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The Sudetenland Crisis

by on April 2, 2013

SuperStock_463-5825   sudeten

This is an event where diplomacy generally failed, largely due to hitler’s disregard for it. It worked in delaying a war, a war which was inevitable in regards to Hitler’s aims of European dominance. Hitler rejected most attempts by Britain and France to be drawn into a diplomatic resolution and only entered into negotiation when he was given no other option by the British. Hitler would regularly cancel meetings with foreign representatives and resisted the suggestion that Germany return to the League of Nations. In 1938, Germany was not strong enough to begin another World War. Their strong point here was their perceived strength which they exaggerated through military parades and demonstrations. According to the finance ministry, a war in 1938 would destroy the Reich’s credibility in the money markets and thus any chance of enduring a world war.


In 1937, Hitler discussed his true aims of expansion with five important members of his government. Three of these members did not share Hitler’s ideas and by February 1938, they were removed from office. The appointment of Joachim Von Ribbentrop as foreign minister in February ’38 showed that Hitler was giving power to those who most desired aggression. As foreign minister, he seized every opportunity to incite Hitler into war and to persuade him that the western powers would not fight. After Austria became German land through Anschluss, it was evident that Czechoslovakia would be next with 3 million Germans living in the Sudetenland, which took away Hitler’s element of surprise. Also, in the German part of the Hapsburg Empire, where Hitler had grown up, hatred of the Czechs was the norm.


Germany, knowing that France was allied with Czechoslovakia and that if France was drawn into a war with Germany then Britain would have to get involved on the French side. None of the three powers were prepared for war at this point so Hitler would have to exaggerate Germany’s strength in order to have a bigger hand in diplomacy. He would also need to provoke the Czech government to act violently against the Sudeten Germans, therefore allowing him to enter the Sudetenland as a protector of the Sudeten Germans. The aim was to make the Czechoslovakian government look like the bad guy. Germany’s conquest was made easy as German diplomats received many indications of British and French reluctance to go to war. The May Crisis made it certain that a German invasion of Czechoslovakia was near. As tensions rose before local elections scheduled for 22nd of May and suspicions of German troop movement close to the Czech border, the Prague Government ordered the mobilisation of troops close to the border. This led to France re-affirming their treaty obligations and Britain declaring their willingness to support France if War broke out. The crisis was revealed in the foreign press as a ‘successful deterrence of a German attack’, which infuriated Hitler. After this crisis, Bonnet indicated to the Czechs that France would revise their treaty arrangements unless they accepted some terms laid down by the Sudeten Germans. They were not willing to go to war over Czechoslovakia. British and French pressure on the government in Prague was poorly coordinated. After the May crisis, it took until the 20th July for France to threaten to reconsider its alliance unless the Czech government gave into some of the demands laid down by the Sudeten Germans. It would certainly not go to war over the Sudetenland.


For Chamberlain the search for peace became almost an ego trip, and with Hitler’s need for war, agreements were near impossible during negotiations between the two. British opinions on the Sudeten issue were mixed. Some viewed Czechoslovakia as one of the last remaining democracies in Europe, which needed to be protected. The capabilities of the Luftwaffe were overestimated. Britain feared that the Luftwaffe could devastate the country while in reality this only became possible when Germany invaded France and Belgium where they were in closer proximity to England. The French coalition government led by Edouard Daladier was itself bitterly split over the Czechoslovakia. At the end of the day, this weak and divided France would not go to war without Britain. This left Britain to pull the strings. The British cabinet were delaying a formal warning, in order to keep Germany guessing about their true intentions. Many junior members were unhappy with this and wanted a firmer stance against the Germans. Robert Vansittart claimed that Britain had succeeded in keeping the Germans guessing in the July crisis of 1914 but ‘they ended up guessing wrong and war followed’.


Hitler lied to get what he wanted. For example during his first meeting with Chamberlain, he claimed that 300 Sudeten Germans had been killed the previous day, which was a reason for him to push for an immediate solution. At this meeting Chamberlain personally accepted the transfer of territory, but would have to speak with Daladier first. Also Hitler spoke about Germany’s great military machine, warning that, ‘once set in motion, it could not be stopped. Chamberlain had literally given Hitler the Sudetenland within a few hours. That’s all Hitler needed to hear and the meeting would close. During this meeting Hitler’s demands went from ‘autonomy for the Sudeten Germans to a transfer of territory’.

After this meeting, Chamberlain came away with the view that Hitler was ‘a determined, difficult and volatile opponent but someone who entertained limited aims and would keep his word, a man with whom one could conduct meaningful negotiations’. This was a change from his earlier view that Hitler was a mad man. Also at this meeting Chamberlain never brought his own interpreter and relied solely on the German one, Paul Schmidt, who refused to allow Chamberlain to see his notes. This mistake was not to be repeated again as a British interpreter Kirkpatrick would verify Schmidt’s interpreting in future meetings.


27th September, a British official held a meeting with Hitler to tell him that if France went to war over the Sudeten issue, then Britain would be forced to do the same. This was the formal warning that hardliners in Britain had been demanding for weeks. However, Hitler was still intent on invading Czechoslovakia on 1st October. He ordered the mobilization of troops near Czechoslovakia and France, while Britain ordered the mobilisation of her fleet, which was announced in the press the following morning. Chamberlain contacted Hitler to set up another meeting. He also sent a message to Mussolini asking him to encourage Hitler to accept another meeting. A four-power summit was set up to be held in Munich. The plane at this time was replacing the train as the preferred transport for crisis diplomacy, which allowed all parties to arrive quickly, which was a change from previous crisis situations. Before the Munich Summit, Chamberlain had not consulted with Daladier beforehand whereas Hitler and Mussolini had spoken for long. The Czechs were not involved in these discussions. After this meeting, Chamberlain came back to Britain with a positive attitude as he had gotten Hitler to sign an agreement during their private talk. This however was surreal as Hitler just signed it to please him and never intended on keeping his promises. Daladier on the other hand went back to France with the impression that not much had changed. Chamberlain had been too naïve in these meetings.


Overall the process of diplomacy was very slow and it became too late to achieve anything through diplomacy after Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally on 12th September, which was too intense a speech to back down from Anglo-French threats, given that it was the French and British who imposed such harsh sanctions on Germany after WWI. General Ludwig Beck, army chief of staff argued that the shape of post-Versailles Czechoslovakia was ‘intolerable’ and that ‘a way must be found to eliminate it as a danger spot for Germany, if necessary through a military solution’. This highlights the feelings within the German camp of the desire to reclaim the Sudetenland, and these remarks came from a man who was fired for not being hard-line enough. In any case, the Germans received sound information that the British and French wouldn’t go to war over Czechoslovakia and many factors indicated that they wanted to avoid war altogether. Indecisiveness on the behalf of the British prevented them from being firm with Hitler. With a very divided French and British parliaments, it was very hard for everyone to coordinate their efforts and to stand firm to Hitler.


Multilateral diplomacy had been seen as the best option to avoid war. Why had Chamberlain insisted on meeting Hitler on a bilateral setting? He was unprepared to deal with a man of Hitler’s irrationality all by himself. Was it mainly an ego trip that he wanted to be remembered as the one that brought peace to Europe. Would Hitler have originally accepted a multilateral meeting? Chamberlain forgot a main rule of negotiation, to be familiar with your opponent. A problem with the Sudeten crisis is that all meetings, but the Munich Summit, were bilateral. In the end, the outbreak of war was prolonged. Who did this suit the most, as it gave all parties more time to re-arm and strengthen their forces. This extra time allowed Britain to complete the coastal radar chain and to deploy its new Hurricanes and spitfires, which were crucial in the Battle of Britain of 1940





  • Crisis Diplomacy: The Great Powers since the mid-nineteenth century by James L. Richardson. Cambridge University Press 1994.
  • Summits: Six meetings that shaped the twentieth century by David Reynolds. Penguin group 2008
  • Contemporary Diplomacy by Geoffrey Allen Pigman. Polity Press 2010.

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