August 1942 – Renouncement of the Munich Agreement

Formal negotiations on the renouncement of the Munich Agreement began at the end of January 1942. At a luncheon given by Anthony Eden on January 21st and attended by Dr Beneš; Ambassador to Czecho-Slovakia, Philip Nichols, and Hubert Ripka, Czechoslovak Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Beneš was asked by Eden to prepare a proposal addressing the consequences of the Munich Conference that would be acceptable to the British Government.

Benes’s paper was titled Principles for the Agreement between the Czechoslovak and British Governments. Inside, the President-in-exile argued that any decisions made regarding Czechoslovakia since September 1938 were not valid in international law because they were imposed on Czechoslovakia under duress or by violation of international treaties and Czechoslovak laws, and also that the pre-Munich legal status of Czechoslovakia should be restored and confirmed by the victorious Allied countries during any negotiations concerning post-war re-organisation.

In response, the British Government took a cautious stance. It was prepared to annul Munich and recognise the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile’s jurisdiction in British territory over all nationals from the former Czechoslovak Republic on the condition that adequate Sudeten representation was given in the State Council. This condition was expressly stated by Philip Nichols on February 5th, 1942, during his conversation with Hubert Ripka, which was again confirmed by Nichols on February 28th. This was flatly opposed by the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile, and negotiations were deadlocked until May.

Things changed dramatically following the assassination of Heydrich, as reports hit Britain of the savage Nazi reprisals meted out against Czech civilians. Edvard Beneš sent Anthony Eden another compromise proposal on the 4th of June, asking that the British Government recognise the legal continuity of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Developments took a further turn with the news of Lidice and the growing reaction to it throughout the mining communities of Britain.

On Tuesday, July 7th, 1942, Dr Beneš, Jan Masaryk, and Hubert Ripka met Eden and Nichols once more and reached an Agreement approved the same day by the British War Cabinet. In this solution, the British would renounce the Munich Agreement, provided that their legal view concerning the validity of the Agreement during the period up to March 15th, 1939, was not challenged.

The question of the participation of the Sudeten Germans in the Czechoslovak State Council was postponed until a convenient time, which in fact never came about. The same applied with respect to the recognition of the Czechoslovak theory concerning the legal continuity of the Czechoslovak Republic. The British still maintained their reservations concerning the final resolution of the question of the Czechoslovak-German minority.

What followed was a month-long hiatus with no public announcement or press release, and yet Government ministers and Foreign Secretary Eden would undoubtedly be aware of the groundswell of support for the growing calls to build Lidice anew among Britain’s mining communities, especially since the miners had overwhelmingly ratified the Lidice Shall Live campaign at their national conference at Blackpool on the 20th of July.

On Tuesday the 4th of August, North Staffordshire’s newspaper, the Evening Sentinel, confirmed the news that Dr Beneš had already accepted an invitation sent to him by the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Alderman Harry McBrine, to visit the Potteries officially to launch the Lidice Shall Live scheme, and it was hoped that a cabinet minister, possibly Sir Stafford Cripps or Anthony Eden, would also be present. The civic heads of the Midlands cities, along with national miners’ President Will Lawther, had also been invited to attend.

For the matter of “Munich” to be left unresolved at a time when the output of coal was such a crucial factor in the nation’s fortunes and when the miners had sent out such a clear message of their intent in support of the Czecho-Slovak people was reckless and irresponsible. Eden turned a potentially embarrassing situation into an opportunity.

On Wednesday, 5th August 1942, Foreign Secretary Eden announced in the House of Commons that he had exchanged notes with the Czecho-Slovak Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, in which he stated that the policy of the British Government in regard to Czecho-Slovakia was guided by the formal act of recognition of the Czecho-Slovak Government in July 1941 and by the Prime Minister’s statement in September 1940 that the Munich agreement “had been destroyed by the Germans”. The notes show the British Government attempting to absolve itself of any sense of moral responsibility for the consequences of the Munich Agreement.

Mr. Eden’s note dated August 5th stated: “…in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I desire to declare on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that as Germany has deliberately destroyed the arrangements concerning Czechoslovakia reached in 1938, in which His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom participated, His Majesty’s Government regard themselves as free from any engagements in this respect. At the final settlement of the Czechoslovak frontiers to be reached at the end of the war, they will not be influenced by any changes effected in and since 1938.”

Mr Masaryk’s reply expressed “warm thanks” on behalf of his government and himself, “as well as in the name of the whole Czecho-Slovak people, who are at present suffering so terribly under the Nazi yoke.” His government accepted Mr. Eden’s note as a practical solution to the questions and difficulties of vital importance for Czecho-Slovakia that emerged as a consequence of the Munich agreement and considered it a “highly significant act of justice towards Czecho-Slovakia.” In closure, Masaryk went on to “assure you of our real satisfaction and of our profound gratitude to your great country and nation. Between our two countries, the Munich Agreement can now be considered dead.”

In the House of Commons, during his response to Jan Masaryk’s acceptance, Mr Eden added: “I should not like to let this occasion pass without paying tribute on behalf of the British Government to the tenacious and courageous stand which the Czecho-Slovak people are making against their ruthless German oppressors. Acts such as the destruction of Lidice have stirred the conscience of the civilized world and will not be forgotten when the time comes to settle accounts with their perpetrators.”

Jan Masaryk, Czecho-Slovak Foreign Minister, Renouncement Of The Munich Agreement

Later that day, in a broadcast to the people of Czecho-Slovakia, Masaryk was less reserved in his views about the British Government’s actions:

“The pre-Munich Republic of Czechoslovakia will take its seat at the peace conference, ready to come to agreement but irrevocably determined to defend all its sovereign rights and prerogatives. I know only the frontiers of the republic as they existed before “Munich”. I have represented this point of view ever since the day when I gave up the London Legation after the Munich agreement had been signed, and today I and all of us received full satisfaction. Foreign Secretary Eden, in his speech (in the Commons), thanked you for your manly and courageous resistance to the Hun scum, and he officially promised that they will have to pay the reckoning. Retribution for Lidice will be our concern.”

“I can assure Foreign Secretary Eden in your name that that is also your and our position – no pardon, no mercy, no forgiveness…The Czechoslovak Republic of the summer of 1938 lives and will live for ages.”

There was a fitting closure to the renouncement process, which took place just four days before the launch of the movement in Hanley. It was an informal exchange of letters between Edvard Beneš and Churchill. In his letter of September 2nd 1942 Churchill wrote:

“You already know my attitude toward the Munich Agreement. Two years ago, I said publicly that it had been destroyed by the Germans. It, therefore, gives me particular satisfaction that our two Governments have formally placed on record their agreement that Munich can now be considered as dead between them. The exchange of letters of August 5th is further proof to the whole world that the days of compromise with aggression and tyranny are now long past. My hope is that it may also prove a source of inspiration and encouragement to your compatriots at home who are suffering so terribly under the German yoke.”

The British Government, however, did not agree with the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile’s stance regarding Munich. Basically, unlike Charles de Gaulle, who denounced the Munich Diktat completely, the British Government stood by Chamberlain’s actions in considering that surrendering the Sudetenland to Hitler was a potentially reasonable solution to the European crisis – and for the Czechoslovak people at the time—if only Nazi Germany had kept its word and not followed up its gains with a full occupation of the Czech nation on the 15th of March 1939.

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