A Far Away Country, the 1938 Munich Agreement & World War II

A Far Away Country, the 1938 Munich Agreement & World War II

Czechoslovakia 1938

 “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”  —Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, broadcast at the outbreak of World War II (before leaving on September 27, 1938 for a meeting with Hitler, Daladier of France and Mussolini of Italy)

My father sometimes told us about his World War II experiences in the U.S. Army Air Force flying school and that he served 19 months in Natal, Brazil as an airplane mechanic. I don’t recall him ever talking about Czechoslovakia in the war.

I had an opportunity to learn about WWII in high school, but my history teacher was such a big talker that we never reached the chapter in our textbook on World War II.   And when I took European history in college my British professor seemed more interested in lecturing on Winston Churchill than the people who resisted the Nazi occupation of their countries during World War II. I think my teacher may have mentioned the French Resistance, but we never heard about Nazi resisters from the far away country of Czechoslovakia which had “people of whom we know nothing.”

When I lived in Germany during my late twenties, I finally learned more about the war by asking questions about things I saw. There was an old bunker on the edge of my Eifel village of Baasem and remains of tiger (dragon’s) teeth at the German/Belgian border. We lived near the site of the Battle of the Bulge with a German family five minutes from the 400-year-old, medieval village of Kronenburg where it was said Nazi party leader Hermann Goring visited. There were other stories told about the horrible days of war, but no one never mentioned Czechoslovakia or the resistance.

Dragon’s Teeth on German Border. Source: Wikimedia Commons

My late husband Charles Novacek was the first native Czechoslovakian I met and the first person to ever tell me about the Czech Resistance during WWII and the Cold War. He had been a part of it and he wanted me to become an American with knowledge of what happened.

Charles wanted me to know how through the Munich Agreement of 1938, Czechoslovakia was betrayed and sold out to Hitler by Great Britain, France and Italy. And so he began:

Germany became angry after World War I with the Treaty of Versailles. There were few jobs and high prices. Woodrow Wilson (United States) wanted a plan that would bring peace to Europe, but Georges Clemenceau (France) wanted revenge. Lloyd George (Great Britain) wanted to be sure Germany could never start another war. The main terms of the Treaty were for Germany to: accept blame for World War I; pay 6.6 million pounds for war damage; disarm by having no tanks, no submarines, no air force, etc.; forfeit land to other countries and Anschluss (annexation of Austria) was forbidden.

The situation escalated when Adolf Hitler was elected, promising to destroy the Treaty of Versailles.  He began secretly building up Germany’s army and air force and started compulsory military service.

Great Britain and France were aware of what Hitler was doing, but they were concerned about the threat of communism and thought a strong German could help them to fight it.

Hitler made alliances with Mussolini’s Italy and Japan in 1936 and in 1937 he revealed his plan to annex Austria.   Hitler marched into Austria and forced and fixed a vote of the people for the annexation. Great Britain, France and Italy refused to aid Austria after Hitler promised that he was done with expansion, but he lied. Six months later, Hitler demanded annexation of the Sudetenland, a border area of Czechoslovakia inhabited mainly by ethnic Germans.

The Czechoslovaks were relying on assistance from France through an alliance. The Soviet Union also had a treaty with Czechoslovakia, and it said it would cooperate with France and Great Britain if they would defend Czechoslovakia, but the Soviet Union was ignored.

War seemed in the offing. Neither France nor Great Britain felt qualified to defend Czechoslovakia and it seemed that they wanted to avoid military confrontation with Germany at any cost.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain met with Hitler in September 1938 trying to reach an agreement to prevent war. The French premier, Édouard Daladier and his foreign minister went to London where a proposal was made that said all areas with a population of more than 50% Sudeten German be returned to Germany. Representatives of Czechoslovakia were not asked to attend the meetings and were forced to accept it on September 21st.

Chamberlain flew to Germany on September 22 and met Hitler. He discovered that Hitler now wanted the Sudetenland occupied by the German army and the Czechoslovaks evacuated by September 28. Chamberlain submitted the proposal to the Czechoslovaks. They rejected it as did the British cabinet and the French.

In a last ditch effort to avoid war, Chamberlain proposed a conference of four powers be convened to resolve differences. On September 29, Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Italy’s Mussolini met in Munich where Mussolini introduced a plan that all accepted as the Munich Agreement.  The agreement stated that Hitler could have the Sudetenland provided he promised not to invade the rest of the country. Great Britain and France informed Czechoslovakia that it could resist Germany on its own or submit to the outlined annexations. The Czech government submitted.

Chamberlain and Hitler also signed a paper at Munich declaring their desire to resolve differences through consultation to assure peace. Daladier and Chamberlain returned to their countries with crowds welcoming them because the threat of war was over. Chamberlain told the British people he had achieved “peace with honor. I believe it was peace for our time.”  “But of course it wasn’t,” Charles said to me. Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then started World War II by invading Poland in September.

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