The Munich Agreement and the British Appeasement Policy

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The Munich Agreement and the British Appeasement Policy

Author: Michal Lehuta
Instructor: Johannes Paulmann
States of War and States of Peace - 850210-A
International University Bremen
Spring Semester 2003
Date of Submission: 10 June 2003

The Second World War can be seen as starting step by step with the German recovery followed by its’ international re-recognition, military reconstruction, several breaches of the Versailles treaty and an intimidating territorial expansion.
The last tactic was its’ fatal one, although successfully pursued until 1939. It started with the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1930, following with the regaining of Saarland in 1935, both regions industrially extremely important. Them came the remilitarization of the Rhineland, region bordering France and Belgium. After that achieved Germany the largest territorial gain before war – Austria (March 1938), followed by the last appeased attainment before the start of the Second World War – the destruction of Czechoslovakia in 1938/1939. The first step to it, perceived as the more important one, took place in October 1938, when the Third Reich expanded to Czechoslovak German-speaking border regions after the four-power conference held in Munich on September 29 and 30. This meeting was a result of the longer period of British conciliating foreign policy towards aggressive Germany. France, although having binding treaty to protect Czechoslovakia depended on British support in case of war, played a minor role in this process.
Appeasement policy lasting until 1939 is seen by some as the deadly approach, by others as a wise strategy. The critics point at its’ consequences, the advocates on its’ reasoning in the particular setting, and both seem to be to a certain degree right.
In this essay, I will try to depict the British appeasement policy, its’ origins and manifestation in the situation leading to the Munich agreement of September 1938. I will stick to chronological order starting with a description of the international setting, followed by the actual development and resolution of the conflict over the Sudeten issue.

1930s in the International Perspective
1930s started with the greatest economic depression in the world’s history, leading to downfall of production, extremely high unemployment and rise of the extremist movements. Europe suffered probably the most.

The political pressures of the crisis were enormous, leading to Nazis getting to power in Germany in 1933. Germany’s revival is marked by several achievements that strenghtened its’ position in the international arena. It started already in 1920s with Dawes and Young’s plans and the Locarno conference, which forgave Germany the reparations and admitted it into international playground as a recognized player. Locarno, and the entire later development, resulted in basically guaranteeing the frontiers of states west of Germany, but giving it a free hand in Central and Eastern Europe. What is more, Germans seemed always counted with British neutrality to their line of attack. Britain was in much weaker position than before the First World War. Apart from the consequences of the Great Depression, it started to lose its’ old fame – it experienced relative decline in the world trade, the London City was not the center of the world economic system anymore and therefore could not influence the European economy as the British Government would like. From the military point of view, United Kingdom voluntary limited its’ arms during the blind period of ‘liberal’ disarmament of 1920s and even after Hitler’s accession to power in Germany. Therefore, the British foreign policy was rather evasive one, trying to take no unnecessary decisions that might imply a commitment to one of the Western European powers, keeping thus all possible options opened .
The British tried to insure the stability in Europe also by formal treaties. The fragile peace in the Mediterranian, destabilized by the Spanish Civil War, was to be held by Anglo-Italian agreement – signed on April 16, 1938 that improved relations between the two countries, and between France and Italy as well. This pact, unfortunately, did not prevent Italians from close collaboration in the Axis Berlin-Rome (later Berlin-Rome-Tokyo).
Czechoslovakia was a product of the First World War, but a very successful one. It developed democracy and preserved it until its’ destruction, contrary to all its’ neighbors. Its’ only problem (and that was imposed rather externally) were minorities, in our case the German one, counting about 3 million residents. The following figure shows the areas with predominantly German-speaking population according to 1931 census.

Figure 1 – German-speaking Regions of Czechoslovakia

The British played the international game very ambiguously. Still the power number one, Britain played the leading role in European affairs.

As Newman illuminates, on the one hand, the British visited Hitler just after he had violated the disarmament clauses of the Versailles treaty by announcing the existence of Luftwaffe on 9 March 1935. Furthermore, they soon signed with Germans the naval agreement, allowing the German Navy to reach approximately 35% of the British strength. Again, in contravention to the Treaty. On the other hand, they condemned German rearmament at Stresa together with France and Italy. They verbally supported Austrian independence, since the Anschluss would strengthen Germany so much that it could endanger British interests. They wanted France and Italy to formulate plans to preserve sovereign Austria, but they did nothing themselves.

Czechoslovakia had had always more than a standard relationship with Western powers (through which she was actually created). She counted especially on French support in the crucial moments of 1938 - she had a defense treaty with France since January 1924 (later backed up by the Soviet Union).
The League of Nations and the idea of collective security failed. The League was not able to respond to German infringes with the Versailles Treaty, it could not prevent nor stop the Japan intervention of Manchuria in 1931 or the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. It is disputable how much was the British policy a consequence of this downfall. Parker (1983) argues the very opposite - and that the pursuit of appeasement was the cause of the League’s failure. Clear, nevertheless, is that the League of Nations did do nothing against Japanese and Italian aggressions, particularly because the regions invaded were not in primary sphere of interest of any peace-seeking world power. It failed to stop Hitler marching into the Rhineland; it became clear that it is impotent to do anything.
The consequence of this failure was the continuance of the anarchical order of international relations, where states have to provide for their own security. Whether as a cause of League’s failure or not, the British response to the situation aimed at pursuing a policy, where the main powers, namely the Britain, Germany, France and Italy, would meet, discuss and settle any conflict peacefully, although for others if necessary. This “Policy of Four” did not include two other main players - future superpowers - the Soviet Union and the USA, partly because they were not the traditional European states, but mainly because of their isolationism.

The United States isolated themselves from European affairs voluntarily; the USSR had been isolated by the attitude of the Four Powers .
Britain was cautious in dealing with any foreign power, even with France , mainly because the French position vis a vis Germany was much more antagonist than the British one.

British Appeasement of 1930s and the Sudeten Issue
Schmidt (1983) sees the appeasement as a form of preventive diplomacy. Since Britain pursued generous social policy during the Ten Years’ Rule (1920s), in fact until the four-year armament plan of 1936, it sought solely peaceful relations with Germany. This strategy meant trying to direct German policy towards greater concern for domestic welfare, thus decreasing the possible conflict in foreign policy area. Abandoning this strategy considerably by presenting the rearmament program in March 1936, Chamberlain remarked: “If only it wasn’t for Germany we would be having such a wonderful time just now...”
Schmidt further illuminates the domestic factors leading to the policy of appeasement. As already noted above, social policy, arms limitation – the so-called “non-war” economy were working well under conditions of peace, but had to be harshly transformed to serve the ‘higher aim’ in the near future, creating thus social tension and loath against the so needed rearmament.
Newman (1978) calls the British foreign policy of this time a “passive pragmatism”, representing continuity in Britain’s Central European policy. The “passive pragmatism” was according to him an inactive policy towards the Danubian Europe adopted to defend British world position throughout the inter-war period. Expressed nicely in words of the foreign secretary, Sir John Simon: Our own policy is quite clear. We must keep out of trouble in Central Europe at all costs. July twenty years ago [1914] stands as an awful warning...”
British situation, as in case of democracies often is, was, among other factors, influenced by the public opinion that was predominantly opposing war. What’s more, many Tory and Labour leaders shared Hitler’s antipathy to the Versailles system. Wilsonian self-determination made the Nazis appear to be on the side of the principle.
Power perception played a great role in 1930s. The game of bluff became the winning strategy for Hitler. The assessment of Hitler’s patience by British Government convinced them that “he would not wait much longer” in the Czechoslovakian crisis. Although the British and French armies were inferior to that of Germany, the information available gave the impression of much greater difference, thus exaggerating and contributing to their appeasement strategy. To sum up, one can observe that Britain’s action was dependent mainly on that of France, and French needed British assurance for getting involved in potential German-Czechoslovak military conflict.

Although France is often seen as a transfer of the responsibility to the British, it had no other option. Its’ army was not well equipped and by far could not compete with the German air force. In the ‘air age’, the English Channel no longer sheltered Britain from distruction.
Although the USSR had always been stressing its’ willingness to stand by Czechoslovakia, it had very little possibilities of real action. First, according to pact, Russian troops were allowed to enter the country only after the French are already in. Second, the catch was that USSR did not share a common border with Czechoslovakia. For getting in, it needed to cross either Poland or Romania. And third, the Soviet Union was rather ignored by France and completely isolated by Britain when solving the Czechoslovakian problem.

The Summer of Munich
Starting the chronological part of this essay, we should mention the mission of Lord Runciman. On July 26, 1938, elderly Lord Runciman was sent to Czechoslovakia to examine and possibly suggest a solution to the not and not coming agreement between the Sudeten Germans and the Czechoslovak government. His person was meant to be neutral to the conflict, but he visited only German-speaking areas and got driven to their side. The Sudeten party was fully prepared for him. One of their leaders wrote:
“His Lordship must take away with him the impression that the situation in this State is so confused and difficult that it cannot be cleared up by negotiation or diplomatic action, that the blame for this lies exclisively with the Czechs, and thus that the Czechs are the real disturbers of peace in Europe.”

Nevertheless, he arranged a list of concessions with Czechoslovakian president Beneš, but Konrad Henlein (the Sudeten leader) rejected it, although it offered the Sudetens even more than they requested in their Karlsbad program on April 24, 1938.
What has to be stressed here, is that the control of the Sudeten movement was solely in Hitler’s hands. Henlein was literally said that he has to put forward requests that the Czech government cannot agree to. Therefore, the negotiations were a never-ending story where the Sudeten demands rose with time.
In the last days before Munich, the complete control of British foreign policy was in hands of Neville Chamberlain .
British feared the 12 September very much, the date of Nazi party meeting in Nürnberg, presumed to be the deadline of Hitler’s patience. It became known already in May that Hitler and his generals were drawing up a plan for the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

In fact, nothing serious happened there, Fuehrer ‘just’ condemned ‘Czechia’ as an ‘artificial state’. He was waiting for the nerves of others to crack. As we now know, he really had one - it was October 1, when the German army should have marched into Czechoslovakia if till then no agreement is reached. Unsuccessful revolt of Sudeten Germans on September 13 was rather couter-productive, turning many indifferent of them to realize that they were not disloyal to Czechoslovakia nor wished to leave the existing state. According to Taylor , the main responsibility for decision had the French, although the British had to make the final decisive response. American isolationism was at its’ height, no other power wished to fight, maybe except of the Soviet Union.

Chamberlain’s three visits
By August 1938, British Government began to realize that any agreement could be obtained only by direct contact with Berlin. Chamberlain considered it his duty to make the attempt and negotiate a deal with Hitler. He got the permission of the Cabinet and visited Fuehrer, without consulting the French before the decision.
The first Prime Minister’s visit to Germany in Berchtesgaden, on September 15, astonished the Czech government. Hitler demanded the absorption of the Sudetenland. It is important to stress that the question of annexation had yet never been raised either by the German Government of by Henlein. Chamberlain, coming without an interpreter to take note of what they said, without any specific proposals in his mind, agreed on German requests very easily. He left the meeting with the impression that Hitler “was a man to be trusted to keep his word”. He seemed to have forgotten how many times it had already been broken.
On September 18, the French delegation met with the British in London to discuss the Chamberlain’s meeting. Daladier, as prophetic anti-appeaser, disagreed with outcomes of Chamberlain’s visit in Berchtesgaden. Finally, he gave away with an important condition – and that Great Britain would join in guaranteeing the Czechoslovakia that remained after the annexation of the Sudetenland, because he forsaw that German aims would not stop at taking part of Czechoslovakia.
On September 20 the Czechoslovak government rejected the Anglo-French proposals for settling the problem at once by transfering all areas with more than 50 percent Sudeten-German population. On the 21st, they were given an ultimatum. At midday they accepted it unconditionally, although reluctantly.
Then, on September 22, Churchill went to Hitler again, this time to Godesberg.

Hitler, as he usually did, wanted more than he required last time and he in fact already almost got. He wanted the occupation of most of the area as early as by 28 September, before the intended plebiscite that should have token place, with Czechoslovaks evacuated from the area on the same date. There were also other demands that could help him dismember Czechoslovakia completely – from Polish for the area of Těšín and from Hungarians for (at least) southern Slovakia. Therefore, Hitler was playing for time. He set the deadline, as planned for a long time already, on October 1.
This time Mr. Chamberlain protested vigorously against the Diktat. The next day Halifax enquired of Litvinov, Russian foreign commissar, what action would Soviets take in event of war. “If French came to assistance of the Czechs, Russia would take action” was the answer. Russians now had a good reason for an operation through (and possibly against) Poland if it invaded Czechoslovakia. The Foreign Office announced that France, Britain, and the Soviet Union would come to assist Czechoslovakia if Germany attacked her. As a response, Czechoslovakia, now permitted, mobilized. Hitler rejected all concessions in spite of urgent appeals from Britain and France. On September 27 and 28 it seemed that the moment of clash had arrived – the French mobilized partially on the 24th, Czechoslovaks generally one day earlier. Chamberlain, knowing that Czechoslovak do not want to hand over their border fortifications, coming back from Godesberg stated:
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Then, out of the blue, came the Mussolini’s proposal for Four Power conference that would resolve the tense state of affairs peacefully. To everybody’s surprise, Hitler agreed to it. Now, we know that the Italian plan for conference originated in the German Foreign Ministry. On September 29, 1938, Chamberlain flew to Germany for the third time. This time to Munich, where the French Prime Minister, Italian Duce and German Fuehrer were all expected to take part. No invitation was extended to Russia. Nor were the Czechoslovak representatives allowed to be present at the meetings. ‘The Munich Conference’ was basically just a formal approval of what was negotiated between Chamberlain and Hitler before. It set just the exact details of the occupation of the Sudetenlands by October 10.

Czechoslovak representatives were informed that they could either resist Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government chose to submit. President Beneš resigned in despair. Hitler promised no more territorial demands in Europe and consultations with Britain in case of any future threat to peace. Éduard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain flew home to the welcome of jubilant crowds bringing the “peace in our time”. Result of Munich
In the narrow sense, Munich meant that Czechoslovakia lost part of its’ territory with strong border fortifications and all military equipment. In the broader sense, however, the Munich agreement is perceived to be the appeasement’s climax. No doubt that it was thought to be the restoration of peace. ‘Peace’ that was in fact war won through negotiations and the other sides’ impotence, ‘peace’ that lasted for eleven months until the first firing in Poland, for six months if we consider the march into Prague as the last step to destroy what left from Czechoslovakia.
According to Taylor , Munich was meant to mark the beginning of a new epoch in European affairs. Versailles was not only dead, but also buried. It was to become the symbol of the successful policy of Big Four. In contrast, it was a cruel Diktat onto one of the few nice surprises of the new century. The result of Munich was also the German guided Slovak independence , the annexation of Těšín by Poland, southern Slovakia and Ruthenia by Hungary and the final Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Munich is one of the reasons why Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite; it had been used to show the hostility of the Western democracies towards the Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The End of Appeasement
It is indisputable that Munich was the appeasement’s climax - months of relations and negotiations embodied in the conference of the Four men. I did intentionally not name this part ‘The Beginning of the War’ or similarly, because it is not really clear when this policy actually ended.
One may think that if Munich is considered to be the last expression of the appeasement policy, then it is naturally its’ end. The “Munich peace” lasted for eleven moths. But during this time, as predicted by many, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist entirely. Hitler, taking over Prague in March 1939, broke the agreement.

What did France and Britain do? In fact nothing – they had an excuse of Hácha’s ‘invitation’ of German forces.
Only the invasion of Poland on September 1, sovereignty of which was assured also by the British government, was the last straw that forced Britain and France to action.
Some could even argue that the final end of appeasement came with the end of the so-called Sitzkrieg (also “phony war”) in spring 1940. Although the British and French declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, their armies waited (cowardly?) behind the Maginot and Siegfried frontier fortifications. However, the warfare at sea was since September 1939 under way – when both Britain and Germany launched blockades against each other (with laying mines, sinking merchant- and battleships).

All in all, it seems as if all authors advocate Britain by saying that it was not prepared for the War. Although moralists could counter-argue that wars usually do not wait for all states to be absolutely ready for it, it was Britain who had to make this crucial decision. Britain would be blamed for the beginning of the world conflict. Hitler’s military attack on Czechoslovakia was perceived as a fact, as an environmental condition, rather than the breach of peace.
British response, believing that the appeasement would soothe the conflict and bring the so wanted peace (“peace at any price” - Chamberlain), having the possibility to catch up militarily , focusing on problems in areas of British vital interest, determined by domestic situation as the public opinion and the uncertainty of the support of its’ Dominions, seems from this point of view as an egocentric but rather pragmatic one.
It is very tempting to think about history in terms of ‘what if’. Some could suggest that if a firmer attitude had been taken towards Hitler he would have not risked a war. Many high-ranking German soldiers and officials maintain this option. A military plot if pushed to the wall could have as likely overthrown Hitler. If Czechoslovakia had resisted, its’ well-trained more than 30 divisions with support of mighty fortifications could have withstand for even two months. France could have decided to fulfill her obligations; USSR might have sent a few squadrons of planes to Prague. What would have done Britain then? It would be really interesting to know...
Nevertheless, some of the lessons of Munich are clear. We may learn from it that unilateralism and neutralism are in the serious times foolish, it reveals the necessity of close cooperation between threatened states, the penalty of deserting faithful allies, the dangers of discussions at the highest level without careful preparation and adequate advice, and the special danger of negotiating under the threat of immediate war. Munich was a big mistake.

However, at the time none of its’ players knew exactly what was to come, except of one...

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