On September 30th, 1938, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepped out to greet the ecstatic crowds assembled at No. 10 Downing Street, brandishing a paper containing Adolf Hitler’s signature conveying Nazi Germany’s desire to never go to war with Great Britain again.
In his now-infamous speech, Chamberlain proclaimed,
“My good friends, for the second time in history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time ..… go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
Little did the cheering crowds know that Europe would be plunged into six years of a devastating World War, claiming the lives of millions.
Within weeks Hitler broke his word. In Britain, Neville Chamberlain saw his reputation crash faster than arguably any Prime Minister in history, and resigned over a year later, his name becoming synonymous with cowardice and foolishness for trying to appease a dictator. To date, he is counted amongst the worst British Prime Ministers in history.
In retrospect, it is too simple to blame Chamberlain for his failed diplomatic pursuits and chastise him for not directly confronting the Nazis, but the fact is, the situation surrounding the signing of the Munich Agreement is far more complicated.
Nazi Germany sets its eyes on Czechoslovakia
The Treaty of Saint German (1919), signed by Austria and Allied powers, broke up the Habsburg empire into Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, and the union of Austria with Germany was forbidden without approval of the Council of the League of Nations. The Treaty placed 3 million ethnic Germans under Czechoslovakia without their consent, most of whom lived near the Sudeten mountains, and the region was coined a new name Sudetenland.
The Great Depression of 1929, hit the Sudeten Germans harder than the rest of the Slovaks since many Germans were business and export-oriented. Moreover, the minority was underrepresented in the government and the army. By 1936, Sudeten Germans constituted about 60% of the unemployed in Czechoslovakia.
The growing anger and dissatisfaction of the Sudeten Germans were capitalized upon by the Sudeten German Party (a wing of the Nazi Party) led by Herr Konrad Henlein.
After a meeting with Adolf Hitler, on 28 March 1938, Henlein issued several demands to the Czechoslovak government, known as the Karlsbader Programm, the most prominent of which was to grant autonomy to Sudetenland, which was turned down by the government.
Hitler watched the situation erupt with great jubilation and delight, this was his opportunity to unite Germans under the banner of the Greater German Reich. Later that month, German newspapers published fictitious stories of abuse and killings of Sudeten Germans as a pretext and mobilized 750,000 men on the shared border.
In response, Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes also mobilized the army. The situation reached a tipping point on 12th September 1938, in a Nuremberg rally Hitler denounced Czechoslovakia as a fraudulent state that was formed in violation of the right to self-determination. The very next day, internal violence and riots broke out, supported by the Sudeten German Party (SDP), and an arrest warrant was issued for Konrad Henlein. Barely twenty years after the Great War, Europe seemed at the brink of another one.
On September 15, Chamberlain decided to visit Germany to discuss the situation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler made clear of his intentions of the German annexation of Sudetenland.
In the end, France and Britain were left with no choice, issuing an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia to cede all territories with a German population of 50% and higher to Nazi Germany in return for the guarantee of Independence for the remaining of the country. Receiving no support from her Western Allies, President Benes realized it would be futile to stand alone and accepted the proposal.
In the last-minute effort to prevent war, Chamberlain proposed a four-power conference be held to settle the dispute. The conference convened on September 29, Hitler, Chamberlain, French President Edouard Daladier, and Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, on request of Hitler, met to finalize the agreement. Interestingly, no Czech diplomat was allowed to enter negotiations. The agreement was finalized while Czech representatives waited outside on a bench while the fate of their country was decided.
The infamous Munich Agreement was signed on September 29, 1938, allowing Germany to legally annex Sudetenland by October 10. Hitler had also notoriously declared that Czechoslovakia was his last territorial demand in Europe. Hardly six months later, the Nazis seized what remained of Czechoslovakia.
Legacy of the Munich Agreement
At first, both Daladier and Chamberlain were welcomed home to cheering jubilant crowds who had expected the war to break out immediately. However, that popularity would not last long.
After Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and proceeded to seize Poland, Neville Chamberlain came under fire from the Labour party and members of his Conservative party for believing in the grand delusion of peace. He exclaimed in a speech in the House of Commons,
“Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.”
If a closer look were to be taken at the circumstances surrounding Britain, the reality is Chamberlain had no other choice. The British Empire in the late 1930s was overstretched, her hold on the Commonwealth nations was not as firm as the start of World War I.
What was worse, Britain was facing a threat by 3 major powers in two different theatres of wars, Nazi Germany, Italy, and Imperial Japan. The United States of America had isolated itself from global affairs and Russia was now the Soviet Union, under the Communist rule of Joseph Stalin, whom the British did not trust easily.
The documents in the national archives of the British reveal their doubts on the stability and the combat abilities of France.
The British military was nowhere near ready for a war, meanwhile, Hitler had been rebuilding the German armed forces ‘Wehrmacht’ since 1936. It was only in April of 1938, that the British started to rearm the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF).
On September 20th, 1938, General Hastings Ismay sent a note to the Committee on Imperial Defense and the British Cabinet acknowledging the lead German AirForce ‘Luftwaffe’ possessed over Franco-British Air Forces in striking power.
According to the note,
“It follows, therefore, that, from a military point of view, time is in our favor, and that if war with Germany has to come, it would be better to fight her in say 6-12 months, than to accept the present challenge.”
Even British Generals themselves did not believe Great Britain could have won against Germany in 1938.
Interestingly, United States President John F. Kennedy wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on the “Appeasement at Munich” in which he argues the British Isles had been so unprepared for the war in 1938, that Chamberlain had little choice but to give in to Hitler’s demands or else Britain might have well lost to the Germans.
Historian David Dutton, who wrote a book on Neville Chamberlain, presents that the British public was not ready for war in September 1938, since the Great War had ended hardly twenty years ago and since the country in question was Czechoslovakia.
People saw the country as an artificial creation, and the problem could be solved through negotiations. “There was a feeling that any sensible politician would explore every avenue to avoid war before accepting war was inevitable,” says Dutton.
Another facet of this argument is the public had no moral claim to stop Hitler since full-fledged Nazi invasions had not taken place yet, no atrocious war crimes had been committed and existing concentration camps such as the first one at Dachau were not under the public scanner.
One could also say that perhaps since the British public had witnessed the rise of Benito Mussolini, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and Joseph Stalin’s brutal policies, they had no reason to believe Hitler would be anything different.
It is very clear that Chamberlain’s government had no other option rather than talk for peace and his current reputation does no justice to a man who fought hard to keep the peace for as long as possible.
Written by Arnav Singh