In the Anglo-Saxon world, you probably know the events through this September 30th, 1938 speech by Neville Chamberlain, "the peace for our time" (the name of the video above is wrong: "peace in our time" comes from Anglican prayers). Once he returned from Munich, this clueless conservative boasted that he befriended Herr Hitlər which would bring the eternal peace to everyone. His equally clueless audience applauded.
Note that the peace was "guaranteed" by having solved the "Czechoslovakian problem", a phrase that ethical leaders are unlikely to use for their allies. Czechoslovakia and its assertive, self-confident, U.S.-style democracy quickly found out it had no friends. Because I have used the acronym "U.S." in the previous sentence, you could have thought that Czechoslovakia could have been thinking at least about the U.S. support. Not at all. When Franklin Roosevelt heard Chamberlain's words above, he sent him a telegram with two words: Good man. ;-)
The Munich Pact – or the Munich Betrayal as we frequently call it in Czech (because we were betrayed by Britain and especially France) or the Munich Dictate (because no Czechoslovak representative was invited to the negotiations about our fate) – strengthened the Third Reich to the extent that the Second World War became inevitable. Germany's reasons to be afraid of attacks against other countries shrank by a huge factor.
The betrayal of Czechoslovakia by its Western allies, Britain and France, also increased the political capital that Stalin and his USSR enjoyed in Czechoslovakia which made those 40 years of communism that came soon after the war mostly inevitable, too.
What has led to the events? I've studied lots of sources and it's pretty fascinating to see that up to a moment in 1938 or 1939, Europe was enjoying its mostly happy life based on the 19th-century-style nation states that sometimes participate in minor wars. These days, when we talk about wars, we tend to imagine "world wars" that polarize all nations in the world (fascists vs the rest, communism vs capitalism etc.) and in which almost everyone may play a role on one side or another.
However, the pre-1938 world was much more colorful and diverse. Even in the late 1930s, countries had to think about their relationships with many neighbors and other countries and none of these relationships followed the same template. How did the foreign political reasoning work in Czechoslovakia? Let's have a look at the map of Europe from 1920:
Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, after the First World War, as the mostly West Slavic portion of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. For several previous centuries, Czechs and Slovaks lived a tolerable life within the monarchy. We hadn't had a Czech (or Slovak, ever) emperor for several centuries and the name of the country ignored us but the political representatives more or less had the expected rights in Vienna and no one prevented the Czech lands from becoming the most industrialized region of the monarchy.
The new country was created mostly by Prof Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a politician and scholar who had an American wife and who convinced Western leaders, especially Woodrow Wilson, that it was a great idea to establish the new country whose system would be something in between the French and U.S. democracy. The Czechoslovak nation had a majority in it and it was framed as a single nation, despite the very different histories in the recent 1,000 years. Germans represented over 1/4 of the population and they enjoyed at least a "comparable status" within Czechoslovakia as Czechoslovakia enjoyed within the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.
Look at the neighbors of the country. The Soviet Union was considered a hostile country as key politicians repeatedly criticized the totalitarian manners in the USSR and Lenin's being a typical small Russian "muzhik" (little man). Ironically enough, Germany was considered OK until 1933 – only when Hitler came to power, people started to at least think about the possibility that Germany could become a foe. Of course, Germany's status as a threat was completely obvious by 1938, along with the status of Austria that was incorporated into Germany in early 1938 (the Anschluss).
Romania was viewed as a problem-free ally but it was heavily underdeveloped and sort of irrelevant in the key power games of Central Europe. (Romania ceased to be a neighbor of Czechoslovakia after the war when Ruthenia, a small Eastern piece of Czechoslovakia on the map above, was transferred to Ukraine within the USSR.)
Hungary was considered the most likely enemy in a possible war as recently as in the middle 1930s. Hungary tended to try all sorts of pathological social arrangements you may think of – there was even a Soviet Republic of Hungary sometimes around 1920. Its inclinations to fascism were clear and all these problems were amplified by the large Hungarian minority living in Slovakia.
I haven't mentioned another neighbor, Poland. Superficial observers from a distance could think that the status of both Slavic countries was very similar and they were bound to be friends etc. But this wasn't the case. You know that Poland is one of the most religious countries in Europe while the Czechs are the most atheist nation in the world. This is just a tip of an iceberg of differences. The Poles were viewed as too feudal, agricultural, backward-oriented by the "modern" – often somewhat socialist but non-Marxist – pro-industrialist, anti-feudal politicians in Czechoslovakia. Poland was definitely not viewed as a friend at any moment before the war. The moderately hostile relationships got worse during the Seven-Day War in 1919 that focused on a relatively small territory of Cieszyn Silesia. In the late 1930s, the disappearance of French-Polish ties was however bad news for Czechoslovakia, too.
If you were listening, Czechoslovakia could have counted one friend, Romania, and that country was pretty irrelevant. Of course, that would be a dangerous situation and that's not quite how the safety of the country was outlined in the long run. The primary allies were, according to several pacts, Britain and especially France. In some sense, France was the only "direct European friend" of Czechoslovakia among the powers and Britain was supposed to be on the same side due to some powerful treaties between France and Britain. I would say that France has mostly betrayed us due to the pressure from Britain.
The equilibrium was pretty complicated but it was mostly balanced, too. All of it began to collapse in the late 1930s. I hope that every reader realizes that the collapse of the status quo was Hitler's primary goal in the late 1930s and all other issues that were discussed were just fabricated and abused by the bizarre leader to achieve his main goal.
The borderland regions of Czechoslovakia – usually the mountains near the borders and sometimes even mountains that are not quite near the borders – were mostly settled by ethnic Germans while the ethnic Czechs tended to live in the low altitudes. Not sure whether I can give you a universal scientific explanation of this correlation but that's how it worked. In the Sudetenland near the borders, ethnic Germans were a majority representing about 2/3 of the population.
Their co-existence with the Czechs was mostly OK – although not super-cordial – through the 1920s but it became annoying once Hitler came to power. NSDAP's subsidiary, Konrad Henlein's Party, was getting something like 90 percent in the Czechoslovak elections in the 1930s. It became a consensus among the Germans that they wanted to merge "their" territory with the Third Reich.
Needless to say, the German minority had the best ethnic rights among all German minorities in European countries – and probably among any minorities of any kind. They could do anything, they had their representatives, their number of German-language schools and newspapers per capita exceeded the numbers in all other countries with German minorities by orders of magnitude. I could give you lots of detailed numbers that clarify these statements.
But when someone wants to demagogically abuse the existence and defend "additional rights" of any minorities, he will always find a way to present this demagogy. Lord Walter Runciman of Doxford turned out to be the key asshole in this whole enterprise. He was sent as a messenger to calm down the tension with the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. Sometimes around September 20th, 1938, this "ally" of ours would write the following to the British government:
Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land confiscated under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these Czech invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work and relief for Czechs more readily than for Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified. Even as late as the time of my Mission, I could find no readiness on the part of the Czechoslovak Government to remedy them on anything like an adequate scale ... the feeling among the Sudeten Germans until about three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in the circumstances.These were just so hostile and disgusting lies. First of all, there were no "purely German districts". Some Czechs lived pretty much in every town. Second of all, it's completely normal that on the territory of Czechoslovakia, ethnic Czechs would be allowed to be employed as cops or postmasters anywhere. Incidentally, when the Sudetenland was stolen by Hitler, about 250,000 ethnic Czechs were de facto expelled because they lost their jobs. They were mostly state employees who were "no longer needed". Those things happened before any war erupted. Just try to compare this injustice caused by the Munich Pact to the "would-be injustice" that Czech cops "dared" to be employed in the ethnically mixed regions.
Third of all, the Land Reform didn't occur in the 1930s (so that one should present it as a relevant argument for the description of the contemporary Czech-German relationships) but in 1919, as an anti-feudal internal rearrangement within Czechoslovakia soon after the First World War that Germany and Austria lost. It was a huge reform affecting 1/3 of the soil but it's misleading to present it ethnically. It was mostly Germans who lost the soil because most aristocrats were Germans and most aspects of the feudal arrangement were simply outlawed by Czechoslovakia that decided to abandon all official aspects of the kingdom as we once knew it.
Some of the language by this "lord" is almost identical to the language of the reverse racists and feminists. Vague, ill-defined speculations about someone's being "favored". Any well-defined test would show that nothing illegitimate of the sort was taking place but if one formulates such accusations vaguely enough, he doesn't feel any pressure to justify the statements, does he? Sentences like "the rise of Nazi Germany gave them a new hope" hopefully doesn't need any comments whatsoever.
With a message like that, which was probably taken seriously by the British establishment, it can't be surprising that Britain began to treat us as enemies - and as trash. Their cordial friendship to Herr Hitler didn't last too long, did it?
I should also say that the Czechoslovak politicians were much faster and more realistic when it came to the realization of the actual German threats. Around May 1938, it was already clear to them what algorithm Hitler was probably thinking about and what were his plans in the medium term. Already back in May, Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš realized that Britain was likely not to act as an ally and because of the territorial demands, he declared partial mobilization on May 20th. That's what France and Britain should have done at the same moment, too. But of course, they were living in a fantasyland so nothing like that was even thinkable.
Between January 1938 and September 1938, the defense spending in Czechoslovakia became really intense. The whole border, especially the border with Germany, was covered by a dense chain of state-of-the-art fortification systems models 36 and 37 (with various letters). Significant improvements were done to infantry, cannons, artillery, bombers – just many of the fighter planes we had were "outdated", to say the least, relatively to the German ones, but other models were faster and better in other respects. Historians still debate for how long a time such a system could have resisted a German attack. People would talk about weeks etc. Any Blitzkrieg or excessively fast attack would be a trouble for the system, and so on. On the other hand, the extra hope was that if Hitler invaded, some allies of Czechoslovakia could have appeared, after all.
With the hindsight, it seems obvious to me that Czechoslovakia should have worked on some powerful alliances with the USSR since the mid 1930s – and yes, it's an anti-communist like myself who is saying these things. Such an alliance wouldn't imply the spread of communist ideas in Czechoslovakia; the alliance would be rather natural because of ethnic reasons. Too bad, people only realized that the situation was desperate enough for a similarly "new thinking" sometime in the middle of the war and it was sort of too late.
Another mobilization in Czechoslovakia took place on Friday, September 23rd, 1938, at 10:30 pm – one week before the signing of the Munich Treaty. Men up to 40 years of age (and sometimes even older ones) registered with their local military offices, despite the late time in the evening. Around the same time, martial law was declared at places with the highest concentration of terrorist acts by the ethnic Germans. All of it was useless, of course. These signs of despair didn't mean anything to the subpar politicians in Western Europe who got happily brainwashed by the totally undemanding propaganda by an insane leader of Germany who was a skillful enough demagogue at the same moment (but given the naivite of the Western European leaders, he didn't have to be too good).
I am still totally amazed when I think about the Western powers' reaction (just to be sure, Italy signed the pact, too, but I count it as a less important ally of Hitler only). When an allied (on the paper) country with a very similar arrangement of the government as your own sends these signals of despair, being sure that a war with a completely different kind of a power is looming, you're going to celebrate your friendship with the universal leader of the different power? It just makes no sense, at least not from the viewpoint of the "modern" and "polarized" understanding of the world in which alliances in wars must have some ideological uniformity. These guys with their fantasies about peace with Hitler were really, really stupid. Or evil. Not as evil as Adolf Hitler himself but probably evil.
It's hard to think about analogies. But imagine that hardcore Islamists overtake Pakistan and Pakistan demands portions of the U.K. with a high enough concentration of the Pakistani to be surrendered and given to Pakistan. Or Algerian places of France or whatever. At the airport, Barack Obama would enthusiastically praise his friendship with the new Islamist leader of Pakistan and boast that he has guaranteed peace for our time by surrendering a third of the U.K. to the Islamists who were surely discriminated against by the evil Britons – and that would have solved the "Britishian" problem, too. Great but what about the Islamist problem he helped to spread everywhere to the British islands? Barack Obama may be an unwise politician but I am confident he wouldn't do anything of the kind that Chamberlain did 75 years ago.
For about half a year, the rest of Czechoslovakia – we call it the "Second Republic" – was independent. In March 1939, still way before the actual war, the rest of the Czech lands was occupied by the German army while Slovakia was separated and became a pro-Hitler, mostly independent clerofascist state. At that moment, only mentally insane people could have doubted that there was no conceivable justification for Hitler's behavior and that this man would soon become an existential problem for Europe and perhaps the world. The hijacking of the rest of the Czechoslovak territory was also unsurprising because the Munich Pact didn't even contain guarantees that Hitler would respect at least the new borders of Czechoslovakia (!!!).
With these adjustments to the power balance in Europe, it was a no-brainer for Hitler to start to do things like the attack against Poland and the full-fledged war could have begun. It was destined to begin. The fact that Hitler used to have quite big plans in Europe wasn't a speculation. It was explicitly written in a book by himself. Because of a low-brow politically correct demagogy, the Western leaders couldn't see the tip of their nose which is why the world had to undergo a long and painful war, why the West had to thank God and Stalin, among others, that Hitler didn't become a world master. Stalin (but not God) was able to convert the capital to lots of power after the war.
This Czechoslovak and especially Czech experience with the Western allies undoubtedly contributed to the characteristic Czech skepticism towards political correctness, enthusiastic speeches about non-discrimination and peace, and the alliances with anyone else. Another part of the Czech national character is that the Czechs are surely tolerant, to say the least, towards things that might be called "minor and moderate sins". It's generally believed that people loudly fighting against "minor and moderate sins" are usually jerks when it comes to much more serious issues.