The occupation of Austria made the situation of Czechoslovakia most difficult. The young Republic found herself surrounded on all sides, with the exception of her short common frontier with Rumania, by three states, Germany, Hungary and Poland, who laid claim to some of her territory and who, with the support of Italy, prepared a concerted action in this direction. The new strength gained by Nazi Germany, and the inflammatory speeches of some Nazi leaders, influenced large parts of the German minority in Czechoslovakia to expect, within a short time, the annexation to Nazi Germany of the territory inhabited by their minority. The Sudeten-German Party, which, under the leadership of Konrad Henlein, represented the majority of Czechoslovak-Germans, now became more and more intransigent in its demands for complete autonomy within Czechoslovakia and for the Nazification of the Czechoslovak democracy. To outside observers it seemed as if Germany had prepared for May 21 a surprise occupation of Czechoslovak territories similar to what she had done in the case of Austria. A most successful partial mobilization of the Czech army carried through at the shortest notice prevented any breach of the peace.
On March 13, Field Marshal Goering as acting Foreign Minister, had officially assured the Czechoslovak Government that Germany had no hostile designs upon her. But the tension within Czechoslovakia grew, since the Czechoslovak Germans firmly believed in the support of the German Government for their demands of complete autonomy and free development of their Nazi ideology and institutions, demands which a democratic state could not grant without undermining completely its integrity and its democratic Constitution. In spite of the presence of Lord Runciman as head of an unofficial British mission in Czechoslovakia, Germany started in August to mobilize her army to the strength of one million men, to hold army maneuvers not far distant from the Czechoslovak border, and to rush the building of most modern and impregnable fortifications along her Western frontier. For this last, a decree for the mobilization of all labor in Germany was promulgated; over 400,000 men were actually mobilized, and the whole German industry was put on a war basis, working day and night for the strengthening of the air fleet and the army.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak Government showed itself ready to grant the most far-reaching concessions to the German minority. Although, during the whole crisis, it gave proof of outstanding moderation and restraint, the German military preparations and the violent press campaign in German papers against Czechoslovakia not only went on unabated, but increased steadily in fury. Repeated warnings by the British Government to the effect that it could not remain indifferent to a war in Central Europe, and its pleas for a lessening of the tension, remained unheeded, as the German Government was convinced that Britain would not hinder Germany’s expansion in Central or Eastern Europe.
The crisis reached its culmination during the month of September. Under flimsy pretexts, the Sudeten German leaders broke off most promising negotiations with the Czechoslovak Government. Chancellor Hitler and Konrad Henlein met on Sept. 1 at Berchtesgaden, and Chancellor Hitler demanded, on Sept. 12, in his speech at the Party Congress at Nuremberg, “self-determination” for the Sudeten Germans, implying their right to secede from Czechoslovakia. At this moment the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, personally intervened. He asked Chancellor Hitler for an interview which was granted him at Berchtesgaden on Sept. 15. The British leading Conservative weekly, the Spectator, published in its issue of Sept. 16 an editorial article under the heading, “A Momentous Mission” in which it wrote: “Mr. Chamberlain has certainly not gone to Berchtesgaden with the idea of settling the future of Czechoslovakia over the heads of the Czechs. . . . Anxiety is to be felt regarding only one commitment into which the Prime Minister might conceivably enter, concurrence with the demand put forward by Herr Hitler in a veiled form in his Nuremberg speech for a plebiscite in the Sudeten German area. Mr. Chamberlain is more likely on many grounds to resist that demand than to endorse it.” What the Spectator had regarded as impossible or improbable, happened. In three momentous conferences, at Berchtesgaden on Sept. 15, in Godesberg on Sept. 22, and in Munich on Sept. 29, Mr. Chamberlain agreed to settlement of the question of German expansion in Czechoslovakia, without any participation on the part of the Czechoslovak Government in the deliberations, and in the growing sense of a complete cession of all the Sudeten German territory to Germany.
The agreement, signed on Sept. 29 in Munich, between Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France, sanctioned the cession to Germany of all Czechoslovak territory inhabited, according to the census of 1910, by a German majority; and the occupation of this territory within ten days, in successive stages, beginning October 1st. A commission, under German chairmanship, of delegates from Germany, Italy, Great Britain, France and Czechoslovakia, was to regulate all further questions involved in the transfer of territories and in the delimitation of new frontiers. It soon became clear that this commission acted entirely according to the wishes of Germany, and that, in the final settlement, Germany got more territorial and economic advantages than she had expected at the conclusion of the Munich agreement.
As the result of this historical crisis, Germany acquired a territory of approximately 11,583 sq. mi. (about the size of Belgium) with approximately 3,500,000 inhabitants of whom about 750,000 were Czechs. But more important for Germany than this additional territorial aggrandizement, which brought the increase in her population within one year to about ten million, was the fact that the remainder of Czechoslovakia lay entirely defenseless before Germany, having lost her natural and strategic frontiers and fortifications. This new Czechoslovakia became for all practical purposes an integral part of the economic, political and strategic system of Germany, an important spearhead for German penetration into Rumania, Hungary and beyond. The position thus acquired within one year, without a war, put Germany into a much stronger position than even Bismarck’s Germany had occupied after three victorious wars. At the same time, the influence of France and Great Britain in Central and Eastern Europe came practically to an end, and the smaller states of Central and Southeastern Europe were forced to veer toward the political and economic orbit of Germany.