On February 12, 1938, two Chancellors—Adolf Hitler of Germany, and Kurt von Schuschnigg of Austria—met at Hitler’s retreat at Obersalzberg, Germany. At stake lay the future independence of Austria.
That meeting ended with Hitler’s bullying Schnuschigg into submission. Austria became a vassal-state of Nazi Germany.
Seven months later, in September, 1938, Hitler gave another exhibition of his “negotiating” methods. This time, the target of his rage and aggression was Czechoslovakia.
Once again, he opened “negotiations” with a lie: The Czechoslovak government was trying to exterminate 3.5 million Germans living in the “Sudetenland.”
This consisted of the northern, southwest and western regions of Czechoslovakia, inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans.
Then he followed this up with the threat of war: Germany would protect its citizens and halt such “oppression.”
For British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the thought of another European war erupting less than 20 years after the end of World War I was simply unthinkable.
The Cenotaph, in London, honoring the unknown British dead of World War 1
Something had to be done to prevent it. And he believed himself to be just the man to do it.
He quickly sent Hitler a telegram, offering to help resolve the crisis: “I could come to you by air and am ready to leave tomorrow. Please inform me of earliest time you can receive me, and tell me the place of the meeting. I should be grateful for a very early reply.”
Once again, another head-of-state was prepared to meet Hitler on his home ground. Again, Hitler took this concession as a sign of weakness. And Chamberlain’s use of such words as “please” and “grateful” only further convinced Hitler of another impending triumph.
Chamberlain was determined to grant his every demand–so long as this meant avoiding a second world war.
The two European leaders met in Berchtesgaden, Germany, on September 15, 1938.
Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler
During their talks, Chamberlain said he had come to discuss German grievances. But, he added, it was necessary in all circumstances to exclude the use of force.
Hitler appeared to be shocked that he could be accused of such intentions: “Force? Who speaks of force?“
Then, without warning, he switched to an aggressive mode. He accused the Czechs of having mobilized their army in May. They had mobilized—in response to the mobilization of the German army.
“I shall not put up with this any longer,” shouted Hitler. “I shall settle this question in one way or another. I shall take matters in my own hands!”
Suddenly, Chamberlain seemed alarmed—and possibly angry: “If I understood you right, you are determined to proceed against Czechoslovakia in any case. If this is so, why did you let me come to Berchtesgaden?
“In the circumstances, it is best for me to return at once. Anything else now seems pointless.”
Hitler was taken aback by the unexpected show of defiance. He realized he was about to lose his chance to bully the British into accepting his latest demands.
So he softened his tone and said they should consider the Sudetenland according to the principle of self-determination.
Chamberlain said he must immediately return to England to consult with his colleagues. Hitler appeared uneasy. But then the German translator finished the sentence: “…and then meet you again.” Hitler realized he still had a chance to attain victory without going to war.
Chamberlain agreed to the cession of the Sudetenland. Three days later, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier did the same. No Czechoslovak representative was invited to these discussions.
Chamberlain met Hitler again in Godesberg, Germany, on September 22 to confirm the agreements. But Hitler aimed to use the crisis as a pretext for war.
He now demanded not only the annexation of the Sudetenland but the immediate military occupation of the territories. This would give the Czechoslovak army no time to adapt their defense measures to the new borders.
To achieve a solution, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini suggested a conference of the major powers in Munich.
On September 29, Hitler, Daladier and Chamberlain met and agreed to Mussolini’s proposal. They signed the Munich Agreement, which accepted the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland.
The Czechoslovak government had not been a party to the talks. Nevertheless, it promised to abide by the agreement on September 30.
It actually had no choice. It faced the threat of an immediate German invasion after being deserted by its pledged allies: Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
Chamberlain returned to England a hero. Holding aloft a copy of the worthless agreement he had signed with Hitler, he told cheering crowds in London: “I believe it is peace for our time.”
Winston Churchill knew better, predicting: “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.”
Hitler—still planning more conquests—also knew better. In March, 1939, the German army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain would soon be seen as a naive weakling–even before bombs started falling on London.
Hitler next turned his attention–and demands–to Poland.