Czechoslovakia between the Wars: Mary Heimann Restores Czechoslovakia to Its Pivotal Role in the Munich Crisis

By Heimann, Mary | History Review, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Czechoslovakia between the Wars: Mary Heimann Restores Czechoslovakia to Its Pivotal Role in the Munich Crisis


Heimann, Mary, History Review


The Munich Agreement (29 September 1938), in which Germany, France, Britain and Italy demanded that the 'Sudetenland', as the predominantly German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia came to be known, be handed over to the Third Reich, is usually presented as part of a sweeping narrative called something like 'The Road to War' or 'The Price of Appeasement'. This is a story in which the repeated failures of the League of Nations, France and Britain to 'stand up' to the dictators is understood to have culminated in Nazi Germany's forcible union (Anschluss) with Austria (13 March 1938), annexation of the 'Sudetenland' (1 October 1938) and attack on Poland (1 September 1939), the last straw which finally provoked France and Britain to declare war on Germany. The main stress in this grand narrative is placed on the failures of France and Britain, victors in the Great War, to prevent the catastrophe--within a generation--of a second, even more devastating, world war. Points for discussion centre on when, if at all, Hitler could have been stopped and the extent to which it was Britain and France's policy of seeking to 'appease' Hitler which, by trying so hard to avoid war with Germany, ironically brought about precisely that which it was intended to prevent.

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Into this familiar interwar drama, featuring a bullying Germany, a hesitant France and a spineless Britain, a little-known country called 'Czechoslovakia' suddenly appears out of nowhere, at the eleventh hour, squeezed in between Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria and attack on Poland, to take on the small, but emotionally charged, walk-on part of sacrificial lamb on the altar of Appeasement. Czechoslovakia, the state which preceded today's Czech and Slovak republics (and which was made up of the regions of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia), is not seen in the round, as a state which could influence, as well as be influenced by, other countries' foreign policies, but simply as the victim which paid the ultimate price--destruction--because of the aggression, selfishness, or short-sightedness of other, greater powers.

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Historians who write in English about Appeasement, the Munich Crisis and the Road to War usually come to the subject from a British, French or, occasionally, a German angle. What is often lacking in general accounts of Munich is any detailed knowledge of the country which was most directly affected: Czechoslovakia, the state which was at the heart of the international crisis, which the whole world was watching between May and October 1938, but which the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, tellingly described at the height of the crisis as a 'far away country' of whose people 'we know nothing'. Germany did indeed behave atrociously, Italy cravenly, and France and Britain shamefully, at the Munich conference of September 1938. But familiar debates over the wisdom or foolishness of attempting to 'appease' Hitler in the 1930s tend to look a little less black and white, a little less clear-cut, once more is known about Czechoslovakia's formation at the end of the First World War, its relationship with its Central European neighbours in the 1920s and 1930s, and the complexity of its internal political and constitutional arrangements in the interwar period.

The Agreement

The Munich Agreement or, to give it its proper name, the 'Agreement Reached on September 29, 1938 between Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy', required Czechoslovakia to hand over its predominantly German-speaking border territories to Germany. It did so on the strength of Hitler's assurances that Germany had no further territorial ambitions in Central Europe, which turned out not to be true. Widely praised in France and Britain at the time for having averted war and preserved peace, the Munich Agreement is now remembered with shame. Unsurprisingly, it went down even less well in contemporary Czechoslovakia and has left a bitter legacy in the Czech and Slovak republics (the states which succeeded Czechoslovakia in 1993) to the present day. …

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