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Munich: A Summit in Surrender

September 25, 1988|Robert Conot | Robert Conot is the author of "Justice at Nuremberg" (Harper & Row)

A half-century ago, on Sept. 29, 1938, Munich inaugurated the modern summits. That meeting has long been considered a disaster for Western democracies; the name Munich has come to be a synonym for appeasement and abject surrender. But there has always been a minority opinion insisting that Munich, whatever its moral repugnance, bought valuable time for France and Great Britain. Adolf Hitler never considered it an unmitigated triumph--in fact, he felt his will had been thwarted.

The road to Munich began in August, 1937, when Hjalmar Schacht, Germany's minister of economics, warned Hitler that the economy could not sustain the pace of rearmament. Coming to a conclusion opposite of what Schacht intended, Hitler on Nov. 5, 1937, called his military chiefs together and told them Germany would have to aim for self-sufficiency, and the only way to achieve it was by conquest.

The latest time to launch such conquest, Hitler said, was 1943-45, but the sooner war came the better, since Germany had a two-year head start on rearmament and its economic and relative military positions could only deteriorate. As an overture, Austria and Czechoslovakia would be overrun.

A month after the bloodless Anschluss annexing Austria to Germany on March 11, 1938, Hitler issued the directive for "Case Green," the assault on Czechoslovakia. The drumstick-shaped nation of 14 million people, dominated by 7 million Czechs, incorporated 3.25 million reluctant Sudeten Germans within its natural, defensible boundaries. The Anschluss placed the head of the drumstick firmly in German jaws--the most direct route from Berlin to Vienna passed east of Prague. The formidable defenses of Czechoslovakia's "Little Maginot Line" were effectively outflanked. The Czechs had security treaties with France and the Soviet Union, but the treaty with the Soviets was implementable only on condition that the French acted.

Within Czechoslovakia, Hitler orchestrated a campaign of armed rebellion and subversion by the Sudetens. Konrad Henleim, the Sudeten leader, was told to be implacable; whatever concessions the Czech government made, he must always demand more. Hitler set the attack for Oct. 1, and all through the summer Sudeten actions kept Czechoslovakia in turmoil. The annual Nazi Party Nuremberg rally in the second week of September made clear that action was imminent. All Europe--not excluding the majority of Germans--was plunged into despair.

The world looked to France, but France was a nation divided against itself, suffering through one government crisis after another. In contrast to the reconstructed Wehrmacht, designed for mobility, the French army was wedded to the Maginot Line. The head of the second-rate French air force estimated its survival at two weeks. Gen. Maurice Gamelin, chief of the French army, gave the British the impression that he would be unable to aid the Czechs.

The British had determined, after the slaughter of World War I, never again to fight a land war on the Continent; they had only a skeleton army with two combat-ready divisions in England. The policy of the Royal Air Force was to maintain parity with Germany but the Luftwaffe's surge, beginning in 1935, had carried its air fleet far ahead in modernization. The RAF was not projecting a return to parity until 1942. In September, 1938, Britain had only the first 43 of the modern Hurricane and Spitfire fighters that were to win the Battle of Britain.

What modern aerial warfare portended had been demonstrated 18 months earlier in the Spanish Civil War, when the German Kondor Legion attacked the town of Guernica and killed 1,600 of its 10,000 inhabitants. Projected onto major cities, such death ratios would produce horrendous casualty totals.

This was the situation confronting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. It seemed a question of either plunging Europe into war over what appeared to be a question of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans--when France and Britain seemed incapable of coming to the Czechs' assistance anyway--or bowing to the inevitable.

Chamberlain startled Hitler by proposing a meeting; the prime minister would come to Germany at once. When the dictator agreed, Chamberlain appeared at Hitler's Berchtesgaden aerie on Sept. 15. Then Chamberlain, with the acquiescence of the French, came to another meeting the next week at Bad Godesberg, acceding to Hitler's demand for cession of the Sudetenland. Suddenly Hitler rejected his own terms. "I am terribly sorry," Hitler said, "but . . . this plan is no longer of any use."

What Hitler intended was the complete destruction of Czechoslovakia. Most of all, he wanted the chance to test the Wehrmacht in a limited war. The ceding of the Sudetenland would give him neither.

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