So, when a mustachioed megalomaniac in a snappy uniform decides he wants a chunk of Czechoslovakia, you should just give it to him, right? That, apparently, was the thought process of the French, British, and Italian representatives who signed the Munich Pact on September 30, 1938. The pact handed over the Sudetenland—a heavily German area along the Czech borders—to Nazi Germany in a failed effort to avoid World War II. It obviously didn’t work, and the Czechs, who, by the way, weren’t invited to this particular meeting, were pissed.
Czechoslovakia was carved out of the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Between its creation in 1918 and the signing of the pact in 1938, more than 3 million ethnic Germans called Czechoslovakia home, and most of them lived in the Sudetenland along the country’s northern, southwest, and western borders. Along with lots of Germans, these areas also housed most of Czechoslovakia’s border defenses and banks. Can’t imagine why they’d be upset about losing the territory.
A Sudeten pro-Nazi leader, Konrad Henlein, met with Hitler on March 28 and was told to make completely unacceptable demands of the Czech government. The result was the Carlsbad Decrees, which demanded autonomy for the Sudetenland and the freedom to profess Nazi ideology. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was not only committed to avoiding war but also believed the Sudeten German grievances were justified, advised the Czech government to accept these terms. As one can imagine, the Czech president wasn’t keen on losing most of the country’s banks and defenses, so he resisted and started mobilizing the Czech troops in anticipation of a German invasion. On his end, Hitler signed a secret directive to start a war with Czechoslovakia no later than October 1.
The British government demanded the Czechs accept a mediator, which the Czechs did in the form of Lord Runciman. Runciman submitted a plan in early September that would grant nearly all the Germans’ demands. Things started heating up in Czechoslovakia as the Germans began holding demonstrations that often turned violent. Konrad Henlein used the violence as an excuse to urge Germany to take over the Sudetenland by force.
Hitler agreed and met with Chamberlain, threatening to declare war if he didn’t get his Sudetenland. Chamberlain passed the decision on to the British and French governments, and both accepted. The Czech government, which wasn’t involved in any of these discussions, objected, claiming (reasonably) that such an agreement would destroy the country’s economy and would lead to total German control of Czechoslovakia. The British and French put their heads together and the French agreed to stick up for the Czechs if there was a problem, so Czechoslovakia finally gave up the fight on September 21. Just when everyone thought they’d gotten it all sorted out, however, Hitler decided to push his luck by laying claim to parts of Poland and Hungary.
The people of Czechoslovakia were enraged and called for a new, stronger military government that could defend their state. A new cabinet was duly installed on September 23, and the army was mobilized. The Soviet Union volunteered to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid if Germany didn’t back off. The Czech president, however, was unwilling to go to war without the support of the Western powers.
Chamberlain begged Hitler to hold a conference, and on September 29 Hitler met with the chiefs of governments of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. They reached a deal and officially signed it about 1:30 a.m. on September 30. The plan called for the Germany army to occupy the Sudetenland by the 10 October, at which point an international commission would decide the future of the other areas Germany was laying claim to. Britain and France told the Czechs to accept the agreement or go ahead and face Nazi Germany alone, and since they’d just lost almost all their money and defenses, the Czechs didn’t really have a leg to stand on, so they went along with the agreement. While he was in Germany, Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a peace treaty between Germany and the United Kingdom. When he returned to England, Chamberlain delivered his “peace for our time” speech to crowds in London.
Although the British and French went home happy, the Czechs were incensed, and so was the Soviet Union, which was a little concerned by the fact that Britain and France had gone and just handed over a central European country to Germany simply because Hitler asked for it. Also pissed off? Hitler, because he’d been forced to actually deal diplomatically with other people, never mind the fact that he got what he wanted out of the deal. Some people just can’t be satisfied.