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and Fascist Italian leader, Benito Mussolini. After making numerous threats against Czechoslovakia, demanding the handover of the Sudetenland, the major European powers, England, France, and Italy, moved quickly to appease Hitler, as they had done only months earlier when Austria was annexed to the Third Reich in “Anschluss” (meaning link-up). A conference was held in Munich, as the title Munich Agreement would imply, in which the fate of Czechoslovakia was to be determined, yet Czechoslovakia had no say in the matter. Their ambassadors were barred from the conference altogether, at the behest of Hitler, and were forced to sit by quietly as their country was mutilated by Nazi daggers wielded by the very countries (i.e. Britain and France) who had guaranteed to protect Czechoslovakia from the very actions their own statesmen were undertaking. With a stroke of the pen, and a friendly handshake with der Führer, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier signed over virtually all of the Czechoslovak defenses and industry to Nazi Germany. In addition to the formidable mountain fortifications, which Hitler personally inspected after the pact was made, the famous Škoda Works armaments plant, which was responsible for the production of most all of Czechoslovakia’s armaments, was ceded to the Nazis as well. In fact, the Škoda Works was responsible for the production of the LT-35 and LT-38 tanks, more commonly known by the German name Panzer 35(t) and the Panzer 38(t), which were originally Czech creations. Both models would ultimately serve as the foundation in the invasions of both Poland and France. 

After the Munich Agreement had been signed, Czechoslovakia lost all faith in the West, and would not forgive the governments of Britain and France for their backstabbing until many years later. Oddly enough, Hitler was just as angry. He reportedly loathed the diplomatic dealings of Chamberlain and felt he had been made to act like a democratic bourgeois, threatening that “If that silly old man (Chamberlain) comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers”. Fearing war might result if nothing could be agreed upon, the British population received the pact favorably and felt they had dodged the bullet, literally and figuratively. In what has become one of the most infamous moments in history, Chamberlain returned to London waving around Hitler’s signature in his hand, exclaiming that he had delivered “peace for our time”… which, in retrospect he most obviously did not. The French ambassador to the conference, Édouard Daladier, however, sensed that the worst of it was yet to come, stating that he believed Hitler’s aim was, “domination of the Continent in comparison with which the likes of Napoleon were feeble”. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, Daladier was right and Chamberlain was wrong. 

By signing the Munich Agreement, Britain and France neutered Czechoslovakia by handing their most formidable defenses to Hitler. This laid the groundwork for the total annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi forces, which would take place the following year when the Wehrmacht entered Prague. In addition to this, virtually all of Czechoslovakia’s industries, including the Škoda Works, were made part of Hitler’s war machine, and many of the Panzers that came off of the Škoda production lines were responsible for the deaths of Allied soldiers, in addition to the capture of Paris and Warsaw. Without a doubt, the Munich Agreement set the Allies back for years in terms of their struggle with Hitler. The pact strengthened Hitler’s hand, and weakened the Allies all in one fell swoop. While the goal of “peace in our time” was a noble one, Chamberlain’s dreams of a pacifist Europe were not met by reality. Hitler was very clearly on the warpath and had Britain and France recognized that before it was too late, and had they actually lived up to the obligations they made with countries like Czechoslovakia, Hitler’s war machine may have been stopped years sooner than it was, and millions of lives would’ve been spared. The Škoda Works alone were responsible for untold carnage within the Allied ranks… the same Škoda Works that had belonged to the Allies prior to 1938.

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WWII Turning Points: Treaty of Versailles

“It is much easier to make war than peace” — Georges Clemenceau (French ambassador at the Paris Peace Conference) 

When the Great War, WWI, had ended, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th, 1919 by the victorious Allied Powers and the defeated Germans, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the greatest catastrophe in world history, WWII. 

The Kaiser’s army had been quite different from that of the Nazi’s. Yes they had been ruthless, yes they had committed atrocities, but so did many other armies at the time. What made the Kaiser’s forces so much different from Hitler’s was ideology. The Kaiser viewed all Germans, including Jews, as his subjects. In fact, many German-Jews took up arms in the name of the Kaiser and had even served as officers in the war. This is not to say restrictions were not in place; Jews could not join the ranks of the nobility, which in German meant receiving the noble particle “von” before the surname, unless they renounced Judaism and converted to Christianity. This meant they could only rise so high within the ranks of the military, which was not uncommon throughout Europe, as many countries slighted minority groups during the age, be they religious or ethnic, but many Jews served in the Kaiser’s court, and had long established themselves as a well-assimilated, and appreciated community within German society. German-Jews, under the Kaiser, were, for the most part, very proud of their country, culture, and nationality, and thought of themselves as nothing but German. Ashkenazi Jews were actually very closely linked to Germany at the time, and adopted many aspects of German culture into Judaism. Yiddish, for example, was a dialect of German that was widely spoken by many Jews worldwide before the rise of Hitler. 

When Germany surrendered at the end of WWI, one must realize that the Allies didn’t even possess a single square-inch of German soil. For the most part, the British naval blockade, and the protracted nature of trench warfare, was what defeated the German army and the German people’s morale. At the time the armistice was signed, German troops actually occupied French and Belgian territory. Many of the German troops who were told they had to surrender, Pvt. Adolf Hitler included, could not understand why, since it was they, and not the Allies, who occupied their enemy’s countries. They had already technically won the war on the Eastern Front, after signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russians in 1918, and had come close to winning the war in the West as well, on a number of occasions, even coming to within 30 miles of Paris at one point in the war. What these soldiers could not see, due to the fact it was intentionally being hidden from them by their government, was the fact that the German empire was running out of food, resources, and money, and morale had dwindled so low at home, and in some divisions, that the Kaiser had been deposed and many of his beloved divisions had begun to surrender their positions to the Allies wholesale. The German war machine had essentially been choked out, rather than smashed altogether, and German defeat was more of a matter of circumstance rather than fact. Most parties, such as the British, were simply happy to end the war, given the fact it had been the most costliest in human history up to that point. The French, however, having suffered German invasions for centuries, advocated a march on Berlin that would disable German war capabilities once and for all. The Allies undoubtedly had the upper hand at the time, but the Germans wouldn’t have stood by quietly had the Allies pursued such a strategy. It would’ve cost far more lives and could’ve extended the war for years on end… and, as is always the case in war, there was no guarantee of success either. 

Without being directly exposed to conditions on the home-front, bitter WWI vets, like Adolf Hitler, could not fathom how they had lost the war. From their bunkers and foxholes, all they could see were German boots on French and Belgian soil, yet they were being told that they had lost the war. Various conspiracy theories quickly started to spread amongst the soldier’s ranks, one of which was the Dolchstoßlegende, which translates in English as the “Stab-in-the-Back Legend”. The Dolchstoßlegende was a belief that gained widespread popularity in post-war Germany that claimed communist Jews, who were not believed to be “true Germans at heart”, had sabotaged the war effort both at home and in the field, causing the German war effort to fail. Only reinforcing the people’s belief in this conspiracy, two prominent German-Jewish bankers, Max Warburg and Carl Melchior, were sent to Paris as part of the delegation to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and procure the “best possible financial terms” for Germany. When the Versailles Treaty turned out to be as harsh as it was, the two bankers were pointed to as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy that was trying to destroy Germany (Max Warburg’s role in financing the Bolshevik movement in Russia didn’t help things either). Jewish bankers and businessmen were accused of profiteering off of Germany’s defeat and the German-Jews as a people were viewed as an alien-element within Germany by much of the population from that point forward; making the people all the more susceptible to Hitler’s anti-Semitic message. The Weimar Republic was also thought to be responsible for the terms of the treaty, due to their ineptitude and corruption. This created a very hostile climate within the country against the government, which led to various coup attempts throughout the Weimar regime’s short reign. 

An astute statesmen, whose name I cannot recall (thought it was Woodrow Wilson but it doesn’t appear to be) said, “If you treat the Germans like enemies, they will not disappoint”. The exceedingly harsh conditions laid out in the Versailles Treaty, designed to break Germany for several generations, were obviously not very well received in the Fatherland. What really bothered many Germans, more so than the loss of territory/colonies, military reduction, or the reparations, was the forced admission of war guilt on the part of country. In the eyes of many, Germans and neutral parties alike, the Allies were at least partly to blame for backing Serbia after Serbian agents assassinated the crown prince of the Austrian Empire, the archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Allies believed that Kaiser Wilhelm simply used the archduke’s assassination as a pretext for war, and that he had been craving new territory for some time. There was no denying that Kaiser Wilhelm was a militarist-expansionist, and that he had a particular distaste for both France and Russia, but claiming that Germany would’ve declared war on the Allies even if Franz Ferdinand had not been shot is pure speculation. The German people begrudged this condition of the treaty so much because they felt it was the source of all the other terms, such as the territorial loss and reparations. Had Germany’s cause for war been declared legitimate, the Allies would’ve had no justification in sticking it to Germany in the fashion that they did. 

These perceived injustices, combined with the ineffectiveness of the democratically elected Weimar Republic, caused widespread resentment in Germany towards the West (i.e. France, Britain, USA, etc..). Democracy, capitalism, materialism, civil rights, etc… were disdained by many, and a rash of anti-Semitism spread like wildfire. Post-WWI, the German people essentially split into two camps, neither of which were democratic; Marxists and National Socialists. Various communist coup attempts took place throughout the reign of the Weimar Republic, which partly led to a rise in ultra-nationalism. In response to these Marxist agents, many of which were Jewish, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party began to make headway on the political scene. It wasn’t long after that that Marxists and Nazis were openly killing each other in the streets. Promising to save the wealthy businessmen in Germany from communism, Hitler gained the support of many capitalists, even though he had no more love for capitalism than the communists did. 

The chaotic political conditions mixed with the miserable economic conditions in Germany set the stage for a demagogic, savior-like figure to rise to the forefront of the political scene. The Germans believed they had been unfairly treated by the Allied powers and believed communist Russia was covertly attacking them, in an effort to dismantle their sovereignty and subjugate them to Soviet rule. When Adolf Hitler promised to put the people back to work, rearm the nation, recover lost territory, and rid the country of foreign/communist/Jewish influence, it resonated with many of the people. Although the Nazi Party never gained a majority in the Reichstag by the vote of the people, they did become the most powerful political party in the country by the late ’20s, and their popularity only grew when Hitler started delivering on his promises (i.e. economic revival, rearmament, territorial reclamation, etc..). 

Had the Allied Powers not alienated, punished, and isolated Germany at the end of the war like they did, they would not have fanned the flames of ultra-nationalism within the country and soured the German people’s taste for democracy. On the other hand, had the Allies not totally destroyed the Kaiser’s system and replaced it with a corrupt faux-democracy, there would’ve been no need for a demagogue to create a new system of his own. On the other side of the spectrum, had the Allies, at the very least, driven the Germans out of France and Belgium, there would’ve been no need on the part of the German soldier to reach for conspiracy theories as to why their government had told them to surrender. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but one can make a pretty good case that the Versailles Treaty was to Hitler as Dr. Frankenstein was to the Frankenstein monster.

In the opinion of most all historians, the first turning point of WWII came decades before Hitler came to power; decades before the second worldwide conflagration was ignited. Had the Allies either dealt with Germany more leniently, or pressed their advantage all the way to Berlin, the course of world history would’ve unquestionably played out much, much differently. 

“I don’t know whether war is an interlude during peace, or peace an interlude during war” — Georges Clemenceau 

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles may have been WWII’s first turning point, but it was by no means its last. I will further elaborate on WWII turning points in upcoming posts.