Thursday, May 14, 2015

Did There Have to Be A Munich Conference?

by  George T. Chronis
With the ongoing tragedy now taking place in the Ukraine, the comparisons to the Sudeten Crisis of 1938 have been many. Russia has been cast as Hitler's Germany, bullying a neighbor to fulfill steep territorial ambitions, and the Ukraine as Czechoslovakia, looking for Western backbone to help stave off the oppressor. The events of 1938 are where the term appeasement entered the political lexicon and the word has been getting ample play in the media during the last year. 

While these comparisons are apt, there are some very real differences between the two crises. First, Czechoslovakia was a bona fide military power in Central Europe with an extremely well equipped and well-trained army, strong defenses along the frontier with Germany, and mountains ringing the border that favored the defender. Second, the Czechoslovaks had a mutual defense treaty with France, plus a side agreement with the Soviet Union where the Russians agreed to come to Czechoslovakia's aid once the French exercised her treaty responsibilities. The Ukraine has none of these assets. 

When France, Great Britain and Italy signed away Western Bohemia to Germany at the Munich Conference on September 30, 1938 they did so without the participation or consent of the Czechoslovak government. It was a monumental betrayal on Paris and London's part of a steadfast ally. Czechoslovakia was left with a choice: accede to the diktat presented to her, or fight. She chose the former out of fear a conflict would destroy the nation if she fought alone. But what history and even pundits today fail to acknowledge, is the Czechoslovaks had the means to fight. What's more, if Nazi propaganda from the era, which still casts a persuasive shadow 77 years later is put aside, the facts on the ground suggest it is not certain Germany could have won the war Hitler so much wanted to wage. It's difficult to win a conflict with an extreme shortage of ammunition, for example. 

It is feasible that war between Germany and Czechoslovakia could have broken out before British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had the opportunity for one last overture for negotiation with Adolph Hitler. Chamberlain's cabinet was in revolt after the German chancellor made extreme demands at the Godesberg summit, and had independently notified the Czechs that there was no longer any reason to advise against full mobilization of their army. The Soviets were readying hundreds of modern military aircraft to fly from Czechoslovak airfields. Lastly, pressure was mounting on the government of French premier Édouard Daladier to dig in and support their treaty partner. In Prague, there were huge demonstrations calling for defense of the republic and the military had mobilized 1,250,000 men in less than 48 hours. 

Neville Chamberlain 1938 ©
In hindsight there was no more advantageous time to stand up to Hitler. So why was Chamberlain so averse to standing up to an aggressor? At the time, all he could see was his nation's complete lack of modern air power or armored ground vehicles to equip men if mobilization was called. The Royal Navy was available to blockade German commerce and bottle up the small but growing German navy, but there was little to nothing to offer the French on the ground if France went to war. Similarly, Daladier was convinced that France could not prosecute a meaningful      victory against Germany without British support. The more Chamberlain ran away from the problem, the more Daladier vacillated. Under the circumstances, both leaders believed assessments concluding Germany possessed significant ground and air superiority despite many of those assessments being influenced by German propaganda. They further ignored accurate intelligence that the German armed forces suffered critical deficiencies in equipment, supplies and logistics. And both leaders concluded Stalin was bluffing regarding treaty obligations to aid Czechoslovakia despite intelligence that Soviets were massing military aircraft in the east. France and Great Britain has their own significant deficiencies to be sure, yet the truth is Germany did not have the military strength to withstand a war with France, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.  

The policy of appeasement was born in fear. In May of 1938, Czechoslovak Military Intelligence, which had an extensive network of operatives inside Germany, reported that Hitler was moving army divisions into place for a surprise invasion. Daladier and Chamberlain responded as they should by standing firm with Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš. Czechoslovak army units rushed to the border in Bohemia as French and British diplomats made it clear to Berlin that mobilization orders were at the ready. Hitler was enraged at the show of fortitude but there was no war. History calls this event the May Crisis or the May Surprise depending on which side does the telling. What is clear though is having stood up to Berlin with positive results, France and London became fearful that they had come too close to a war they were not ready to fight and determined that they should not come so close again over 3.5 million Germans in Western Czechoslovakia. Regardless of treaty obligations, a calculation was made regarding what was worth fighting for, what was not worth fighting for, and the best opportunity to stop Hitler was cast aside.

What would be the calculation today should Russia decide to imperil Estonia? The Baltic nation is a NATO member with a population that is 25% Russian. Regardless of treaty obligations would London, Paris, Rome or Washington want to go to war with Moscow over a small country with 1.3 million people? We would like to think the answer is yes yet politicians often conclude doing the right thing is not worth the cost.

Perceived weakness is what led to the Munich Conference. Abandoned by her principal ally, perceived weakness is what led the Czechoslovak government to surrender without a fight. In the end, the Munich Conference was not intended to buy peace, but to buy time. It was a shortsighted bargain that did not consider the consequences of Germany absorbing first-class Czechoslovak weapons of war and the industrial capacity to produce them. So bolstered, the German army was a much more capable foe in 1939 during the invasion of Poland, and the Battle of France in 1940.

In the aftermath of World War II, the lesson learned in Washington D.C. was that it is safer to be strong militarily and to project power internationally. It is a doctrine that Western European nations have been unwilling to sign onto after the destruction of two world wars, especially with the United States being willing to take on the role of guardian. But with U.S. economic power ebbing, it becomes increasingly difficult to project power as America once did. In the coming years many governments are going to face taking on more of this burden across the world, or be perceived as being weak by opportunistic neighbors and tyrants. The lesson of the Sudeten Crisis is that bullies appear stronger than they are and giving into them only makes them stronger. Exercising collective security in 1938 could have stopped Hitler in that year. Chamberlain and Daladier only bought time for Hitler at Munich. As a result it would take seven long years and the deaths of millions of people to complete the job.                                                                                                     © George T. Chronis

George T. Chronis is a journalist, author and market research analyst living in Southern California. His novel, Sudetenland, explores the 1938 crisis in great detail. To learn more, please visit or
The Sudetenland. To Europe’s well-heeled in the Nineteenth Century, this was a place of world-renowned spa resorts nestled in the mountains ringing Western Bohemia. But bad blood and unfinished business from the First World War had taken their toll on the Sudetendeutsche – three million ethnic Germans unhappily living in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. In 1930 they were just one more ethnic complication among many in Central Europe. Eight years later, these people had found a champion in Adolph Hitler, and the smart money in Paris and London wagered the next World War would detonate in these storybook mountains and valleys.

Sudetenland© is a sweeping historical novel set against Central European intrigue during the late 1930s leading up to 1938's Munich Conference. Having swallowed up Austria, Adolph Hitler now covets Czechoslovakian territory. Only France has the power to stand beside the government in Prague against Germany... but will she? The characters are the smart and sometimes wise-cracking men and women of this era – the foreign correspondents, intelligence officers, diplomats and career military – who are on the front lines of that decade’s most dangerous political crisis.

Sudetenland© introduces readers to Jan Burda, the Czech intelligence officer who must thwart the Nazis operating on his own soil; Ros Talmadge, the Paris-based American who is trying to make a name for herself as a foreign correspondent while staying one step ahead of her mercurial boss; Dietrich Morgen, the street brawler from Hamburg who found a home in Himmler’s SS; Ladislaw Capka, the Czechoslovak army tank commander trained in the finest French military academy who is determined to take the fight into Germany if war comes; Nathan Bulloch, the American military attaché in Prague who wanted to see the world but saw little reason in getting killed doing so; and Anton Krisch, who comes out of the Esterwegen concentration camp a much more dangerous man than when he was thrown in. With remarkable attention to historical detail, Sudetenland© also features man actual personages who played a vital role during this international crisis including Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Frantisek Moravec.

Hitler’s unshakeable will demands that the Sudetenland be ripped from Czechoslovakia and joined with Germany. If Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš ignores the advice of French premier Édouard Daladier and refuses to give up Bohemian territory willingly, then Hitler orders that it be taken by force. As the crisis builds over the summer of 1938, any spark, any perceived indignity could ignite the German dictator’s rage and start the war the leaders of France and Great Britain are so determined to avoid. Sudetenland© takes readers behind the scenes into the deliberations and high drama taking place within major European capitals such as Prague, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and London as the continent hurtles toward the crucible of a shooting war.

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