This fateful year saw Hitler waging two pressure campaigns: the first against Czechoslovakia, the second against Poland.

A) Czechoslovakia

  • Hitler had decided to destroy Czechoslovakia:
    • as part of his Lebensraum(living space) policy, and
    • because he detested the Czechs for their democracy,
    • for the fact that they were Slavs, and
    • because their state had been set up by the hated Versailles settlement.
  • Its situation was strategically important – control of the area would bring great advantages for Germany’s military and economic dominance of central Europe.
  • The propaganda campaign in the Sudetenland:
    • Hitler’s excuse for the opening propaganda campaign was that 3.5 million Sudeten Germans, under their leader Konrad Henlein, were being discriminated against by the Czech government.
    • It is true that unemployment was more serious among the Germans, but this was because a large proportion of them worked in industry, where unemployment was most severe because of the depression.
    • The Nazis organized huge protest demonstrations in the Sudetenland, and clashes occurred between Czechs and Germans.
    • The Czech president, Edvard Benes, feared that Hitler was stirring up the disturbances so that German troops could march in ‘to restore order’.
    • Chamberlain (British PM) and Daladier (French PM) were afraid that if this happened, war would break out.
      • They were determined to go to almost any lengths to avoid war, and they put tremendous pressure on the Czechs to make concessions to Hitler.
    • Eventually Benes agreed that the Sudeten Germans might be handed over to Germany.
      • Chamberlain flew to Germany and had talks with Hitler at Berchtesgaden (15 September), explaining the offer.
      • Hitler seemed to accept, but at a second meeting at Godesberg only a week later, he stepped up his demands: he wanted more of Czechoslovakia and the immediate entry of German troops into the Sudetenland.
    • Benes would not agree to this and immediately ordered the mobilization of the Czech army.
      • The Czechs had put great effort into fortifying their frontiers with Germany, Austria and Hungary, building bunkers and anti-tank defences.
      • Their army had been expanded, and they were hopeful that with help from their allies, particularly France and the USSR, any German attack could be repulsed. It would certainly not have been a walkover for the Germans.
  • The Munich Conference, 29 September 1938
    • When it seemed that war was inevitable, Hitler invited Chamberlain and Daladier to a four-power conference, which met in Munich.
    • Here a plan produced by Mussolini (but actually written by the German Foreign Office) was accepted.
      • The Sudetenland was to be handed over to Germany immediately,
      • Poland was given Teschen
      • Hungary received South Slovakia.
      • Germany, along with the other three powers, guaranteed the rest of Czechoslovakia.
    • Neither the Czechs nor the Russians were invited to the conference.
    • The Czechs were told that if they resisted the Munich decision, they would receive no help from Britain or France, even though France had guaranteed the Czech frontiers at Locarno.
    • Given this betrayal by France and the unsympathetic attitude of Britain, Czech military resistance seemed hopeless: they had no choice but to go along with the decision of the conference.
    • A few days later Benes resigned.
    • Scrap of Paper:
      • The morning after the Munich Conference, Chamberlain had a private meeting with Hitler at which they both signed a statement, the ‘scrap of paper‘, prepared by Chamberlain, promising that Britain and Germany would renounce warlike intentions against each other and would use consultation to deal with any problems that might arise.
      • When Chamberlain arrived back in Britain, waving the ‘scrap of paper’ for the benefit of the newsreel cameras, he was given a rapturous welcome by the public, who thought war had been averted. Chamberlain himself remarked: ‘I believe it is peace for our time.
      • However, not everybody was so enthusiastic: Churchill called Munich ‘a total and unmitigated defeat’; Duff Cooper resigned from the cabinet, saying that Hitler could not be trusted to keep the agreement. They were right.
  • The destruction of Czechoslovakia, March 1939:
    • As a result of the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was crippled by the loss of 70 per cent of her heavy industry, a third of her population, roughly a third of her territory and almost all her carefully prepared fortifications, mostly to Germany.
    • Slovakia and Ruthenia were given self-government for internal affairs, though there was still a central government in Prague.
      • Early in 1939 Slovakia, encouraged by Germany, began to demand complete independence from Prague and it looked as if the country was about to fall apart.
      • Hitler put pressure on the Slovak prime minister, Father Jozef Tiso, to declare independence and request German help, but Tiso was ultra-cautious.
      • On 9 March 1939 the Prague government moved against the Slovaks to forestall the expected declaration of independence: their cabinet was deposed, Tiso was placed under house arrest, and the Slovak government buildings in Bratislava were occupied by police.
      • This gave Hitler his chance to act: Tiso was brought to Berlin, where Hitler convinced him that the time was now ripe. Back in Bratislava, Tiso and the Slovaks proclaimed independence (14 March); the next day they asked for German protection.
    • Next Czech President Hacha was invited to Berlin, where Hitler told him that in order to protect the German Reich, a protectorate must be imposed over what was left of Czechoslovakia.
      • German troops were poised to enter his country, and Hacha was to order the Czech army not to resist.
      • Faced with such a browbeating, Hacha felt he had no alternative but to agree.
      • Consequently, on 15 March 1939 German troops occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia while the Czech army remained in barracks.
      • Slovakia was to be an independent state but under the protection of the Reich, and Ruthenia was occupied by Hungarian troops.
      • Britain and France protested but as usual took no action. Chamberlain said the guarantee of Czech frontiers given at Munich did not apply, because technically the country had not been invaded – German troops had entered by invitation.
      • Hitler was greeted with enthusiasm when he visited the Sudetenland.
    • However, the German action caused a great outburst of criticism: for the first time even the appeasers were unable to justify what Hitler had done – he had broken his promise and seized non-German territory. Even Chamberlain felt this was going too far, and his attitude hardened.
    • Other results:
      • Britain and France had lost the help of a strong ally i.e. Czech.
      • Russia was offended at being left out and more suspicious of Britain and France.
      • The British public celebrated their relief that war had been, for the present, avoided. However, there was growing concern that Hitler was not, as Chamberlain believed, just another politician who was open to negotiation. Instead, increasing numbers of people believed that he would continue to behave aggressively and that war would come, sooner or later. Even Chamberlain began to build up British forces against that possibility.

B) Poland

  • After taking over the Lithuanian port of Memel (which was admittedly peopled largely by Germans), Hitler turned his attentions to Poland.
  • Hitler demands the return of Danzig:
    • The Germans resented the loss of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, at Versailles, and now that Czechoslovakia was safely out of the way, Polish neutrality was no longer necessary.
    • In April 1939 Hitler demanded the return of Danzig and a road and railway across the corridor, linking East Prussia with the rest of Germany.
      • This demand was, in fact, not unreasonable, since Danzig was mainly German-speaking; but with it coming so soon after the seizure of Czechoslovakia, the Poles were convinced that the German demands were only the preliminary to an invasion.
      • Already fortified by a British promise of help ‘in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence’, the Foreign Minister, Colonel Beck, rejected the German demands and refused to attend a conference; no doubt he was afraid of another Munich.
      • British pressure on the Poles to surrender Danzig was to no avail.
      • Hitler was probably surprised by Beck’s stubbornness, and was still hoping to remain on good terms with the Poles, at least for the time being.
  • The Germans invade Poland:
    • The only way the British promise of help to Poland could be made effective was through an alliance with Russia.
    • But the British were so slow and hesitant in their negotiations for an alliance that Hitler got in first and signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR.
      • They also reached a secret agreement to divide Poland up between Germany and the USSR (24 August).
    • Hitler was convinced now that with Russia neutral, Britain and France would not risk intervention; when the British ratified their guarantee to Poland, Hitler took it as a bluff.
    • When the Poles still refused to negotiate, a full-scale German invasion began, early on 1 September 1939.
    • Chamberlain had still not completely thrown off appeasement and suggested that if German troops were withdrawn, a conference could be held but there was no response from the Germans.
    • Only when pressure mounted in parliament and in the country did Chamberlain send an ultimatum to Germany: if German troops were not withdrawn from Poland, Britain would declare war.
    • Hitler did not even bother to reply; when the ultimatum expired, at 11 a.m. on 3 September, Britain was at war with Germany. Soon afterwards, France also declared war.

The road to the second world war:

  • 15 March 1939, the German army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
  • 31 March 1939, Britain promised to defend Poland.
  • 22 May 1939, Italy and Germany signed the Pact of Steel to help each other in the event of war.
  • 23 August 1939, to the dismay of France and Britain, the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression pact was signed by Germany and Russia. The two nations promised not to fight each other.
  • 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland.
  • 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.


  • The debate is still going on about who or what was responsible for the Second World War.
    • The Versailles Treaties have been blamed for filling the Germans with bitterness and the desire for revenge.
    • The League of Nations and the idea of collective security have been criticized because they failed to secure general disarmament and to control potential aggressors.
    • The world economic crisis has been mentioned, since without it, Hitler would probably never have been able to come to power.
  • While these factors no doubt helped to create the sort of atmosphere and tensions which might well lead to a war, something more was needed.
  • It is worth remembering also that by the end of 1938, most of Germany’s grievances had been removed:
    • reparations were largely cancelled,
    • the disarmament clauses had been ignored,
    • the Rhineland was remilitarized, Austria and Germany were united, and
    • 3.5 million Germans had been brought into the Reich from Czechoslovakia.
  • Germany was a great power again. So what went wrong?

A) Were the appeasers to blame?

    • Some historians have suggested that appeasement was largely responsible for the situation deteriorating into war.
  • They argue that Britain and France should have taken a firm line with Hitler before Germany had become too strong: an Anglo-French attack on western Germany in 1936 at the time of the Rhineland occupation would have taught Hitler a lesson and might have toppled him from power.
  • By giving way to him, the appeasers increased his prestige at home.
  • As Alan Bullock wrote, ‘success and the absence of resistance tempted Hitler to reach out further, to take bigger risks’. He may not have had definite plans for war, but after the surrender at Munich, he was so convinced that Britain and France would remain passive again, that he decided to gamble on war with Poland.
  • Chamberlain has also been criticized for choosing the wrong issue over which to make a stand against Hitler.
    • It is argued that German claims for Danzig and routes across the corridor were more reasonable than the demands for the Sudetenland (which contained almost a million non-Germans).
    • Poland was difficult for Britain and France to defend and was militarily much weaker than Czechoslovakia.
    • Chamberlain therefore should have made his stand at Munich and backed the Czechs, who were militarily and industrially strong and had excellent fortifications.
    • Chamberlain’s defenders, on the other hand, claim that his main motive at Munich was to give Britain time to rearm for an eventual fight against Hitler.
  • Arguably Munich did gain a crucial year during which Britain was able to press ahead with its rearmament programme.
  • John Charmley argues that Chamberlain had very little option but to act as he did, and that Chamberlain’s policies were far more realistic than any of the possible alternatives – such as building up a Grand Alliance, including Britain, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the USSR.
  • This idea was suggested at the time by Churchill, but Andrew Roberts argues that this was never a serious possibility because of the many points of disagreement between them.
  • Robert Self believes that he had very few viable alternatives and deserves great credit for trying to prevent war.
  • Surely any ‘normal’ leader, like Stresemann, for example, would have responded positively to Chamberlain’s reasonable policies; sadly Hitler was not the typical German statesman.
    • Having said all this, arguably Britain and France must at least share the responsibility for war in 1939.
  • As Richard Overy pointed out: It must not be forgotten that war in 1939 was declared by Britain and France on Germany, and not the other way round.

B) Why did the two western powers go to war with Germany?

  • Britain and France had complex interests and motives for war. They too had to take decisions on international questions with one eye on public opinion and another on potential enemies elsewhere.
  • British and French policy before 1939 was governed primarily by national self-interest and only secondarily by moral considerations.
  • In other words, the British and French, just like the Germans, were anxious to preserve or extend their power and safeguard their economic interests. In the end this meant going to war in 1939 to preserve Franco-British power and prestige.

C) Did the USSR make war inevitable?

  • The USSR has been accused of making war inevitable by signing the non-aggression pact with Germany on 23 August 1939, which also included a secret agreement for Poland to be partitioned between Germany and the USSR.
  • It is argued that Stalin ought to have allied with the west and with Poland, thus frightening Hitler into keeping the peace.
  • On the other hand, the British were most reluctant to ally with the Russians; Chamberlain distrusted them (because they were communists) and so did the Poles, and he thought they were militarily weak.
  • Russian historians justify the pact on the grounds that it gave the USSR time to prepare its defences against a possible German attack.

D) Was Hitler to blame?

  • Today very few historians accept Taylor’s theory that Hitler had no long-term plans for war.
  • It is true that some of Hitler’s successes came through clever opportunism, but there was much more behind it than that.
  • Although he probably did not have a long-term, detailed step-by-step plan worked out, he clearly had a basic vision, which he was working towards at every opportunity. That vision was a Europe dominated by Germany, and it could only be achieved by war.
  • This is why there was so much emphasis on rearmament from 1936 onwards. Clearly Hitler intended much more than self-defence.
  • According to Hitler’s biographer, Ian Kershaw, Hitler had never doubted, and had said so on innumerable occasions, that Germany’s future could only be determined through war. … War – the essence of the Nazi system which had developed under his leadership – was for Hitler inevitable. Only the timing and direction were at issue.
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