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.