On September 29, 1938, Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to Nazi Germany by the UK and France, in their catastrophic hurry to appease Hitler. That lesson is still relevant today, writes Yuriy Filatov
We are entering a new period of historical anniversaries associated with the Second World War.
One of the most notable is the 80th anniversary of the Munich conference of September 29, 1938, which was attended by the heads of governments of the UK, German Reich, Italy, and France.
The result of the conference, which is better known as the Munich collusion, was catastrophic — by signing the Munich Agreement, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the French prime minister, Édouard Daladier, gave Hitler a green light to invade Czechoslovakia and essentially opened the road to the war.
During these 80 years, historians have studied the Munich conference in detail. Nevertheless, there are still one-sided assessments of the conference, and erroneous interpretation of its meaning.
Among the most frequent biases is an attempt to judge the conference through the prism of the ‘effectiveness’ of the appeasement policy pursued by Chamberlain.
Some justify Chamberlain’s policy, crediting him with a desire to avoid a big war in Europe and prevent the aggression of Nazi Germany against the UK. Others point out that despite his efforts, the Second World War began just after a year of the Munich Agreement.
It was exactly the behaviour of the UK and France that led the world to war. The British and French governments cherished an illusory hope of avoiding the war at any cost, even at the expense of the existence of another state, Czechoslovakia, which was “peacefully” surrendered to the growing aggression of Hitler.
Even before Munich, there was a chain of other concessions to the Nazi regime — the connivance to the remilitarisation of Rhine Province in 1936, non-interference in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, amid flagrant Italian-German support of Franco’s insurgence, and the silent acceptance of the Anschluss of Austria, in March 1938.
To this shameful pattern, one should add the fact that the rise in persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany was largely ignored by European capitals (as a reminder: this year, we mark another sad milestone — the 80th anniversary of the Crystal Night (November 9-10, 1938), which became a prologue to the Holocaust).
At the same time, London and Paris were obviously interested in redirecting the Nazi’s aggressive plans to the east to thus solve two tasks — to avoid war with German Reich, and to destroy “the threat of Bolshevism”.
Neither of them was achieved, but the world went through the cruellest and bloodiest war ever.
According to the documents from the State Archives of the Russian Foreign Policy, there was a chance to avoid, or at least postpone for much longer, the beginning of WWII, if the UK and France had agreed with the USSR on the collective security system in Europe and stated firmly that they would provide military support to Czechoslovakia, together with the USSR.
Nevertheless, they preferred to appease Hitler by letting him occupy the Sudeten and permitting Poland and Hungary to bite off their portions of Czechoslovakia — Zaolzie and Southern Carpathian Ruthenia.
Diplomatic correspondence of 1938 provides some stark details of the egoism, naivete, and unscrupulousness of leading European political figures.
According to the documents, Chamberlain met privately with Hitler twice right before the conference — in Berchtesgaden, on September 15-16, and in Bad Godesberg, on September 22-23 — to put together an ultimatum to the Czechoslovakian president, Edvard Benes, that Germany would immediately occupy the lands of that country inhabited by ethnic Germans.
The then Soviet ambassador in Prague, Sergei Alexandrovskyi, reported that the new ‘map’ of Czechoslovakia that was attached to the German memorandum received by Beneš on September 25, “absolutely, undoubtedly meant simply the liquidation of Czechoslovakia, because the rest of the country left after the cut would not be viable in any way, even as a dependent state”.
The Munich collusion was a decisive argument for Hitler to unleash a large-scale aggression in Europe. His assurances to Chamberlain and Daladier, that the Sudeten would be “the last stop” of the German expansion, did not cost a penny.
Kamil Krofta, foreign minister of Czechoslovakia until October 4, 1938, said that the Munich Agreement “had turned his country into a state without any meaning and its own line of conduct, and shortly Czechoslovakia would become a limp appendage of Germany”.
And so it happened. The British and French guarantees of the new frontiers of Czechoslovakia proved to be a fiction.
In March 1939, this country became a part of the German Reich, in the form of a puppet Slovak state and a protectorate of the Czech Republic and Moravia.
After Munich, Great Britain and France signed bilateral declarations of non-aggression with Germany, which paved the way for Hitler’s ‘Drang nach Osten’.
The USSR was left in international isolation.
London and Paris did not support the protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia, which was transmitted by Moscow to the German government on March 18, 1939, nor the Russian proposal to discuss this issue in the League of Nations.
History tries to teach us a lesson that we too often forget: appeasement of an aggressor, and silence, make a perilous strategy. Remembering the Munich conference suggests parallels with our days — for example, supporting international terrorists in Syria, with the purpose of destroying the ‘unpleasant’ Assad regime, has been a mistaken and dangerous adventure.
It is obvious that real security can only be equal and indivisible and should be based on the fundamental principles of international relations stipulated in the UN Charter: respect for the sovereignty of states, non-interference in their internal affairs, and peaceful settlement of disputes.
It is imperative for all responsible countries to contribute in every possible way to the strengthening of global and regional stability, and to working out common responses to the numerous challenges and threats of the present.
Yuriy Filatov, ambassador of Russia to Ireland