Czechoslovakia: How Britain Turned the Failure of a State into a Cause for War

Published: 2020-11-02

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The Munich Agreement signed by Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy on September 30, 1938 was meant to mark the beginning of a new era in European affairs. The Versailles Treaty, which had been so deleterious to Germany, was now successfully dismantled without a war. A new epoch, based on equality and mutual confidence among the four great European Powers, was supposed to take its place.[1]

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the cheering crowd in London that welcomed him home after signing the Munich Agreement, “I believe it is peace in our time.”[2] Unfortunately, the mutual confidence that was supposed to arise among the four great European powers quickly unraveled. This article discusses the events that led to Germany’s assuming the protection of Czechoslovakia, and their exploitation by British high officials to promote war against Germany.

Historical Background

Public opinion in the Western democracies soon took a hard turn against Germany shortly after the Munich Agreement was signed. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, National-Socialist storm troopers went on a rampage in Germany, including Austria, looting Jewish shops, smashing windows, burning synagogues, and beating Jews. Hundreds of Jews were assaulted and dozens perished in what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. The United States recalled its ambassador to Germany because of this atrocity. Much of the good will garnered by Germany from the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Munich Agreement, which the publics of the democracies still believed had averted war, was washed away by Kristallnacht.[3]

War propaganda against Germany began to intensify from Great Britain. The British press in late November 1938 reported rumors that Germany was massing troops in preparation for an invasion of Czechoslovakia. These false rumors originated from London. Anthony Eden, who had opposed the Munich Agreement, was sent to the United States by British Foreign Secretary Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (Lord Halifax) in December 1938 to spread rumors about malign German plans. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt responded with a provocative and insulting warning to Germany in his message to Congress on January 4, 1939.[4]     

Lord Halifax secretly circulated rumors both at home and abroad which presented the foreign policy of Hitler in the worst possible light. On January 24, 1939, Halifax sent a message to President Roosevelt in which he claimed to have received “a large number of reports from various reliable sources which throw a most disquieting light on Hitler’s mood and intentions.” Halifax claimed that Hitler had recently planned to establish an independent (of the Soviet Union) Ukraine, and that Hitler intended to destroy the Western nations in a surprise attack before he moved against the East. Halifax further claimed that not only British intelligence, but also “highly placed Germans who are anxious to prevent this crime” had furnished evidence of this evil conspiracy. These claims were all lies. Hitler did not have the remotest intention at the time of attacking in the East or any Western country.[5]

A crisis developed in Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement. The German, Polish and Hungarian minorities had been successfully relieved of Czech rule (Poland and Hungary joined Germany in hiving off pieces of Czechoslovakia). However, Slovak and Ruthenians minorities were also eager to escape Czech rule, and they received encouragement from Poland and Hungary. For about four months after Munich, Hitler considered the possibility of protecting the remnants of the Czech state. Hitler gradually came to the conclusion that the Czech cause was lost in Slovakia, and that Czech cooperation with Germany could not be relied upon. Hitler eventually decided to transfer German support from the Czechs to the Slovaks.[6]

Increasingly serious internal difficulties faced the Czech state, and in early 1939 the Czech problem with Slovakia deteriorated rapidly. The climax of the Slovak crisis occurred on March 9, 1939, when the Czech government dismissed the four principal Slovak ministers from the local government at Bratislava.

Josef Tiso, the Slovakian leader, arrived in Berlin on March 13, 1939, and met with Hitler in a hurried conference. Hitler admitted to Tiso that until recently he had been unaware of the strength of the independence movement in Slovakia. Hitler promised Tiso that he would support Slovakia if she continued to demonstrate her will to independence. The Slovakian government proceeded to vote a declaration of independence from Czechoslovakia on March 14, 1939.[7] Ruthenia also quickly declared independence and became part of Hungary, dissolving what was left of the Czech state.[8]

German historian Udo Walendy writes concerning the dissolution of Czechoslovakia: “The disintegration of this multi-cultural creation, joined together in total disregard of historical and national principles, happened without any German help and would already have come about in 1918 had not Russia and Germany been utterly and totally destroyed.”[9]

Germany’s Protectorate of Czechoslovakia

Czech President Emil Hácha, with prior approval from his cabinet, on his own initiative traveled to Berlin to see Hitler in the hope of finding a solution for this hopeless crisis. President Hácha was correctly received at Berlin with the full military honors due a visiting head of state. Hitler met Hácha’s train and presented flowers and chocolates to Hácha’s daughter, who accompanied her father. After World War II, Hácha’s daughter denied to Allied investigators that her father had been subjected to any unusual pressure during his visit to Berlin. This information is important because Hácha, who had a history of heart trouble, had a mild heart attack during his visit with the German leaders. Hácha agreed to accept German medical assistance, and recovered quickly enough to negotiate the outline of an agreement with Germany and the Czech state. The details were arranged between the Czechs and the Germans at Prague on March 15th and 16th.[10]                              

The occupation of Prague by German troops was legalized by the agreements signed with the Czech and Slovak leaders. The period of direct German military rule lasted a little over one month. The new regime formed by the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia on March 16, 1939 enjoyed considerable popularity among the Czechs. On July 31, 1939, Hitler agreed to permit the Czech government to have a military force of 7,000 soldiers, which included 280 officers.[11]

President Hácha had voluntarily placed the fortunes of the Czech state in the hands of Germany. Hácha and his new cabinet resumed control of the government on April 27, 1939.[12] Hácha would serve Hitler faithfully throughout the war. British historian Donald Cameron Watt writes, “[Hitler] was remarkably kind…to the Czech Cabinet after the march into Prague, keeping its members in office for a time and paying their pensions.”[13]                   

The motives behind Hitler’s actions in the Czech crisis of March 1939 remain in dispute. British historian A. J. P. Taylor evaluates Hitler’s motives:

All the world saw in this the culmination of a long-planned campaign. In fact, it was the unforeseen by-product of developments in Slovakia; and Hitler was acting against the Hungarians rather than against the Czechs. Nor was there anything sinister or premeditated in the protectorate over Bohemia. Hitler, the supposed revolutionary, was simply reverting in the most conservative way to the pattern of previous centuries. Bohemia had always been part of the Holy Roman Empire; it had been part of the German Confederation between 1815 and 1866; then it had been linked to German Austria until 1918. Independence, not subordination, was the novelty in Czech history. Of course, Hitler’s protectorate brought tyranny to Bohemia—secret police, the S.S., the concentration camps; but no more than in Germany itself…Hitler’s domestic behavior, not his foreign policy, was the real crime which ultimately brought him—and Germany—to the ground. It did not seem so at the time. Hitler took the decisive step in his career when he occupied Prague. He did it without design; it brought him slight advantage. He acted only when events had already destroyed the settlement of Munich. But everyone outside Germany, and especially the other makers of that settlement, believed that he had deliberately destroyed it himself.[14]            

American historian David Hoggan wrote: “Hitler’s decision to support the Slovaks and to occupy Prague had been based on the obvious disinterest of the British leaders in the Czech situation. There had been ample opportunities for them to encourage the Czechs in some way, but they had repeatedly refused to do so. The truth was that the British leaders did not care about the Czechs. They used Hitler’s policy as a pretext to become indignant about the Germans.”[15]

Germany’s protectorate of Czechoslovakia effectively precluded potential military actions against Czech territory by third countries. Udo Walendy writes: “Dr. Hácha’s decision to agree to the transformation of his state into a German protectorate was significantly influenced—quite apart from the purely internal strife—by an advancing Hungarian army that was, on the eve of 14 March, taking over and pugnaciously claiming a border strip, but also the fact that a lightning attack by Poland was feared.”[16]

British Reaction to Prague’s Occupation

Neville Chamberlain originally explained in the House of Commons on March 15, 1939 that Germany had no obligation to consult Great Britain in dealing with the Czech-Slovak crisis. The British government had also never fulfilled its promise to guarantee the Czech state after the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain stated that the Slovak declaration of independence on March 14, 1939 put an end by internal disruption to the Czech state, and therefore the British guarantee to preserve the integrity of Czechoslovakia was no longer binding.[17] Chamberlain declared in the House of Commons: “With that [the breaking up of Czechoslovakia from the inside], a situation has ceased to exist which His Majesty’s government has always regarded as temporary.”[18] Chamberlain concluded, “Let us remember that the desire of all the peoples of the world still remains concentrated on the hopes of peace.”[19]

Lord Halifax now began to take control of British policy toward Germany. Halifax informed Chamberlain that his speech of March 15, 1939 was unacceptable. President Roosevelt was also highly critical of Chamberlain’s speech. Two days later, on March 17, 1939, Chamberlain revealed the first sign of a major shift in British policy toward Germany. In a speech in his home city of Birmingham, Chamberlain charged Hitler with “a flagrant breach of personal faith.” Chamberlain presented himself as the victim of German duplicity, and stated that he would never be able to believe Hitler again. Chamberlain asked rhetorically if this was a step by Hitler to attempt to dominate the world by force.[20]

Halifax expressed his hostile views concerning Germany’s occupation of Prague to German Ambassador Herbert von Dirksen on March 15, 1939. Halifax claimed that Hitler had unmasked himself as a dishonest person, and that German policy implied a rejection of good relations with Great Britain. Halifax insisted that Germany was “seeking to establish a position in which they could by force dominate Europe, and, if possible, the world.” Halifax stated that he could understand Hitler’s taste for bloodless victories, but he promised the German diplomat that Hitler would be forced to shed blood the next time.[21]   

The reports which Ambassador Dirksen sent to Berlin during the next several days indicate that he was considerably shaken by the menacing British reaction to the latest Czech crisis. The entire German Embassy staff was dismayed by the events of March 1939. Ambassador Dirksen recognized the importance of an Anglo-German understanding, and he became almost incoherent with grief when confronted with the collapse of his diplomatic efforts. The British had allowed the impression that the future of Bohemia was a matter of complete indifference to them. Then the British hypocritically turned around and declared that the events in Bohemia had convinced them that Hitler was seeking to conquer the world. No wonder the German diplomats in London were in despair.[22]

Further Efforts to Demonize Germany

Halifax next sought a broader basis than the Czech crisis to justify Britain’s belligerence toward Germany. Virgil Tilea, the Romanian Minister to Great Britain, was recruited by Halifax to make false charges against Germany. Tilea was carefully coached for his role by Sir Robert Vansittart, Great Britain’s vehemently anti-German chief diplomatic advisor. On March 17, 1939, Tilea issued a carefully crafted public statement which charged that Germany was seeking to obtain control of the entire Romanian economy. Tilea further claimed that Germany had issued an ultimatum that terrified Romanian leaders. These false accusations were published by the major British newspapers. Millions of British-newspaper readers around the world were aghast at Hitler’s apparently unlimited appetite for conquest. Tilea’s false accusations produced anxiety and outspoken hostility toward Germany among the British public.[23]        

The British minister to Romania, Reginald Hoare, contacted Halifax and proceeded to explain in detail the ridiculous nature of Tilea’s charges. Hoare stated that it was “so utterly improbable that the Minister of Foreign Affairs would not have informed me that an immediate (italics his) threatening situation had developed here that I called on him as soon as your telegrams to Warsaw and Moscow had been deciphered. He told me that he was being inundated with enquiries regarding the report of a German ultimatum which had appeared in The Times and Daily Telegraph today. There was not a word of truth in it.”[24] 

Hoare naturally assumed that his detailed report would move Halifax to dismiss the false Tilea charges. Nothing of this sort occurred. Hoare was astonished when Halifax continued to express his faith in the authenticity of Tilea’s story after its falsehood had been exposed. The Tilea hoax was crucial to the development of Halifax’s policy of inciting hatred among the British public (and through it, the entire Anglosphere and much of world opinion) toward Germany. Halifax was not concerned with any adverse repercussions of the Tilea hoax in Romania.[25]

Halifax had lied to the British public about German policy toward Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement, and he had lied to them about the alleged crisis in Romania. It was only by means of these palpable falsehoods that the British public had been stirred into a warlike mood. It was by these means that Halifax would be able to persuade the British public to support a foreign policy that was both dangerous and bereft of logic.[26]

Conclusion

The “brutal violation of little, defenseless Czecho-Slovakia” by Germany was a falsehood which was ceaselessly pounded into the masses by the opinion-makers of the press. In reality, Dr. Emil Hácha traveled to Berlin of his own volition in order to prevent chaos from breaking out in Bohemia and Moravia, which was threatening to erupt unless the Reich government intervened. Germany’s protectorate of Czechoslovakia maintained peace in a region that was facing both internal disruption and potential conquest by neighboring countries.[27] 

Endnotes


[1] Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, p. 187.

[2] Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, p. 55.

[3] Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, p. 241.

[4] Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, pp. 235, 241.

[5] Ibid., p. 240.

[6] Ibid., p. 227.

[7] Ibid., pp. 245-247.

[8] Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, p. 246.

[9] Walendy, Udo, Truth for Germany: The Guilt Question of the Second World War, Washington, D.C.: The Barnes Review, 2013, p. 115.

[10] Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 248. See also Walendy, Udo, Truth for Germany: The Guilt Question of the Second World War, Washington, D.C.: The Barnes Review, 2013, p. 127.

[11] Ibid., pp. 250-251.

[12] Tedor, Richard, Hitler’s Revolution, Chicago: 2013, pp. 117, 119.

[13] Watt, David Cameron, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939, New York: Pantheon, 1989, p. 145.

[14] Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, pp. 202-203.

[15] Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 228.

[16] Walendy, Udo, Truth for Germany: The Guilt Question of the Second World War, Washington, D.C.: The Barnes Review, 2013, p. 129.

[17] Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, Cal., Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 252.

[18] Walendy, Udo, Truth for Germany: The Guilt Question of the Second World War, Washington, D.C.: The Barnes Review, 2013, pp. 124-125.

[19] Smith, Gene, The Dark Summer: An Intimate History of the Events That Led to World War II, New York: Macmillan, 1987, p. 132.

[20] Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 252-253.

[21] Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, pp. 252, 297.

[22] Ibid., p. 297.

[23] Ibid., pp. 299-301.

[24] Ibid., p. 301.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 341.

[27] Walendy, Udo, Truth for Germany: The Guilt Question of the Second World War, Washington, D.C.: The Barnes Review, 2013, pp. 115, 127, 130.


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Author(s): John Wear
Title: Czechoslovakia: How Britain Turned the Failure of a State into a Cause for War
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Published: 2020-11-02
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