It is October 1918. The multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, riven by the First World War, is crumbling. A group of Czechoslovak nationalists proclaims independence from Austria-Hungary and establishes a new entity, the Republic of Czechoslovakia. The terms of the 1919 Versailles settlement formalize Czechoslovakia’s autonomy, and the newly fledged state makes its entry into the community of European nations.
Ironically, although Czechoslovak nationalists had repudiated the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, the new republic is no less so itself. As of 1921, it consists of 64 percent Czechoslovaks and a polyglot of Germans, Ruthenians, Hungarians, and Poles, of which ethnic Germans by far constitute the largest minority at 3 million—23 percent of the new nation’s population.
Flash forward to 1938. Egged on by Adolf Hitler’s Germany, a German nationalist movement swells in western Czechoslovakia, which the breakaway faction dubs the Sudetenland. On orders from Berlin, these nationalists place a list of deliberately unacceptable demands before the Czechoslovakian government, with the barely veiled objective of fanning a crisis Nazi Germany can exploit. The gambit works. In May 1938, alarmed by the massing of German army units on “military exercises” near the border, Czechoslovakia mobilizes its own army.
France and Russia publicly affirm existing treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. Great Britain warns that it cannot guarantee that it will stand aside should the Germans intervene. Hitler temporarily backs down, but by September 1938 rioting has broken out in the Sudetenland, the Czechoslovakian government is declaring martial law, and war is looming between Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Seeking to defuse the situation, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flies to Germany three times in two weeks, feverishly working toward a formula that will avert war. The French government, led by Edouard Daladier, follows suit, and by the end of September, at a conference in Munich, the two great European powers impose a solution upon the hapless Czech government.
In exchange for assurances of peace, the British and French force the Czechs to relinquish the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. The political concept that underpins this solution is appeasement—the theory that giving a disgruntled party a portion of what it wants avoids greater problems down the road. Chamberlain triumphantly returns to London, announcing that the Munich agreement guarantees “peace in our time.”
“Our time” lasts less than a year. In March 1939, Hitler grabs the remainder of Czechoslovakia and divides his conquest into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and a puppet Slovak state. Appeasement has failed. Hitler’s next target is likely Poland, also home to a significant German minority. Britain and France belatedly guarantee that they will go to war against Germany if Poland is invaded. The stage is set for World War II.
The above scenario is, of course, precisely what occurred historically. In the glare of hindsight, the decision to “appease” Hitler by giving him the Sudetenland seems an obvious and catastrophic mistake. Prior to Munich, “appeasement” had no negative con notations. But since then the word has become synonymous with supine weakness, and the Munich settlement may be the 20th century’s most overworked historical analogy. It has become standard practice for opponents to portray any foe—Saddam Hussein, for instance—as constituting a threat equivalent to Hitler and to excoriate any response short of military action as appeasement.
But what if the British and French had held firm at Munich? Two basic responses were possible. The less interesting answer is that Hitler actually preferred a war over Czechoslovakia to a diplomatic settlement, that the Germans had a detailed plan—Case Green—for such a war, and that if Chamberlain and Daladier had rebuffed Hitler, he would probably have executed that plan. But this prospect terrified Hitler’s senior generals, who believed that Germany was not yet ready for a major war. In all probability they were correct. The Czech army alone could have fielded 19 active and 11 reserve divisions against 37 active German divisions. Assuming that the British and French launched a full-scale assault against German defenses along the Siegfried Line, which in 1938 barely existed, the result would have been a prompt defeat for Germany. Even a more limited military response by the Western Allies would have resulted in a war of attrition that Germany would have eventually lost. To military historians this result is practically self-evident, which is why it is less interesting.
The more interesting answer centers on what would have occurred if Hitler had held off on executing Case Green: more interesting because good counterfactuals illuminate aspects of a historical event that might otherwise be overlooked. In this scenario, Hitler would have continued to rearm, wary of launching Case Green until the Wehrmacht could defend western Germany successfully while overrunning Czechoslovakia. The problem, Hitler would have discovered, was that Germany lacked the financial, economic, and military resources to rearm to the level that it historically reached by September 1939 (the campaign in Poland) and May 1940 (the invasion of the Low Countries and France).
This is because historically, the March 1939 occupation of Czechoslovakia made a pivotal difference in German rearmament. Historian Williamson Murray forcefully argues this case in his 1984 book The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938–1939: The Path to Ruin. Financially, Hitler acquired $28.3 million in gold when he overran Czechoslovakia. Economically, in combination with the March 1938 annexation of Austria, the absorption of Czech industry raised Germany’s percentage of world industrial production to 15 percent, equal to that of the United States. Militarily, Germany also acquired two major arms complexes, particularly the world-renowned Skoda Works.
Czech arms plants began to churn out weapons for the Wehrmacht, and by occupying Czechoslovakia, Germany acquired 1,502 aircraft, 469 tanks, 500 antiaircraft guns, 43,000 machine guns, a million rifles, three million rounds of artillery ammunition, and a billion rifle rounds. In theory this was enough to equip 30 German divisions, though in practice the Germans sold much weaponry to countries such as Romania, further enriching themselves.
Even so, Murray estimates that “approximately 10 German divisions received either a portion or all of their arms as a direct result of the occupation of Czechoslovakia.” The Germans also dismantled Czech fortifications for reuse in the Siegfried Line and, later, to augment the Atlantic Wall.
The de facto annexation of Czechoslovakia thus made the difference between a Nazi Germany with the resources to win decisively against Poland and the western Allies—as it did historically between September 1939 and June 1940—and one able to achieve, at best, limited gains on a path to defeat. The failure to stand firm at Munich was thus even more calamitous than most students of World War II appreciate.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.