In September 1938, the fever of war was in the air. Only five years before, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. In 1935, he reintroduced conscription and created an air force, both major violations of The Versailles Treaty. A year later, he went a step further and occupied the Rhineland, in violation of both Versailles and Treaty of Locarno, a treaty signed in 1925 by Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Italy, which stipulated that the Rhineland would always remain unfortified. In the same year, Mussolini finished invading Ethiopia, Japan continued its decade-long invasion of China, and the Spanish Civil War began, with continued fighting between the Loyalists (Soviet supported) and Franco’s Nationalists (supported by Mussolini and Hitler) during the ensuing three years. Then, in March 1938, Hitler made his first grab at territory outside of Germany’s boundaries. He invaded and incorporated Austria in his famous Anschluss. Czechoslovakia was hemmed in on three sides. It was to be the source of the next international tension.
By September 1938, Neville Chamberlain had been Prime Minister for about a year and a half, succeeding to the premiership in May 1937 after his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, retired. He had a great deal of experience in domestic policy, and would have surely made his mark if that had been the focus of his premiership. However, Hitler made sure that it would not be.
On September 12th, 1938, Hitler made a vitriolic speech before the Annual Nazi Party Conference in Nürmberg (Nuremburg), attacking Edward Benes (the Czech President) and the Czechs.(1) At the very same time, the Sudetendeutschpartei, (the Sudeten Germans Party) launched an insurrection(2), which was crushed by the Czechoslovak police. Imminent intervention by Germany was feared. Chamberlain, losing his nerve, decided to meet Hitler before Czechoslovakia was invaded.
On September 15th, Chamberlain flew to Bertchesgaden, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat, where the eventual specifics of Munich were first laid out. Hitler demanded the immediate cession of the Sudetenland, and Chamberlain gave no indication that he would stop it. Thus both agreed that the Sudetenland would be ceded by Czechoslovakia to Germany by October 1st. Chamberlain came back to England and began pressuring the Czechs to agreed to Hitler’s demands. A week later, he flew back to Germany (Godesberg, on the Rhine) to tell Hitler that a deal had been reached.
Instead of receiving a happy and contented Hitler, Chamberlain experienced a mean and vicious one. Hitler said, “Es tut mir leid, aber das geht nicht mehr.” (I’m sorry, but they (the proposals agreed to earlier) will no longer do.) (3) Hitler now demanded the cession of all of the Sudetenland (including the non-German parts) by September 27th, and threatened to go to war if his demands were not met. Chamberlain went home in despair. The world looked like it would be at war.
On September 27th, Chamberlain delivered a famous radio speech, in which he said: “How incredible, fantastic, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks because of a quarrel between people of whom we know nothing.” This speech may also be heard in RealAudio. Further excerpts of this speech may be heard by clicking here.
The following day, he made a speech in Parliament. Toward the end of that speech, a note was passed among various Cabinet members, eventually reaching Chamberlain.(4) He opened it, and then announced that Hitler had invited him to go to Munich the next day for a four-power conference. The next morning, he made a speech.
That afternoon and night, The Munich Agreement was made. The next day, he returned back to Britain, and was received by enthusiastic crowds. He met the King, and then addressed the large crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace, by saying that [the Munich Agreement] “has brought peace in our time.”
Not everyone, though, agreed with Chamberlain. Even though the nation was deeply gratified to Neville Chamberlain for his attempts to stave off war, there was still deep criticism of Munich. The most scathing criticism came from Winston Churchill, who delivered a very famous speech on October 5th, 1938.
As we all know, five months later, Hitler broke his Munich promises (that the Sudetenland was to be his last territorial ambition) and invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia. And six months after that, the most horrific war in human history began. Ever since then, Munich has been deeply criticized by many. Our last sound file today has Lord Alfred Douglas-Home, Chamberlain’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) (5) at Munich, giving his assessment of the Munich Agreement’s value to Britain.
- (1) Charles Loch Mowat, Britain Between the Wars, 1918-40, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 608.
- (2) It appears that this was done under the direct orders of Hitler.
- (3) John F. Naylor, Labour’s International Policy: The Labour Party in the 1930s, p. 243, quoting Documents in British Foreign Policy [D.F.F.P.], 3s, II, 465 (No. 1033).
- (4) Mowat, p. 616.
- (5) A parliamentary private secretary (PPS) is a sort of secretary or administrative assistant. Every member of the Government, and the Opposition’s “Shadow Government,” has one. Usually a backbencher who is thought to have a chance at becoming a political leader is appointed.