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"Submit to a Humiliation"

The Military Considerations

of British Czechoslovakian Policy in 1938


Term Paper
Originally presented to
Professor William Scott
Department of History
Duke University





Kurt Kuhlmann

October 6, 1992


The Czechoslovakian crisis has generated controversy almost from the moment the Munich Conference ended on September 30, 1938.  One of the main areas of contention was established by Winston Churchill early on: the military position of Britain and France relative to that of Germany.  Churchill and other critics of the Munich settlement, in which the two Western Allies agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, argue that September 1938 was the last chance for Britain and France to stand up to Hitler before Germany became powerful enough to defeat France and nearly defeat Britain.[1]  Defenders of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his "appeasement" of Hitler at Munich argue that only the year-long "breathing space" afforded by Munich allowed Great Britain to build up strong enough defenses to stave off defeat by a bare margin in 1940.[2]  That two such diametrically opposed interpretations have continued to attract strong support for five decades is an indication of the extreme murkiness of the issue, which rests in large part on counter-factual history -- what would have happened if Britain and France had gone to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia in September 1938 rather than over Poland in September 1939?  As such, the question is ultimately unanswerable.

A more fruitful line of inquiry is to examine the reasons the British government chose the course it did in 1938.  Most writers have looked at the British role in terms of what was done right and what was done wrong.  A common criticism of Chamberlain's policy is that he ignored the true military strength of Czechoslovakia.  Milan Hauner, for example, takes this approach in a recent article:


The overrunning of Czechoslovakia was . . . a foregone conclusion for Chamberlain.  From the available military appreciation of the situation, he and his close associates selected only those bits of information which seemed to confirm his preconceived views.[3]

However, the question that goes unanswered is why Chamberlain and the rest of the British Cabinet would choose to do such a thing.  If British policy was so foolish and misguided, why did they not recognize it?  A "personality" argument -- that Chamberlain was a coward, or a naive idealist, or perhaps simply a peace-loving man for whom Hitler was beyond comprehension[4] -- is often used, but this does not help explain the support of the other Cabinet ministers.  The Munich settlement was in fact a triumph for Chamberlain's policy, to which the Cabinet had agreed in March 1938 and to which the British government held fast, with only last-minute wavering, throughout the Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938.

In this paper I will argue that Czech military strength was only a minor consideration for the British in establishing their policy towards Czechoslovakia in March 1938.  This policy was based on two major assumptions.  The first was that Germany could not be prevented from establishing hegemony over Central Europe by any means short of a general European war.  The second assumption was that any war with Germany would soon involve Italy and Japan as well, and British military strength was inadequate to fight all three simultaneously.  This Czechoslovakian policy operated within the larger framework of appeasement, which assumed that Hitler's goals were limited to the reestablishment of Germany's influence in Europe on a scale corresponding to its true power, a process which should be accommodated in order to prevent a war from breaking out in the "friction" of readjustment.

I will also argue that the foundation of British Czechoslovakian policy in 1938, the belief that German domination of Central Europe could not be prevented without war, was in fact essentially correct.  Space does not allow the consideration of the larger question of Britain's world-wide commitments, but I believe that British planners were not overly pessimistic in their judgement that Britain had a poor prospect for success in a world war against Germany, Italy and Japan.  A pre-war British statesman who found himself suddenly transported to Great Britain in 1950 would probably be unable to tell whether Britain had won or lost World War II -- the loss of the Empire was the equivalent of defeat to British planners in the 1930s, and there is little question that the war sounded the death knell for the empire of even a "victorious" Britain.  If a war with Germany was the only way to preserve the independence of Czechoslovakia, and a war with Germany was likely to lead to a world war which would end in defeat for Britain, Chamberlain's policy of avoiding war over Czechoslovakia at any cost makes perfect sense.

Fundamentally, Chamberlain's whole policy towards Hitler was based on a flawed assumption -- that Hitler had limited goals which could be met without compromising British security.  What is crystal clear today was not so clear in 1938, and I will not attempt to debate whether Chamberlain should have known Hitler's plans for the future.  However, British policy towards Czechoslovakia can be evaluated on its own terms, without benefit of hindsight.  From this perspective, the most damning criticism of Chamberlain's policy is not that it was based on a flawed military assessment, but that the British never examined the long-term implications of that policy before adopting it.

The Anschluss and the Debate Over Guaranteeing Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia was brought to the forefront of British thinking by the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938.  The Cabinet had discussed the possibility that Germany "aimed at the absorption of Austria and part of Czechoslovakia" in December of 1937, but most of its time was taken up worrying about relations with Italy and the Spanish Civil War.  Then the Anschluss brought Czechoslovakia forcibly to their attention.[5]  The position of Czechoslovakia was now clearly precarious, surrounded on three sides by Germany.  It was widely assumed that Czechoslovakia was "next" on Hitler's agenda.  Chamberlain reported a communication from "an official of a well-known public company in Germany" to the effect that Czechoslovakia was to be dealt with the same way as Austria -- "the Sudeten Deutsch were to rise and that was to be an excuse for invasion."[6]  This was just one of many other signs in the spring of 1938 that some German action against Czechoslovakia was threatening.  Lord Halifax put the question to the Cabinet on March 12 at an emergency Saturday meeting to consider the implications of the Anschluss: "How were we to prevent similar action begin taken in Czechoslovakia?"[7]

The annexation of Austria in itself caused no European crisis, partly because of the speed with which the situation developed, but mainly due to the fact that neither France nor Britain had any intention of going to war to prevent Germans from joining Germany.  This argument was to be heard again in the Czechoslovakian crisis.  In 1935, Italy had joined France in blocking a German threat to Austria, but this time Mussolini remained indifferent.  British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden suspected that Mussolini and Hitler had made an agreement giving Germany a free hand in Austria in exchange for some quid pro quo in the Mediterranean, but Chamberlain was much more interested in restoring friendly relations between Britain and Italy than in issuing empty threats to Germany over Austria.  The significant difference between Austria and Czechoslovakia, from the British perspective, was the existence of a treaty of mutual defense between France and Czechoslovakia.  Since Britain had a treaty requiring it to come to France's aid if attacked, the dangerous possibility existed that a German attempt to seize the Sudetenland by force would result in a general European war.

At the March 12th Cabinet meeting, Chamberlain suggested that "the only hope of saving Czechoslovakia from the German menace was by creating an impression of force."  Lord Halifax, who had just replaced Eden as Foreign Secretary, was instructed to prepare a report setting out possible measures to avert German action against Czechoslovakia.[8]  On the following Monday, the French asked for a joint statement that "the British and French Governments could not remain indifferent to any German action against Czechoslovakia."[9]  On March 22, the Cabinet considered the possibilities presented by Halifax: issuing a guarantee to Czechoslovakia directly, or guaranteeing support to France if France went to war in defense of Czechoslovakia.  However, Halifax and Chamberlain had now both come to oppose offering any kind of guarantee, given a report from the Chiefs of Staff which the Foreign Secretary described as "an extremely melancholy document."  Halifax instead proposed that Britain should, with French help, pressure the Czechs to come to a "direct settlement with the Sudeten-Deutsch."  After a rather lengthy debate, the Cabinet agreed, accepting Halifax's policy as the "best available in the circumstances."  The French request for a joint statement was refused.[10]

The debate over the guarantee on March 22 deserves examination in some detail, because it was here that the British essentially made the decision to abandon Czechoslovakia to its fate.  The British side of the September crisis over Czechoslovakia (what is now known as the "Munich Crisis") consisted mainly in facing up to the harsh reality of the course they had already chosen in March.  Halifax, at least, clearly foresaw where his chosen policy would lead, although he too had some second thoughts in September.  As he told the Cabinet during the March debate:


This policy was likely to prove unpalatable to the French.  Perhaps the Cabinet did not realize how unpalatable.  Nevertheless, there was no escape unless we were going to adopt a course which he could not recommend.  Moreover, however upset the French Government might be, he did not see what other alternative was open to them than to acquiesce.[11]

Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin and an ideological soul-mate to Chamberlain, accurately summarized the available alternatives in a letter to the Foreign Secretary:


A second obvious lesson to be learnt from the fate of Austria is the futility of forcible protests unbacked by force or the fear of force.  Experience has taught Hitler that only by jungle law can he achieve his objectives, and I hope that by now experience will have taught the rest of Europe that jungle law can only be opposed by measures equivalent to it.  It follows therefrom that if we are to intervene in the future with any prospect of success in the affairs of Central Europe we must either forestall developments by remedial action, having regard to the forces of evolution, or be prepared to support our right of intervention by adequate military strength.[12]

Up to this point, Winston Churchill himself would not have disagreed with Henderson's assessment of the situation, but the two certainly would have disagreed on which course to follow.  The policy put forward by Halifax and Chamberlain and endorsed by the Cabinet on March 22nd chose remedial action over intervention: Britain should not guarantee to support Czechoslovakia, but should instead pressure the Czechs to reach a settlement with the Sudeten Germans.  This was exactly the "remedial action" called for by Henderson, and his reasoning is a succinct summary of the logic behind the March 22nd decision and subsequent British Czechoslovakian policy:


However immoral Germany's next action may be, it would be the height of unwisdom to count on the co-operation of a single small Power in Europe against her.  Nor would I expect Czechoslovakia in the unlikely event of such next action being directed against any other country than herself.  It is tragic that the League of Nations and collective security should be reduced to such as pass, but it is nevertheless the case. . . . What, however, matters at the moment is that German hegemony east of the Rhine, down to the Brenner and the Balkans in the south and as far as the Russian frontier on the east, is a fact, however unpalatable it may be to admit it.  Moreover, from the point of view of world peace it would be wiser to recognize now the fact in one's mind and to leave the remedy to the disease itself.[13]

The assumption of German hegemony is certainly debatable, but once that premise is accepted, Henderson's conclusion is inescapable.  After the decision was made in March, Chamberlain considered Czechoslovakia already lost -- precisely what his policy required.  At a meeting with the French Ministers in April, Chamberlain replied to a plea by French Prime Minister Eduard Daladier to try to save Czechoslovakia as follows:


The Czech army was no doubt a good one, as M. Daladier had indicated, but the latter had admitted that Czechoslovakia's fortifications had been turned as a result of the Anschluss.  One had only to look at the map.  Czechoslovakia was surrounded by German territory on three sides.  He could not help thinking of the extreme rapidity and the effective organization with which 3,000 armed men had been landed by Germany near Vienna in half an hour.  In such circumstances, how would it be possible to save Czechoslovakia?[14]

In this light, Chamberlain's view of Munich as a great triumph is more comprehensible.  His strenuous efforts in September to prevent Hitler from attacking Czechoslovakia were not an attempt to save it, but only to prevent the general European war which was likely to follow such an attack.  At Munich, against all odds, he did in fact succeed in averting what most believed was an inevitable German attack on Czechoslovakia.  To Chamberlain, the cost to Czechoslovakia was of secondary importance, since he believed that the Czechs would be better off to simply recognize German dominance than fight a senseless war to try to prevent it.

The report which contributed to this grim outlook was titled "The Military Implications of German Aggression Against Czechoslovakia."[15]  Its main conclusion was most pessimistic indeed:


No pressure that we and our possible allies can bring to bear, either by sea, on land or in the air, could prevent Germany from invading and over-running Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat on the Czechoslovak Army.[16]

The Chiefs of Staff reported that 75% of Czech trade crossed German territory, and that by "abuse of tolls and tariffs on the Danube and the railways" Germany could "force Czechoslovakia into submission by economic pressure alone."  The report's opinion of Czechoslovakia's military value was quite low, apparently based on an outdated intelligence report, but that was not the crucial point.[17]  The Chiefs of Staff believed that Germany could be defeated only after a long war, probably prompting Italy and Japan to take the opportunity to expand at Britain's expense, and a world war would result.  In an earlier report the Chiefs had warned that British naval, military and air forces "are still far from sufficient to meet our defence commitments."  Furthermore:


We cannot foresee the time when our defence forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously.  We cannot, therefore, exaggerate the importance, from the point of view of Imperial defence, of any policy or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our potential enemies and to gain the support of potential friends.[18]

Reducing the number of potential enemies was clearly preferred over gaining the support of potential friends.  The report on Czechoslovakia estimated that the small European countries might even be a liability as allies, since Britain would be obligated to protect them from German invasion, and that any attempt to organize an anti-German coalition might push Germany, Italy and Japan into a formal military alliance.  The Chiefs of Staff did not believe that the benefits to be gained from guaranteeing Czechoslovakia were worth the risk of a world war which, in their estimation, Britain could not win.

In a statement which has the appearance of being a justification to history for a distasteful action, the Cabinet summarized their reasoning for not issuing a guarantee to Czechoslovakia:


Even if we had the strength, we could not protect a country in the geographical position of Czechoslovakia.  Neither could the French, and the Russians were separated from Czechoslovakia by the territory of Poland and Rumania.  No one could help in time.  After the fall of Czechoslovakia, the French would remain behind the Maginot lines. . . . At least two months would elapse before the United Kingdom could give any effective help to France. . . . It would be a mistake to plunge into a certain catastrophe in order to avoid a future danger that might never materialize.[19]

Saving Czechoslovakia would eliminate the threat of an increasingly powerful and aggressive Germany, what the Cabinet regarded as only "a future danger that might never materialize," but the cost would be a "certain catastrophe."  The last sentence plainly shows that the Cabinet believed that the independence of Czechoslovakia could not be preserved by any means short of general war.  German hegemony in Central Europe was seen as a fait accompli.  Issuing a guarantee to Czechoslovakia would not prevent a war.  On the contrary, it would ensure that war over Czechoslovakia became unavoidable, since Germany would have no alternative but to use force to obtain its demands.  This is a crucial point in understanding British actions during the September Crisis.

The Cabinet did not accept all of this with complete unanimity, however.  Two main points were brought up in favor of a positive commitment to Czechoslovakia.  Although the minutes do not record who advanced these arguments, Alfred Duff Cooper, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Oliver Stanley, the President of the Board of Trade, both held similar views in later Cabinet debates.  First, the real danger was to France, not Czechoslovakia.  France was committed to aid Czechoslovakia, the argument went, and might be defeated before Britain could intervene.  Would it not be better "to recognise the inevitable and plunge in at once to France's aid?"  Second, although the military position was poor at present, the relative position with respect to Germany would become worse if Czechoslovakia and the other small states of Europe were abandoned.


Under the hegemony of Germany, they would become an immense source of strength to that country.  Today Germany was ill-prepared for a long war.  Two years hence with this access of strength she might be much better prepared for that contingency. . . . In fact, by abandoning Czechoslovakia and the small nations, we should be assuming a new commitment that would mature a few years hence, namely, to meet Germany either in isolation or at least in co-operation with France.[20]

Strangely, only the first of these points ever carried any weight in subsequent debate over Czechoslovakian policy.  As will be seen, the British ministers and their military advisers seem to have focused almost exclusively on the immediate military situation -- How does our air force stack up against the German air force?  Can France intervene in time to prevent the Germans from crushing Czechoslovakia? etc. -- with apparently little or no consideration of the contribution of Czechoslovakia to the European balance of power and the long-term strategic implications of its elimination.

British Strategy and Military Policy

The seeming indifference of British planners to the European balance of power is better understood by looking at British strategy and military policy from a broader perspective.  As Lawrence Pratt has pointed out,


Writers have tended to focus almost exclusively on the German problem, as if it can be seen, or was seen, in a vacuum hermetically isolated from the global crisis of the 1930s. . . . It is almost as if Britain had suddenly abandoned its overseas interests and maritime traditions in order to commit itself solely to a continental role; whereas, in fact, the tendency (at least before the spring of 1939) was in precisely the opposite direction.[21]

After the experiment with unilateral disarmament in the 1920s, British rearmament had begun in the early 1930s based on two principles which were under increasing strain by 1938.  The first was that rearmament should not interfere with "business as usual," which meant that Britain's economic strength took priority over its military strength.  This was by no means an entirely foolish policy; one of the main lessons the British learned from the First World War was that economic staying power was at least as important as standing military power.  As late as February 1938, the Cabinet reaffirmed that rearmament was to proceed as fast as possible "without disrupting the peace-time industrial system."[22]  As a result, British rearmament was proceeding at a much slower pace than that of Germany (although by 1938 the German economy was in a near-crisis due to the extremely rapid pace of rearmament).[23]  Indeed, in the Cabinet review of the defense budget in February, the services clamored for more than the £1,500 million that had been set as an absolute maximum total military spending for 1937-1941 by the Treasury.  After the Anschluss, the Cabinet finally decided to drop the restriction that rearmament should not impede the course of normal trade.[24]  However, the British economy was not really placed on a war footing until the German occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, closely followed by the rumor of an ultimatum to Rumania, finally convinced Chamberlain that Hitler was not going to be appeased.[25]

Poor relations with Italy compounded British strategic problems by invalidating a second principle of rearmament.  In 1933, Italy was deliberately excluded as a possible enemy (along with France and the United States) in formulating rearmament plans.[26]  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the navy was preoccupied with the Japanese naval threat in the Far East, pouring resources into their huge new base at Singapore while neglecting the Mediterranean.[27]  However, the Mediterranean was vital to the defense of the eastern British empire, which "hinged on the dispatch of a large battlefleet to Singapore to hold the Malay barrier" in the event of war with Japan.[28]  The Mediterranean-Suez-Red Sea route was by far the fastest route, and it was therefore critical that passage through the Mediterranean be unimpeded.  The Abyssinian crisis in 1935, which suddenly added Italy to the ranks of potential enemies, found the British extremely unprepared in the Mediterranean theater.  Hence, the plea by the Chiefs of Staff for "any policy or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our potential enemies" was really an appeal that good relations with Italy be restored.

Another feature of British defense policy bearing on the Czechoslovakian crisis was the almost universal obsession with a German aerial "knock-out blow."  British government and military officials feared that the Germans planned to open a war with Britain by a massive air attack on military, industrial, and civilian targets in an attempt to defeat Britain with one swift stroke.  The origins of this idea are obscure.  One commentator suggests that the Royal Air Force's own exaggeration of the effects of strategic bombing contributed to these fears.[29]  In 1936, the Air Staff estimated that the Luftwaffe could deliver 600 tons of bombs a day against Britain, with up to 150,000 casualties in the first week of an air war.  By 1939, the former figure had risen to 700 tons per day, with the possibility of a "knock-out blow" of 3,500 tons in the first 24 hours.  That these figures were far too high is no longer in serious dispute -- as a point of comparison, the heaviest air raid during World War II on Britain was 1,026 tons on London on April 19, 1941.[30]  Another element which figured into the "knock-out blow" scenario was the confidence the British always had that they would win a long war against Germany.  They assumed that Germany also believed this, and would therefore attempt to win quickly before Britain's resources could be mobilized and its economic blockade could take effect.  Thus, the only conceivable means for Germany to defeat Britain appeared to be by air attack.[31]

The effects of this fear on rearmament policy was clear.  The RAF always received priority over the other services, both because it was the only effective means to attack Germany in a short war, and because it was believed to provide the "biggest bang for the buck."[32]  However, in 1937, the civilian Air Minister, Lord Swinton, forced the RAF to shift its emphasis away from its chosen mission of strategic bombing and concentrate on building up a fighter force adequate to meet a possible German attack.  The RAF's new priority was to be the defense of Britain against an aerial "knock-out blow," while the defeat of the enemy was to be left to naval power.[33]

Belief in the effectiveness of air power also contributed to the doctrine of limited liability, a feature of British defense policy which both increased, and was a symptom of, the lack of interest in Continental commitments in early 1938.  The limited liability advocates held that the main British contribution in a European war should be with air and naval forces only, at least initially.  The rearmament priority of air force, then navy, then army, reflected the influence of this doctrine.  The Cabinet officially endorsed limited liability in its most complete form in December 1937 when it reordered the strategic priorities of the army.[34]   The army was no longer to be organized to send an Expeditionary Force to assist France on the continent.  The Secretary of War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, explained the army's new role in a report to the Cabinet:


In preparing the Army for war the menace of air attack is a primary consideration.  On the outbreak of war defence against air attack may be the primary requirement: in this major responsibility Home Defence is in the first category of importance, and in a form unknown in 1914.[35]

The second priority was imperial defense, which meant that an expeditionary force would still be available, but on a much reduced scale.  Whereas previous plans had called for four regular divisions and a mobile division to be ready to send to France within fifteen days of mobilization, the new plan called for only two divisions and a mobile division, "equipped for an eastern theatre," probably Egypt, to be ready within three weeks of mobilization.  The report emphasized that the equipment and reserves of this force were "not on a Continental scale."[36]

Several factors explain this temporary abandonment of a "continental commitment."  It is clear that Chamberlain, Hore-Belisha, and Sir John Simon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, all expected the new plan to result in a large savings, a powerful argument within the Cabinet.[37]  Another argument often advanced was that the British public was unwilling to send an army to the continent again on the scale of 1914, so that attempting to equip any size Expeditionary Force for the continent would raise a political firestorm.  Many of the Cabinet ministers themselves were in any case horrified by the prospect of a repeat of the First World War, and one of Chamberlain's prime motivations in appeasing Germany was to remove the need for any such commitment.[38]

The army itself was divided on the issue of a continental versus a colonial role.  Its preoccupation with its Middle Eastern commitments may help to explain why it did not put up more of a fight over the Expeditionary Force.  During the Abyssinian crisis in 1935, substantial numbers of men and tanks had been sent to Egypt and never recalled, and in 1936 the Palestinian rebellion had become acute -- by 1938 the equivalent of two divisions were stationed there and the General Staff feared that more would be necessary in the event of war.[39]

Very little in the military situation in 1938, therefore, encouraged the British to accept any additional obligations, particularly in Europe.  British military planners believed that Britain's obligations far exceeded its actual strength, and that every effort must be made to avoid war.  This was especially true with regard to Germany, because the British felt themselves to be most vulnerable to air attack.  Budgetary constraints had forced the British to prioritize the RAF over the other services, the army especially, and by the end of 1937 it appeared financially, militarily and politically prudent to give up the idea of having a large Expeditionary Force available to fight on the continent.

The Crisis Over Czechoslovakia

The Cabinet decided on a Czechoslovakian policy none too soon, because tension between Czechoslovakia and Germany quickly escalated in the months following the annexation of Austria.  In late May, the Czechs began to mobilize, claiming that they had detected suspicious German troop movements near their borders in Saxony and Austria.  Under the pressure of this so-called "May Crisis," the British and French issued a public warning to Germany.  As no attack was forthcoming, it appeared to the world that Hitler had been forced to back down for the first time.  It is now known that the Germans did not have any plans for a surprise attack on Czechoslovakia at the time, and Hitler was furious at this humiliation.[40]  Shortly thereafter, in fact, Hitler signed the "Case Green" directive for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, stating his "unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future."[41]

For their part, the British Cabinet ministers were shaken by the ease with which they had been drawn into making a public stand against Germany, despite the policy decided upon only two months earlier.  If anything, the May Crisis spurred on British efforts to minimize the possibility of a general war erupting over Czechoslovakia.  On May 25, Halifax described his policy for the upcoming months to the Cabinet.  He noted that while they had "turned the first corner successfully, [they] ought already to be getting ready for the second."  A settlement of the Sudeten problem was unlikely, and a new incident was "quite possible."  What made the situation so dangerous was the existence of the Franco-Czechoslovakian alliance, which had been entered into "many years ago in totally different circumstances," with Germany disarmed and a convenient "back door approach" into Germany available for the French.  "It was desirable, therefore, if possible, to obtain a release for the French from their obligation and its contingent consequences," Halifax told the Cabinet.  "It was possible that a firm attitude on our part might conceivably be successful again, but if a really bad incident occurred again . . . there was the possibility of our finding ourselves in trouble."  He hoped that the Czechoslovak President, Eduard Benes, could be persuaded to either reach a mutually satisfactory settlement with the Sudeten Germans or allow them to join Germany if they wished.[42]

British diplomacy during the summer of 1938 failed to accomplish either of Halifax's goals.  The French continued to argue that a firm stand against Germany, even if it was a bluff, was preferable to openly abandoning their ally.  The Czechs conceded more and more to the Sudeten Germans as negotiations continued, but the Sudeten leaders' demands continued to increase.  By the end of August, it had become clear that neither of these measures was going to avert another crisis.  The Germans announced a "test mobilization" in Bavaria and Austria for September, which could be used to camouflage a full mobilization of the bulk of the German army on the Czech border, and the British were receiving information from a range of sources that Hitler had plans for an invasion "towards the end of September."[43]

The Cabinet was recalled from the August recess to consider the situation, and both Halifax and Chamberlain reiterated their support for the established policy.  The Foreign Secretary noted again that the only effective way to deter Hitler from attacking Czechoslovakia would be a statement promising to declare war if Germany invaded.  But, if that deterrent failed, nothing could be done to save Czechoslovakia:


He agreed . . . that there was more in the present crisis than the attempt to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany.  We were, in effect, concerned with the attempt of the dictator countries to attain their ends by force.  But he asked himself whether it was justifiable to fight a certain war now in order to forestall a possible war later.[44]

Rather than give Germany an explicit warning, Halifax proposed that they should try to "keep the Germans guessing" as to what they would do, while continuing to push for a settlement.  Chamberlain agreed that a warning to Germany should not be made, and his reasoning clearly demonstrates that his primary concern was to avoid war, not to prevent Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia.  He told the Cabinet that he realized that many people in Germany and Britain believed that if the British would make a promise to aid Czechoslovakia, war would be avoided and Hitler would perhaps be overthrown:


He had been sufficiently impressed by this repetition of the case for an immediate statement, to go over in his mind carefully, the possibility of making such a statement.  But he always came back to the same conclusion.  . . . No state . . . ought to make a threat of war unless it was both ready to carry it out and prepared to do so.

Since Halifax obviously did not put much faith in the deterrent power of a British warning, referring to war as "certain" even if that course were pursued, his proposed policy to "keep the Germans guessing" consisted of little more than avoiding any statement that would obligate the British to intervene if the Germans did attack Czechoslovakia.  He apparently believed that such an attack was inevitable, and warned the Cabinet of the political recriminations that would (and did) follow if they held to his policy:


He wished it to be clearly understood that if this policy failed, the Government would be told that if only they had had the courage of their convictions they could have stopped the trouble.  They would also be accused of destroying the principle of collective security, and so forth.  But these criticisms left him unmoved.[45]

After some debate the Cabinet agreed to continue to follow Halifax's policy, but the suggestion was first made that they were focusing too narrowly on the immediate crisis.  The Lord Privy Seal, Earl De La Warr, while agreeing that no threat to Germany should be made, thought that the Cabinet needed to give more consideration to the general situation in Europe -- if Czechoslovakia was "crumpled up" by Germany, the remaining Eastern European countries would be absorbed into the German orbit.[46]  When the Cabinet met again two weeks later, several other ministers were having second thoughts about the British stance.  Secretary for Air Sir Kingsley Wood asked for "an up to date appreciation of the situation by the Chiefs of Staff," and Oliver Stanley, the President of the Board of Trade, proposed that the report should also include an appreciation of the position within a year "if Germany was allowed to carry out a coup in Czechoslovakia this year and subsequently extended her influence in South Eastern Europe."[47]

The Chiefs of Staff submitted a revised military appreciation within two days, but it appears that no study of the long-term implications of British policy was ever completed before the Munich conference.  General Hastings Ismay, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, prepared a draft report on this topic on September 22, but it was probably read by no more than two Cabinet ministers.[48]  In any case, Ismay's report did not consider the political or strategic effects of the elimination of Czechoslovakia from the military balance, but continued to focus narrowly on the relative strengths of Germany, France, and Britain.  Ismay conceded that postponing a conflict for a year would allow the Germans to increase their relative land strength due to completion of their western fortifications and additional training, and British prestige might suffer a severe blow if Czechoslovakia was abandoned.  However, for him, relative air strength was the critical issue.  He believed that Germany was currently in a position to launch a successful strategic air attack on Britain.  In six or twelve months' time, British air power would be improved enough to prevent such an attack from succeeding.  Therefore, he concluded that "from a military point of view, time is in our favor, and . . . if war with Germany has to come, it would be better to fight her in say six to twelve months' time than to accept the present challenge."[49]

The Cabinet as a whole continued to take a very narrow view of the significance of the crisis.  The Lord Chancellor, Lord Maugham, serenely declared that "he had been informed that British interests were not vitally affected by what happened to the Sudeten Germans."  Rather, French interests were at stake, and France had no desire for war "to keep three and a half million Germans under the Prague government."[50]  As late as September 17, during a discussion on the merits of sending British troops to monitor a plebiscite in the Sudetenland, Secretary of Defence Sir Thomas Inskip warned that "it would be difficult to protect them from outside attack, for example, by the Czech forces."[51]  What support there was for a firm stand against Hitler stemmed mainly from the fear that submitting to Hitler's blackmail once would only invite him to try it again, and it would be even harder to justify not giving in the next time.

In the end, however, French refusal to "get on board," combined with Hitler's extreme provocation, very nearly pushed the British into deciding that their policy had failed and that war was unavoidable.  Cabinet support for Halifax's and Chamberlain's policy first began to fray at the September 17 meeting.  Three ministers openly agreed with De La Warr's view that any further concessions to Hitler while the German army was mobilized would be a humiliating surrender to force, and that if unable to obtain "peace with honour . . . we must face the possibility of war."[52]  Nevertheless, most of the Cabinet still backed the Prime Minister's policy.  Viscount Halisham, Lord President of the Council, summed up his reasoning:


It was in our interest to prevent any single power dominating Europe; but that had come to pass, and he thought that we had no alternative but to submit to what the Lord Privy Seal regarded as humiliation.[53]

Duff Cooper also continued to support Halifax and Chamberlain.  Although he had serious doubts as to Hitler's trustworthiness, there was "almost no length to which he would not go to avoid war," and he believed they had no choice but to "submit to a humiliation."[54]

The Cabinet finally revolted when Chamberlain returned from meeting with Hitler at Godesberg on September 24 with the news that Hitler had rejected the Anglo-French offer which met his previous demands, and that he had instead presented Chamberlain with a new ultimatum.  Now even Halifax was unwilling to face the looming humiliation which was, after all, the logical consequence of the policy adopted in March:


He [Halifax] could not rid his mind of the fact that Herr Hitler had given us nothing and that he was dictating terms, just as though he had won a war but without having to fight.[55]

Now at least nine of the ministers opposed Chamberlain, who continued to recommend that Czechoslovakia be pressured to accept Hitler's terms.[56]  On the 25th, Chamberlain met with French Prime Minister Daladier, who assured Chamberlain that "France would fulfill her obligations of assistance" to Czechoslovakia.  That evening the Czechs informed the British that they could not accept the Godesberg terms.  Chamberlain persuaded the Cabinet to permit one last appeal to Hitler, and Sir Horace Wilson was dispatched to Hitler carrying a letter urging him to accept the Anglo-French proposals, as well as an oral message as a last resort:


The French Government have informed us that, if the Czechs reject the [Godesberg terms] and Germany attacks Czechoslovakia, they will fulfil their obligations to Czechoslovakia.  Should the forces of France in consequence become engaged in active hostilities against Germany, we shall feel obligated to support them.[57]

At this point, war appeared certain, and the Cabinet spent the next day discussing the appropriate military measures that needed to be taken.  Their actions represented a belief that their policy had failed rather than a rejection of the policy.  Since France apparently intended to fulfill its obligations, however reluctantly, the British had little choice but to prepare for war, since they could not stand by while France fought Germany alone.  It seems likely that if Chamberlain had not made his final appeal to Hitler which resulted in the Munich conference, World War II would have broken out in 1938 rather than in 1939.  By September 27, Chamberlain was virtually alone in his belief that there was still a chance to prevent a war, and he rightly believed that at Munich he had single-handedly snatched victory for his Czechoslovakian policy out of the jaws of defeat.

Czech Military Strength and Plans

The prospect of war with Germany certainly came as no surprise to the Czech Army in September 1938.  The Czechs had been preparing for war seriously for years -- one author estimates that half of all Czech government spending from 1936-1938 was for military purposes.  In 1936 Czechoslovakia spent 12.5% of its GNP on its military, versus German spending of 13% in 1936 and 17% in 1938 (Britain, by contrast, spent only 8% of its GNP on the military in 1938).[58]  The British government received detailed reports about Czech military preparations from their military attaché in Prague throughout 1938, so they were not uninformed about the situation.  Before examining what advice the British government received and what they did with it, it will be helpful to evaluate the actual Czech military strength in September 1938.

The Czech Army had a peacetime strength of seventeen infantry divisions and four mobile divisions.  In September 1938 they were able to mobilize about twenty additional reserve divisions.  The British military attaché, Lt.-Col. H.C.T. Stronge, believed the Czech Army to be "the best of the smaller States of Europe, especially in regard to equipment and weapons."[59]  Czechoslovakia had built up a large arms industry, including the famous "Skoda" works at Pilsen and "Zbrojovka" at Brno, which was not only able to completely supply the Czech Army and equip its fortifications, but was also a major arms exporter.[60]  The Czech-built tanks, while scattered among the infantry divisions rather than being concentrated into armored divisions as were the German tanks, were actually superior in guns and armor to the German tanks available in September 1938.[61]

The foundation of Czechoslovakian military strategy was its alliance with France.  The Czech General Staff was under no illusions as to their ability to hold off the Germans indefinitely, and they based their plans on the assumption that French mobilization would quickly divert a large part of the available German forces.[62]  The General Staff's greatest fear was that a surprise German assault would overrun their defenses at the outset and interfere with their mobilization.  They therefore had carefully prepared mobilization plans, and relied for advance warning on their "very well-informed" intelligence service.[63]

Up until late in September 1938, the Czechs were confident that the French would honor their obligations, although many other observers were not so sure.  The Czech confidence was based on their great effort in building up their military strength and arms industry; they believed that the French could not ignore this contribution, and at the very least could not allow it to fall into German hands.[64]  The French were well aware of the value of Czechoslovakia in a war against Germany, but they were caught in their own strategic dilemma.  The remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 had dramatically altered one of the basic assumptions of the Franco-Czech alliance.  The French had previously counted on the mere threat of mobilization to be an adequate safeguard against any displeasing German action in Central Europe, since they could essentially march straight into the industrial heartland of Germany and there was little the Germans could do to stop them.  The remilitarization of the Rhineland raised the prospect (which was at first only potential) of the French having to do some actual fighting on the western German frontier before invading Germany, a most unwelcome scenario for them.

The Czechs realized this, of course, and their response was to step up the pace of fortification of their border with Germany, which they hoped would hold up a German attack long enough for the French to mobilize in strength.  The fortifications were started in 1934 when the political situation in Europe had begun to look ominous, but a United States military attaché touring the Bohemian and Moravian frontiers in 1936 reported little work completed.  By 1937, however, "work was being carried out at a furious pace which continued right up through September 1938."[65]  These fortifications are one of the most controversial aspects of the Czechoslovakian crisis, with some arguing that they constituted a second Maginot Line, and others claiming that they were incomplete and would have offered little resistance to the Germans.

A detailed study of the Czech fortifications by Jonathan Zorach has done much to clarify the issue.  The Czech fortifications resembled the famous Maginot Line only in their careful, technically up-to-date construction.  Otherwise, the Czechs had no chance of matching the depth and strength of the French fortifications.  First, the Czech frontier with Germany was over five times the length of the Franco-German border.  Even the entire Basel-to-Dunkirk frontier was only 776 km, compared to 2,097 km of Czech-German frontier (after the Anschluss).  Second, the French could and did pour a far greater amount of money into the Maginot Line than was possible for Czechoslovakia; the Germans estimated that the French spent 30 times what the Czechs spent on fortifications, on a far shorter line.  A comparison of the depth of the two lines shows the result: a typical sector of the Maginot Line had an average depth of 2-3 km, and in some places was up to 11 km deep; the strongest sectors of the Czechoslovak line were 2-5 km deep, but in some areas the fortifications consisted of only a single bunker line.

This is not to say that the Czech fortifications had no value.  High mountains and rugged terrain along the Bavarian, Saxon and Silesian frontiers "offered significant obstacles to military operations" even without fortifications, an advantage the Franco-German border lacked.[66]  The Czech strategy was to use the fortifications to protect their northern and southern flanks from a German pincer attack which would cut the country in two, forcing the Germans to attack along a northwest axis.  This would allow the Czechs to complete their mobilization without disruption.  They planned to fall back eastward into the mountains of Slovakia under German pressure, while waiting for the French to draw off German strength.[67]

The Anschluss in March 1938 made this a much more difficult prospect for the Czechs.  They now had a greatly extended southern flank along which the Germans could launch their southern pincer attack, and the terrain along the old Austro-Czech border was more favorable for offensive operations than any other section of the Czech-German frontier.[68]  In addition, the Czechs had done very little to fortify this section of the frontier, with only a few heavy fortresses around Bratislava.  Work on a new line was carried out throughout the summer of 1938, but this section of the Czech defenses was certainly the weakest.[69]





Czech Fortifications in September 1938

Heavy fortresses:

6 in southern Moravia

250 in line from right bank of Oder to Giant Mts (Riesengebirge)

11 in Slovakia

Pillboxes and MG positions:

3,993 in western and southern Bohemia

1,852 in northern Bohemia

1,000 in southern Moravia

1,195 in northern Moravia

1,942 in Slovakia

SOURCE:  Jonathan Zorach, "Czechoslovakia's Fortifications.  Their Development and Role in the 1938 Munich Crisis," Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen, v. 20 (1976), p. 85.


Table I gives a numerical picture of the relative strength of the different fortified areas.  The smallest and most numerous type of fortifications were machine gun positions, followed by pillboxes built to withstand up to 10 cm artillery fire.  The strongest were the heavy fortresses which were designed to withstand heavy artillery fire and aerial bombing.  In general, these heavy fortresses contained 47 mm anti-tank guns and 10 cm howitzers, food and ammunition for 2-3 weeks, and 20 men, although they could not hold out for an extended period without assistance from a field army.  The largest, however, were designed to withstand major attacks independent of outside support, and had both tactical and strategic value.[70]

The main weakness of the Czech fortified system was that it was unfinished in September 1938.  Table I gives some indication of the disparities between different sectors of the frontier fortifications.  In studies undertaken after the occupation of the frontier areas, German engineers were generally impressed with the completed areas, and estimated that with another year's work, the completed system would have presented a truly formidable obstacle.  However, in its unfinished state, numerous weak points existed all along the long frontier, and only opposite the Silesian border did the Germans feel that the defenses were strong enough to have prevented breakthroughs completely.[71]  The Germans had extensive advance knowledge of the weak areas in the defenses, due to the friendly Sudeten German population and extensive reconnaissance.[72]  The wealth of information available to the Germans was inadvertently revealed in a Luftwaffe intelligence planning report which contained the comment, "unlike Czechoslovakia, there are relatively very few aerial photographs of Western European targets available."[73]

The Czech fortifications, then, did not present an impenetrable defensive wall, but neither were they a negligible factor.  No one, not even the Czech General Staff, believed that Czechoslovakia could hold out alone indefinitely against the full military weight that Germany could eventually mobilize, but the Czech fortifications would certainly have played a large role in increasing the cost and time for a German attack to succeed.  Even along the exposed Austrian frontier, the fortifications were enough to delay the Germans temporarily and prevent "a clear run through" to Prague.[74]

An additional factor in the Czech military equation was its air power.  Czechoslovakia's industry was very vulnerable to air attack, with 90% of its arms production within 30 minutes flight from the frontier.  Of course, German industry was similarly vulnerable to air attack from Czechoslovakia, but the Czech air force had less than 200 modern bombers, and there are no indications that they planned any strategic raids on Germany in the event of war.[75]  Defensively, Czechoslovakia was in significantly better shape.  The Luftwaffe expected serious difficulties from the Czech air force and strong anti-aircraft defenses over the fortifications and industrial centers.  This would have been especially true if the Germans had actually invaded at the end of September 1938.  The Czech air force was fully deployed to its wartime airfields, so there was no chance of it being destroyed on the ground by a surprise strike.  In addition, the weather during the projected invasion period was foggy and rainy, which would have further complicated the Luftwaffe's operations.  As a result, a recent study concluded that the Luftwaffe "would have suffered serious losses that would have crippled its ability to meet the demands of a European war."[76]

British Assessment of Czech Military Strength

As noted previously, the British government received detailed reports on the military situation in Czechoslovakia throughout 1938 from Lt.-Col. H.C.T. Stronge, the military attaché in Prague.  These generally agreed with the assessment given above.  In a lengthy memorandum dated March 29, Stronge reported favorably on the state of Czech military readiness, but with some reservations.  He warned that the Czechs might not fight "if their defences are overrun or turned at the outset and their mobilization is interfered with."  He also expressed concern with the extreme vulnerability of the frontier defenses to Sudeten-German sabotage.  His general conclusion was that the Czechs would fight if France came to their assistance at once, but not otherwise.  Stronge made it clear that the Czech General Staff did not hope to withstand Germany indefinitely; "it is merely a question as to whether they can offer any form of protracted resistance," which he believed was possible for any Czech forces which succeeded in withdrawing into Slovakia.  He noted that the fortifications "possess definite delaying possibilities in the north to large forces and for some time.  In the south delay would only be of a very temporary nature but possibly for a day or two."[77]

Stronge reported even more favorably on the situation in a September 3 memorandum.  After five more months of work, the fortifications were now "well advanced, and even in their weakest sectors must be of some defensive value."  The Czechs had the advantage of a central position, and would be defending their own country, "almost every yard of which has been reconnoitered."  The greatest disadvantage was the Czech numerical inferiority to the Germans, possibly 1:4.5.  Stronge also noted that Czech leadership, especially at the higher levels, was considerably inferior to that of the German army.  However, he felt that none of these shortcomings "are of sufficient consequence to warrant a belief that [the Czech army] cannot give a good account of itself."  He concluded:


In my view, . . . there is no material reason why they should not put up a really protracted resistance single-handed.  It all depends on their morale.  If that gives way, the war cannot last more than a week or two.  If it holds, it may drag on for months.  The fall of Prague should not be vital.[78]

Later that month, Stronge reported that a colonel on the Czech General Staff told him that they would not put up a "suicidal" resistance if abandoned by France and Great Britain, the first indication that the Czechs had begun taking this possibility seriously.[79]  On September 27, however, the British minister in Prague passed on Stronge's continued belief that the Czechs "have confidence in their cause, their leadership and their equipment.  He thinks it not unlikely, if they have the moral support of knowing that they possess powerful allies even if these cannot immediately act on their behalf, that they may render a good account of themselves."  The next day Stronge again emphasized that "confidence is felt that if the French take the offensive reasonably early the German army cannot overrun Bohemia and Moravia."[80]

The other main source of military reporting on Czechoslovakia was Col. Mason-MacFarlane, the military attaché in Berlin.  He was considerably more pessimistic than Stronge.  Early in May, Mason-MacFarlane disparaged "the confidence which seems to exist in Czech, and to a certain extent French circles, that the Czech Army will be able to resist any possible German offensive against Czechoslovakia, so long as the French intervene actively as soon as war should occur," a proposition which he found "extremely doubtful."  He believed that Czech confidence along these lines "is largely artificial, and designed both to bolster up morale, and to induce the French, and possibly ourselves, to think in terms of the possibility of successfully preventing hostilities more seriously than we might otherwise."  The Germans "may well prove capable of holding their own on the defensive in [the West], with comparatively small forces, long enough to ensure the rapid overthrow of the Czechs."  He conceded that Czech defenses "have considerable value and may be relied upon to play an important role," and that the German Army was "still very far short" of completing rearmament.  "On the other hand," he wrote, "the German soldier is still the German soldier, and the Czech the Czech."[81]

During the September crisis, Mason-MacFarlane made a trip by automobile from Prague to Berlin, and reported his observations on the state of Czech military preparations directly to Halifax when he reached London on the 27th.  In his written dispatch dated September 26, the Berlin attaché reported that the roads were blocked and mined 5 km deep on the Czech side of the border, and that "Czech mobilization appears to be proceeding smoothly."  He also noted, "Czechs' morale not very good.  Certainly not if forced to fight alone," an opinion which Stronge vehemently disputed the following day.[82]

Czech morale during the September crisis, and the circumstances under which they would or would not have resisted an invasion, is still a subject of some contention, due to the intangible nature of the question.  The Germans, at any rate, appear to have had little doubt that the Czechs would resist an attack, which lends credence to Stronge's more optomistic view.  The German minister in Prague reported on September 14, "Population here getting ready for war . . . Outward behavior disciplined, which points to readiness for war.  Scarcely any fear of war observed so far."[83]  On the 17th, the German military attaché reported "Czech self-assurance increased," and two days later that "completion of mobilization and deployment is being carried out in an orderly manner."[84]  Just prior to the Munich conference, the German chargé d'affaires described the situation in the Czech capital:


Preparations for war being made everywhere in Prague.  Evacuation of the capital being prepared.  Total blackout in parts for last three nights.  Trenches in all parts of the city.  Population show attitude of calm fatalism.[85]

Even without the benefit of hindsight, the man on the spot in Prague would seem a better source of information about Czechoslovakia than the military attaché in Berlin, yet Halifax and Chamberlain apparently ignored all but the most pessimistic reports on the Czech military situation.  In a letter dated September 27, Halifax outlined the latest military information, including the above-mentioned report by Col. Mason-MacFarlane, to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris:


General Gamelin [the chief of the French General Staff] made it plain to us on Monday that, in his view, if German forces now invaded Czechoslovakia, Czech resistance is likely to be of extremely brief duration.  This disturbing estimate is confirmed by our Military Attaché in Berlin who has just returned from Czechoslovakia and reports that he is convinced that morale is poor and resistance will prove to be feeble.[86]

While it is unknown what Mason-MacFarlane told Halifax, the Foreign Secretary's description of General Gamelin's interview is certainly misleading, if not simply false.  The statement Chamberlain made to the Cabinet describing the meeting with Gamelin gives exactly the opposite impression from what Halifax told Phipps:


General Gamelin thought that the Czechoslovak army would give a good account of themselves. . . . They would try to keep open the bottle-neck at all costs, so that even if they were forced to retire their army would still be able to pass out from the western frontier to the eastern part of the country, and they would be able to maintain a fighting force.[87]

Indeed, Halifax's telegram prompted an incredulous reply from Phipps, who previously had been far from optimistic about the military situation.  He reported that the head of French Military Intelligence believed Czech morale to be quite high.  Furthermore, he described a conversation with General Gamelin's "most confidential Staff Officer," who told Phipps that the Germans could not overrun Czechoslovakia "without hard fighting and great losses, nor did he think it would be done very quickly."  Phipps noted pointedly that "his opinions are certainly those of his chief."[88]

It is this seemingly willful twisting of the facts that lends credence to some of the most scathing attacks on Chamberlain and his advisers.  Halifax certainly appears guilty of bending the truth to fit his chosen policy in this instance at least.  But he was not alone in downplaying Czech military strength.  British military planners continued to minimize the role that Czechoslovakia would play in a possible war.  In an "Appreciation of the Situation in the Event of War Against Germany," prepared for the Cabinet on September 14, the Chiefs of Staff repeated their earlier warning that Germany could not be prevented from destroying Czechoslovakia.  They estimated that the Germans could achieve "the occupation of the whole of Western Czechoslovakia, including Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia" easily "without any appreciable delay," and could "proceed . . . at will" to "the elimination of Czechoslovakia from the war by the defeat of the Czechoslovak Army."[89]

While it now seems fairly clear that the British government consistently failed to take proper account of Czech strength, what was the significance of this misjudgment?  As suggested earlier, the actual strength or weakness of Czechoslovakia was not the crucial issue in the British decision to hand it over to Hitler in September.  Chamberlain's goal was to prevent a war from breaking out, and from this perspective Czech strength could in some sense actually be seen as a liability for British policy.  The stronger the Czechs were, the more likely they were to try to resist the Germans, and the more prolonged would be their resistance if they did fight.  Britain was likely to be drawn into any Czech-German war, a possibility which increased the longer such a war dragged on.

At some point, of course, a very strong Czechoslovakia would undermine one of the central assumptions of Chamberlain's policy, that German hegemony in Central Europe could not be prevented short of a general war.  If the Czechs were strong enough to defeat or at least severely maul the attacking German army, perhaps the French and British could quickly bring the Germans to heel.  Even the Czechs did not believe that they could stand alone against the full weight of German military might, but counted on their allies to draw off a large proportion of German strength.  Thus, a brief examination of the French role in the Czechoslovakian crisis is in order.

French Military Plans

The French were the key factor in deciding the fate of Czechoslovakia, for two reasons.  First and foremost, only France could provide the immediate, direct threat to Germany necessary to draw off German strength from Czechoslovakia.  The only other sizeable army in Europe belonged to the Soviet Union.  Although impressively large, it was not viewed as a factor either by the Germans or the British.  Aside from the question of its willingness to intervene, the Soviet Union possessed no common border with either Czechoslovakia or Germany, and both Poland and Rumania had made it clear that they would not allow Soviet troops to cross their territory.[90]  The German military and naval attachés in Moscow believed that Soviet intervention would most likely be confined to air and naval attacks on German shipping in the Baltic, while the British military attaché agreed with both the French and Czech attachés that "passage through Roumania would be very difficult as the country is unfavorable for the operations of large forces."[91]  As one author recently summed up the situation, "in geographic terms alone, it would have been almost impossible for the Soviet Union to exert any important military pressure in Central Europe in 1938."[92]

The second reason for the importance of France was that the actions of almost all the other countries involved depended on whether France actively intervened or not.  The Soviet treaty with Czechoslovakia specified that the Soviets would intervene only if France acted first.  Britain had no treaty with Czechoslovakia, but was likely to aid France if it went to war with Germany.  The other countries of Central and Southeastern Europe -- Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia -- resisted both German and British efforts to get them to commit to intervention in the crisis, preferring to wait to see what action France would take and then get in on the winning side.[93]

We have seen that the Czech Army was counting on the French to divert a proportion of the German military forces, but the French willingness to fight for Czechoslovakia was doubtful.  The trauma of the Great War shaped French strategy to a point where offensive action on their part was almost impossible.  Since French military plans envisioned another long, drawn-out war of attrition, one of their first priorities was to protect French industry, the majority of which was concentrated in the vulnerable region between the Seine and the Belgian and German borders.[94]  Another key priority was to conserve resources and soldiers, since Germany had begun to seriously outstrip France in both those areas -- by the 1930s, Germany's population was 30% larger than France's, and German industrial output was twice that of France.[95]

Accordingly, the French high command planned for a two-stage war.  The first stage, which could last for up to two years, would begin with a rapid advance into Belgium to provide a territorial buffer against the expected German offensive through the same area.  The French would then assemble their resources behind a continuous defensive line from Switzerland to the sea, while the Germans battered futilely against the French positions.  Only after the Germans had exhausted themselves and the French achieved crushing superiority in every respect -- three times the infantry, six times the artillery, twelve times the munitions, etc. -- would the French move into stage two and launch a strategic offensive.[96]

This strategy made some observers skeptical of France's commitment to actively intervene if Czechoslovakia was attacked.  The German plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia counted on a feeble French response, leaving only five regular and four reserve divisions to man the largely illusory "Westwall," which consisted of little more than a single bunker line.  By the fifth day of mobilization the French could have 56 divisions in position to launch an attack, and one recent commentator believes that "without reinforcements the Germans could have lost the Saar and possibly the Rhineland, and a determined French thrust might have reached the Ruhr."[97]  Such a bold step would have gone against the whole French philosophy of careful preparation before an offensive, exactly what the Germans were counting on, but perhaps a limited French offensive designed to relieve German pressure on Czechoslovakia was not completely out of the realm of possibility.  General Gamelin, the French commander-in-chief, described such a plan during a visit to London on September 26:


He had no intention of sitting behind the Maginot line and waiting for a German offensive but wanted to advance immediately into Germany in view of the Germans only having eight divisions on their western frontier.  He would then withdraw under the protection of the Maginot line only after he had met really serious resistance, leaving the Germans to break their strength against the permanent fortifications.[98]

In any event, even the most vigorous French offensive could not have defeated Germany at a single blow.  At best, the Germans would have been forced to transfer the bulk of their forces away from Czechoslovakia in order to deal with the French, perhaps allowing the Czechs to hold out against the reduced German attack.  A recent study of the probable course of a war in 1938 concluded:


In terms of numbers of divisions, economic resources, industrial capacity, and naval forces, Germany would have faced overwhelming Allied superiority in 1938 . . . Even so, the war against Germany would not have been easy, nor would it have been quickly won.[99]


In the end, then, British policy towards Czechoslovakia was based on an essentially correct evaluation of the military situation.  Chamberlain did not ask, "Can we save Czechoslovakia?" but rather, "Can we save Czechoslovakia without a general war?"  The answer to the second question was surely "No."  While the British leadership consistently ignored and downplayed favorable estimates of Czech military strength, they were nevertheless correct in their belief that Czechoslovakia could not be saved without a full-scale European war.  No one believed then, and no one believes today, that Czechoslovakia could have stood alone against the full weight of German military power.  Czech survival depended on active intervention by the French in order to draw off the bulk of the German Army in defense of their western frontier.  It seems likely that the French could have dealt Germany a serious blow if they had been willing to take a vigorous offensive early on, but action of this sort would have been antithetical to the philosophy of the French Army.  A major war would still have been required to defeat Germany in even the most optimistic assessments of French intentions.

This paper has evaluated British policy on its own terms, but there are certainly other valid ways of looking at the Czechoslovakian crisis.  Critics of Chamberlain often point to the September crisis as the last chance for Britain and France to stand up to Hitler while they still had a significant military advantage.  Indeed, it now seems fairly clear that British fears of an aerial "knock-out blow" were far beyond the capacity of the Luftwaffe in 1938, and it is likely that Germany could have been defeated with far less cost if war had broken out in 1938 instead of 1939.  It is, of course, easy with hindsight to advise Chamberlain that he should have chosen war instead of peace in 1938, since we now know that war broke out in 1939 despite his efforts.  But there were plenty of voices at the time, even within his own Cabinet, advising him to take just this course of action.

The most telling criticism of British Czechoslovakian policy, and one that does not have to rely on hindsight, is that the British failed to consider the long-term effects of the elimination of Czech military power on the strategic balance in Europe.  British planners correctly estimated that German hegemony over Central Europe could no longer be prevented without a major war, but they chose to accommodate this state of affairs without any examination of what German domination of Central Europe would mean to British security.  This might be more excusable if the Czechoslovakian crisis had erupted unforeseen, but that was not the case.  Chamberlain and Halifax established their policy in March, long before the situation had reached a stage where they could only react to events as they happened.  Few "crises" in history can have been anticipated as far in advance as the Munich crisis, yet the British apparently did not bother to examine the implications of their policy outside of the immediate situation.

The reason for this failure is a question that is beyond the scope of this paper.  However, two elements which contributed to British Czechoslovakian policy may also have played a large role in its strategic failure: the British exaggeration of the German air threat, and their implicit belief that Germany could not win a long war.  The British never feared that Germany could defeat France on the ground; while they may have questioned the offensive spirit of the French Army, they seem to have had no doubt that the French could defend their own borders.  Thus, the Czech army was not seen as a critical factor in the military balance.  British military planners focused on what they saw as the overwhelming German superiority in the air, and in this respect Czechoslovakia was unimportant.  They believed that if they could survive the initial German aerial onslaught, German defeat would only be a matter of time.

It would be extremely ironic if British confidence in winning a protracted war against Germany blinded them to the significance of Czechoslovakia in the European balance of power.  The British anticipation of German hegemony became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the countries of central and southeastern Europe began to accommodate themselves to the new situation following Czechoslovakia's dismemberment.  This process was greatly accelerated by the German occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, which delivered to the Germans vast quantities of Czech arms and munitions, raw material stockpiles, industrial plants, and modern arms factories.[100]  Munich opened the resources of Central Europe and the Balkans to exploitation by Germany in wartime, allowing it to fight a far more protracted war than the British had anticipated.[101]  British leaders and military planners had considered the cost of defending Czechoslovakia, and deemed it too high.  Their true failure was that they never considered the cost of not defending Czechoslovakia before making that determination.



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Stronge, H. C. T., "The Czechoslovak Army and the Munich Crisis: A Personal Memorandum," War and Society: A Yearbook of Military History, Brian Bond and Ian Roy, eds., Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1975, pp. 162-177.


Vital, David, "Czechoslovakia and the Powers, September 1938," in Hans Gatzke, ed., European Diplomacy Between Two Wars, 1919-1939, Quadrangle Books, 1972, pp. 193-220.


Weinberg, Gerhard, "Secret Hitler-Benes Negotiations in 1936-37," Journal of Central European Affairs, v. 19, no. 4, Jan. 1960, pp. 366-374.


Weinberg, Gerhard, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II 1937-1939, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.


Young, Robert, In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning 1933-1940, Harvard University Press, 1978.


Zorach, Jonathan, "Czechoslovakia's Fortifications: Their Development and Role in the 1938 Munich Crisis," Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen, vol. 20, 1976, pp. 81-94.



[1]  See Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1948) for an early criticism of Munich; Milan Hauner, "Czechoslovakia as a Miliary Factor in British Considerations of 1938," Journal of Strategic Studies, v. 1, no. 2 (Sept. 1978), 194-222 and Williamson Murray, The Change in the Balance of Power 1938-1939 (Princeton University Press, 1984) are more recent critiques along these lines.

[2]  See Roderick MacLeod and Denis Kelly (eds.), The Ironside Diaries (David MacKay Company, Inc., 1962) and Brian Bond (ed.), Chief of Staff: the Diaries of Lt.-General Sir Henry Pownall (Archon Books, 1973) for contemporary supporters of the Munich settlement in this regard.  More recent supporters include Montgomery Hyde, British Air Policy Between the Wars (William Heinemann Ltd., 1976), 436; Roy Douglas, "Chamberlain and Appeasement," in The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement (George Allen & Unwin, 1983), Wolfgang Mommsen and Lothar Kettenacker, eds., 79-88; and Gerhard Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II 1937-1939 (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 463.

[3]  Hauner, 196.

[4]  Williamson Murray takes this approach in explaining Chamberlain's policy: "By nature he was incapable of understanding and dealing with men like Hitler", 58.  A.J.P. Taylor has a less judgemental view: "Timidity, or doubt of British strength, did not effect his calculations . . . He believed that Hitler could be won for peace."  The Origins of the Second World War (Atheneum, 1962), 157.

[5]  CAB 23/90, Cabinet Minutes and Conclusions, 1 Dec. 1937.

[6]  CAB 23/92, Cabinet minutes, 12 March 1938.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Cab 23/92, Cabinet minutes, 12 Mar. 1938.

[9]  Cab 23/92, Cabinet minutes, 14 Mar. 1938.

[10]  Cab 23/93, Cabinet minutes, 22 Mar. 1938.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, Third Series (His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1949-1950), vol. 1, no. 115, Henderson to Halifax, 24 March 1938 (hereafter referred to as DBFP).

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Cab 24/276, CP 100(38), Minutes of meeting between British and French Ministers, 29 April 1938.

[15]  Parts of this report (Cab 27/627, COS 698) are quoted in the minutes of the March 22 Cabinet meeting; it is also described in Hauner, 195-198.

[16]  Cited in Hauner, 197.

[17]  According to Hauner, the report was based on a '1933-1935 Czechoslovakia Military Handbook' prepared by M.I.3, and therefore took no account of the increases in the Czech Army or the fortifications completed in the intervening three years.

[18]  C.I.D. 1366-B (Nov. 1937), "Comparison of the Strength of Great Britain with that of Certain Other Nations as of January 1938," in CAB 23/90, Cabinet Minutes and Conclusions, 8 Dec. 37.

[19]  Cab 23/93, Cabinet minutes, 22 Mar. 1938

[20]  Cab 23/93, Cabinet minutes, 22 Mar. 1938.

[21]  Lawrence Pratt, East of Malta, West of Suez (Cambridge University Press, 1975), 2.

[22]  Cab 23/92, Cabinet minutes, 16 Feb. 1938.

[23]  For a detailed examination of the economic constraints on German rearmament, see Murray, 4-17.

[24]  Cab 23/92, Cabinet minutes, 16 Feb. 1938; Cab 23/93, Cabinet minutes, 22 Mar. 1938.

[25]  Cab 23/98, Cabinet minutes, 18 Mar. 1939.

[26]  Pratt, 30.

[27]  Pratt, 7-12.

[28]  John Dunabin, "The British Military Establishment and the Policy of Appeasement," in The Mommsen and Kettenacker, 178.

[29]  Murray, 83.

[30]  The second-heaviest was 500 tons on Coventry on November 14, 1940, while the figure for other raids varied between 400 and 50 tons.  Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment (Maurice Temple Smith Ltd., 1972), 111.

[31]  N. H. Gibbs, Grand Strategy, Vol. !, Rearmament Policy (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1976), 533.

[32]  Ibid., 534.

[33]  Dunabin, 180.

[34]  Brian Bond, "The Continental Commitment in British Strategy in the 1930s," in Mommsen and Kettenacker, 201.

[35]  Cab 24/274, C.P. 26(38), "The Organisation of the Army for its role in War," 10 Feb. 1938.

[36]  Ibid.

[37]  Gibbs, 470.

[38]  Bond, "The Continental Commitment . . .," in Mommsen and Kettenacker, 203.

[39]  Ibid., 199.

[40]  E. M. Robertson, Hitler's Pre-War Policy and Military Plans 1933-1939 (Longman's, Green and Co. Ltd., 1963), 125.

[41]  Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, Series D, 1937-1941, vol. 2 (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), no. 221, "Case Green" Directive, 30 May 1938 (hereafter referred to as DGFP).

[42]  Cab 23/93, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 25 May 1938.

[43]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 575, Henderson to Halifax, 3 August 1938; Ibid., no. 593, 8 August 1938; Ibid., no. 658, 21 August 1938.

[44]  Cab 23/94, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 30 Aug. 1938.

[45]  Ibid.

[46]  Ibid.

[47]  Cab 23/95, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 12 September 1938.

[48]  Murray, 210.

[49]  Ibid., citing PRO Cab 21/544, 210.

[50]  Cab 23/95, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 17 Sept. 1938.

[51]  Ibid.

[52]  Ibid.  The Cabinet was debating whether to accept Hitler's demands, which Chamberlain recommended, after Chamberlain's first visit to Berchtesgaden.  The comments by Lord Privy Seal, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, President of Board of Trade, and the Minister of Health are all along these lines (the other ministers supported Chamberlain).

[53]  Ibid.

[54]  Ibid.

[55]  Cab 23/95, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 10:30 am, 25 Sept. 1938.

[56]  Ibid. , minutes of Cabinet meetings from 25-27 Sept. 1938.  The ministers on record as opposing recommending Czechoslovakia to accept the terms were Halifax, Duff Cooper, Stanley, De La Warr, Hailsham, Walter Elliot, W. S. Morrison, Hore-Belisha, and Sir John Simon.

[57]  Cab 23/95, minutes of Cabinet meeting, 12:00 pm, 26 Sept. 1938.

[58]  Hauner, 203; Murray, 54.

[59]  DBFP, vol. 1, no. 120, Memorandum by Stronge, 29 March 1938.

[60]  In 1935, Czechoslovakia became the world's leading exporter of small arms.  Hauner, 203.

[61]  The Czechs only had about 350 of these tanks, versus about 2100 German Pzkw Is and IIs (very light tanks armed only with machine guns).  700 tanks of a new series were on order but none were delivered before 30 September.  These were an important asset for the Germans in 1940, however -- one third of the German tanks that attacked France were Czech-built.  Hauner, 208-209.

[62]  David Vital, "Czechoslovakia and the Powers, September 1938," in European Diplomacy Between Two Wars, 1919-1939, Hans Gatzke, ed.(Quadrangle Books, 1972), 204.

[63]  DBFP, vol. 1, no. 120, Memorandum by Military Attaché in Prague, 29 March 1938.

[64]  Vital, 194.

[65]  Jonathan Zorach, "Czechoslovakia's Fortifications: Their Development and Role in the 1938 Munich Crisis," in Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen, vol. 20, 1976, 83.

[66]  Murray, 120.

[67]  Zorach, 84.

[68]  Murray, 120.

[69]  Zorach, 84.

[70]  Zorach, p. 85.

[71]  Zorach, 89.

[72]  Zorach, 90.

[73]  Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (United States Government Printing Office, 1946), 375-PS, "Case Green with Wider Implications," 25 August 1938.

[74]  DBFP, vol. 1, no. 120, Memorandum by Military Attaché in Prague, 29 March 1938.

[75]  Hauner, 201.

[76]  Murray, 233-234.

[77]  DBFP, vol. 1, no. 120, Memorandum by Stronge, 29 March 1938.

[78]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 794, Memorandum by Stronge, 3 Sept. 1938.

[79]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 952, Newton to Halifax (passing along report by Stronge), 19 Sept. 1938.

[80]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 1170, Newton to Halifax, 28 Sept. 1938.

[81]  DBFP, vol. 1, no. 196, Memorandum by Mason-MacFarlane, 9 May 1938.

[82]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 1113, Mason-MacFarlane to Halifax, 26 Sept. 1938; Ibid., no. 1148, Newton to Halifax, 27 Sept. 1938.

[83]  DGFP, no. 473, Eisenlohr to Foreign Ministry, 14 Sept. 1938.

[84]  DGFP, no. 515, Toussaint to Supreme Headquarters, 17 Sept. 1938; Ibid., no. 529, 19 Sept. 1938.

[85]  DGFP, no. 640, Hencke to Supreme HQ, 27 Sept. 1938.

[86]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 342, Halifax to Phipps, 27 Sept. 1938.

[87]  CAB 23/95, "Statement made by the Prime Minister to the Cabinet on Monday, 26 September, as to information conveyed to him that morning by General Gamelin."

[88]  DBFP, vol. 2, no. 1202, Phipps to Halifax, 28 Sept. 1938.

[89]  C.P. 200 (38), COS 765, 14 September 1938.

[90]  Józef Lipski, Diplomat in Berlin 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 1968), Document 98, Beck (Polish Foreign Minister) to Lipski (Polish ambassador to Berlin), 19 Sept. 1938; DGFP, vol. 2, no. 363, Fabricius (German minister in Rumania) to Foreign Ministry, 17 Aug. 1938.

[91]  DGFP, vol. 2, no. 396, Schulenberg (German ambassador to USSR) to Foreign Ministry, 26 Aug. 1938; DBFP, vol. 1, no. 151, memorandum from Col. Firebrace, 18 April 1938.

[92]  Murray, 124.

[93]  Lipski, docs. 108-115, Sept. 27-Oct. 1; DGFP, vol. 2, no. 465, Heeren (German minister in Yugoslavia) to Foreign Ministry, 12 Sept. 1938; DGFP, vol. 2, no. 360, Rümelin (German minister in Bulgaria) to Foreign Ministry, 15 Aug. 1938; Nuremberg documents, 2796-PS, Report of meeting between Ribbentrop and Hungarian ministers Imredy and Kamja.

[94]  75% of French coal and textile production, 90% of iron ore, pig iron, and steel output, and 70% of oil refining capability was in this area.  Robert Young, In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning (Harvard University Press, 1978), 18

[95]  Young, 16-17.

[96]  Robert Young, "La Guerre de Longue Durée: Some Reflections on French Strategy and Diplomacy in the 1930s," in General Staffs and Diplomacy Before the Second World War (Croom Helm Ltd., 1978), Adrian Preston, ed., 46-48.

[97]  Murray, 240-241.

[98]  Quoted in Hauner, 199.

[99]  Murray, 262-263.

[100]  Williamson Murray estimated that the Germans seized enough equipment to equip nearly thirty divisions.  Murray, 291-292.

[101]  In 1938, the British estimated that Germany could maintain their industry for one year during wartime.  In 1939, they increased that estimate to 18 months.  Dunabin, 179.

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