On September 30, 1938, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy signed the Munich Agreement, which sanctioned Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.
The independence of Czechoslovakia was officially proclaimed in 1918, following the collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of World War I. The ensuing treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye officially defined the borders of the new state, which incorporated the German-speaking territories of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.
Due to the new country’s centralized political structure, nationalism soon arose in the non-Czech nationalities, and several parties and movements were formed with the aim of fighting for broader political autonomy, with ethnic Germans and Hungarians openly agitating against the territorial settlements.
By 1933, encouraged by the newly founded Sudeten German Party, led by Konrad Henlein and financed by Nazi Germany, the particularly large German minority living in the Sudetenland region, which ranges across western Bohemia and northern Moravia, started demanding autonomy from Czechoslovakia, claiming they were oppressed by the national government.
Exploiting the dissatisfaction of unemployed workers in the Sudetenland, where the heavily industrialized economy had come almost to a standstill as a result of the Great Depression, and capitalizing on discontent over the ethnic discrimination practiced in the region by Czech officials, the party received almost two-thirds of the Sudeten German vote in the parliamentary elections of May 1935, forming the second largest bloc in the new parliament.
After meeting with Konrad Henlein in Berlin in 1938, Adolf Hitler established the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a paramilitary organization composed mainly of ethnic German citizens of Czechoslovakia with pro-Nazi sympathies, who was sheltered, trained and equipped by the German army to conduct cross border terrorist operations into Czechoslovak territory.
Avoiding war at all cost
As Adolf Hitler continued to make inflammatory speeches demanding that Germans in Czechoslovakia be reunited with their homeland, war seemed imminent. But neither France nor Britain felt prepared to defend Czechoslovakia and both were anxious to avoid a military confrontation with Nazi Germany at almost any cost.
In a last-minute effort to avoid war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proposed that a four-power conference be convened immediately to settle the dispute. Hitler agreed, and on September 29, Hitler, Chamberlain, his French counterpart Édouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini met in Munich.
A deal was quickly reached and at about 1:30 a.m. on September 30, 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and Édouard Daladier signed the so-called Munich Agreement, which stipulated that the German army was to complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by October 10, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.
Without ever having been consulted in Munich, Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. Finding itself abandoned by the Western powers and realizing the hopelessness of resisting Nazi Germany alone, the Czechoslovak government capitulated.
The Munich Betrayal
Most of Europe celebrated the Munich Agreement, and both Daladier and Chamberlain returned home to jubilant welcoming crowds relieved that the threat of war had passed, and Chamberlain told the British public that he had achieved “peace with honour, peace for our time.” But his words were immediately challenged by Winston Churchill, who declared, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
Known as the “Munich Betrayal” or the “Munich Diktat” among Czechs and Slovaks, the Munich Agreement was soon followed by the First Vienna Award, which awarded Hungary Czechoslovakia’s largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Ruthenia.
Chamberlain’s appeasement policies were ultimately discredited the following year when, in March 1939, Slovakia declared its independence from Czechoslovakia to side with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia.
World War II broke out the following September and, although it did buy time for the Allies to increase their military preparedness, the Munich Agreement quickly became a byword for the futility of appeasing expansionist totalitarian states.
After World War II the Sudetenland was restored to Czechoslovakia, which expelled most of the German inhabitants and repopulated the area with Czechs.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.