The peace treaties at the end of the First World War had created a new country called Czechoslovakia. In 1938 Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement that broke up Czechoslovakia and gave much of it to Germany.
What happened at Munich?
The Sudeten Germans
There were about 3 million German speakers in Czechoslovakia. They were a large minority in a country dominated by Czechs and Slovaks. They were known as Sudeten Germans and were concentrated in the border areas. Nazis were active among the Sudeten Germans. The local Nazi leader, Konrad Henlein, led a political party called the Sudeten German Party that received money from Hitler. Henlein claimed that the Sudeten Germans were not treated fairly. He took part in negotiations with the Czechoslovak government but these got nowhere.
Hitler met Henlein on 28 March 1938 to give him instructions. He told the Sudeten leader to keep making demands that the Czechoslovak government could not possibly accept. By dragging out the negotiations, Hitler hoped to create a crisis over Czechoslovakia.
Support from Britain and France?
The government of Czechoslovakia looked to Britain and France for help. British leaders had no treaty with Czechoslovakia. The leaders of the British armed services could not see any way that Britain could help. By March 1938 Chamberlain was saying in private that Czechoslovakia could not be saved.
France had signed a treaty with Czechoslovakia in 1925. This said that France would give Czechoslovakia military help if it was attacked by Germany. In April 1938 there was a change of government in France. The new Prime Minister, Daladier, was not keen on the idea of going to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia . His Foreign Minister, Bonnet, tried to find a way of avoiding war without clearly going back on the promise to Czechoslovakia.
Hitler prepares to act
Hitler was sure that neither Britain nor France would intervene if he attacked Czechoslovakia. In April he visited Rome and was told by Mussolini that Italy would support Germany. On 30 May Hitler let his generals know that he had decided to 'smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future'.
The British and the French governments reacted to the crisis by putting pressure on the Czechoslovaks to make concessions. The British government sent a politician called Lord Runciman to Czechoslovakia in July to try to work out a settlement between the two sides. Runciman was biased in favor of the Sudeten Germans. He recommended to the British government that the Sudetenland should be separated from Czechoslovakia.
The Munich Crisis
Hitler was ready to go to war against Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938. Many of his leading generals disagreed. They were afraid that Britain and France would fight and they did not feel that Germany was ready for a large-scale war. Hitler refused to listen to the generals. He was sure that Britain and France would do nothing.
Tension rose in early September. Henlein ordered local Nazis to attack Czech and Jewish targets. As a result of this violence, negotiations between the Sudeten Germans and Prague were broken off. Henlein left Czechoslovakia on 15 September. In Germany much publicity was given to his stories of the mistreatment of Sudeten Germans.
Chamberlain flies to Germany
Chamberlain met Hitler in Germany at Berchtesgaden on 15 September. Hitler complained to Chamberlain about the treatment of the Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain gave in to Hitler. He agreed with him that the Sudetenland should be annexed by Germany. In return he asked Hitler not to use force to take control. Chamberlain returned to London and got Cabinet support for a peaceful German take-over.
The French leaders Daladier and Bonnet came to London on 18 September and agreed to support the partition of Czechoslovakia in return for a British promise to defend what was left of the Czechoslovak state. A day later the Czech President, Benes, was told that he must hand over the Sudetenland. Benes was extremely unhappy about this, and at first he refused to co-operate. By 21 September he realized that he was powerless to resist without Allied support so he reluctantly agreed to the take-over.
Hitler did not want a peaceful settlement. He wanted to destroy Czechoslovakia by force. He was annoyed when Chamberlain came to see him for a second time on 22 September at Bad Godesberg with news that Britain, France and Czechoslovakia had agreed to his proposals. To Chamberlain's horror, Hitler then refused to accept deal he had suggested a week earlier.
Hitler made new demands: that the German take-over should be immediate, that there should votes on whether to stay in Czechoslovakia in additional areas, that the claims of Hungary and Poland to other parts of Czechoslovakia needed consideration. Chamberlain tried to get him to compromise but he refused. Chamberlain returned to London disappointed.
At this point a war between Britain and Germany seemed a real possibility. The British government prepared to issue 38 million gas masks and anti-aircraft guns were put in place. Chamberlain tried once again to get Hitler to find a peaceful solution. He sent Sir Horace Wilson to talk to Hitler on 26 and 27 September. Hitler was not in a mood for negotiation. He told Wilson several times that he was going to 'smash the Czechs'.
An invitation to Munich
On 28 September Chamberlain was in the middle of a speech to parliament describing the negotiations when he was passed an important note. The note told him that Hitler had agreed to a conference at Munich with representatives of Britain, France and Italy. The conference would try to explore a peaceful solution to the crisis over Czechoslovakia. There was wild cheering among MPs, who were relieved to hear that war might be avoided.
The Munich Conference began on 29 September. A day later the British and French Prime Ministers agreed with Hitler on the terms of the annexation of the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia was not represented at the conference. The conference did not involve any real negotiations. Britain and France simply agreed to give Hitler what he wanted. On 1 October German troops marched unopposed into the Sudetenland. The Czech President, Benes, was forced to go into exile.