The Bell of Treason: The 1938 Munich Agreement in Czechoslovakia, by PE Caquet, Profile Books, £20, 280 pp, ISBN: 978-1781257104
Neville Chamberlain’s unshakeable belief in 1938 that he had prevented war in Europe – “peace for our time” – is well known. Applauded by a grateful public for handing over a portion of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at the Munich conference, his French counterpart played a part in a less familiar scene in the Sudetenland tragedy. Expecting to be booed on his arrival home, Édouard Daladier asked his pilot to delay landing while he drank champagne for courage. Greeted by a rejoicing crowd, he muttered: “The fools! If only they knew what they are cheering.” Among the world’s most advanced countries in the interwar period, Pierre Caquet writes in The Bell of Treason, the Munich agreement pushed Czechoslovakia into “a long time in darkness”. In March 1939, less than six months after this betrayal by Britain and France, Nazi Germany annexed the remainder of the Czech lands. Poland was next on Hitler’s list.
In 1993 a book warned of impending catastrophe in what had been the federal state of Yugoslavia. When civil war erupted in Bosnia and Serbs besieged Sarajevo, NATO dithered over whether to intervene to help the Bosnian Muslims. President Clinton, it is said, read Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts – a history of ethnic rivalry in the region – and decided not to respond forcefully. Bosnia’s Muslims were left to their fate: Bosnia became the site of the first concentration camps and systematic civilian massacres in Europe since the Second World War. How a work of political analysis is written can be just as important as what it says, Pierre Cacquet writes. “If two populations are described as having forever been at each other’s throats, a certain fatalism will inform the result. If they are defined as one people divided by a fluctuating linguistic or cultural barrier, and who have only really found themselves driven to strife by demagogues from time to time, the suggested remedy is likely to be different … Balkan Ghosts glides over periods of peace to give the relentless impression of a region seething with age-old and unsolvable hatreds.”
The vocabulary of a historical debate is important. “Some historians of Munich or of interwar Czechoslovakia,” writes Cacquet, “have described the Sudeten Germans as ethnic Germans. At the time, few people employed the word ‘ethnic’ for the simple reason that they used the even more questionable term ‘race’. ‘Race’ was used by reporters to describe what separated Czechs and Germans; the word was deployed in The Times; it was taken up in Foreign Office despatches. The British ambassador in Berlin, Neville Henderson, even called the Czechs a ‘pig-headed race’.” But “ethnic” is a misleading term, Caquet contends, because it evokes common ancestry. Germans and Czechs were thus depicted as if their ancestors had all belonged to one or the other national group. In this argument, the bond of ethnicity is not so much common kinship as an accepted myth of shared origins. “Identities fluctuated throughout the Bohemian kingdom’s thousand-year history, dependent on factors including locality, class, religion, language, and dynastic allegiance. The Hussites may have been predominantly Czech-speaking, but they were primarily a religious movement. The Habsburgs, after they durably took over the kingdom in the seventeenth century, followed more or less intentionally Germanising policies.” A perusal of people’s names shows that what were described as separate Slavic and German groups were actually an extensively intermixed population.
Languages too could mix. In some places German and Czech crossed over into a single local dialect. “The evidence suggests that people repeatedly intermarried and/or crossed over from one linguistic group to the other. Many Czechs today retain a German family name or are called Nemec, the very word for ‘German’.” In what became Czechoslovakia, language as a criterion of nationality dated only from the nineteenth century. In the 1910 census, declarations of nationality by citizens of the multinational Habsburg empire depended on various factors such as family, place of residence or workplace. The Sudetenland Germans whom Hitler and his Czechoslovak puppet, Konrad Henlein, claimed as theirs, “were of a very ambiguous nationality”. Furthermore, the Sudetenland itself had been invented relatively recently – the coinage is attributed to a 1902 magazine article. Nazi paraphernalia, with its costumes and flags, was perfect for the pan-Germanists who wanted to deepen an “ethnic” boundary between the German and Czech populations who shared the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia had its own Balkan Ghosts. The work of a journalist and historian, Elizabeth Wiskemann, Czechs and Germans appeared in June 1938. This contended that “the Germans and the Slavs” had fought over Bohemia for centuries. Caquet observes: “That most of Bohemia’s history had arguably been pre-national or that culture, history, symbols were all things Henlein and Hitler had been actively exploiting to ideological ends – these points failed to merit a mention.”
Tradition can be manufactured. “Relationships began to deteriorate at the personal level in the mid- to late 1930s. Ordinary people’s testimonials differ as to when exactly this happened … Most recall that it was only in 1937 and 1938 that mutual hostility, hitherto confined to narrow, mostly Prague-based political and academic circles, spilled out into daily life in the towns and villages of the Sudetenland. Germans and Czechs each began shopping with their own. Sudeten German men and women took to wearing Tyrolean garb: lederhosen, long peasant dresses, pointy feathered caps, and especially white stockings or socks, a classic case of reinvented tradition helping to cement ideologically inspired ethnic strife.” Caquet quotes a woman who was a schoolgirl when “our everyday lives” changed. “My friend Margareta and I visited each other regularly, we did our homework together, and we went together, even though I was not religious, to the devotional ceremonies in May because the church smelled of lilies, they played the organ, and there reigned there a quiet dusk. After the death of my mother, she became the closest person to me. Then one day Margareta told me that we would not be seeing each other anymore. When I asked her why, she said that I am Czech and that her mother forbade it.” As Henlein negotiated with the government in Prague, his party intimidated those who did not support him in the Sudetenland.
Those “of German blood” who participated in Czech cultural activities – actors, musicians, broadcasters – were identified in the periodical of Henlein’s party, the Sudetendeutsche Partei (SdP). The names of those who apologised and swore not to do so again were also published. Propagandists in small towns went further. Named “traitors” – those who sent their children to Czech schools – were threatened with the gallows. The 1938 municipal elections were important for the party, creating the opportunity to speak for a greater number of Sudeten Germans. Company owners friendly to the Nazis were encouraged to bus their employees to the polling booths, telling them who to vote for. Some social democrats were threatened with dismissal or actually fired. In more than half the municipalities only a single party list appeared. Henlein even created his own paramilitaries, dressed in black riding boots and with other SS-type paraphernalia (though minus swastika). Attacks on opponents, Czechs and Jews multiplied in the spring and summer of 1938. Henlein’s party won more than eighty per cent of the vote, but one estimate suggests that one-third of the German population was denied a choice of parties, that is a free vote. Nor is it clear that all Sudeten Germans understood a vote for Henlein to be a vote for secession. Many members of the German parties that had been “merged” with it may have believed otherwise. In the previous free election in the Sudetenland, Henlein’s party won around sixty per cent of the German vote there.
Heavily industrialised, with coal, steel and textiles, the Sudetenland suffered more than the rest of Czechoslovakia during the Depression. Unemployment rose to fifteen per cent in the predominantly German areas, and, naturally, blame fell on the government. As Hitler’s labour surplus shrank with his mass enlistment programme, Sudeten Germans found employment across the border. This reinforced existing grievances and facilitated Nazi propaganda. While outside observers concerned themselves with perceived or actual inequalities such as the number of German teachers per capita, or the number of German-speaking civil servants in the Sudetenland, these factors mattered only in that they reinforced the minority status the German population disliked so much. By such yardsticks conditions were far better in Czechoslovakia than in German-speaking enclaves in Italy and Poland. In fact there were more German schools per capita of German-speakers in Czechoslovakia than in Prussia. Caquet defines the Sudeten issue:
Probably the single biggest grievance of the Sudeten Germans was that they had never been recognised as a state nationality, like the Czechs and Slovaks, but only as a minority. Their share of the population, roughly on a par with that of the Slovaks, should have entitled them to that status. To political or everyday practice, it made almost no difference; the distinction was essentially psychological, a question of sentiment or pride. But sentiment, when it comes to nationalism, is everything. As the Sudeten Germans saw it, they had once been masters in their own house and they were now relegated to second-class status.
Czechoslovakia needed friends, but they were not to be found within the Anglo-French Entente partnership. The British ambassador in Prague had been previously posted in Berlin; he routinely addressed his Czech counterparts in German. Prior to Anglo-French talks, he had advised the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, to make the necessary concessions to Henlein and allow Czechoslovakia fall into the German orbit. A foreign office mediator, Lord Runciman, had Wiskemann’s book in his hands when photographed in London en route to Prague. Before he left, he wrote to Chamberlain: “What a cockpit Bohemia has always been! For 800 years they have quarrelled and fought … How can we succeed?” “Domestically,” Caquet writes, “the Czechoslovaks faced the difficult task of uniting the nation while trying to conciliate what portions of the Sudeten German community remained hostile or lukewarm towards Henlein – and they had to do this while remaining responsive to Allied demands. A triangular contest began involving the Entente partners, the Sudeten Germans, and the Czechoslovaks. The Czechoslovaks strained to ensure their Western partners remained on board, while the Henleinists sought to instil enough doubt and room for manoeuvre to ensure they were not. Behind them stood Hitler, ready to resort to threats whenever Henlein’s tactics came unstuck.”
Hitler’s annual Nuremberg rally was an ominous occasion –parades lit up by searchlight beams, marching paramilitaries, speeches spewing hate. But Czechs were listening very carefully to the radio in September 1938, because, this year, their country was the centre of attention at the Nazi festival. Leading Nazis such as Goering and Goebbels fired up the Nuremberg faithful: “that little fragment of a nation down there” with the “Jewish-Bolshevist rabble” behind it. Secret services had picked up signals that Germany intended to invade Czechoslovakia; Hitler’s closing speech on the final day might be the occasion for a declaration of war. That declaration did not come – not directly. Economically, Hitler stated, the Sudeten Germans were being “systematically ruined”. They endured “indescribable” misery. They were being beaten “until the blood flows” because “they wear stockings the sight of which offends the Czechs”. Hitler accused Czechoslovakia’s president, Edvard Beneš, of warmongering, with the Czechoslovak May mobilisation as evidence, and announced that he had again increased the size of his army and air force. He demanded “self-determination” for the Sudeten Germans and warned of “serious consequences” if his demands were not met.
As if on cue, Henlein’s foot soldiers attempted a full-scale takeover of western Bohemia. Smuggled weapons were now put to use. They targeted border posts, police and gendarmerie stations and telephone exchanges. Czech and Jewish shops were set alight and police, anti-fascist Germans and Czechs attacked. Gun fights broke out as the local authorities responded. The government finally banned Henlein’s party and its paramilitary arm and closed its periodicals. A German armoured column evacuated Henlein into the Reich as Hitler’s “atrocity propaganda” about “Hussite hordes” reached new heights. “Yet the most surprising thing about the Sudetenland uprising is how contained its toll actually was,” Caquet notes. “The most reliable casualty list for the events of 12-15 September has the number of dead at twenty-nine, of which eleven were Sudeten Germans, thirteen gendarmes or civil servants, and five Czech civilians. There were perhaps seventy-five wounded. This did not just reflect official restraint in dealing with the disorders. Actually the revolt itself was limited in breadth. Demonstrators and rioters, when all put together, represented a tiny percentage of the total population … Martial law needed to be imposed in only sixteen out of forty-nine border or Sudetenland districts.” As Henlein’s organisation crumbled, significant concessions to Sudeten demands were put on the table. The Sudetenland was close to ceasing to be “a ticking time-bomb in the heart of Europe”. Then, in an extraordinary twist, Chamberlain announced that he would meet Hitler in Berchtesgaden.
When this news broke in Czechoslovakia it was greeted with disbelief. Journalists initially dismissed it as a hoax. The omens were not good, as the Austrian chancellor had made his own trip to Berchtesgaden just four weeks before the Anschluss. Czechoslovaks knew that Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler on German soil would fuel Nazi demands and that they would have to pay the price. An editorial in The Times a week earlier had caused concern: “If the Sudetens are not satisfied with the last Czech offer, it can only be inferred that they do not find themselves at ease within the Republic. In that case it might be well for the Czechoslovak Government to consider whether a solution should not be sought on some totally different lines, which would make Czechoslovakia an entirely homogenous State by the secession of that fringe of alien populations who are contiguous to the nations with which they are united by race.” A Czechoslovak newspaper asked the obvious question: “How did Hitlerite policies manage to hypnotise the world into believing that the Sudeten Germans were the issue on which world peace turned, and that it must be resolved based on Berlin’s sole wishes?” Aged sixty-nine, Chamberlain flew to Munich – he had never been in an aeroplane before – and then travelled by train for three hours to Hitler’s mountain retreat. The Nazi dictator harangued and threatened him, after which he gave a qualified assent to the proposal that the Sudeten region secede “on the basis of the right to self-determination”. The British prime minister agreed to return to Germany following consultation with his cabinet and the French. Hitler held the strongest cards here, down to his choice of venues on home ground. At talks in London the French suddenly backed down and agreed to Chamberlain’s terms, which aimed to “satisfy Hitler”. But when Chamberlain returned to meet the dictator in Germany, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia hand over a redrawn, expanded Sudetenland. Rejected, Germany threatened war and Czechoslovakia mobilised its armed forces.
Caquet’s powerful argument on the actions of the British and French in this crisis is strengthened by his points on Czechoslovakia itself. The Czechoslovaks were not merely angry about the imminent carve-up of their country, he contends; they were in a position to defend it. Their plan involved withdrawing, as slowly as possible, into Slovakia, sacrificing Prague. “An initial stand was to be made on the fortified line which, where it held, was to facilitate this withdrawal. The aim was meanwhile to give France maximum time to push against Germany’s western flank. If the enemy could be fended off long enough for Soviet help to arrive and/or the Allies to make serious inroads into Germany, a counter-attack was to be launched from the Slovak redoubt. If not, the goal was to inflict maximum casualties, then blow up all domestic military assets. The strategy had been agreed with the French who, though they could not relieve the Czechoslovaks directly, planned to advance into the Rhineland.”
Jan Syrový – a war hero who had commanded the Czechoslovak legion – led the new government in Prague. The legion was a formation mainly composed of prisoners of war who had initially fought alongside the Russians during the First World War. Some 40,000-strong, and set on joining the Allies on the Western Front, it had to travel through Russia to Vladivostok following the Brest-Litovsk treaty between the Germans and the Bolsheviks. Having fought Austrians and Germans, it then took on the Red Army and ended up controlling the trans-Siberian railway and effectively much of Siberia. General Syrový’s legion was eventually evacuated and comprised the nucleus of Czechoslovakia’s new army. In 1938, the combined Czechoslovak and French forces were double those of Germany. “Retrospectively,” Caquet writes, “the potential role of France in a conflict beginning in 1938 has been completely overshadowed by the collapse of May 1940 and the irresistible urge to account for it.” The Versailles treaty had significantly hampered Hitler’s rearmament efforts.
The story of 1930s rearmament is too easily misconstrued if the fundamental difference is ignored that France, or indeed Czechoslovakia, faced no such limitations. “Czechoslovakia possessed a world-class armaments industry that was a significant exporter. The Skoda works alone nearly matched in output the whole of the British armaments industry.
Germany’s military capability was strengthened by Munich: Hitler’s armoured columns that spearheaded blitzkrieg actions in 1939 and 1940, built with Czechoslovakia’s knowledge and stockpiles, did not yet exist in 1938.
Between Chamberlain’s two trips to Germany, both the Labour and Liberal leaders argued against further appeasement of Hitler. Winston Churchill warned: “The partition of Czechoslovakia under pressure from England and France amounts to the complete surrender of the Western democracies to the Nazi threat of force. It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced, but also the freedom and the democracy of all nations.” One week later Chamberlain made his infamous remarks about preparing for war because of “a quarrel in a faraway country” between people “of whom we know nothing”. Following Hitler’s “peace or war” speech in Berlin, Parisian concierges distributed sand to put out anticipated fires caused by German incendiary bombs and the streets were choked with cars as thousands tried to leave the city. Londoners had already queued up for gas marks and dug trenches in Hyde Park. In a reply to Chamberlain, a Czechoslovak newspaper stated: “On a moral, cultural, economic, or social level we are as well placed as the world’s great democracies, and we are proud of it.” The Western powers did not see it this way: the Czechoslovaks were not invited to participate in the Munich conference, which granted all of Hitler’s demands in relation to the Sudetenland and which made Czechoslovakia indefensible.
Czechoslovakia lost twenty-nine per cent of its territory as a result of German, and then Polish and Hungarian, annexations. Its population dropped by one-third, close to five million people. Most of the country’s heavy industry went too, leaving it dependent on Germany for energy imports. And then there were tens of thousands of refugees to deal with. In the Sudetenland itself the Gestapo went to work, and synagogues burned. “If in Britain and France it was still possible, for a few months, to continue in the delusion that a lasting peace had been achieved,” Caquet observes, “it was indeed plain to the Czechs and Slovaks that they had been delivered into the German vice.” Pierre Caquet’s The Bell of Treason is a moving account of the destruction not of some faraway land riven with unresolvable ethnic hatreds but of a European democracy.
John Mulqueen’s study of Irish republicanism and the Cold War is being prepared for publication by Liverpool University Press.