Chronology
  • 23 September: Czechoslovak general mobilization
  • 28 September: The Czechoslovak government announces the Prague agreement, in which the ethnic minorities will be given autonomy
  • 28 September: France declares its intent of abiding their treaty obligations with Czechoslovakia
  • 28 September: Britain declares they will support France if they were actively involved in hostilities with Germany
  • 28 September: Germany breaks off diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia. Hitler orders the full mobilization of the Wehrmacht and that hostilities against Czechoslovakia will start on 1 October
  • 30 September: Germany invades Czechoslovakia
  • 2 October: France and the United Kingdom declares war on Germany
  • 3 October: The Soviet Union declares war on Germany

The Sudeten crisis was a diplomatic crisis among the major powers of Europe in the summer and autumn of 1938 that led to World War II.

Background

Czechoslovakia officially proclaimed their independence in Prague on 28 October 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles of 1920 recognized the independence of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was a multiethnic state with large ethnic minorities. According to the census of 1921 (based on mother tongue) Czechoslovakia had a population of 13,613,172 inhabitants, of which 3,123,568 were Germans (equivalent to 23.36% of the population), 745,431 were Hungarians (5.57% of the population) and 75,853 were Poles (0.57% of the population). Due to the large ethnic minorities, Czechoslovakia as a signatory of the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919, which committed them to providing full protection to its ethnic minorities without distinction between their nationality, language, race or religion.

The ethnic Germans lived mostly in border regions of the historical lands of Bohemia and Moravia for which they coined the new name Sudetenland, bordering on Germany and the newly created country of Austria. The Sudeten Germans were not consulted about whether they wished to be citizens of Czechoslovakia. Although the constitution guaranteed equality for all citizens, the centralized political structure of the state and a tendency among political leaders to transform the country according to Czech and Slovak nationalistic ideals.

The ethnic German part of the population initially had no interest in being part of a Czechoslovakian state, and the relationship between the Germans and the ethnic Czech part of the population was tense. Despite this, the activists (democratically oriented parties, who would cooperate within the framework of the Czechoslovakian state) had the greatest support among the Sudeten Germans, and not the negatives. The democratically oriented parties comprised the German Social Democratic Workers' Party (DSAP), the Farmers' League (BdL) and the German Christian Social People's Party (DCVP), and participated from 1926 onward in several governments. The negativists comprised the German National Party (DNP) and the German National Socialist Workers' Party (DNSAP), who opposed the Czechoslovakian state formation. Some progress was made to integrate the Sudeten Germans and other minorities, but they continued to be under-represented in the government and the army.

When The Great Depression hit Czechoslovakia in 1932, it contributed in radicalizing the Sudeten German population. The depression impacted the highly industrialized and export-oriented Sudeten Germans, whose industries were dependent on exports of textile, chemicals, paper and glass, more than it did the Czech and Slovak populations. By 1936, 60 percent of the unemployed people in Czechoslovakia were Germans. The fear of increasing radicalization as well as the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 led the Czechoslovak parliament to adopt Law No. 201, which banned the negativist parties, on 25 October 1933. However, the void left by these parties was immediately filled by the clerical-fascist Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei, SdP), formed by the Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein in 1933. The party was "militant, populist, and openly hostile" to the Czechoslovakian government and soon captured two-thirds of the vote in districts with a heavy German population. By 1935, the SdP was the second largest political party in Czechoslovakia as German votes concentrated on this party while Czech and Slovak votes were spread among several parties.

The parliamentary election of 19 May 1935 ended with a victory for the SdP, which became

German foreign policy towards Czechoslovakia (1935–1938)

The SdP issues their demands to Czechoslovakia (March – April 1938)

Shortly after the Anschluss of Austria to Germany, Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28 March 1938, where he was instructed to raise demands unacceptable to the Czechoslovak government led by president Edvard Beneš. On 24 April, the SdP issued a series of demands upon the government of Czechoslovakia, that were known as the Karlsbad Program. Among the demands, Henlein demanded autonomy for Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak government responded by saying that it was willing to provide more minority rights to the German minority but was initially reluctant to grant them autonomy.

May crisis

Negotiations and mediation (May – August)

The Runciman Mission

Renewed escalation of the crisis (3–21 September)

Chamberlain's first meeting with Hitler (15 September)

The Anglo-French Plan

Czechoslovakia accepts the Anglo-French Plan (20–21 September)

Escalation of the crisis

Godesberg Memorandum (22–24 September)

Soviet Union orders a partial mobilisation (21–24 September)

Czechoslovak general mobilization (23 September)

Czechoslovak response to the Godesberg Memorandum (24–25 September)

France takes preparatory steps (24 September)

Diplomatic maneuvering to avoid war (25–27 September)

British naval mobilisation (28 September)

Diplomatic maneuvering before the deadline (28 September)

The last hours before the deadline was marked by diplomatic confusion and maneuverings. At 04:00 AM the French ambassador in Berlin, François-Poncet, was woken by the arrival of a telegram from the Quai d'Orsay. During the night, Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador to France, had informed foreign minister Georges Bonnet of the content of the British government’s last-minute proposals to Hitler – the suggested phased occupation of the Sudetenland, beginning with the immediate occupation of Eger and Asch. Bonnet instructed François-Poncet to present, in person to Hitler, similar proposals on behalf of the French government, "which would follow the methods of application contained in this latest British suggestion but would provide for the immediate occupation of a more considerable territory."

The British Chargé d'affaires, Pierson Dixon, arrived at work early, only to discover that no telegram from the Foreign Office had been received. While Halifax had indeed sent a telegram in response approving the approach by Lord Perth the previous evening, the telegram was lost before Dixon arrived at work. The telegram was likely accidentally destroyed by an embassy staffer, as the embassy was destroying archives and packing up to go home. At 07:00 AM Henderson was rousedby a telephone call from François-Poncet, informing him of the receipt of the new instructions from Paris. François-Poncet then telephoned Weizsäcker at 08:30 AM to brief him on his instructions. Weizsäcker in turn tracked down Ribbentrop and reported that the new French proposals were considerable more far-reaching than the more modest British proposals of the night before.

At 10:00 AM François-Poncet again called Henderson, stating he had still received no reply to his request for an audience with Hitler. Unbeknownst to him, Ribbentrop had initially refused to pass on the request. He had spent much of the previous evening trying to strengthen Hitler’s resolve towage war. Henderson offered to come round to the French embassy, but telephoned Göring before leaving, telling that François-Poncet had requested an interview but still had not received a reply. Upon hearing from Henderson Göring immediately visited the Reich Chancellery. Göring and the former foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, spent an hour with Hitler in the Wintergarten, doing their best to persuade Hitler of a peaceful compromise. Ribbentrop, on the contrary, urged war, and he quarrelled with Göring. As Henderson arrived at the French embassy, a message came from Hitler that he would see François-Poncet at 11:15. At the same time, a telegram was brought from the British embassy, containing Chamberlain’s last message, with instructions that Henderson should deliver it in person as soon as possible.

François-Poncet arrived at the Chancellery for his audience with Hitler, at which Ribbentrop also was in attendance. François-Poncet laid out a map of Czechoslovakia, on which he had shaded in red the areas of the Sudetenland which were to be occupied immediately under the new French proposals. These were considerably larger than those in the latest British plan, which Hitler had not yet even seen. "You deceive yourself, Chancellor," he said, "if you are believe that you can confine the conflictto Czechoslovakia. If you attack that country you will set all Europe ablaze." Hitler responded with a tirade against Beneš, while Ribbentrop interjected unhelpful, bellicose comments, but François-Poncet maintained his composure. "You are naturally confident of winning the war," he continued, "just as we believe that we can defeat you. But why should you take this risk when your essential demands can be met without war." Hitler, although shaken, closed the audience with another tirade and left. Shortly before noon, Henderson arrived to bring Hitler the message from Chamberlain in question, in which Chamberlain offered to come to Berlin to discuss the arrangements for transfers with representatives of the German, British, French, Italian and Czechoslovak governments. Encouraged by Ribbentrop, Hitler informed Henderson that Czechoslovakia had the option of accepting the Godesberg Memorandum or face destruction. In regards to the conference, he told Henderson that Beneš and could not be trusted, and that he had gotten the impression that while his demands were acceptable to Chamberlain, the Prime Minister "shipped back" under the pressure of hostile British public opinion. Henderson left the Chancellery and returned to the embassy to inform the Foreign Office of the meeting, while Hitler sat down to a lunch with a large group of military and civilian officials.

Halifax then summoned Czechoslovak Ambassador Jan Masaryk to the Foreign Office at 12:55 PM. Referring to Chamberlain’s wire from the previous day, he urges Czechoslovakia to agree to the "time-table" before the deadline. Masaryk, however, reiterated their position that they would abide by the Anglo-French proposal but not the Godesberg Memorandum. Similarly, Beneš informed both Lacroix and Newton in Prague that they would abide by the Anglo-French proposal, but that they could not go any further without a guarantee of its frontiers.

In Rome, Perth arrived at the British embassy at 11:00 AM, where he was told by Dixon that there was no telegram from the Foreign Office. Shortly thereafter, the embassy received a telegram containing Chamberlain’s letter to Mussolini. Dixon then telephoned the Italian Foreign Ministry requesting a meeting between ambassador Perth and Ciano. One hour later, at 12:15 PM, Ciano's office called back and invited Perth to the Palazzo Chigi. Perth arrived shortly afterwards at Ciano’s office with Chamberlain's plea for Mussolini’s intervention. After listening to Chamberlain’s letter and Perth’s accompanying statement, Ciano hurriedly made his way to Palazzo Venezia to see Mussolini.

While Italy had remained on the sidelines for most of the crisis up until thispoint, Mussolini had virtually given Germany his unqualified approval during the crisis, while mostly working on securing Germany's southern flank (Hungary and Yugoslavia) in the event of an German confrontation with Czechoslovakia. Mussolini had played the role of provocateur and brinksman, since supporting Germany was the heart of Italian foreign policy. Now, however, Mussolini belatedly realized that he had committed Italy to fight in a war in which it had virtually nothing to gain and an enormous amount to lose. Italy was not ready for war.

After having discussed the matter, Mussolini agreed to act on Perth’s suggestion. Ciano attempted to call Ribbentrop at his office in Wilhelmstrasse, but was unable to reach him. Ciano then called the Italian embassy in Berlin. Mussolini then instructed ambassador Bernardo Attolico at 12:50 PM to ask Hitler for a five-party conference and a 24-hour delay in issuing the mobilization orders. Not realizing Ciano had unsuccessfully attempted to contact Ribbentrop, Attolico called Wilhelmstrasse, only to be put through to Ribbentrop’s outer office. Reinhard Spitzy, Ribbentrop’s secretary, walked over to the Chancellery to bring Hitler the message.

Hitler received Attolico at 1:20 PM, who presented the message from Mussolini calling for a 24-hour delay and a five-power conference, but also committed Italy to stand behind Germany if Hitler decided to ignore the request. While having had doubts whether to accept the proposal of a conference, he was now determined that he would not be deterred by the French and British to fight. Hitler refused to participate in any conference where Czechoslovakia was represented.

German mobilization and final preparations for war (28–29 September)

After the deadline had passed Germany immediately broke off diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia. Hitler gave the order for the German army to take up positions at 06:30 on 30 September. Hitler also issued the Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War, ordered hostilities against Czechoslovakia to start at 06:15 on 1 October (X-Tag) and silently ordered the full mobilization of the Wehrmacht (Allgemeine Mobilmachung mit öffentlicher Verkündigung). At 21:00 on 30 September, Berlin Radio announced that the Czechs had by the deadline at 14:00 on 28 October refused to accept the demands at Godesberg, and that the Czechs had intensified the persecution of the Sudeten Germans.

Outbreak of war (1 – 3 October)

At 06:15 on 1 October 1938, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Half an hour later, Hitler's proclamation to the Wehrmacht is read out over the radio:

The Czechoslovak State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms. The Sudeten Germans are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. This is intolerable to a great Power which has sworn to protect them. Mr. Beneš must not only pay for his lies and atrocities against the Sudeten German people, but also the German people.

In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honour and the vital rights of reborn Germany with hard determination. I expect that every soldier, mindful of the great traditions of eternal German soldiery, will ever remain conscious that he is a representative of the National-Socialist Greater Germany. Long live our people and our Reich!

The same day, Mussolini, with great effort, was able to extract a note from Hitler absolving Italy from its responsibilities. Mussolini noted that while they stood with Germany, Italy was not ready for war at this time. At the afternoon meeting of the Grand Council, the Italians opted for "non-belligerency", a word that Mussolini felt had stronger ring than neutrality.

British and French ultimatums to Germany (1 October)

In Paris, the French Council of Ministers meet at the Elysée Palace, where they decided that general mobilization, which would take 16 days, should begin the next day and that the National Assembly should be convened to vote 75 billion Francs in supplementary military credits. Despite last efforts by Bonnet to agree to Italian mediation, the cabinet refused to debate the issue further. Bonnet then met with Czechoslovak ambassador Štefan Osuský and told him that "France will fulfill all her obligations."

The British were deliberating about what should be done. Officials rejected a mediation proposal by Henderson that only the immediate suspension of hostilities and the withdrawal of German troops from Czechoslovak territory would prevent the outbreak of war. Halifax sent a message to Rome thanking Mussolini for his offer of mediation but regretting that German action made it impossible to move along those lines. At the morning cabinet meeting, Halifax, expecting that Britain, in contrast to Germany, would follow the normal procedures of issuing an ultimatum and a declaration of war before embarking on hostilities, was still reluctant to take the final step. Other ministers wavered as well, fearing taking the final step to war and the nightmares about its consequences. However, full mobilization was declared and, as had been decided on the previous day, the evacuation of children and women from London and other cities was initiated.

On 1 October the British and French ambassadors in Berlin each informed Ribbentrop that France would, without hesitation, fulfill its obligations to Czechoslovakia unless the German aggression ceased immediately and German troops were promptly withdrawn from Czechoslovakia.

Bonnet, in his own mind, was seeking any means to restore peace. At midnight, Bonnet published in the official French news agency Havas an equivocal but misleading official communiqué indicating that the French had given a positive response to an Italian proposal for resolving the crisis. He even inquired of Prague whether Czechoslovakia would attend a conference, but given that Czechoslovakia had already been attacked and Prague been bombed twice, Krofta found the inquiry irrelevant. The Czechoslovak ambassador in Paris was outraged, and adding to the confusion were the conflicting signals from Paris and the French embassy in London. Asked when the French would implement their alliance, Bonnet told Osuský that if no reply was received from Berlin, then parliament, meeting that afternoon, would vote for an ultimatum with a deadline, which might be 24 or 48 hours. The Czechoslovak ambassador personally complained to Daladier who promised to expedite matters.

Final diplomatic maneuvering (2 October)

Bonnet was playing his own game. He convinced Ciano that Britain as well as France would support a conference, and new Italian proposals for an armistice and a conference were sent to Berlin on 2 October. The Germans stalled, while the British and French insisted that nothing could be done until the Germans troops had been withdrawn from Czechoslovakia.

Halifax had a difficult morning. He had already received disturbing news from Paris that the French were dragging their feet and that Bonnet was trembling before the prospect of war. Halifax advised his ambassador to try to infuse some "courage and determination" into the French foreign minister. At 16:00 Bonnet called Halifax, reviewing what the British had already heard from Ciano.

The French parliament convened at 15:00 on 2 October. Daladier's speech to the National Assembly, modelled on that of French prime minister {{w|René Viviani in 1914, was well received. Daladier, unsure of his political backing, wanted to show that every effort was being made to prevent the outbreak of war, and thus did not ask for any declaration of war. Debate was cut off in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, as Daladier was not confident enough to let the opponents of war be heard. When the French Council of Ministers met that evening, Daladier agreed that the Italian offer should be followed up. However, he insisted that German troop withdrawal was a prerequisite for a conference, despite protests from Bonnet and de Monize.

The House of Commons had convened to hear the government statement at 6:00 PM on 2 October in what would prove to be one of the stormiest parliamentary scenes in the 20th century. When Chamberlain rose to speak, everyone expected to hear that war would soon commence.

Britain and France declares war on Germany (3 October)

When the deadline for the French ultimatum to Germany expired at 11:00 on 3 October, France declared war on Germany. This was followed by a British declaration of war against Germany two hours later. At 13:15, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Czechoslovakia had expired. He said the British ambassador to Berlin had handed a final note to the German government this morning saying unless it announced plans to withdraw from Czechoslovakia by 13:00, a state of war would exist between the two countries. Chamberlain continued: "I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany."

Poland attacks Zaolzie (3 October)

The Soviet Union declares war on Germany (3 October)

See also

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