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A Dishonourable Peace – the Munich Agreement

On the 18th of September Daladier came to Downing Street to discuss the terms; eventually he too accepted Hitler’s demands. Now everything hinged on the response of the Czechs. If they decided to resist, they would have to go it alone. As Wehrmacht forces assumed positions along his nation’s borders, the Czechoslovak President decided to accept the terms of the agreement. A triumphant Chamberlain set off to tell Hitler the good news. But his second visit to see Hitler on the 22nd at Bad Godesberg was humiliating. This time there was no red carpet, only fresh demands, principally that the Sudetenland must be surrendered at once, and Polish and Hungarian claims on Czech lands must be met. Chamberlain steadfastly refused to accept the ultimatum.

Suddenly war seemed imminent.

Flying back to London Chamberlain looked down at the flimsy housing estates and envisaged them laid waste by bombs. He expressed the anxiety and puzzlement of his people in an address to the nation on the 27th of September as he remarked:

“If I felt my responsibility heavy before, to read such letters has made it seem almost overwhelming. 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. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.”

Plans were made to move children out of the threatened capital. Hurriedly more aircraft were turned out. But Britain’s air defences were still weak and thinly spread. There had to be a way out, at the least enough time to get the aircraft programme off the ground. When Mussolini suggested a four-power conference over the Czech issue Chamberlain seized the moment. Maybe it was still not too late to settle the Czech question by international agreement rather than war. Chamberlain left London’s Heston airport for Munich on the morning of Thursday, September the 29th, to meet with Hitler, Mussolini, and Daladier at the Führer’s Headquarters, the “Brown House”. As he set off for the meeting he quoted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

“When I was a little boy, I was told if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. This is what I am doing. When I come back, I hope I may be able to say as Hotspur says in Henry IV: ‘Out of the nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.’

Late in the evening, Germany, France, and Great Britain came to an agreement to hand over the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. The Czechs were not consulted. They were free to resist by themselves if they wished. The Munich Agreement was eventually formalised at around 2 am on the Friday. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and Édouard Daladier were the signatories of the document, which was to have tremendously significant ramifications for the people of Czechoslovakia.

The agreement was officially presented by Mussolini although in fact the Italian plan was nearly identical to the earlier Godesberg proposal: the German army was to complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by the 10th of October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

Sacrificial lamb. Statesmen from Germany, Italy, France, and Britain meet for the conference to decide on how to use Czechoslovakia to maintain peace. Peace in Europe was “guaranteed” by a supplementary document, hastily prepared by Chamberlain in his hotel room during the night and presented to Hitler the next day at his private apartment – the famous “piece of paper”.

Chamberlain’s aeroplane landed at Heston Aerodrome on the 30th of September, and he spoke to the crowds there:

“The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: “…We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”.

Later he formally addressed the press outside 10 Downing Street, again reading from the document, and concluded:

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

With the end of the Republic in sight, President Edvard Beneš would resign as president of Czechoslovakia on October the 5th 1938, one week after the Munich Agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. He fled to London. After a short time in the US, he returned to Europe to establish the Czech National Liberation Committee – the formal title for the London based Czechoslovak Government-in-exile, set up to represent a majority of political shades of opinion in pre-war Czechoslovakia; it included: Mr. Jan Becko, Dr L. Feierabend, General S. Ingr, Mr. Jan Lichner, Mr. Jan Masaryk, Mr. Jaromir Necas, Mr. F. Nemec, Dr S. Osusky, Mr. E. Outrata, Dr H. Ripka, Dr J. Slavik, and General R. Viest. Because of their attitude towards the war, the Communists of course were not included in the Government until the Soviets’ declaration of war on Nazi Germany.

President Beneš c1938
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