This is a repeat of a column I wrote in this space nearly six years ago. I don’t normally repeat a previously written column, but I will this time because the situation that Europe found itself in three-quarters of a century ago is eerily similar to today’s situation between Russia and the Ukraine. We can learn from historical example.
Seventy years ago (now 75+), a political crisis in Central Europe was unfolding that would have lasting worldwide implications. At issue was the future of Czechoslovakia and the antagonist was Nazi Germany and its dictator Adolph Hitler.
At the time, Czechoslovakia was a relatively new nation, created in the aftermath of World War I by the Versailles Treaty where seventy nations dealt with the fracturing of four former empires. This new nation had formerly been part of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. As such, the nation of 14 million souls included ethnic Slavs, Poles and Germans.
In his first two land-grabs, Hitler had remilitarized the Rhineland and swallowed Austria. Now he set his eyes southeast toward the Sudetenland in the western portion of Czechoslovakia that bordered on Germany and Austria. This region was populated by three million ethnic Germans and Hitler’s agents had been stirring up trouble among the masses. This was Hitler’s excuse for the crisis, but as early as six months before, he had ordered the German Army to prepare for invasion and occupation of the Czech Republic.
The new Czech nation under the presidency of Eduard Benes was fearful of its powerful northern neighbor and had entered into mutual defense treaties with France and Russia. While Czechoslovakia had a powerful military for a small nation and impressive defensive forts along its western border, the treaties reinforced their security.
In mid-September, Hitler announced that he could no longer tolerate (so he claimed) the abuses of the Sudeten people and promised that unless this matter was diplomatically resolved, he would resort to force. Sound familiar?
The trauma of World War I was still fresh on the minds of Europeans, and their leaders rushed forward to try and avoid another costly war. The leader of this diplomatic pack was Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In less than three weeks, the prime minister would make three trips to Hitler’s doorstep to attempt a brokered solution that would appease the Nazi dictator. Chamberlain was working against a deadline – Hitler had mobilized his army and given them an invasion date of October 1.
Adolph Hitler had four things working against his plan. First, the Czech defenses in the Bohemian mountains were too strong for his military to defeat in Blitzkrieg fashion. Second, he could mount only five regular and seven weak reserve divisions to protect his western flank from attack by the Czech ally France. The French would overwhelm this force with at least 65 divisions. Third, the British Fleet and air forces would control the sea lanes and air space. And finally, many of the senior German army officers knew that their nation could not win a war at this point and were plotting to overthrow the Fuehrer.
Against all of these odds, Hitler bet that the British and French would sacrifice Czechoslovakia and avoid war at any cost. He was right.
In his 1959 classic “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” reporter William L. Shirer devotes nearly one hundred pages to the 1938 crisis that led to the Munich Agreement and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Shirer makes an excellent case that this was the last opportunity to stop Hitler before war broke out eleven months later, a war that would eventually cost the lives of 50 million people. In this light, it is agonizing to read the account and imagine what might have been had the western democracies showed any resolve and moral leadership.
Hitler’s naïve dupe was Chamberlain. It is hard to imagine that a major world leader would be willing to sacrifice the sovereignty of another nation and its people to the Nazi warlord, but he did. He brokered the deal that would hand major portions of Czechoslovakia, people and property, to the Germans and forced the Czech Republic to accept the agreement. It was the ultimate example of appeasement – avoid war at any cost. The Czechs were not even consulted during the negotiations; rather they were informed of the results at the conclusion.
In appeasing Hitler, Chamberlain put his blinders on and ignored obvious signals that could be used to his advantage. He knew that the German generals were plotting against Hitler, but chose to ignore this important fact of internal dissension. He refused to consider the strength of the Czech’s defensive capabilities or the possibility that Russia might intervene. He ignored his own intelligence about the relative weakness of the German military at that point and cowed the French into abandoning their ally. In the process of avoiding a fight over Czechoslovakia in 1938, he set the world on course for the most destructive war in human history.
While no rational person wants war, there are supreme dangers when it is avoided at any cost. That is the lesson of Munich 1938.