The Munich Pact: Victory or Defeat for the West?

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Neville Chamberlain had done his best to stop Hitler from invading the Sudetenland, but it appeared that he had failed. One way or the other, Hitler threatened, but the Czechs refused to bow down. This brought Europe at the brink of another disaster in 1938 as England and France mobilized troops to help the Czechs. What happened next?

Members of the Sudeten-German Voluntary Corps.
The German troops simply moved into the Sudetenland. It became a part of Germany without any fighting. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

Mussolini: The Pacifier

The situation was saved by Benito Mussolini. Although, he had made an agreement with Hitler, the Pact of Steel, but he said that Italy wasn’t prepared to go to war. It certainly was not going to go to war with England and France over a strip of territory in Czechoslovakia that most Italians could not have found with a magnifying glass.

Mussolini suggested that he would use his good offices and bring about a conference to settle the crisis, and Chamberlain agreed. So, on September 29, 1938, Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier of France, Mussolini, and Hitler met in the Führerbau, the Führer’s offices in Munich, for a conference that has lived in infamy ever since. It was the Munich Conference.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Transfer of Sudetenland to Germany

The Nazis got what they wanted. German troops moved immediately into Czechoslovakia; the Sudetenland became part of Germany. There was no fighting. Absent at the Munich Conference were the Czechs, whose delegation literally had to stand outside the building, waiting to hear the  fate of their country, the news brought to them with great embarrassment  by Britain and France.

The other party not invited to the conference was the Soviet Union, which was still saying all the way through this that it would honor its obligations to Czechoslovakia.

European Leaders in Munich

There’s a photograph of this conference after the pact had been signed. It shows Chamberlain, who just looks pleased as punch with himself—he’s so satisfied; he’s saved Europe. From what? The little strip of territory that was, everybody agreed, pretty much ethnically German.

Was Europe ready to go to war over that? Was it okay to let millions of people die over this strip of largely German territory that had been ceded to this new Czech State? He thought not, and most people in Europe agreed. Next to him is Edouard Daladier. Daladier has a look on his face like someone who’s just supped with the Devil. He knew no good would come of this, and you can read it in his face. Relief is there on the countenance of Mussolini.

Learn more about the implications of the Munich Conference.

Gross Deutsche Reich: Hitler’s Big Win

And then there’s Hitler standing at the end in the photo, beaming like the cat who swallowed the canary. He’d gotten exactly what he wanted, and without war. His popularity in Germany soared after this—a great victory. Not only had Germany brought more Germans into this Gross Deutsche Reich (a greater German Reich), but Britain, France, and Italy had all come to Germany also. Germany, under Hitler, had forged its own fate.

And, of course, back in England, Chamberlain would return and wave the agreement—not the actual Munich agreement, but another agreement made at the time—held it up with those most famous of all famous last words: “I believe this means peace in our time.”

Munich Pact: Shock for the German Military Leaders

Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, Hitler, and Benito Mussolini in Germany.
The coming of Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, and Benito Mussolini (from left to right) to Germany for the Munich Conference was a big victory for Hitler. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

The implications of the Munich pact were profound indeed. For one thing, there had been an opposition forming within the German Army under General Ludwig Beck. When Hitler gave the orders to prepare an invasion of Czechoslovakia, Beck, who was chief of staff of the army, voiced his disagreement. The Czechs were well-armed; they were well-trained. They had a large army.

He began to organize resistance. He resigned from his post in protest, and continued to try to convince other high military leaders of the folly of this action. Beck and the military conspirators, who had begun to think it may be time to remove Hitler, were shocked that the West would go along with this.

Stalin’s Change of Opinion

It also drove the Soviet Union away from the West. It convinced Stalin, who didn’t need much convincing at this point, of Western weakness. France  and England—anti-Communist states, he believed, particularly England— weren’t interested in really holding back the Nazis, only in channeling Nazi aggression to the east.

The West could not be relied upon in the crunch, he believed. Hitler, by the way, was convinced of exactly the same thing. The West was weak, vacillating; it wouldn’t stand up to its treaty obligations.

Learn more about how Europe moved relentlessly toward war.

The Nazi Invasion of Czechoslovakia Post Munich Pact

Three weeks later, military plans were already under way for the invasion  of what was left of Czechoslovakia. In other words, Hitler wasn’t going to be satisfied with just the Sudetenland. In March of 1939, Germany invaded the rump state of Czechoslovakia.

Up until this point, all of Hitler’s foreign policy moves—remilitarization of the Rhineland, the German territory, the Anschluss with Austria, the Sudetenland with its largely ethnic German population—all could be justified under the principle of the national self-determination of peoples. He wasn’t foolish enough to let anybody have a plebiscite to vote on it, but this is what he could argue.

Germany’s Naked Aggression in Europe

In March of 1939, German troops moved across the frontier. The Czech government was in an impossible position. There was no real resistance.

But so great was the shock of that invasion that it forced the hand of the British and French governments. England now issued a pledge to the Polish State, which might logically be the next on Hitler’s menu, a guarantee of Polish sovereignty.

The French did as well. The question was, would they, in fact, honor any obligations to the Poles? Why should they? They hadn’t done it all through the ’30s, and they had certainly not done it with poor Czechoslovakia.

Common Questions about the Munich Pact

Q: When and where did the European leaders meet for the Munich Conference?

On September 29, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier of France, Mussolini, and Hitler met in the Führerbau, the Führer’s offices in Munich, for the Munich Conference.

Q: When did Hitler invade Czechoslovakia?

Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March of 1939.

Q: What were the implications for the Czechs according to the Munich Pact?

After the Munich Pact was signed, the German troops moved immediately into Czechoslovakia; the Sudetenland became part of Germany. The Czechs had to quietly agree to this move.

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