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Czechoslovakia: 1938 - 1939

This article is part of the article Czechoslovakia

The Munich Agreement and the Vienna Arbitration

After the Austrian Anchluss, Czechoslovakia was to become Hitler's next target. Hitler's strategy was to exploit the existing Sudeten German minority problem as a pretext for German penetration into eastern Central Europe. Sudeten German leader Henlein offered the SdP as the agent for Hitler's campaign. Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on March 28, 1938, and was instructed to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government. In the Carlsbad Decrees, issued on April 24, the SdP demanded complete autonomy for the Sudetenland and freedom to profess Nazi ideology. If Henlein's demands were granted, the Sudetenland would be in a position to align itself with Nazi Germany.

In 1938 neither Britain nor France desired war. France, not wanting to face Germany alone, subordinated itself to Britain. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain became the major spokesman for the West. Chamberlain believed that Sudeten German grievances were just and Hitler's intention limited. Both Britain and France advised Czechoslovakia to concede. Benes, however, resisted pressure to move toward autonomy or federalism for the Sudetenland. On May 20, Czechoslovakia initiated a partial mobilization in response to rumors of German troop movements. On May 30, Hitler signed a secret directive for war against Czechoslovakia to begin no later than October 1. The British government demanded that Benes request a mediator. Not wishing to sever his ties with the West, Benes reluctantly accepted mediation. The British appointed Walter Runciman as mediator and instructed him to force a solution on Benes that would be acceptable to the Sudeten Germans. On September 2, Benes submitted the Fourth Plan, which granted nearly all the demands of the Carlsbad Decrees. Intent on obstructing conciliation, the SdP held a demonstration that provoked police action at the town of Ostrava on September 7. On September 13, the Sudeten Germans broke off negotiations. Violence and disruption ensued. Czechoslovak troops attempted to restore order. Henlein flew to Germany and on September 15 issued a proclamation demanding the return of the Sudetenland to Germany.

On September 15, Hitler met with Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden and demanded the swift return of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich under threat of war. The Czechoslovaks, Hitler claimed, were slaughtering the Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain referred the demand to the British and French governments; both accepted. The Czechoslovak government resisted, arguing that Hitler's proposal would ruin the nation's economy and lead ultimately to German control of all of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France issued an ultimatum, making the French commitment to Czechoslovakia contingent upon acceptance. On September 21, Czechoslovakia capitulated. The next day, however, Hitler added new demands, insisting that the claims of Poland and Hungary for their minorities also be satisfied.

The Czechoslovak capitulation precipitated an outburst of national indignation. In demonstrations and rallies, the Czechoslovaks called for a strong military government to defend the integrity of the state. A new cabinet, under General Jan Syrovy, was installed, and on September 23 a decree of general mobilization was issued. The Czechoslovak army, highly modernized and possessing an excellent system of frontier fortifications, was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia's assistance. Benes, however, refused to go to war without the support of the Western powers. War, he believed, would come soon enough.

On September 28, Chamberlain appealed to Hitler for a conference. Hitler met the next day, at Munich, with the chiefs of government of France, Italy, and Britain. The Czechoslovak government was neither invited nor consulted. On September 29, the Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, Italy, France, and Britain. The Czechoslovak government capitulated September 30 and agreed to abide by the agreement. The Munich Agreement stipulated that Czechoslovakia must cede Sudeten territory to Germany. German occupation of the Sudetenland would be completed by October 10. An international commission (representing Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia) would supervise a plebiscite to determine the final frontier. Britain and France promised to join in an international guarantee of the new frontiers against unprovoked aggression. Germany and Italy, however, would not join in the guarantee until the Polish and Hungarian minority problems were settled.

Benes had resigned as president of the Czechoslovak Republic on October 5, 1938 and created a government-in-exile in London.

In early November 1938, under the Vienna Arbitration, which was a result of the Munich agreement, Czechoslovakia (and later Slovakia) was forced by Germany and Italy to cede southern Slovakia (1/3 of Slovak territory) to Hungary, and Poland obtained small territorial cessions shortly thereafter.

As a resut, Bohemia and Moravia lost about 38 percent of their combined area, as well as about 2.8 million Germans and approximately 750,000 Czechs to Germany. Hungary, in turn, received 11,882 square kilometers in southern Slovakia and southern Ruthenia; only 53 percent of the population in this territory was Hungarian. Poland acquired Tesin and two minor border areas in northern Slovakia.

After Munich and Vienna (The Second Republic, November 1938- March 1939)

The greatly weakened Czechoslovak Republic was forced to grant major concessions to the non-Czechs. The executive committee of the Slovak Popular Party met at Zilina on October 5, 1938, and with the acquiescence of all Slovak parties except the Social Democrats formed an autonomous Slovak government under Jozef Tiso. Similarly, the two major factions in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, the Russophiles and Ukrainophiles, agreed on the establishment of an autonomous government, which was constituted on October 8, 1938. Reflecting the spread of modern Ukrainian national consciousness, the pro-Ukrainian faction, led by Volosin, gained control of the local government, and Subcarpathian Ruthenia was renamed Carpatho-Ukraine.

In November 1938, Emil Hacha, succeeding Benes, was elected president of the federated Second Republic, renamed Czecho-Slovakia and consisting of three parts: Bohemia + Moravia, Slovakia, and Carpatho-Ukraine. Lacking its natural frontier and having lost its costly system of border fortification, the new state was militarily indefensible. In January 1939, negotiations between Germany and Poland broke down. Hitler, intent on war against Poland, needed to eliminate Czechoslovakia first. He scheduled a German invasion of Bohemia and Moravia for the morning of March 15. In the interim, he negotiated with the Slovak Popular Party and with Hungary to prepare the dismemberment of the republic before the invasion. On March 13,  he invited Jozef Tiso to Berlin and On March 14, the Slovak Diet convened and unanimously declared Slovak independence. Carpatho-Ukraine also declared independence, but Hungarian troops occupied it on March 15 and eastern Slovakia on March 23. Hitler summoned President Hacha to Berlin and during the early hours of March 15, he informed Hacha of the imminent German invasion. Threatening a Luftwaffe attack on Prague, Hitler persuaded Hacha to order the capitulation of the Czechoslovak army. On the morning of March 15, German troops entered Bohemia and Moravia, meeting no resistance. The Hungarian invasion of Carpatho-Ukraine did encounter resistance, but the Hungarian army quickly crushed it. On March 16, Hitler went to Czechoslovakia and from Prague's Hradcany Castle proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate (Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia). 

Thus, independent Czechoslovakia collapsed in the wake of foreign aggression and internal tensions. Subsequently, interwar Czechoslovakia has been idealized by its proponents as the only bastion of democracy surrounded by authoritarian and fascist regimes. It has also been condemned by its detractors as an artificial and unworkable creation of intellectuals supported by the great powers. Both views have some validity. Interwar Czechoslovakia was comprised of lands and peoples that were far from being integrated into a modern nation-state. Moreover, the dominant Czechs, who had suffered political discrimination under the Hapsburgs, were not able to cope with the demands of other nationalities. In fairness to the Czechs, it should be acknowledged that some of the minority demands served as mere pretexts to justify intervention by Nazi Germany. That Czechoslovakia was able under such circumstances to maintain a viable economy and a democratic political system was indeed a remarkable achievement of the interwar period.