Munich Agreement – The behaviour of the great powers explained

Munich agreement

This Sunday will mark the 80th anniversary of the infamous Munich agreement - the deal between Hitler, Mussolini and the two western European powers, which cut off the German speaking borderlands from Czechoslovakia, including a significant part of its industry and protective ring of forts, thus rendering the young republic defenceless to any future German invasion. Munich is often seen as a betrayal of the Czechoslovak state by western powers and the French were famously ashamed for breaking their alliance. But why did the Great powers act as they did? What were the underlying causes? And are the great ‘what ifs’ such as the Oster conspiracy or Soviet intervention credible alternatives? Tom McEnchroe spoke to one of the leading experts on the origins of World War Two, to find out.

Munich agreement | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
Sitting with me here in the studio is professor of International History at the department of War Studies in King’s College London, Joe Maiolo. Nice to have you here.

“Thank you very much for inviting me.”

France and Britain

What was Czechoslovakia’s position in French and British grand strategy during the late 1930s?

“The problem for both Britain and France was: How do you fight a war that prevents Germany from doing things in the short run that it wants to do versus actually fighting a successful war that defeats Germany? So it is a long war versus short war problem they had and the strategies of these great powers were for a long war. Because everybody assumed, and they were right by the way, this would be a long, arduous fight between economies. I think the Chief of Staff of the British Armed Forces said it this way: How do we prevent the dog from getting his bone? It’s not a nice metaphor, but he was talking about Czechoslovakia at the time. So if you have to fight a long war to win, it is very difficult to fight one in support of the alliance.”

I was wondering also about the May crisis - a war scare that Germany was immediately going to invade which led to the mobilisation of the Czechoslovak army. It also received support from the French and British. I seem to recall historians arguing that it was the May crisis which led to Hitler really deciding to strike for Czechoslovakia, or am I wrong?

“No, you’re absolutely right. The May crisis originated in false intelligence, actually through Czech sources, and both Paris and London were alerted to the possibility of a surprise attack and therefore sent warnings. Now, nothing angered Hitler than being publicly humiliated and when no attack materialised the European press argued: Now listen, Hitler was obviously deterred and British and French power deterred him. And immediately afterwards, Hitler, in anger, actually had the war plans and his timetables for action against Czechoslovakia accelerated. And he said that in the future Germany will be determined to ‘smash’ Czechoslovakia. He used that very violent language. So it was clearly the case that the May crisis set him off on a course for some sort of confrontation. And he wanted a small war with Czechoslovakia. It is also important to understand though that, in the background to that, he is aware that Germany is losing what is an accelerating European and indeed global arms race.”

Some historians claim that France had notified President Beneš as early as July 1938 that they would not fight for Czechoslovakia yet Beneš seems to have remained hopeful in September that they would. Was he simply out of options by then, or what was happening?

Edvard Beneš | Photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Beneš is an interesting character. I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of his writings from the 1920s recently. He was a very prolific writer and he wrote about international affairs widely. He saw this constellation of events coming into being. Now it is true that the French were warning him and Czechoslovakia generally not to act and that France was in a poor position to support them. Indeed the British were doing the same thing. But we have to understand the way alliances work in alliance diplomacy. Alliances are not just about aggregating power. They are also about managing and controlling the ally. The French worry the Czechs might do something to trigger a war that they do not want. How do you prevent an ally from doing that? Well, you tell them if they do that, you’re not going to support them. So it is what political science would now call signalling.”

Let’s position ourselves a little bit into what British and French statesmen were looking at, during this time? What sort of documents would they have? What would there idea have been of German strength at the time?

“It is quite clear that in terms of intelligence French and British exaggerated German air strength. In both the British and French archives you will occasionally see a document that is a bit more accurate, a bit more sceptical about the reporting. Nonetheless, it is true that particularly up until September-October 1938, British and French intelligence tended to exaggerate the striking potential of German armed forces.”

If there wasn’t this scare, do you think the statesmen would have acted differently?

“Well they do act differently a year later over Poland. A year later, both in terms of the sense that both British and French statesmen and military men have of their strength. But the reality, particularly of French aircraft production, is very different. So, to answer your counter-factual: Absolutely. Had the British and French felt a level of crushing military superiority over Germany, I think they still would have tried to avoid war. Nobody wanted a big war anyway. But the crisis might have unfolded slightly differently. But it is important to remember that, for the British, the whole point of the negotiations in September 1938 was to create a new relationship with Germany that would end the arms race and create a four power relationship in Europe. Bring all four of the great powers, although really just Britain and Germany, bringing along France and Italy, to reorder Europe. That was the fundamental key.”

The USSR and America

Joe Maiolo,  photo: archive of King’s College London
Let’s go back to Beneš. He obviously counted on the west, but he also had other alliances on the backburner in the 1930s. I am talking about the Little-Entente and the Soviet Union. What happened to these alliances? Why didn’t they work out?

“Well, it was always the French plan to have all the east European states to be in the front line against Germany if the war started. The Little-Entente was of course aimed against the restoration of the Hungarian monarchy and some attempt by Hungary to restore the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least to undo the territorial settlement of 1919, so that alliance wasn’t event aimed against Germany.

“Now the Russians are the really interesting question here and I’ve been looking for the answer to this for a very long time. What was Stalin’s attitude? What was the Soviet Union’s attitude towards the Czechoslovak crisis and what would they have ‘done’? Now there is some indication in the records of military mobilisation in the western districts. It is clear that the Soviets were also signalling through their diplomats: ‘We will support you if other factors come into play, maybe the French come and support you. Maybe we’ll support you alone.’ Some Czech historians have looked into this deeply and, again, the signalling is mixed but it is that same sort of alliance relationship and we don’t know what the Soviet diplomats were really up to. I’ve asked people who have had access to the particular archive and said: ‘Is there any record of any thinking on Stalin’s part?’ I’ve been assured by several different people that no. There are files, but there is just nothing on it.

“So we have to project, to try and appreciate what might have been going on in Stalin’s mind in relation to this crisis. That is one approach. The other approach is to ask: ‘What could the Soviets have even done?’ We know in 1939 when the negotiations over the triple alliance were taking place, we know that what the Russians asked for was to be allowed to plough through Poland. Well the Poles were not going to allow the Red Army to plough through Poland to assist Czechoslovakia. Also we know from Zhukov, the future Chief of Staff of the Red Army, that there was no way the Red Army had that kind of capability. They wouldn’t have that kind of capability for a massive offensive until 1943-1944.”

If you had to judge Stalin’s character, what he may have been thinking, what would your best guess be?

Stalin,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R80329 / CC-BY-SA
“Well I think the two extreme positions are both wrong. The one that he is hoping to spark a war in central Europe in order to take advantage of it, I think just runs against all the other things we know about him and what he was thinking. I think he would have seen the war in the west as an advantage but he’d also been quite worried about that war being turned against the Soviet Union. The other extreme view, that the only great power that was truly committed to collective security and the defence of Czechoslovakia was the Soviet Union, also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Simply because they actually didn’t do anything and rhetoric doesn’t count in international affairs, unless it is backed by action.”

What was the American attitude to Munich?

“The American attitude to Munich is very interesting. It kind of mirrors the Soviet one. You know there were two people who were not at Munich: one was Roosevelt and the other was Stalin. Both would have liked to have been there I think, or at least Stalin, I think, certainly would have liked to have been there, or at least one of his representatives. The American attitude was that the British and the French had been weak, they had given in. But the key thing is that Roosevelt had intelligence about the relative air strengths. Again, wildly wrong. I mean, grossly underestimating particularly British aircraft air production, but wildly exaggerating German and Italian. His immediate reaction was: ‘We need to build up our air force. We need to build factories to construct thousands and thousands of planes.’ His initial idea was to build a 100,000 aircraft and more or less sell them to the British and the French to bomb them out of existence.”

Removing Hitler?

Adolf Hitler,  photo: Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Heinrich Hoffmann
You have already mentioned that the German army was very sceptical of such a war. The two western powers actually received information from German conspirators that they would overthrow Hitler if he went to war with Czechoslovakia, why didn’t they use this opportunity?

“Because of the level of risk. I mean it is in the news every day about one big government interfering in the affairs of small governments and even big ones. But it is a very risky affair, particularly if you are caught, right? First of all what you are doing is you are counting on these people, who are trying to sell you this scheme of overthrowing a government, that they can actually do it. And even if they were pretty good at it, there is always a chance of failure. What kind of relationship are you then left with that government? Now if we make it specific, if there was an attempt to overthrow Hitler and actually failed, where would that leave Anglo-German and Franco-German relations?

“However there is another point here, which is that both in Paris and in London everybody understood that there was a divide between the old conservatism, particularly the army, and the ‘Nazis’. When these conservatives came to London saying: ‘We want to establish a new government’, the aims of that conservative government mirrored very much what the Nazified part of the government was saying. ‘We want to recover our borders. We want to be the strongest power in central Europe. We want economic concessions.’ Well, what is the advantage in taking such a risk?”

I understand also that the intelligence they were receiving was quite conflicted. There were groups, which were going against Hitler, but there were also groups that said that there was no chance of success?

“Absolutely. Yeah. The intelligence was mixed. But the intelligence also pointed to a bigger picture of a government that running with this one personality at the centre, the dictator Hitler, and large factions moving around him. Both the British and French characterized it the same way. You had radicals and moderates. What British and French policy was trying to do was trying to discourage the radical elements, often put as the radical parts of the Nazi party. Then there were the moderates, who were sort of the military and public opinion, the Reichsbank, the industrialists. So how do you play this off? This was the great conundrum of British and French policy.”

The paper promising ‘peace for our time’

Neville Chamberlain,  photo: Public Domain
The futility of the Munich agreement is often symbolised by Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper signed by him and Adolf Hitler, promising that there would be peace in our time. What did this paper exactly promise and why did Hitler feel the need to sign it?

"First of all the paper promised that a new relationship between London and Berlin would be established and that all the problems of Europe, including military competition, borders and finance, would all be solved through diplomacy. The interesting thing is Mussolini wanted to talk about a Rome-Berlin axis, actually what Chamberlain was proposing was a London-Berlin axis around which Europe would pivot. That is exactly what Hitler didn’t want. Hitler wanted to dominate first Europe, Eurasia and had ambitions beyond that."

So why did he sign the paper?

"He signed the paper because he was in the room without officials who understood what real diplomacy was and were able to stop him from doing a foolish thing -which it was. I mean the British Prime Minister arrives. Is about to leave back for London. Pulls out a paper that he had dictated to his secretary, who had typed it out the night before, pushes it in front of the Fuhrer and Hitler signs it. Because basically the document says: ‘We want good relations’. Well, Hitler had wanted good relations with Britain since the 1920s and I think that either his emotions or the spur of the moment, whatever, led him to sign it. But he regretted it almost immediately because his first reaction a few hours later was both anger and a huge escalation in armaments."

Ultimately however that paper had little relevance?

"It had little relevance. But some historians say, and I have some sympathy with this view, that it kind of demarcated the period. Basically, it did two things. It unsettled a lot of people both in Britain and France, as well as particularly deeply in the United States, who felt something unpleasant had happened. That something dishonourable had happened in Munich. That Czechoslovakia was sold down the river. So, in a sense it did that. It turned a lot of people with influence against further concessions to Germany. But it also sparked a massive acceleration in the armaments of all the great powers which is really interesting because I think it is missed about this crisis."