Did the USSR pledge support to Czechoslovakia before the Munich Agreement (1938 Sep 29 - 30)? If so, what kind of support did it pledge?
The reason I ask is because I recently came across this article. Down a ways, there is a paragraph in which I hilighted the Soviet part:
The Czechoslovak capitulation precipitated an outburst of national indignation. In demonstrations and rallies, Czechs and Slovaks called for a strong military government to defend the integrity of the state. A new cabinet-under General Jan Syrový-was installed, and on 23 September 1938 a decree of general mobilization was issued. The Czechoslovak army-modern and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications-was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia's assistance. Beneš, however, refused to go to war without the support of the Western powers.
There's no citation anywhere in that paragraph. Is it true? Did the USSR really pledge assistance? If so then I have to rank this as a shocking revelation to my understand of WW2. Why would Stalin risk early war? My understanding was that the Soviet Union did not feel ready even in 1941 and thus wanted to stall for time as much as possible.
Note also that this was before the Molotov-Ribbentropt Pact (1939 August) and of course just before the British-French-Polish alliance (1939 March).
The Soviets and Czechs concluded a Mutual Assistance Pact in 1935, good for five years, until 1940.
The Soviets proposed to honor that pact in 1938 during the Munich crisis. The "sticking point" was that the Soviet army would have had to cross the territory of Poland or Romania to reach Czechoslovakia.
The Czechs declined to invoke the treaty or seek Soviet help or otherwise go to war, without the support of the western powers. This, of course, was not forthcoming.
Strangely enough, the Soviets would have done better to go to war with Nazi Germany in 1938, just two years after Germany's refortification of the Rhineland, than in 1941, almost three years later, when Nazi power was at its peak; following the absorption of Czechoslovakia's Skoda Works, and the addition of French and Belgian iron and steel production capacity. Also, Czechoslovakia, with its Sudeten Mountains, was far more defensible than most of Poland or Russia. Between late 1938 and mid 1941, Germany conquered Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, the Low Countries, Yugoslavia and Greece, while concluding alliances with Italy, Finland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in Europe, (not to mention Japan), thereby increasing in war power more than any other country during that span.
Did the USSR pledge support to Czechoslovakia before the Munich Agreement? - History
The Munich Agreement of 1938 was a settlement between four European powers. It allowed Nazi Germany to occupy and annex certain parts of Czechoslovakia which were inhabited largely by people of German descent. At the time, the agreement was widely seen as a peaceful resolution, but Adolf Hitler’s refusal to honor it long-term relabeled it as a failed act of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who negotiated with Hitler, was replaced in 1940 by the far more combative Winston Churchill.
Germany had invaded and annexed Austria during the Anschluss in March of 1938. Once this had been achieved, Hitler’s next target was the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia which was, for the most part, ethnically German. Czechoslovakia itself had existed only since the conclusion of World War I, and had always been nervous of German territorial ambition. The Sudeten German Party, brought into being in 1931 by Konrad Henlein, explicitly called for German control in the region. Sudeten Germans gave the party strong support, although the Czech government refused to recognize it.
The Czechoslovakian government was staunchly opposed to any loosening of its control over the Sudetenland, given that the region was of great economic importance due to its industry and natural resources. It therefore signed military alliances with the Soviet Union and France, as well as improving defenses along the mountainous border with Germany.
A Growing Crisis
In 1938, Hitler ordered his commanders to plan for an invasion, and simultaneously instructed Henlein to stir up discontent. He hoped that his followers would provide the Germans with an excuse to go into Czechoslovakia in order to contain the “uncontrollable” Sudeten Germans. The Czech government, fearing this precise course of action and considering where it might lead, declared martial law throughout the Sudetenland, but this only made Hitler more resolved. As a result, he issued strident demands that the region should immediately be transferred to Germany.
By now, the fear of another world war was hovering over Europe. Both France and the United Kingdom, despite being major military powers, were unprepared for conflict of such a scale and therefore sought a way to avoid it. Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Britain, contacted Hitler and asked for a meeting to explore ways in which war could be avoided. Hitler agreed to meet Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden on September 15th.
Hitler was ready for Chamberlain and made sure that his previous demand regarding the cession of the Sudetenland was repeated, emphasizing that the ethnic Germans in the region were being persecuted by the Czechs. Chamberlain felt that such a concession was too much, especially without having discussed it with his cabinet colleagues, and asked Hitler to stay his hand until the consultations had been carried out. Hitler agreed to the request but did not stop his military planning. He offered Hungary and Poland a bargain, stating that if they allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland, they too would be granted sections of Czechoslovakia.
After having discussed the matter with the British cabinet, Chamberlain received the go-ahead to allow Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, with France also in agreement. They met with representatives of the Czech government on September 19th to recommend approval of the plan, and Czechoslovakia, left almost isolated, had little choice but to accept its fate. Chamberlain returned to Germany for a follow-up meeting with Hitler, and was startled to receive further demands from the German leader.
Hitler had reconsidered and stated that allowing German control only of those Sudeten areas where ethnic Germans were in the majority was unsatisfactory. He not only insisted on control of the whole region, but also demanded the complete expulsion of non-Germans as well as territorial concessions of Hungary and Poland. Chamberlain refused to accept these new demands but was told that the alternative would be war. The British prime minister was forced to go home, having failed to achieve the plan he had staked his reputation on.
The Munich Conference
By now both Britain and France were commencing mobilization, and Hitler discovered that there was little support for war at home. He therefore wrote to Chamberlain again, with the offer of guaranteed sovereignty for Czechoslovakia as long as Germany was ceded the entire Sudetenland. Chamberlain, desperate to avoid war, asked Benito Mussolini of Italy to help him persuade Hitler to agree to further talks. Mussolini’s proposal, which Hitler accepted, was a summit meeting of four powers: Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. The Czechs were excluded from discussing the fate of their own country.
On September 29th, the leaders of the four powers met in Munich, and talks continued long into the night. A delegation from Czechoslovakia had come, but was not admitted to the conference room. Mussolini suggested a plan whereby Germany would gain the whole of the Sudetenland, but would then refrain from any further expansionist moves. In fact, what he presented to the other nations was similar in its main respects to the ultimatum which Hitler himself had so recently delivered to the British leader.
Chamberlain was still determined to prevent a war, and both he and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier accepted the proposal. In the early hours of September 30th, the Munich Agreement received the signatures of all powers present. The terms of the agreement authorized Germany to occupy the Sudetenland on the following day. There was then to be a ten-day period after which the annexation should be completed. The Czech delegation was effectively forced to agree to these terms, having been told that there would otherwise be war for which Czechoslovakia would be blamed.
Sudeten Germans welcomed the Nazi troops into the region on October 1st, although a large number of ethnic Czechs were forced to flee. Hitler was both delighted and surprised that he had been able to take the Sudetenland without a fight. Chamberlain returned to London to a hero’s welcome. Cheering crowds in Downing Street heard his announcement, later to become infamous, that the negotiations had produced “peace for our time.” The British government was split on whether Chamberlain’s actions had been successful, with the loudest voice of opposition belonging to Winston Churchill, who called it an “unmitigated defeat.”
Hitler, now convinced that the western European powers would not interfere with his conquests further east, pushed Hungary and Poland to take their shares of Czechoslovakia. He then ordered his own troops to occupy the remaining part of the country in March of 1939. Again, neither France nor Britain responded militarily, although they did provide Poland with a guarantee that its own territory would be defended. On September 1st, Germany’s invasion of Poland activated the newly-signed military alliances and brought about the start of World War II.
The Soviet Union, now a member of the League of Nations, suggested a League conference to prepare a deterrence against further aggression by Hitler. Great Britain rejected the idea. There was in Britain's government distrust and dislike for the Soviet regime. Britain's prime minister since 28 May 1937 was Neville Chamberlain, up from Chancellor of the Exchequer following Stanley Baldwin's retirement. Chamberlain announced that he would not agree to any mutual pledge against aggression with the Soviet Union and that he would not make any commitment to the Soviet Union's allies: Czechoslovakia or France. But he announced that British armament must be accelerated. Historians defending Chamberlain would describe his sense that the Soviet Union could not be relied on to join Britain effectively in war and that he was concerned that the US could not be depended upon for help.
For the Germans, the spotlight in international affairs shifted to Czechoslovakia &ndash a country created by the treaty signed at Versailles, a country consisting of Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Ruthenians, Poles and Germans. Barely half the population was Czech. About one-quarter were Germans, and Germans were a majority in that part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland which bordered Germany. The Sudetenland was highly industrialized, and the Sudeten Germans resented living under Czech officials and police. The Sudeten Germans were excited over Austria having been absorbed into a greater Germany. They demanded political equality and autonomy. The Czechoslovakian government in Prague rejected their demands. Hitler made a show of wanting to rescue the Sudeten Germans, and now that he was in control of Austria he had Czechoslovakia surrounded on three sides.
Neville Chamberlain and a disingenuous Hitler at Munich
On May 30, 1938, writes historian David Reynolds, Hitler told his generals: "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future." note50 Hitler told his generals that military action was to be implemented by October 1 "at the latest." In Germany, many people still remembered the ugliness and hardship of World War I, and the public responded nervously to the prospect of Hitler taking their nation to war over the Sudetenland. Some of Hitler's generals also were opposed to war over the Sudetenland. The commander-in-chief of the German armies, General Ludwig Beck, viewed the German problem with Czechoslovakia intolerable, but on August 18 he submitted his resignation in protest over Hitler's plan to go to war as a solution. On September 1 General Franz Halder succeeded him. Halder was also opposed to going to war, as were Hermann Goering and other German ministers and general staff. Beck and Halder thought Hitler imbalanced and they planned a coup against his rule.
Germany, in the view of its generals, was not yet ready for war, but Britain and France's inaction over Hitler's militarization of the Rhineland and his taking Austria had left Hitler confident that he could bluff his way into getting what he wanted. Hitler made demands on behalf of the Sudeten Germans that Czechoslovakia rejected, and Hitler proclaimed that Germans were being treated "like niggers." Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš (pronounced Benesh), welcomed the confrontation with Hitler, hoping to demonstrate to France and Britain the need to stand up to Hitler. The Czech government ordered the mobilization of its army and called on its allies to honor their agreements.
Some people in Britain had taken from the World War the belief that military alliances caused wars. At any rate there would be no move from Britain regarding treaty commitments. France wished to honor its treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, but without backing from Britain it demurred. And the Soviet Union backed away from helping defend Czechoslovakia because its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia was contingent upon France living up to its agreement.
With war between Germany and Czechoslovakia appearing imminent, Mussolini responded to an appeal to mediate. According to historian David Reynolds, Hitler was shaken in his determination to go to war by the anti-war sentiment he saw in Berlin. Reynolds writes that "Hitler pulled back and accepted a further summit" &ndash at Munich. note51 On the 29th of September, Mussolini, Hitler, Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and France's premier, Daladier, agreed to meet in Munich. President Benes of Czechoslovakia was not invited. Neither was a representative of the Soviet Union.
Chamberlain abhorred the idea of another war. He believed there was a chance for peace and wanted to explore that possibility. At the conference in Munich, Hitler talked about Germany's great military machine that once in motion could not be stopped. In fact, Hitler's army was too weak at that time to fight against Czechoslovakia and France simultaneously, not to mention the Soviet Union and Britain. But Chamberlain was badly briefed about the strength of Germany's armies. The British overestimated Germany's ability to wage war. Britain gave Germany its acceptance of Germany occupying the Sudetenland. France and Italy went along with it, and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it had to accept Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland unless it wanted to stand up to Germany without their support.
Chamberlain and Daladier went home to cheers and praise, their popularity rising as a result of their being perceived as having preserved peace. Chamberlain told his advisor, Edward Halifax, "We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Daladier was distraught over Britain being unwilling to support France and their abandoning Czechoslovakia. His response to the cheering crowds was to say to the person next to him that the cheering people were crazy.
With the agreements by Italy, Britain and France in his pocket, on October 1, Hitler sent his troops into the Sudetenland, including what had been Czechoslovakia's mountainous military defense lines. It was a peaceful march, Hitler having been deprived of the war that he had wanted against the Czechs. Germans in the Sudetenland were delirious with joy. President Benes had thirty-five well-trained divisions, which was perhaps as formidable a force as Germany's armies, but he chose not to fight the Germans with only the Soviet Union on his side.
Chamberlain believed that war had been averted. He had once described Hitler half-crazy, but by now he believed that Hitler was a man of his word. Chamberlain spoke of "Peace In Our Time." General Halder, one of the German generals plotting a coup, believed that with Chamberlain and Daladier having given Hitler what they did, the best chance for overthrowing Hitler had been lost.
David Reynolds writes that Hitler was disappointed in having accepted the peace agreement at Munich, "kicking himself for losing his nerve." But others have written of Hitler being encouraged by what he saw as the weakness of his allies. Soon Hitler would be seeking more gains undeterred by France and Great Britain, about whom he would say, "Our opponents are poor creatures. I saw them at Munich."
In a speech in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said, "Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war."
Lavrov Ignores Vital Support USSR Provided to the Third Reich After the Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
“In these circumstances, the Soviet Union had to go it alone to ensure its national security and sign a non-aggression pact with Germany. This forced move made it possible to better prepare for the coming war with the aggressor. Today, it is worth reminding everyone that our country made a decisive contribution to defeating the Hitler war machine and liberating Europe and the world from Nazism. Had the efforts been joined in the pre-war period, the many victims could have been avoided.”
On August 20, 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech at the opening of an exhibition in Moscow called “Year 1939: The Outbreak of World War II.” Lavrov accused unnamed parties of “falsifying” the history of the Second World War. On the topic of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Treaty signed on August 23, 1939 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Lavrov said:
“In these circumstances, the Soviet Union had to go it alone to ensure its national security and sign a non-aggression pact with Germany. This forced move made it possible to better prepare for the coming war with the aggressor. Today, it is worth reminding everyone that our country made a decisive contribution to defeating the Hitler war machine and liberating Europe and the world from Nazism. Had the efforts been joined in the pre-war period, the many victims could have been avoided.”
While there are some kernels of truth in Lavrov’s claim, he not only leaves out crucial details about the nature of the USSR’s pact with Germany, but he also fails to explain them in any way. First, it is important to look at what is actually true in his claim.
In 1939, the Soviet Union, like all major powers that later took part in World War II, did not consider itself ready for a major war. It is true that the USSR attempted to create a collective security pact against Nazi Germany with the help of Britain and France. However, alliance with the USSR was unpalatable to the leaders of both Western powers.
On their part, Britain and France chose a policy of appeasement with the Third Reich instead. The most notable example of this was the Munich Agreement of 1938, whereby British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated away Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region to Germany in exchange for an assurance of peace. The move made Czechoslovakia ripe for full annexation and partition in the spring of 1939.
Yet, in contrast to the lack of discourse about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet-Nazi collaboration in modern day Russia, the interwar policy of Western appeasement with Nazi Germany is openly taught in Western school systems, and it is generally seen to be a failure of foreign policy. Even the name Chamberlain has become synonymous with inviting aggression through weakness. By contrast, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its details were secret for decades in the USSR and are still not well-known in popular discourse in contemporary Russia. In one famous case, a Russian man was charged with a crime for sharing a video that talked about the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, which was a direct result of the pact.
And while the USSR was not the only country to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, as Lavrov pointed out in the same August 20 speech, few of those non-aggression pacts had as many tragic, far-reaching consequences as the one signed between Stalin and Hitler. The pact included a secret protocol that divided Central-Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, in which each major power could annex territory and redraw borders as it saw fit.
Equally important was the commercial agreement between Nazi Germany and the USSR signed five days before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which fueled Hitler’s war machine. Moscow supplied Berlin with vital raw materials that would play a major role in sustaining the German war effort on the Western front and, ultimately, up to the very day of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Mistrust and enmity between the major powers on the eve of World War II produced a number of episodes of betrayal. Before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the most significant deal made with Hitler was in Munich in 1938 when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. However, while Western countries such as Britain have acknowledged Chamberlain’s failures and his policy of appeasement, in the USSR the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was largely suppressed, with the secret protocol kept secret by the Soviet authorities until December 1989.
The Putin government has similarly sought to downplay the Pact and its consequences, while at the same time attacking other countries over their past cooperation with the Axis powers.
75: Years Ago: The Allied Betrayal of Czechoslovakia
Seventy five years ago today, the citizens of Prague, Czechoslovakia broadcast appeals for help to the Western Allies. These appeals were ignored.
In mid-April 1945, General William Simpson’s Ninth United States Army paused on the Elbe River and was ordered not to attack the Reich capital of Berlin. The still advancing forces of the American Army consisted mainly of General Patton’s Third Army which were geared towards Bavaria, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, not supporting Simpson in a possible assault on Berlin. This was for several reasons. The first was that Berlin was well within the Soviet Zone of occupation and Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower believed there was no sense in wasting American lives for territory that would have to be given back to the Russians. Ike expected casualties to be up to 100,000. Also, there was no clear line of demarcation and if both the American and Russian armies had entered Berlin, the very shooting war that Hitler wanted between the Americans and the Russians would have been more likely to happen. Additionally, there may have been a concern of saving American troops for future operations against Japan. Lastly, there was a belief that German troops were establishing a National Redoubt in Bavaria/Austria/Czechoslovakia and it would be better for American forces to concentrate there, especially with Bavaria being in the pre-determined American zone of occupation. In some circles, the failure to take Berlin was not a popular decision but was the right one.
However, Prague was not Berlin and Prague is the capital that Allied forces should have taken.
On May 5, 1945, General Patton was ordered by General Bradley to advance into Czechoslovakia to advance to Pilsen and quite possibly further. Patton moved so fast that the road to taking the lightly defended Prague was open. Unlike the Soviet assault on Berlin, where Americans were always 50 to 200 miles further way from the capital than the Russians, Prague was much closer to American forces than Soviet forces. The Czechs in Prague knew of the American advance and rose in open revolt against the German occupiers. The S.S. moved to suppress the revolt and the Czechs broadcast appeals of help to the American Army. Patton, knowing of the revolt, asked for permission to continue on to Prague but, after Eisenhower discussed the matter with the Russians, General Patton was ordered to stop. General Antonov said to Eisenhower, “The Red Army had stopped its advance to the lower Elbe …at the Supreme Commander’s (Eisenhower’s) request. I hope, General Eisenhower, that you will comply with our wishes relative to the advance of U.S. forces in Czechoslovakia.” On May 6, Patton was ordered to stop.
Patton’s immediate superior, General Omar Bradley, devoted only two paragraphs in his autobiography to the fate of Czechoslovakia and said that the British (i.e. Churchill’s) concern over the issue was political only. Further, Bradley said “Prague, like Berlin, had no strategic significance…Patton desperately wanted to liberate Prague, both for political reasons and, I am certain, for the headlines.” Command Decisions, published by the Department of the Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History in 1960, supported the decision of General Eisenhower.
Bradley served an important role in balancing Patton but General Bradley also became bitter in his elder years and never lost an opportunity to disparage Patton. Further, Bradley denigrated that the political views of men such as Churchill and Patton casting cynicism on them in believing their political views were nothing more than desires for prestige and power. History shows Bradley and Eisenhower were wrong and that Patton and Churchill were correct.
At least 10,000 civilians died in Prague and the American reputation in Czechoslovakia was tainted by the failure to take the capital. Instead of General Patton’s Third Army taking Prague and saving many of the civilians, and giving Western values a greater relevance in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union ended up taking Prague on May 9, one day after the War in Europe officially came to an end.
While Americans were almost always thought of higher in Czechoslovakia than the Russians, the loss of the American and Western Allied reputation in Czechoslovakia most certainly did not help during the three year post war struggle for power in Czechoslovakia that ended with the communists taking over the country in 1948.
General Patton said, “I felt, and still feel, that we should have gone on to the Moldau River, and if the Russians didn’t like it, let them go to hell.” The Moldau River, today called the Vltava River, presented a natural line of demarcation between American and Russian forces. Further, when American and Soviet forces did meet up in Czechoslovakia, there was no shooting.
Also, Czechoslovakia was not to be split into occupation zones as was Germany or even Austria. It was open for the taking and no territory would had to have been given back to the Russians. If anything, the occupation by American forces of the Czech capital would have had a much more positive post war development than Soviet occupation. This was not the first time the Czechs were let down by the Allies, with the first being the Munich agreement. Without American occupation forces in the country, instead only the evils of communism held real force in Czechoslovakia. Finally, the humanitarian issues of our Czech allies rising up should have negated any previous agreement with the Russians. Instead Allied leadership let the Czechs down by failing to advance, something that the Russians did to Poles in Warsaw the year before.
Patton’s Third Army should have been allowed to take Prague and rescue our Czech allies.
Why did the Soviet Union invade Czechoslovakia in 1968?
On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union led Warsaw Pact troops in an invasion of Czechoslovakia to crack down on reformist trends in Prague. Although the Soviet Union’s action successfully halted the pace of reform in Czechoslovakia, it had unintended consequences for the unity of the communist bloc.
Czechoslavkia before the Invasion
Before the Second World War, the nation of Czechoslovakia had been a strong democracy in Central Europe, but beginning in the mid-1930s it faced challenges from both the West and the East. In 1938, the leadership in Great Britain and France conceded the German right to take over the Sudetenland in the Munich Agreement, but the Czech government condemned this German occupation of its western-most territory as a betrayal.
In 1948, Czech attempts to join the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan to aid postwar rebuilding was thwarted by Soviet takeover and the installation of a new communist government in Prague. For the next twenty years, Czechoslovakia remained a stable state within the Soviet sphere of influence unlike in Hungary or Poland, even the rise of de-Stalinization after 1953 did not lead to liberalization by the fundamentally conservative Czech government.
In the 1960s, however, changes in the leadership in Prague led to a series of reforms to soften or humanize the application of communist doctrines within Czech borders. The Czech economy had been slowing since the early 1960s, and cracks were emerging in the communist consensus as workers struggled against new challenges. The government responded with reforms designed to improve the economy.
Alexander Dubcek's reforms led the Prague Spring
In early 1968, conservative leader Antonin Novotny was ousted as the head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and he was replaced by Alexander Dubcek. The Dubcek government ended censorship in early 1968, and the acquisition of this freedom resulted in a public expression of broad-based support for reform and a public sphere in which government and party policies could be debated openly.
In April, the Czech Government issued a formal plan for further reforms, although it tried to liberalize within the existing framework of the Marxist-Leninist State and did not propose a revolutionary overhaul of the political and economic systems. As conflicts emerged between those calling for further reforms and conservatives alarmed by how far the liberalization process had gone, Dubcek struggled to maintain control.
Soviet leaders were concerned over these recent developments in Czechoslovakia. Recalling the 1956 uprising in Hungary, leaders in Moscow worried that if Czechoslovakia carried reforms too far, other satellite states in Eastern Europe might follow, leading to a widespread rebellion against Moscow’s leadership of the Eastern Bloc. There was also a danger that the Soviet Republics in the East, such as the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia might make their own demands for more liberal policies. After much debate, the Communist Party leadership in Moscow decided to intervene to establish a more conservative and pro-Soviet government in Prague.
Soviet Union invades in response to the Dubcek government reforms
The Warsaw Pact invasion of August 20–21 caught Czechoslovakia and much of the Western world by surprise. In anticipation of the invasion, the Soviet Union had moved troops from the Soviet Union, along with limited numbers of troops from Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Bulgaria into place by announcing Warsaw Pact military exercises. When these forces did invade, they swiftly took control of Prague, other major cities, and communication and transportation links. Given the escalating U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam as well as past U.S. pronouncements on non-intervention in the East Bloc, the Soviets guessed correctly that the United States would condemn the invasion but refrain from intervening.
Although the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia was swift and successful, small-scale resistance continued throughout early 1969 while the Soviets struggled to install a stable government. Finally, in April of 1969, the Soviets forced Dubcek from power in favor of a more conservative administrator. In the years that followed, the new leadership reestablished government censorship and controls preventing freedom of movement, but it also improved economic conditions, eliminating one of the sources for revolutionary fervor. Czechoslovakia once again became a cooperative member of the Warsaw Pact.
United States response to the invasion
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was significant in the sense that it delayed the splintering of Eastern European Communism and was concluded without provoking any direct intervention from the West. Repeated efforts in the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the attacks met with opposition from the Soviet Union, and the effort finally died away. The invasion did, however, temporarily derail progress toward détente between the Soviet Union and the United States. The NATO allies valued the idea of a lessening of tensions, and as a result they were determined not to intervene.
Still, the invasion forced U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to cancel a summit meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Although Brezhnev knew this was the most likely outcome of the invasion, he considered maintaining Soviet control in the East Bloc a higher priority in the short-term than pursuing détente with the West. As it turned out, the progress on arms control agreements were only delayed by a few years in the aftermath of the Prague Spring.
Creation of the Brezhnev Doctrine to Soviet Power
There were also long-term consequences. After the invasion, the Soviet leadership justified the use of force in Prague under what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where a communist government had been threatened. This doctrine, established to justify Soviet action in Czechoslovakia, also became the primary justification for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and even before that it helped to finalize the Sino-Soviet split, as Beijing feared that the Soviet Union would use the doctrine as a justification to invade or interfere with Chinese communism.
A. J. P. Taylor in 1946: a British historian predicts democracy under communism for Czechoslovakia
This week in our series to mark Radio Prague’s 80th birthday we feature a recording made in the summer of 1946, when Radio Prague was exactly ten years old. A. J. P. Taylor was one of the best known and respected historians of mid-twentieth century Britain, and on a visit to Czechoslovakia he predicted a future for the country that would combine pluralist, parliamentary democracy with communism. David Vaughan has more.
This is A. J. P. Taylor, speaking to you from Prague. It’s a strange feeling for an Englishman to be talking again from Prague and to realize that after all these years of darkness something has come right in the world and that not all the hopes of the years of war have proved barren.
Anglo-American University student George Phillips puts the recording into context.
GP: “A. J. P. Taylor was famously anti-fascist and staunchly left-wing, so his views were that the rise of communism was a positive thing and that, despite their defeat in the Second World War, Germany remained the biggest threat to Europe at that time.”
GP: “There doesn’t appear to be. Taylor seems to be pretty convinced that communism is the way to go. He seems to think that it will be a purely good thing and he encourages the Czech people to support the new government and the alliance that is forming between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. So he seems very much in favour.”
I came here too late to see the elections but I’ve been all over the country and talked with people of all classes, and I can say this without any fear of contradiction or shadow of a doubt. This was really a free election. It was conducted with a spirit and with high arguments of which any country in the world could be proud. And now, with the new government, Czechoslovakia is starting on an experiment which is of the greatest interest to every democratic country. For the first time in any country there is a communist prime minister who has reached his position by strictly democratic methods. On the other hand, this isn’t a communist government. It’s a coalition. The communists haven’t got a majority in the parliament. They’re the biggest single party and even if they haven’t got the power, they have, I think, the biggest share of the responsibility. That’s an important difference. It means that in future the communists are going to be blamed if things go wrong, instead of being able to blame others. They’re going to have to use their popularity not to make difficulties but now in order to get things done. It was a novel experience to hear a communist prime minister say, as I did the day before yesterday, that the period of nationalization was over and that now the people must get down to hard work. In fact, in power the communists look very much like any other patriotic politician, overwhelmed with practical problems and anxious to do the best for their country. There will, of course, be plenty of disputes between the parties. In fact there are already. They agree, roughly, broadly, generally, on economic matters. They’re not so likely to agree so easily, so completely, on, say, questions of education, on the organization of the youth. But it looks very much as though the parties will stick together in order to overcome the economic difficulties which are facing the country.
Looking back, exactly 70 years later, how did you feel? What insights did it give you into the time?
GP: “With hindsight I can’t say he was anything other than totally wrong in his predictions. But it was interesting to see the left-wing view at that time of what the benefits of communism might be for Europe and also to see how the people of Europe felt threatened still by Germans, following their domination in the war.”
The whole of Czech industrial life was geared into the German economy and now, if Czechoslovakia is to maintain its present high standard of life, the Czechs have got to find new outlets for their industrial capacity. That’s the explanation for the trade agreement with Russia. The best service the Western countries could do to Czechoslovakia would be to get trade with the West going again on a big scale. What’s even more important for the Czechs is that the neighbouring countries should recover a certain amount of order and prosperity. Czechoslovakia can’t go on indefinitely as a prosperous, democratic island, surrounded by countries in confusion and collapse. On every frontier of Czechoslovakia there’s hunger and dictatorship, sometimes the dictatorship of an occupying power, sometimes of a political party. Very little is left of the Little Entente, which gave Czechoslovakia an outstanding position 20 years ago. The Czechs are on bad terms with the Poles, who are still demanding the district of Těšín, the district which Colonel Beck seized in collaboration with the Germans in 1938. Not surprisingly, the Czechs reject everything connected with Munich [the Munich Agreement of 1938], not merely the surrender of territory to the Germans, but to the Poles as well. The Poles, on their side, carry on agitation about Těšín, I think, to compensate themselves for the loss of territory in the east. And, in fact, in the same way, the Hungarians are demanding a revision of the Slovak frontier, in order, perhaps, to compensate themselves for having got nothing in Transylvania. I don’t think that either the Poles or the Hungarians will get anything for their agitation, but, as long as it goes on, it’s a bar to peaceful cooperation.
At that time, in 1946, it was just when the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia were being expelled. Does Taylor mention that?
GP: “He does. He says it’s impossible now for Germans to remain in Czechoslovakia, given the seven years of totalitarianism that the Czech people have just suffered at the hands of the Germans.”
No one who has seen and heard what the Germans did in this country can doubt that it’s impossible now to keep Germans here as citizens. This terror wasn’t the act of a few SS men. It was really the expression of the spirit of a whole people. The Germans have to go. But that transfer is being organized as decently and as humanely as possible, and all the same the great majority of Czechs don’t like it. They don’t like the whole thing. They feel that it’s a defeat for the principles that they tried to defend, a defeat imposed on them by Hitler, but a defeat all the same. They are ashamed, as we in England were ashamed at many of the methods that we had to use in order to win the war.
In the previous programme in this series, we went back to the weeks just after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and we saw how Czechs remained haunted by a fear of Germany. A. J. P. Taylor’s talk reminds us just how huge a factor this was in determining Czechoslovakia’s policy towards both Germany and the Soviet Union in the years just after the war. Taylor says that the Czechs will be willing to pay “any price” not to face a revival of German aggression. Little did most Czechs realize quite how high a price their country would end up paying.
One terrible shadow hangs over the land. It comes into people’s lives, it takes away any real feeling of security, and that shadow is the problem of Germany. The Czechs have had seven years of German occupation and they will pay any price not to have it again. That’s the reason for the Russian alliance, which is supported by everyone in the country, of whatever class or whatever party. As the prime minister said in his speech the other day, the Russian alliance is for us not just a question of safety but even of existence. If a Great Germany is ever restored, Czech democracy and Czech independence will again be lost. The Czechs are at a loss to understand the policy of Great Britain and the United States. They feel that in the anxiety to feed the Germans and make them capable of standing on their own feet, the real German problem is being forgotten. If the Western powers really care for democracy east of the Rhine, they must end for good and all the possibility of a new German aggression. Democracy can only flourish in conditions of security. Czechoslovak democracy will only survive if the shadow of Germany is removed forever. It seems to me it’s up to us, democratic countries of the West, not to let this democratic people down for a second time.
Just eighteen months after the British historian’s visit to Czechoslovakia, on 25 February 1948, the Communist Party leader and Prime Minister Klement Gottwald staged what amounted to a bloodless coup, pushing non-communist ministers out of the government and ultimately leaving President Edvard Beneš with no choice but to resign. None of this would have been possible without the conspicuous behind-the-scenes support of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its agents in Czechoslovakia. By May 1948, Czechoslovakia had a new constitution, defining the country as a “people’s democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party”.
Museum of Communism in Prague
The museum focuses on the totalitarian regime from the February coup in 1948 to its rapid collapse in November 1989. The theme of the Museum is “Communism- the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare” and visitors will be treated to a fully immersive experience. Immersive factories, a historical schoolroom, an Interrogation Room, or the video clips in our Television Time Machine are all part of the experience. The museum is a great introduction before you step back even further in time and experience the wonders of The Golden City. See the website of the Museum of Communism.
Did the USSR pledge support to Czechoslovakia before the Munich Agreement? - History
The title of this article is intended to be ironic because of course the Red Army did play the predominant role in destroying Nazi Germany during World War II. You would not know it, however, reading the western Mainstream Media (MSM), or watching television, or going to the cinema in the west where the Soviet role in the war has almost entirely disappeared.
If in the West the Red Army is largely absent from World War II, the Soviet Union&rsquos responsibility for igniting the war is omnipresent. The MSM and western politicians tend to regard the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941 as the Soviet Union&rsquos just reward for the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it, the USSR «brought their own fate upon themselves when by their Pact with [Joachim von] Ribbentrop they let Hitler loose on Poland and so started the war&hellip» Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR, was Stalin&rsquos fault and therefore an expatiation of sins, so that Soviet resistance should not be viewed as anything more than penitence.
Whereas France and Britain «appeased» Nazi Germany, one MSM commentator recently noted, the USSR «collaborated» with Hitler. You see how western propaganda works, and it&rsquos none too subtle. Just watch for the key words and read between the lines. France and Britain were innocents in the woods, who unwisely «appeased» Hitler in hopes of preserving European peace. On the other hand, the totalitarian Stalin «collaborated» with the totalitarian Hitler to encourage war, not preserve the peace. Stalin not only collaborated with Hitler, the USSR and Nazi Germany were «allies» who carved up Europe. The USSR was «the wolf» the West was «the lamb». These are not only metaphors of the English-speaking world France 2 has promoted the same narrative in the much publicised television series, «Apocalypse» (2010) and «Apocalypse Staline » (2015). World War II erupted because of the non-aggression pact, that dirty deal, which marked the beginning of the short-lived « alliance » of the two «totalitarian» states. Hitler and Stalin each had a foot in the same boot.
MSM «journalists» like to underscore Stalin&rsquos duplicity by pointing to the abortive Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations in the summer of 1939 to create an anti-Nazi alliance. No wonder they failed, how could the naïve French and British, the lambs, think they could strike a deal with Stalin, the wolf? Even professional historians sometimes take this line : the 1939 negotiations failed because of Soviet «intransigence» and «duplicity».
If ever Pot called Kettle black, this has to be it. And of course the trope of the Pot and the Kettle is a frequent device of western or MSM propaganda to blacken the USSR and, by implication, to blacken Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. There is just one problem with the western approach: the MSM «journalist» or western politician or historian who wants to incriminate Stalin for igniting World War II has one large obstacle in the way, the facts. Not that facts ever bother skilled propagandists, but still, perhaps, the average citizen in the West may yet have an interest in them.
Consider just a few of the facts that the West likes to forget. It was the USSR which first rang the alarm bells in 1933 about the Nazi threat to European peace. Maksim M. Litvinov, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, became the chief Soviet proponent of «collective security» in Europe.
He warned over and over again of the danger: Nazi Germany is a «mad dog», he said in 1934, «that can&rsquot be trusted with whom no agreements can be made, and whose ambition can only be checked by a ring of determined neighbours». That sounds about right, doesn&rsquot it? Litvinov was the first European statesman to conceive of a grand alliance against Nazi Germany, based on the World War I coalition against Wilhelmine Germany. Soviet would-be allies, France, Britain, the United States, Romania, Yugoslavia, even fascist Italy, all fell away, one after the other, during the mid-1930s. Even Poland, Litvinov hoped, could be attracted to collective security. Unlike the other reluctant powers, Poland never showed the slightest interest in Litvinov&rsquos proposals and sought to undermine collective security right up until the beginning of the war.
Litvinov reminds me of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in his thankless dealings with the Russophobic West. During the interwar years, the Russophobia was mixed with Sovietophobia: it was a clash of two worlds between the West and the USSR, the Silent Conflict, Litvinov called it. When things were going badly, Litvinov appears occasionally to have sought consolation in Greek mythology and the story of Sisyphus, the Greek king, doomed by Zeus to push forever a large rock to the top of a mountain, only to see it fall back down each time. Like Sisyphus, Litvinov was condemned to pointless efforts and endless frustration. So too, it seems, is Lavrov. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, imagined that Sisyphus was happy in his struggles, but that&rsquos an existentialist philosopher for you, and Camus never had to deal with that damned rock. Litvinov did, and never could stick it on the mountaintop.
My point is that it was the West, notably the United States, Britain, and France &ndash yes, that&rsquos right, the same old gang &ndash which dismissed Litvinov&rsquos repeated warnings and spurned his efforts to organise a grand alliance against Nazi Germany.
Dominated by conservative elites, often sympathetic to fascism, the French and British governments looked for ways to get on with Nazi Germany, rather than to go all out to prepare their defences against it. Of course, there were «white crows», as one Soviet diplomat called them, who recognised the Nazi threat to European security and wanted to cooperate with the USSR, but they were only a powerless minority. The MSM won&rsquot tell you much about the widespread sympathy for fascism amongst conservative European elites. It&rsquos like the dirty secrets of the family in the big house at the top of the hill.
Poland also played a despicable role in the 1930s, though the MSM won&rsquot tell you about that either. The Polish government signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1934, and in subsequent years sabotaged Litvinov&rsquos efforts to build an anti-Nazi alliance. In 1938 it sided with Nazi Germany against Czechoslovakia and participated in the carve-up of that country sanctioned by the Munich accords on 30 September 1938. It&rsquos a day the West likes to forget. Poland was thus a Nazi collaborator and an aggressor state in 1938 before it became a victim of aggression in 1939.
By early 1939, Litvinov had been rolling his rock (let&rsquos call it collective security) up that wretched mountain for more than five years. Stalin, who was no Albert Camus, and not happy about being repeatedly spurned by the West, gave Litvinov one last chance to obtain an alliance with France and Britain. This was in April 1939. The craven French, rotted by fascist sympathies, had forgotten how to identify and protect their national interests, while the British stalled Litvinov, sneering at him behind his back.
So Sisyphus-Litvinov&rsquos rock fell to the bottom of the mountain one last time. Enough, thought Stalin, and he sacked Litvinov and brought in the tougher Vyacheslav M. Molotov.
Still, for a few more months, Molotov tried to stick the rock on the mountaintop, and still it fell back again. In May 1939 Molotov even offered support to Poland, quickly rejected by Warsaw. Had the Poles lost their senses did they ever have any? When British and French delegations arrived in Moscow in August to discuss an anti-Nazi alliance, you might think they would have been serious about getting down to business. War was expected to break out at any time. But no, not even then: British instructions were to «go very slowly». The delegations did too. It took them five days to get to Russia in an old, chartered merchantman, making a top speed of 13 knots. The British head of delegation did not have written powers giving him authority to conclude an agreement with his Soviet «partners». For Stalin, that must have been the camel breaking straw. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed on 23 August 1939. The failure of the negotiations with the British and French led to the non-aggression pact, rather than the other way around.
Sauve qui peut motivated Soviet policy, never a good idea in the face of danger, but far from the MSM&rsquos narrative explaining the origins of World War II. Good old Perfidious Albion acted duplicitously to the very end. During the summer of 1939 British government officials still negotiated for a deal with German counterparts, as if no one in Moscow would notice. And that was not all, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, boasted privately to one of his sisters about how he would fool Moscow and get around the Soviet insistence on a genuine war-fighting alliance against Nazi Germany. So who betrayed who?
Historians may debate whether Stalin made the right decision or not in concluding the non-aggression pact. But with potential «partners» like France and Britain, one can understand why sauve qui peut looked like the only decent option in August 1939. And this brings us back to Pot calling Kettle black. The West foisted off its own responsibilities in setting off World War II onto Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Giving In to Hitler
German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, German chancellor ­Adolf Hitler, Paul Schmidt, an interpreter, and Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin, at a meeting in Berchtesgaden to discuss Hitler&rsquos demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany, September 1938
When the Czech government, faced with an imminent German attack and total abandonment by its Western democratic allies in September 1938, accepted without military resistance the annexation by Germany of one fifth of the country as decreed by the Munich Agreement between Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, the angry, embittered, and physically exhausted Czech president Edvard Bene&scaron declared, &ldquoHistory will judge.&rdquo And indeed, &ldquohistory&rdquo has generally acquitted Bene&scaron of the terrible &ldquochoiceless choice&rdquo he made but has long held up the Munich Agreement as an object lesson in both dishonor and the blinkered mutilation of national self-interest on the part of Great Britain and France.
What then can two new historical studies of appeasement and the Munich Agreement add? The answer is not a radical revision of what we already know but rather broadened perspectives. Tim Bouverie&rsquos Appeasement is grounded in the political and social history of Great Britain during the period, making use of more than forty collections of personal papers and extensive examination of the press as well as the usual government documents to illustrate a changing spectrum of British attitudes and perceptions. Bouverie also provides an exceptionally fine portrait of his main character, Neville Chamberlain. P.E. Caquet&rsquos The Bell of Treason focuses on the relatively neglected victim nation, Czechoslovakia, and how it experienced the fateful months from March through September 1938.
To understand Great Britain&rsquos response to Hitler, it is essential to understand how the British viewed their world by 1933. A number of critical works, such as John Maynard Keynes&rsquos The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), had produced a broad consensus that the deficiencies and injustices of the Versailles Treaty required revision, not enforcement. A wave of World War I memoirs and literature in the late 1920s had spread the notion that the war had been tragic and futile, and that repetition of such a war had to be avoided at all costs. Historical studies had identified the European arms race and a system of binding alliances as major factors that prevented statesmen from arresting the hapless slide into that senseless war.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Labour Party conference in October 1933 endorsed total disarmament and a general strike to bring down the government in the event of war, and a Labour candidate&mdashcampaigning on disarmament and pacifism&mdashflipped the hitherto safe Tory seat of East Fulham in a by-election that frightened the Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin far more than the rise of Hitler. With an &ldquounrivaled intuition for public opinion&rdquo and a fatalistic conviction that the &ldquobomber would always get through,&rdquo Baldwin rejected anything beyond a token increase in military spending, despite the warnings from Winston Churchill and others about the alarming pace of German rearmament. In November 1935 the Conservatives won a two-hundred-seat majority in Parliament that would provide Baldwin&rsquos successor, Neville Chamberlain, political immunity from both the small cluster of anti-appeasers within his own party as well as from the Labour opposition when it belatedly began to embrace an antifascist position in 1936. This is the starting point from which Bouverie begins his analysis of British appeasement policy.
Baldwin&rsquos determination to follow rather than mold British public opinion had fateful consequences in both 1935 and 1936. The British public overwhelmingly supported the idealistic notion of &ldquocollective security&rdquo in principle, if not in practice hence Baldwin&rsquos government supported all sanctions short of war in response to Italy&rsquos invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. As these sanctions did not include any measures that promised to be effective, such as a ban on Italian oil imports or the closing of the Suez Canal, Ethiopia was not saved, the League of Nations as an instrument of collective security was totally discredited, and an alienated Mussolini&mdashwho in 1934 had blocked a Nazi takeover in Austria&mdashallied himself with Hitler. In 1936, when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with a handful of troops in violation of both the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact, Britain and France did not call his colossal bluff. Baldwin was not mistaken that there was virtually no public support for opposing the Germans&rsquo &ldquojustified and inevitable&rdquo march into their own backyard.
Chamberlain became prime minister when Baldwin retired in May 1937. As chancellor of the exchequer, he had accepted a policy of limited rearmament but only at a pace that would not strain the budget and damage the economy. As prime minister, he now resolved to replace Baldwin&rsquos foreign policy of reactive acquiescence with proactive appeasement by approaching the dictators for &ldquoa practical and business-like discussion of their wishes.&rdquo A meeting between Viscount Halifax and Hitler at Berchtesgaden in November 1937 was pivotal: Halifax assured his host that Great Britain did not oppose changes in the status quo in Eastern Europe&mdashincluding specifically Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig&mdashprovided that such changes were &ldquonot based on force.&rdquo
Just two weeks earlier, at the infamous Hossbach conference, Hitler had informed his high-ranking generals and foreign minister that Germany had to wage its war for Lebensraum by 1943, and that Austria and Czechoslovakia had to be absorbed into the Third Reich perhaps as early as 1938. He was not pleased with their lack of enthusiasm, and in early 1938 he replaced his two top generals and foreign minister. Simultaneously, Chamberlain ousted the anti-appeaser Robert Vansittart as permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office and then replaced his tepid foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, with Halifax. The hour of what Bouverie calls the &ldquoevangelical appeasers&rdquo&mdashdetermined to carry out their policy with &ldquofervor&rdquo and &ldquoconviction&rdquo&mdashhad struck, exactly when Hitler made clear not only his intention but also his timetable for war, word of which reached London through multiple sources.
The &ldquoevangelical appeasers&rdquo faced no serious obstacle from the parliamentary opposition. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Labour began to switch from its feckless advocacy of universal disarmament to antifascist solidarity, but Labour&rsquos 154 seats were dwarfed by the Conservatives&rsquo 386. The real debate over appeasement, therefore, was internal to the Conservative Party, but again the anti-appeasers were both small in number and lacked an effective leader. Winston Churchill had a checkered political past and was deemed by many Conservatives as volatile and&mdashin Baldwin&rsquos words&mdashlacking &ldquowisdom and judgment.&rdquo After his resignation as foreign secretary, Eden was the hoped-for champion, but he turned out to be conflicted, reluctant, and indecisive. At least as prominent as the anti-appeasers were admirers of Hitler, who expressed their sympathy and support for the Nazi regime through eager tourism to &ldquoHitler&rsquos Wonderland.&rdquo Most conspicuous were the Prince of Wales (briefly before his abdication Edward VIII), Lord Londonderry, and the Mitford sisters, but Bouverie provides a long list of others, particularly from the aristocracy.
German annexation of Austria in March 1938&mdashaccompanied by both enthusiastic crowds welcoming Hitler and unseemly scenes of violence against Jews in Vienna&mdashwas accepted in London with a sense of relief. The inevitable had occurred, and one major grievance on Hitler&rsquos list had been removed. Now the clear challenge was to obtain satisfaction for Hitler in Czechoslovakia without war. The conundrum was that Czechoslovakia contained a German-speaking minority of 3.25 million living mostly in the horseshoe ring of mountains on the northern, western, and southern Czech border territories known as the Sudetenland, but also had an alliance with France (and a conditional alliance with the Soviet Union, dependent on France fulfilling its alliance obligations first).
For Chamberlain the answer was to exercise (in conjunction with the French) whatever pressure was needed to extract sufficient Czech concessions over the treatment of the Sudeten Germans to pacify Hitler and avoid war. To pressure the French and Czechs while holding Germany at bay, he pursued a policy, Bouverie writes, of keeping both sides &ldquoguessing.&rdquo He warned the French and Czechs that Britain would not support them if they were inflexible and warned the Germans that if war broke out, Britain could not guarantee that it would stand aside. With France this approach was entirely successful. The French repeatedly urged the British to announce a policy of solidarity and support for the French-Czech alliance but consistently failed to obtain such a pledge, and they then agreed to follow the British lead. This policy was doomed to failure vis-à-vis Germany, however, because Hitler instructed the Sudetenland leader, Konrad Henlein, to always demand more than the Czechs could concede and scheduled a German attack, preferably a local war against an isolated Czechoslovakia, to destroy the country entirely by October 1, 1938.
As war loomed in September, Chamberlain traveled to Germany and agreed to force upon the Czechs Hitler&rsquos demand for self-determination for the Sudeten Germans (and thus the acceptance in principle of ceding the Sudetenland to Germany). With this unsavory task accomplished, Chamberlain made a second trip to Germany, only to have a furious Hitler reject the acceptance of his own previous demands and now insist upon the immediate German occupation of all disputed territories without a plebiscite. When Chamberlain faced a revolt within his own cabinet, it appeared that finally Britain and France (and hence also the Soviet Union) would not abandon the Czechs if Germany attacked. After Hitler learned that Italy would not join him, he blinked and accepted the cession of the Sudetenland in a third meeting with Chamberlain (as well as Mussolini and French prime minister Édouard Daladier) at Munich&mdashonce again claiming it was his last territorial demand. Britain and France then forced the Czechs to comply.
Hitler soon regretted his last-minute decision not to gamble on a local war. Chamberlain was initially greeted by highly relieved and grateful crowds, but soon a growing sense of shame over Munich&mdashcoupled with the spectacle of Kristallnacht in November 1938&mdashbegan to transform British public opinion. In late October and early November, two anti-appeasers won by-elections. In March 1939 Chamberlain was forced to give a guarantee to Poland following Hitler&rsquos seizure of the rest of the Czech state, which definitively proved the hollowness of his repeated claim to be intervening only to save persecuted German minorities abroad who had been denied self-determination by the Versailles Treaty.
Chamberlain was then compelled to go through the motions of pursuing what was for him an undesired alliance with the Soviet Union in order to make the Polish guarantee a credible deterrent. In his halfhearted negotiations with the Soviets, however, he could not compete with the extensive territorial concessions (the Baltic States, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia) that Hitler offered to Stalin, since Hitler intended to seize these territories later in any case. Once the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed in late August 1939, Hitler was determined this time not to be denied his war, regardless of whether Britain and France honored their guarantee to Poland. Two days after the German invasion of Poland, Chamberlain, faced again with parliamentary revolt, issued the British ultimatum demanding an end to hostilities and then declared war on Germany.
As Bouverie notes, many countries have waged undeclared wars, but the months following the conquest of Poland represented a rare case in which a declared war was not waged. Far more British were killed trying to drive in the blackout imposed throughout the country than died in combat in the first four months, and there was far more eagerness to aid beleaguered Finland when it was attacked by the Soviet Union in December than there had been to aid either Czechoslovakia or Poland in 1938 and 1939, respectively. A bungled campaign in Norway finally led to the fateful parliamentary debate of May 7&ndash9, 1940, after which Chamberlain experienced the &ldquocrushing moral defeat&rdquo of seeing his more than two-hundred-seat majority shrink to a mere eighty-one in a vote of no confidence.
When Labour refused to join a national government under Chamberlain, and Halifax showed no appetite to take on the responsibility of being his successor (though he was the preferred candidate of the Conservatives and King George VI), Churchill was the only viable alternative and assumed the premiership on May 10, the day Germany launched its decisive offensive on the western front. Faced with the catastrophic collapse of France, Halifax proposed seeking terms from Hitler, which in Bouverie&rsquos estimation was the &ldquoclosest that Hitler came to winning the war.&rdquo In a final act of redemption, Chamberlain backed Churchill in his resolve to fight on alone. &ldquoThe age of appeasement was over,&rdquo Bouverie writes. &ldquoThe age of war had begun again.&rdquo
Bouverie concludes that the &ldquofailure to perceive the true character of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler stands as the single greatest failure of British policy makers during this period, since it was from this that all subsequent failures&hellipstemmed.&rdquo Why, despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, did Chamberlain (as well as his ambassador in Berlin, Nevile Henderson) continually reiterate their belief in Hitler&rsquos limited goals and peaceful intentions? Chamberlain and the &ldquoevangelical appeasers&rdquo shared the view of many other British that World War I had been such a catastrophe that it was inconceivable that anyone would actively seek another war. And as Duff Cooper noted of Chamberlain, the former businessman, mayor, and chancellor of the exchequer &ldquohad never met anybody in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler.&rdquo Hitler as intentional prevaricator and warmonger was someone beyond his capacity to imagine.
But there was another decisive quality in Chamberlain&rsquos personality: he stubbornly subordinated the assessment of evidence to the preservation of his own prior convictions. When confronted with an analysis of Hitler&rsquos own writings and statements that made his goal of war perfectly clear, Chamberlain retreated into complete denial: &ldquoIf I accepted the author&rsquos conclusions I should despair, but I don&rsquot and won&rsquot.&rdquo Three days before Hitler&rsquos occupation of Prague in March 1939, Chamberlain wrote, &ldquoI know that I can save this country and I do not believe that anyone else can.&rdquo The historical conjuncture of Hitler and Chamberlain was a match made in hell. Political leaders who dispense with evidence in decision-making because they are supremely confident in their own infallibility and indispensability have not been rare fortunately, Hitler has been a singular historical figure.
Caquet shifts focus from the Great Powers to Czechoslovakia. It was a multiethnic state containing not only Czechs and Slovaks but also minorities of Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, and Jews as well as Germans. Though the Sudeten Germans were initially divided among four political parties, by 1935 the Sudeten Nazi Party had gained a majority among German-speaking voters and by 1938 had absorbed all of its rivals except the Social Democrats. As had been done in Germany, the Sudeten Nazis had also gained near-total control over social and cultural organizations. Their leader, Konrad Henlein, thus plausibly claimed to represent the Sudeten Germans in the negotiations with the Czech government over the concessions on which Chamberlain insisted following the Anschluss.
As Caquet perceptively notes, the British accepted the same concepts and vocabulary to analyze the issue as the Germans did, namely that Czechs and Germans as distinct races had been locked in a primordial struggle for centuries. In reality, Caquet argues, while the territorial boundaries of Bohemia had been stable over centuries, the ethnic boundaries between and identities of its inhabitants were in constant flux. He estimates that if the Nazi racial definition of Jews enshrined in the Nuremberg Laws (in which &ldquofull Jews&rdquo were defined as having three or four Jewish grandparents) had been similarly applied in Czechoslovakia to define those who were racially German, then only about one million out of the 3.25 million Sudeten Germans would have qualified. In short, the Germanness of most Sudeten Germans was a recent construct, just as the long list of their alleged intolerable grievances and suffering was a product of incessant Nazi agitation and propaganda.
Unfortunately, the British had pro-German, anti-Czech ambassadors in both Berlin (Nevile Henderson) and Prague (Basil Newton), as well as a mediator, Lord Runciman, who relentlessly confirmed the German perspective, namely that Sudeten grievances were legitimate and that Henlein was moderate and reasonable while Bene&scaron was obstinate and devious. In fact, Henlein consistently lied about his subservience to and funding from Nazi Germany, but given the British attitude, it was impossible to convince them of his bad faith. The Czechs, with what Caquet calls their naive &ldquofaith in truth,&rdquo were no match for German mendacity and British self-deception and gullibility.
Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
German troops entering the grounds of Hradčany Castle, Prague, March 1939
Caquet makes two important claims about the internal situation in Czechoslovakia. First, as a partial mobilization in May and full mobilization in September 1938 demonstrated, the Czech army was extremely efficient and ready to fight. All the major political parties as well as large crowds of demonstrators made clear the country&rsquos readiness and ability to offer determined and unified resistance to an invader. Czechoslovakia could have resisted valiantly, but its ultimate defeat was inevitable, especially since Poland and Hungary would likely have joined the German attack if it had fought alone. It was, as one Czech put it, &ldquothe choice between murder and amputation with a chance of further survival.&rdquo
Harder to judge is Caquet&rsquos claim that in September, after Henlein and the extremists in the Sudeten Nazi Party had fled to Germany, the solidarity of the Sudeten Germans was crumbling and many did not want annexation to the Third Reich. Equally unprovable is his suggestion that in a truly free plebiscite a combination of Czechs, Jews, German Social Democrats, and anti-annexationist Sudeten Germans might well have prevailed. Resolution of the internal ethnic conflict, Caquet argues, was in sight if only Chamberlain had not flown to Germany, accepted Hitler&rsquos demand for the immediate concession of the Sudetenland, and imposed this solution on the abandoned Czechs. Caquet cites Czech witnesses to the effect that Chamberlain showed no shame in his ultimatum to the Czechs on the contrary, he was intoxicated at having prevented war and acted as if dealing with the Czechs was an unpleasant formality.
Ultimately the allegedly eternal conflict between Sudeten Germans and Czechs was resolved in a different way. Caquet notes that the long-term consequences of the Munich Agreement were six years of Nazi occupation followed by over forty years of Communist rule. Strangely, he does not mention at all the postwar fate of the Sudeten Germans, who, between 1945 and 1948, were expelled en masse from the restored boundaries of Czechoslovakia.
Both Bouverie and Caquet deny the claim of the Chamberlain apologists that the Munich Agreement bought crucial time for British rearmament and ultimate survival. Caquet goes much further in presenting a detailed analysis of the relative military-strategic situations in 1938 and 1939&ndash1940 and argues emphatically that Britain was gravely disadvantaged by fighting later rather than sooner. In 1938 the Czech army had thirty-eight well-equipped divisions and sophisticated border fortifications to defend against a German attack by forty-four divisions. In the west, Germany had a thin screening force of five active and four reserve divisions, with construction of the Siegfried Line border defenses barely underway, to hold off the forty French divisions poised to invade the Rhineland.
Moreover, the Czechs had their conditional alliance with the Soviet Union, and Caquet argues that Soviet readiness to help the Czechs was &ldquoplain enough.&rdquo Romania, he claims, had given informal permission for rail and air transit across its territory, which would have permitted moving one to two Soviet divisions per week into Czechoslovakia. In 1938 the French and Czechs had a combined tank force of 3,200 compared with Germany&rsquos 2,200. The German tanks were still the lightweight Mark I and II models, which were seriously outgunned and outarmored by the French and Czech heavy tanks and completely vulnerable to antitank guns as well. The combined British-French-Czech-Soviet air forces had two and a half times more modern fighters than the Luftwaffe and more than double the number of bombers. Germany had a six-week supply of ammunition, a three-month supply of oil, and an iron ore supply line from Sweden that the Soviet Union could have cut in the Baltic. And British naval domination ensured a tightening blockade over the long term. In short, Germany had neither the margin of superiority needed to win a quick victory nor anything close to the capacity to wage a long war in 1938.
In 1939&ndash1940 Germany, in alliance with rather than in opposition to the Soviet Union, faced an isolated Poland and then France. The captured Czech munitions industry produced a third of the new Mark III and IV model tanks vital for victory first in Poland and then in France. Germany&rsquos severe supply shortages and vulnerability to naval blockade were solved by its agreement with the Soviet Union, which not only did not block Swedish iron ore shipments but supplied vast amounts of raw materials to Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941. It is true, as Chamberlain apologists note, that the Hurricanes, Spitfires, and radar system necessary to British survival in the Battle of Britain in August&ndashSeptember 1940 were not available in 1938. But in 1938 Germany did not have the Channel airfields or the new Me-109s and bombers that enabled it to wage the Battle of Britain in the first place. In 1939 and 1940 Germany proved it could win spectacular, quick victories even if it did not win the long war in 1938 it could have done neither.
Bouverie and Caquet both refer to the claim made by the German army&rsquos wartime chief of staff Franz Halder in his testimony before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal after the war, which was subsequently invoked by Winston Churchill in his World War II memoirs. According to Halder, a group of anti-Hitler plotters stood ready to carry out a coup and remove the dictator if he went to war over Czechoslovakia, but Chamberlain&rsquos abject surrender at Munich pulled the rug out from under them and gave Hitler the bloodless victory that solidified his position. In short, without Chamberlain&rsquos surrender, there would have been no Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. Both authors are &ldquodoubtful&rdquo that such a coup attempt would have been made, much less succeeded, but they do not examine Halder&rsquos claim further.
The annexation of Austria and Hitler&rsquos determination to move next against Czechoslovakia caused the German army&rsquos then chief of staff, Ludwig Beck, to become increasingly worried about the outbreak of a major European war that in his opinion Germany was unprepared to wage and ultimately could not win. He wrote a series of memoranda, first laying out the military necessity of avoiding such a war and, more daringly, urging his fellow generals to undertake collective protest against Hitler&rsquos preparations for war and then, if that were unsuccessful, to resign. While many officers shared his analysis of the situation, none supported his solution. On August 18, 1938, the isolated Beck submitted his resignation.
Halder, Beck&rsquos successor, then became involved in a conspiracy for a coup d&rsquoétat, but only in the event that the order for an invasion of Czechoslovakia was issued. The number of people involved was necessarily small, the preparations improvisational, and the chances of success probably minimal, especially given the refusal of the officer corps to rally around the highly esteemed Beck just a month earlier. In any case, the imminent coup was called off on September 28 when Hitler agreed to the Munich Conference. Generally hesitant throughout September, Halder became even more irresolute thereafter. The historian Harold Deutsch concluded, &ldquoHe resembled a horse that dashes up to the hurdle with every air of confidence and purpose only to falter and haul up short at the jump.&rdquo
As Bouverie and Caquet have shown, the judgment of history has not been kind to the appeasers. But blame for thwarting an alleged coup that would have fundamentally changed the course of history is not an additional burden they should bear.
The Czech Crisis & Munich Agreement: How Peace Was Twisted Into Anti-German Propaganda
At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, 3.25 million German inhabitants of Bohemia and Moravia were transferred to the new Czechoslovakia in a flagrant disregard of Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of self-determination. The new Czechoslovakia was a multiethnic, multilingual, Catholic-Protestant conglomerate that had never existed before. From 1920 to 1938, repeated petitions had been sent to the League of Nations by the repressed minorities of Czechoslovakia. By 1938, the Sudeten Germans were eager to be rid of Czech rule and become part of Germany. In a fair plebiscite, a minimum of 80% of Sudeten Germans would have voted to become part of the new Reich.
It was clear to Czech leaders that the excitement among the Sudeten Germans after the Anschluss would soon force the resolution of the Sudeten question. The Czech cabinet and military leaders decided on May 20, 1938, to order a partial mobilization of the Czech armed forces. This partial mobilization was based on the false accusation that German troops were concentrating on the Czech frontiers. Czech leaders hoped that the resulting confusion would commit the British and French to the Czech position before a policy favoring concessions to the Sudeten Germans could be implemented. Although the plot failed, Czech leaders granted interviews in which they claimed that Czechoslovakia had scored a great victory over Germany. An international press campaign representing that Czechoslovakia had forced Hitler to back down from his planned aggression reverberated around the world.
British Ambassador to Germany Nevile Henderson believed that the Czech mobilization of its army, and the ridicule heaped upon Hitler by the world press, led directly to the Munich Agreement:
The defiant gesture of the Czechs in mobilizing some 170,000 troops and then proclaiming to the world that it was their action which had turned Hitler away from his purpose was… regrettable. But what Hitler could not stomach was the exultation of the press…Every newspaper in America and Europe joined in the chorus. “No” had been said and Hitler had been forced to yield. The democratic powers had brought the totalitarian states to heel, etc.
It was, above all, this jubilation which gave Hitler the excuse for his…worst brain storm of the year, and pushed him definitely over the border line from peaceful negotiation to the use of force. From May 23 rd to May 28 th his fit of sulks and fury lasted, and on the later date he gave orders for a gradual mobilization of the Army, which should be prepared for all eventualities in the autumn.
By the 1930s, the majority of the British people believed that Germany had been wronged at Versailles. The British people now broadly supported the appeasement of Germany in regaining her lost territories. If appeasement meant granting self-determination to the Sudetenland Germans, the British people approved.
Lord Halifax informed French leaders on July 20, 1938, that a special fact-finding mission under Lord Runciman would be sent to Czechoslovakia. President Beneš of Czechoslovakia was disturbed by this news. It was a definite indication that the British might adopt a compromising policy toward Germany in the crisis. The British mission completed its study in September 1938, and it reported that the main difficulty in the Sudeten area had been the disinclination of the Czechs to grant reforms. This British report was accompanied by the final rupture of negotiations between the Sudeten Germans and the Czech leaders. The Czech crisis was coming to a climax.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden to discuss the Czech problem directly with Hitler. At their meeting Hitler consented to refrain from military action while Chamberlain would discuss with his cabinet the means of applying the principle of self-determination to the Sudeten Germans. The result was a decision to transfer to Germany areas in which the Sudeten Germans occupied more than 50% of the population. President Beneš of Czechoslovakia reluctantly accepted this proposal.
A problem developed in the negotiations when Chamberlain met with Hitler a second time. Hitler insisted on an immediate German military occupation of regions where the Sudeten Germans were more than half of the population. Hitler also insisted that the claims of the Polish and Hungarian minorities be satisfied before participating in the proposed international guarantee of the new Czechoslovakia frontier. Several days of extreme tension followed. Chamberlain announced on September 28, 1938, to the House of Commons that Hitler had invited him, together with Daladier and Mussolini, to a conference in Munich the following afternoon. The House erupted in an outburst of tremendous enthusiasm.
The parties signed the Munich Agreement in the early hours of September 30, 1938. Hitler got substantially everything he wanted. The Sudeten Germans had become a part of Germany. Chamberlain and Hitler signed a joint declaration that the Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German naval accord symbolized “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.” Chamberlain told the cheering crowd in London that welcomed him home, “I believe it is peace in our time.” War had been averted in Europe.
The British war enthusiasts lost no time in launching their effort to spoil the celebration of the Munich Agreement. On October 1, 1938, First Lord of the Admiralty, Alfred Duff Cooper, announced that he was resigning from the British cabinet. In a speech delivered on October 3, 1938, Duff Cooper criticized the British government for not assuming a definite commitment during the Czech crisis. He asserted that Great Britain would not have been fighting for the Czechs, but rather for the balance of power, which was precious to some British hearts. Duff Cooper believed that it was his mission and that of his country to prevent Germany from achieving a dominant position on the continent.
Clement Attlee, the new Labor Party leader, spoke of the Munich Agreement as a huge victory for Hitler and an “annihilating defeat for democracy.” Of course, Attlee in his speech included the Soviet Union as a democracy. Anthony Eden gave a speech in which he criticized Chamberlain on detailed points, and expressed doubt that Britain would fulfill her promised guarantee to the Czech state. Eden advised the House to regard the current situation as a mere pause before the next crisis. He claimed that the British armament campaign was proceeding too slowly.
In his speech on October 5, 1938, Winston Churchill stated that Hitler had extracted British concessions at pistol point, and he loved to use the image of Hitler as a gangster. Churchill used flowery rhetoric and elegant phrases to describe the allegedly mournful Czechs slipping away into darkness. Churchill wanted to convince his countrymen that National Socialist Germany was governed by an insatiable desire for world conquest. The simple and stark purpose of the speech was to convince the British people to eventually accept a war of annihilation against Germany. Churchill was a useful instrument in building up British prejudice against Germany.
The debate on the Munich Agreement surpassed all other parliamentary debates on British foreign policy since World War I. Other Conservatives who refused to accept the Munich Agreement include Harold Macmillan, Duncan Sandys, Leopold Amery, Harold Nicolson, Roger Keyes, Sidney Herbert, and Gen. Edward Spears. These men were joined by a score of lesser figures in the House of Commons, and they were supported by such prominent people as Lord Cranborne and Lord Wolmer in the House of Lords. Chamberlain won the vote of confidence, but he did not possess the confidence of the British Conservative Party.
The warmongering that led to World War II was increasing in Great Britain. Hitler was dismayed at the steady stream of hate propaganda directed at Germany. In a speech given in Saarbrücken on October 9, 1938, Hitler said:
…All it would take would be for Mr. Duff Cooper or Mr. Eden or Mr. Churchill to come to power in England instead of Chamberlain, and we know very well that it would be the goal of these men to immediately start a new world war. They do not even try to disguise their intents, they state them openly….”
Image: Sudeten Germans cheering the arrival of the German Army
Image: Cartoon Mocking Chamberlain for Appeasement
Image: Cartoon Mocking Stalin’s Absence at Munich Conference
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 213-215.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, pp. 106-107.
 Henderson, Sir Nevile, Failure of a Mission, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940, pp. 142-143.
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 213-227.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 108.
 Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, pp. 53-54.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, pp. 180-181.
 Bradberry, Benton L., The Myth of German Villainy, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012, p. 324.