Czechoslovakia was officially created on the 28th of October 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. A significant minority of the population were Germans who lived in the Sudetenland, historically rich areas that bordered Germany and the fledgling Austrian nation.
At the beginning of 1938, Czechoslovakia was coming under pressure from Germany. Its western frontiers were surrounded by the new Greater German Reich. Here were the impressive powerhouses of the Czech states: the factories and the mines. Here too were the fortifications vital for the Czechs’ defence capabilities. The Czechs had an efficient, well-equipped army.
Yet against the enemy within, they had few defences.
The three million Germans who lived in the Sudetenland were fed propaganda sponsored by the Third Reich across the border. This was intended to increasingly agitate the feelings of dislike and contempt felt among Sudeten Germans towards their Czech rulers. In April 1938, Konrad Henlein, leader of the Nazi-inspired and backed German Sudeten Party, demanded self-government for the Sudetenland, in a move supported by Adolf Hitler.
It was a cruel demand. The Czechs stood to lose not just the Sudeten Germans but their industrial backbone and defensive strength as well. The Czech President, Edvard Beneš, seemed to have the choice of hanging on to the Sudetenland and risking a war with Germany or giving it up and hoping to live in peace. If he decided not to relinquish the Sudetenland, he could rely on the support of a highly charged Czech people, palpably angered by the Führer’s demands. He would send out mobilisation papers to his army and hope to call Henlein’s and Hitler’s bluff. Beneš could also appeal for help from France, Czechoslovakia’s ally since 1924.
But this was a prospect that alarmed the French Government, led by Édouard Daladier.
In April, Daladier flew to London to hear the British reaction to increasing tension over the Sudetenland. He was told by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to expect no help from Britain. The Maginot Line was, in fact, where France’s military strategy stopped. The immensely strong and expensive system of fortifications the French had built along the German border had to pay for itself. This was the answer to any future threats from Germany in the West. From the Maginot Line, the Sudetenland looked an exceptionally long way away to Daladier and Chamberlain.
Hitler pressed harder.
On Sunday, the 12th of September 1938, at a Nuremberg mass rally, he castigated the Czechoslovakian Government as a rogue state demanding self-determination for the oppressed Sudeten Germans. He also promised to send them military assistance. Taking encouragement from the Führer’s words, Henlein encouraged the Sudeten Germans to arm themselves. The border suddenly became the scene of atrocities, as the Czech police were forbidden by the government to use weapons and could only use their fists in disputes.
Josef Josten wrote in his book “Oh My Country” how he was there with a colleague, Jan Drda, and witnessed the barbaric behaviour of some Nazi-inspired inhabitants. In Haberspirk, near Falknov, they saw the entire gendarmerie station wiped out by villagers who ran amok after being egged on by Hitler’s outburst. Near Loket, a postmaster and his wife were caught in bed by a mob and beaten to death with iron bars. He reported how armed German SS troops from the Third Reich were present to encourage the Sudeten Germans into action.
The situation threatened to rapidly embroil Europe into war and Britain with it. Neville Chamberlain, acting entirely on his own initiative, decided to intervene. He flew out to meet Hitler face-to-face in order to save the peace. At the Eagle’s Nest, the Führer’s mountainous retreat overlooking the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden, the British Prime Minister, without consulting the Cabinet, the Czechs, or the French, gave in to Hitler’s demands. He conceded self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. This was appeasement with a side order of entitlement in action. Now his peace plan had to be put to the British Parliament, the French, and last and least, the Czechs.