75 years ago today, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew back from Munich after two days of tense discussions with the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
He had reached an agreement setting out a timetable and terms for the Nazi takeover of the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. And he had persuaded Hitler to sign a piece of paper stating that the two men were resolved to ‘continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe’.
In a groundbreaking episode of ‘shuttle diplomacy’, on his third visit to Germany in as many weeks Chamberlain felt he had achieved his objectives: instead of an immediate Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland (as threatened until a few days earlier), there was to be a phased occupation of the German-speaking areas; and there was to be no general European war−yet.
The reality of the Munich Agreement
Within a year, Czechoslovakia had been entirely overrun by Germany, and Britain was at war with Germany.
‘Munich’ became, and remains, a byword for shameful failure to stand up to dictators. Yet Chamberlain had been cheered by Germans in the streets of Munich; cheered when he returned to London on 30 September, declaiming from the Buckingham Palace balcony that ‘I believe it is peace for our time’ (a statement he immediately regretted).
At 7.30 p.m. the Chancellor of the Exchequer opened the Cabinet meeting by expressing on his colleagues’ behalf ‘their profound admiration for the unparalleled efforts’ Chamberlain had made and for what he had achieved. Ministers were, Sir John Simon said, ‘proud to be associated with the Prime Minister as his colleagues at this time’.
Even Duff Cooper, whose uneasiness with Munich led him to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty, recognised that Chamberlain had done better than expected.
Munich was not an isolated crisis, but the latest episode in a five-year standoff in which Hitler made and broke successive promises and agreements in his bid to dominate central and eastern Europe, while the British government pursued a policy of neither saying it would, or would not fight, while buying time for rearmament.
The international context
Many books have been written on all this, and indeed on Munich itself. But on the 75th anniversary, it is worth taking a look at how the crisis looked elsewhere in the world in 1938: for the international context was crucial.
And when we look at how the Munich crisis was viewed around the world − in Washington, Paris, Rome, in Tokyo and Moscow, as well as in London and Berlin − things not only look rather more complex, but also surprisingly contemporary.
A Democratic President faced fierce Republican opposition in both domestic and foreign policy. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme of social and economic measures to bring the US out of recession led to accusations that he was both a communist and a fascist (for giving government too much power).
When he authorised a rearmament programme, it was branded a diversion from domestic failure. The only thing most agreed on was keeping America out of European wars.
Stalin convinced he faced a global imperialist and Trotskyist conspiracy, believed the British and French wanted to give Hitler what he wanted in central and eastern Europe and lure him into attacking Russia.
Munich seemed proof of this. Stalin had had so many of his secret agents executed that his foreign intelligence was much reduced. Nor did the reports from the Cambridge Five disabuse Stalin of his delusions: they could not imagine that a year later he would sign a pact with Hitler.
Stalin’s paranoid fantasies were quite alien to Chamberlain and his colleagues, who worried, needlessly at this point, about Soviet expansionist intentions.
Fascist leader Mussolini enjoyed the opportunity for grandstanding that ‘mediation’ in the Munich crisis afforded. He and his Foreign Secretary, Ciano, found it hard to understand why the British should feel they would have to join in if the French fought Germany on behalf of their ally, Czechoslovakia.
Surely, said Ciano, Britain would not want to fight on the same side as the Bolsheviks?
Chamberlain had pushed through an Anglo-Italian agreement in April 1938, losing his Foreign Secretary Eden in the process, but in the final analysis Mussolini was bound to support Hitler.
Japan was also allied to Germany and Italy, and had been engaged on a brutal and destructive war against China since 1937. Britain looked the biggest potential obstacle to Japanese domination of East Asia.
By 1938 the Chinese situation seemed desperate. Chiang Kai-shek’s pleas for help were received sympathetically in London but rejected in fear of Japanese reprisals, especially against Hong Kong.
Like Roosevelt, Chamberlain worried about the possibility of fighting a war on two fronts, and having to divert precious naval resources to the Far East. The British government knew that the Chinese were ‘fighting the battle of Western Nations in the Far East’ but felt they could not help.
To Japan, Munich showed the British as reluctant to fight.
France was joined in alliance with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, but very reluctant to risk war with Germany, and certainly not without British support.
Some hoped that in the event of war the Soviet Union would fight on France’s side, but others were less sanguine and feared that neither Poland nor Roumania would willingly let Soviet troops pass through their territories.
On 29 September the French Foreign Minister begged the British Ambassador in Paris to urge on Chamberlain ‘how absolutely vital he felt it was that an arrangement should be reached over the Sudeten question at Munich at almost any price’.
Germany, as in Japan, Britain was seen as the biggest obstacle to Hitler’s plans. He did not want to fight Britain at all if possible, and in any case not yet. But, as British intelligence reports made clear, he had made up his mind what he wanted and was determined to get it.
Chamberlain’s journeys to Germany threatened not only to disrupt his plans but also to steal his thunder. Nevertheless, Hitler was well aware that the Munich agreement provided the best chance of achieving his aims without an early war.
Chamberlain’s ‘piece of paper’ meant little to Hitler, but it did delay the inevitable.
There is no room to include every country that took a keen interest in the outcome of the Munich crisis. But this selection shows that the picture was not uncomplicated.
Twenty years after the end of the First World War, politicians of all nationalities were very reluctant to contemplate the destruction and loss of life that another general war would entail, and were willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid it.
At Munich, this was Chamberlain’s aim.
It had been made clear to him that the Dominions did not consider Czechoslovakia worth a European war; the League of Nations expressed disapproval of German actions but offered no hope of practical assistance.
The bottom line was: did the British people want to go to war for the Sudetenland? His answer was ‘no’: and while there were certainly differences between Chamberlain and his colleagues, and indeed with the Foreign Office who had no real hope that Hitler would settle for a peaceful future, very few were prepared to answer ‘yes’ in 1938.
Munich was the logical conclusion. And while in hindsight the inaction of the international community in the face of dictators’ aggression and brutality may seem culpable, more recent history continues to demonstrate that such situations and decisions are never straightforward.
There is an extensive literature on the Munich crisis: this is a small selection of those that bring a wider context to the issue.
- ‘The Munich Agreement’ a blog post by the National Archives
- Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 (DBFP), Third Series, Volumes I and II (HMSO, 1949). The decision to publish the official documents on the Munich crisis in advance of volumes on 1919-18 was taken in 1948 by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, in response to an outpouring of material on interwar relations and wide public interest in the immediate lead-up to war.
- The Munich crisis is in Volume II; where there is also an Appendix recording conversations between Sir Horace Wilson and members of the German opposition to Hitler.
- DBFP, Second Series, Vols. XIX and XXI (HMSO, 1974 and 1984)
- David Reynolds, Summits: Six meetings that shaped the twentieth century (Allen Lane, 2007)
- Zara Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-39 (Oxford University Press, 2011)
- Donald Watt, How War Came (Pantheon Books, 1989)
- Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (Penguin, 2009)
- Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (Penguin, 1999)
- Keith Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-49 (Bloomsbury, 2010)