Archive for the ‘Czechoslovak Government’ Tag

Beginnings of the Cold War in Central/Eastern Europe, 1946-56: Territory, Tyranny and Terror.   1 comment

019Eastern Europe in 1949. Source: András Bereznay (2002), The Times History of Europe.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. West Germany (from 1949, ‘the Federal Republic’) was formed from the American, French and British areas of occupied Germany; East Germany (‘the Democratic Republic’ from 1949) was formed from the Soviet-occupied zone (see the maps below). The former German capital followed this pattern in miniature. Czechoslovakia was revived, largely along the lines it had been in 1919, and Hungary was restored to the borders established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Yugoslavia was also restored in the form it had been before the war. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with the Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years.

018

It rapidly became clear that Stalin’s intentions were wholly at variance with the West’s goals for western Germany. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections taking place in January 1946. However, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, sponsoring the German Communist Party, which became the Socialist Unity Party in April 1946. All other political organisations were suppressed by November 1947. As it became clear that the western and eastern halves of the country were destined for separate futures, so relations between the former Allies deteriorated. Simultaneously, the Soviet Army stripped the country of industrial plunder for war reparations. Germany rapidly became one of the major theatres of the Great Power Conflict of the next forty years. Berlin became the focal point within this conflict from the winter of 1948/49, as Stalin strove to force the Western Allies out of the city altogether. In September 1949, the Western Allies, abandoning for good any hopes they had of reaching a rapprochement with Stalin, announced the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed, the next month, by the creation of the Soviet-sponsored GDR. More broadly, it was clear by the end of 1949, that Stalin had created what was in effect a massive extension of the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the USSR proper and the West. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a deep freeze from which they would not emerge for decades: the Cold War. In escaping Nazi occupation, much of Central/Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.  

014

In July 1947, the USA had issued invitations to twenty-two European countries to attend a conference in Paris, scheduled for 12th July, to frame Europe’s response to the Marshall Plan, the proposal put forward by President Truman’s Secretary of State to provide an economic lifeline to the countries of Europe struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the World War. Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Molotov, had already given their reaction. Stalin saw the issue not only in economic but also political terms, his suspicious nature detecting an American plot. He thought that once the Americans got their fingers into the Soviet economy, they would never take them out. Moreover, going cap-in-hand to capitalists was, in his view, the ultimate sign of failure for the Communist system. The socialist countries would have to work out their own economic salvation. Nevertheless, Molotov succeeded in persuading Stalin to allow him to go to Paris to assess the American offer.

016

The ‘big four’ – Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – met first at the end of June in Paris. Molotov agreed to back limited American involvement in the economies of Europe with no strings attached. However, Soviet intelligence soon revealed that both Britain and France saw Marshall’s offer as a plan for aiding in the full-scale reconstruction of Europe. Not only that, but Molotov was informed that the American under-secretary, Will Clayton, was having bilateral talks with British ministers in which they had already agreed that the Plan would not be an extension of the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement which had almost bankrupted Britain in the immediate post-war years. The British and the Americans also saw the reconstruction of Germany as the key factor in reviving the continent’s economy. This was anathema to the Soviets, who were keen to keep Germany weak and to extract reparations from it. The Soviet Union was always anxious about what it saw as attempts by the Western allies to downplay its status as the chief victor in the war. Molotov cabled Stalin that all hope of effecting Soviet restrictions on Marshall aid now seemed dead. On 3rd July, Molotov, accusing the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps, gathered up his papers and returned to Moscow that same evening.

013

With the Soviets out-of-the-way, invitations went out to all the states of Western Europe except Spain. They also went to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Finland, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After initial hesitation, Moscow instructed its ‘satellites’ to reject the invitation. On 7th July, messages informed party bosses in the Eastern European capitals that…

…under the guise of drafting plans for the revival of Europe, the sponsors of the conference in fact are planning to set up a Western bloc which includes West Germany. In view of those facts … we suggest refusing to participate in the conference.

001

Most of the Communist parties in the Central-Eastern European countries did just as they were told, eager to display their loyalty to Stalin. But the Polish and Czech governments found the offer of US dollars too appealing since this was exactly what their economies needed. In Czechoslovakia, about a third of the ministers in the coalition government were Communists, reflecting the share of the vote won by the party in the 1946 elections. Discussions within the government about the Marshall aid offer, however, produced a unanimous decision to attend the Paris conference. Stalin was furious and summoned Gottwald, the Communist Prime Minister, to Moscow immediately. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, an independent non-Communist member of the Prague Government. Stalin kept them waiting until the early hours and then angrily told them to cancel their decision to go to Paris. He said that the decision was a betrayal of the Soviet Union and would also undermine the efforts of the Communist parties in Western Europe to discredit the Marshall Plan as part of a Western plot to isolate the Soviet Union. He brushed aside their protests, and they returned to Prague, where the Czechoslovak Government, after an all-day meeting, unanimously cancelled its original decision. Masaryk, distraught, told his friends:

I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a Soviet slave.

003

Above: Conflicting cartoon images of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Fitzpatrick, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shows the Kremlin’s noose tightening around Czechoslovakia. Krokodil has the Europeans on their knees before their US paymaster. 

The Poles forced them into line as well, and their government made a similar announcement. Stalin had his way; the Eastern Bloc now voted as one and from now on each state took its orders from the Kremlin. Europe was divided and the Cold War was irreparably underway. From Washington’s perspective, the Marshall Plan was designed to shore up the European economies, ensure the future stability of the continent by avoiding economic catastrophe, thereby preventing the spread of communism, which was already thriving amidst the economic chaos of Western Europe. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, the plan appeared to be an act of economic aggression. Stalin had felt his own power threatened by the lure of the almighty ‘greenback’. In Washington, Stalin’s opposition to the plan was seen as an aggressive act in itself. The US ambassador in Moscow described it as nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Both sides were now locked in mutual suspicion and distrust and the effects of the Marshall Plan was to make the Iron Curtain a more permanent feature of postwar Europe.

013 (2)

The same day as the Conference on European Economic Cooperation (CEEC) opened in Paris, 12th July 1947, the first meeting of Cominform, the short form of the Communist Information Bureau took place in the village of Szkliarska Poremba in Poland. A revival of the old Communist alliance, or Comintern, established by Lenin, this was a direct response to the Marshall Plan, and an attempt to consolidate Stalin’s control over the Soviet satellites and to bring unanimity in Eastern Bloc strategy. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet ideologue, Stalin’s representative at the meeting, denounced the Truman Doctrine as aggressive and, playing on Eastern European fears of resurgent Nazism, accused the Marshall Plan of trying to revive German industry under the control of American financiers. Along with the representatives of the Communist parties of France and Italy, which had been encouraged to operate through left-wing coalitions in a Popular Front, the Czechoslovak Communist delegates were ordered to move away from their coalition and to seize the initiative.

The coalition government in Czechoslovakia had previously operated on the principle that Czechoslovak interests were best served by looking both to the West and to the East, an idea dear to the hearts of both President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk. But as relations between the two power blocs worsened, the position of Czechoslovakia, straddling East and West, became ever more untenable. Masaryk, though not a Communist, felt increasingly cut off by the West after Prague’s failure to participate in the Marshall Plan. Washington regarded the capitulation to Stalin over the Paris conference as signifying that Czechoslovakia was now part of the Soviet bloc. The harvest of 1947 was especially bad in Czechoslovakia, with the yield of grain just two-thirds of that expected and the potato crop only half. The need for outside help was desperate, and Masaryk appealed to Washington, but the US made it clear that there would be no aid and no loans until Prague’s political stance changed. Although Masaryk tried to convince the US government that the Soviet line had been forced on them, he failed to change the American position. Then the Soviets promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain, which helped prevent starvation and won wide support for Stalin among the Czechoslovak people. Foreign trade Minister Hubert Ripka said…

Those idiots in Washington have driven us straight into the Stalinist camp.

006

When the Soviet deputy foreign minister arrived in Prague, supposedly to oversee the delivery of the promised grain, the non-Communist ministers took a gamble. On 20th February, they resigned from office, hoping to force an early election. But President Benes, who was seriously ill, wavered. Following orders from the Cominform, the Communists took to the streets, organising giant rallies and whipping up popular support. They used the police to arrest and intimidate opponents and formed workers’ assemblies at factories. On 25th February, fearing civil war, Benes allowed Gottwald to form a new Communist-led government. In the picture on the left above, Klement Gottwald is seen calling for the formation of a new Communist government, while President Benes stands to his left. In the picture on the right, units of armed factory workers march to a mass gathering in support of the takeover in the capital.

In five days, the Communists had taken power in Prague and Czechoslovakia was sentenced to membership of the Soviet camp for more than forty years. Masaryk remained as foreign minister but was now a broken man, his attempt to bridge East and West having failed. A fortnight later, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral, which marked the end of the free Republic of Czechoslovakia which had been founded by his father, Tomás Masaryk thirty years earlier. News of the Communist takeover in Prague sent shock waves through Washington, where the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress. Now the case had been made by events: without US intervention, Europe would fall to the Communists, both East and West. Had Washington not written off Czechoslovakia as an Eastern bloc state, refusing to help the non-Communists, the outcome of those events might have been different. This was a harsh but salient lesson for the US administration, but it made matters worse by talk of possible immediate conflict. The Navy secretary began steps to prepare the American people for war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an emergency war plan to meet a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. On 17th March, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress with a fighting speech:

The Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe. … It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today. The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock wave through the civilized world. … There are times in world history when it is far wiser to act than to hesitate. There is some risk involved in action – there always is. But there is far more risk involved in failure to act.

Truman asked for the approval of the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of universal military training and selective service. On 3rd April, Congress approved $5.3 billion in Marshall aid. Two weeks later, the sixteen European nations who had met in Paris the previous year, signed the agreement which established the OEEC, the body which the US Administration to formalise requests for aid, recommend each country’s share, and help in its distribution. Within weeks the first shipments of food aid were arriving in Europe. Next came fertilisers and tractors, to increase agricultural productivity. Then came machines for industry. The tap of Marshall aid had been turned on, but too late as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia were concerned. The plan was political as well as economic. It grew out of the desire to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. No longer could European nations sit on the fence. Each country had to choose whether it belonged to the Western or the Soviet bloc. In the immediate post-war years the situation had been fluid, but the Marshall Plan helped to accelerate the division of Europe. Forced to reject Marshall aid, Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, albeit abandoned to this fate by Washington, sacrificed once more by the Western powers. On the other hand, France and Italy were now firmly in the Western camp.

Paranoia permeated the Soviet system and Communist Central/GeorgeEastern Europe in the late forties and early fifties, just as it had done during Stalin’s reign of terror in the thirties. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labour camps and many thousands, loyal party members, were executed. In Hungary, as many as one in three families had a member in jail during the Stalinist period. As one Hungarian once told me, recalling his childhood forty years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 but only recently (in 1988) available to Hungarians to read, was 1948 in Hungary. In the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc, conformity was everything and no dissent was allowed. Independent thought was fiercely tracked down, rooted out, and repressed.

In the first phase of the Soviet takeover of Central/ Eastern Europe, Communist parties, with the backing of the Kremlin, had taken control of the central apparatus of each state.  Sometimes there were tensions between the local Communists, who had been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis, and those who had been exiled in Moscow and who had been appointed at the behest of Stalin to senior positions in the local parties. Initially, they were devoted to condemning their political opponents as class enemies. In 1948 a new phase began in the Sovietisation of the ‘satellite’ states, in which each nation was to be politically controlled by its Communist Party, and each local party was to be subject to absolute control from Moscow.

007

In Hungary, the arrests had begun at Advent in 1946, with the seizure of lawyer and politician, György Donáth by the ÁVO, the state security police, on a charge of conspiracy against the Republic. Prior to his arrest, Donáth had left Budapest for a pre-Christmas vacation near the Hungarian border, so the ÁVO, who had had him under surveillance for some time, feared that he might attempt to flee the country and wasted no time in arresting him there, using the secret military police, KATPOL. Following this, a number of his associates were also arrested. In order to save these fellow leaders of the secret Hungarian Fraternal Community (MTK), which he had reactivated in the spring of 1946, he took all responsibility upon himself. He was condemned to death by a People’s Tribunal on 1st April 1947, and executed on 23rd October the same year. Cardinal Mindszenty, the representative of the religious majority in the country, was arrested soon after and put on trial on 3rd February 1949.

005

(Following his release from prison a week before, in 1956)

In Czechoslovakia, where the Party had seized control in February 1948, a series of ‘show trials’ highlighted different stages in the imposition of Communist authority. Between 1948 and 1952 death sentences were passed against 233 political prisoners – intellectuals, independent thinkers, socialists, Christians. The execution of Zavis Kalandra, an associate of the Surrealists and a Marxist who had split with the prewar Communist Party, shocked Prague. Nearly 150,000 people were made political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, seven thousand Socialist Party members among them.

The crisis that prompted this strengthening of control was the split with Tito in 1948. The war-time partisan leader of Yugoslavia headed the only Communist country in Eastern Europe where power was not imposed by Moscow but came through his own popularity and strength. Although Stalin’s favourite for a while, Tito was soon out of favour with him for resisting the Soviet control of both Yugoslavia’s economy and its Communist Party.  In June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform for having placed itself outside the family of the fraternal Communist parties. Stalin even prepared plans for a military intervention, but later decided against it. The ‘mutiny’ in Yugoslavia now gave Stalin the opportunity he sought to reinforce his power. He could now point not just to an external ‘imperialist’ enemy, but to an ‘enemy within’. ‘Titoism’ became the Kremlin’s excuse for establishing a tighter grip on the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1953 all the parties were forced through a crash programme of Stalinisation – five-year plans, forced collectivisation, the development of heavy industry, together with tighter Party control over the army and the bureaucratisation of the Party itself. To maintain discipline the satellites were made to employ a vast technology of repression.

012

‘Show trials’ were used were used to reinforce terror; “justice” became an instrument of state tyranny in order to procure both public obedience and the total subservience of the local party to Soviet control. The accused were forced, by torture and deprivation, to ‘confess’ to crimes against the state. Communist Party members who showed any sign of independence or ‘Titoism’ were ruthlessly purged. The most significant of these trials was that of László Rajk in Hungary. Rajk had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had spent three years in France before joining the resistance in Hungary. After the war, he became the most popular member of the Communist leadership. Although he had led the Communist liquidation of the Catholic Church, he was now himself about to become a victim of Stalinist repression. He was Rákosi’s great opponent and so had to be eliminated by him. Under the supervision of Soviet adviser General Fyodor Byelkin, confessions were concocted to do with a Western imperialist and pro-Tito plot within the Hungarian Communist Party. Rajk was put under immense pressure, including torture, being told he must sacrifice himself for the sake of the Party. János Kádár, an old party friend and godfather to Rajk’s son, told him that he must confess to being a Titoist spy and that he and his family would be able to start a new life in Russia. Rajk agreed, but on 24th September 1949, he and two other defendants were sentenced to death and executed a month later. In the picture below, Rajk is pictured on the left, appearing at his trial.

012 (2)

The Rajk confession and trial became a model for show trials across Eastern Europe. But in Hungary itself, the trial and execution of Rajk, Szebeny and General Pálffy-Oesterreicher were to ‘fatally’ undermine the Rákosi régime. Rákosi and Gerő were typical of the Communists who had lived in exile in Moscow during the war. Compared with Rajk, and the later Premier Imre Nagy, they were never popular within the Party itself, never mind the wider population. Yet, with Stalin’s support, they were enabled to remain in power until 1953, and were even, briefly, restored to power by the Kremlin in 1955. A recent publication in translation of the memoirs of the Hungarian diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, has revealed how, prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946, he had made plans to replace them with General Pálffi-Oesterreicher, the head of the dreaded military police, who had had him arrested and placed him in ‘a very small and very dirty hole of a dungeon’ under the police headquarters:

During our conversations I did my best to convince ‘Pálfi’ that the greatest evil to the Hungarian people, to the country, and even to the Communists and the Soviet Union consisted in the policy and machinations of Rákosi and of his gang, and seemingly I succeeded in my efforts in this respect. The execution of Rajk, Szebeny and Pálffy-Oesterreicher seemingly strengthened Rákosi’s position. This, however, was not so. The ruthless liquidation of old Communist Party members was one of the main acts which some years later led to Rákosi’s downfall.

The light-mindedness of Pálffy-Oesterreicher contributed to his own downfall and put my life in peril also. It happened once that Pálffi, sending one of his collaborators, … made the grave error of instructing this man to tell me that “the pact between Pálffi and Szent-Iványi is still effective”.    

In the course of the Rajk trial, my name and that of the “conspirators” were brought up by the prosecution, and Szebeny, Rajk’s Secretary of State, made a statement to the effect that the Rajk-Pálffi group sympathised with the so-called conspirators with whom they intended to co-operate “as soon as the Rákosi gang are out of power”. Rózsa, a young man (whom Pálffy had used as a go-between with Szent-Iványi in prison) … then reported this affair to Rákosi and the consequences as we know were very grave for all parties involved.

Right after the arrest of Rajk, Szebeny, Pálffy-Oesterreicher and many of their followers, I was locked up in a single cell in the so-called “Death Section” of Gyüjtő Prison where those prisoners were kept who were to be executed. … an old Communist Party member whispered to me in the silence … that I was there due to the Rajk case. Among the many indictments brought up against Rajk and Pálfi, their contacts with me and “the conspirators” had particular weight.

006

Szent-Iványi argued that the reaction to the Rajk trial, among others, demonstrated that the Hungarian people were sharply opposed to any Soviet policy which was carried out by  Rákosi, Gérő and others in the pro-Moscow leadership. Yet, until Rajk’s rehabilitation in 1955 and especially his re-burial on 6th October, which amounted to the first open demonstration against the Rákosi régime, there was little that could effectively be done to bring it down, either from inside prison or on the outside. He later reflected on the reasons for this:

This was a most distressing time, dominated by man at his most vengeful, envious and cruel.

Revenge and hatred was harboured by all kinds, prisoners and guards alike. Ex-soldiers who had endured the cruelties and horrors of battles, hated those who had lived peacefully in their own homes. … Jewish guards and Jewish prisoners hated their Gentile neighbours for their past suffering. Ex-Arrow-Cross members (fascists) were hated by Communists and Jews. It is strange that the common criminals in general hated nobody; they wanted money and ultimately did not hate their victims … but I could believe that they themselves had some kind of sympathy for their victims, like Tyrrell in Richard III.

Hatred was born of emotions and passion, and emotions had too many times intruded into Hungarian political life also, leading the country and its people to tragedy.

During my detention and prison years I had time to think and ponder over the political blunders, emotions and in particular the passions, of bygone years. Szálasi (the ‘Arrow Cross’ Premier in 1944-45) and Rákosi can be considered as typical examples of authors of such blunders. Both men felt that they were not popular in the country and that they had just a small fraction of the population behind them. In consequence they needed support from abroad. Szalási found his support in Hitlerite Germany, and in consequence adopted Nazi political principles and methods. These include Anti-Semitism and a “foreign policy” against the Allied Powers. Rákosi got the necessary support in Stalin-Beria run Soviet Russia and based his interior policy on revenge and jealousy. His vanity could not tolerate differences of opinion, whether outside the Communist Party … or inside the Party … Wherever he found opposition to his policy or to his person he set out to liquidate real or imaginary opponents.

009

Above: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). When he began to think of himself as Stalin’s successor, the other members of the Politburo were alarmed that he might attempt to seize power following Stalin’s death. He was arrested, tried in his absence, and shot some time before December 1953, when his death was announced.

002

The lack of popular support for Rákosi and his dependence on Stalin and Beria was clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the first Imre Nagy government following Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Moscow then replaced the initial Nagy government by one headed by Gérő and Rákosi, the latter was finally ousted by them in July 1956. Although the subsequent Uprising was put down by the invasion of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Szent-Iványi was at pains to point out in his memoirs that the Soviet Union finally dropped the Stalinist leadership of Hungary and that the Kádár régime (János Kádár, left) which it installed was one which was able to win the confidence of both the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union, bringing peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Szent-Iványi reflected on how the life of the prisoners he had witnessed and experienced under the Rákosi régime, including health conditions, food, and fresh air had steadily worsened until it was impacted by these events:

The fact that some of the prisoners were able to survive was down to two causes; firstly, the honest among the jailers, in the majority of Hungarian peasant stock, did their best to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners as well as to improve upon the harsh and very often cruel conditions imposed by Rákosi’s régime upon political prisoners; secondly, the death of Stalin and the elimination of Beria in 1953 … The most important “innovation” was that after more than a full year or so, the daily walks for prisoners as prescribed by law were resumed. Under the more humane régime of Premier Imre Nagy further improvements took place. And two years later prisoners were released in increasing numbers. By 1956 … many of the political prisoners were already outside the prison walls or were preparing to be released.Without these two factors, few prisoners would have survived the prison system after ten or twelve years of endless suffering.

007

Szent-Iványi was himself released in mid-September, five weeks before what he called ‘the October Revolution’. But, contrary to the claims of the pro-Rákosi faction’s claims, neither he nor the ex-political-prisoners played a major role in the events, which I have covered in great detail elsewhere. Even the hated ÁVO, the Secret Police, admitted that none of the “Conspirators” of 1946-48 had actively participated in the Revolution and that…

… the blame has remained firmly on the shoulders of the provocateurs, the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang which, of course, greatly contributed to the stability and success of the Kádár regime. … The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support than the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army.

With real and imaginary political opponents exterminated, the next phase of Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia was a purge of the Communist Party itself. One out of every four Czechoslovak party members was removed. Stalin wanted to make an example of one highly placed ‘comrade’, Rudolf Slánsky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, who was then leading a security purge within it. Stalin personally ordered Klement Gottwald, who had replaced Eduard Benes as President of the country, to arrest Slánsky. When Gottwald hesitated, Stalin sent General Alexei Beschastnov and two ‘assistants’ to Prague. Gottwald gave in. On 21 November 1951, Slánsky was arrested. In this case, there was a new ingredient in the Moscow mix: Slánsky and ten of the other high-ranking Czechoslovak party members arrested at that time were Jews.

The case against Slánsky was based on Stalin’s fear of an imagined Zionist, pro-Western conspiracy. Stalin appeared to believe that there was a conspiracy led by American Jewish capitalists and the Israeli government to dominate the world and to wage a new war against communism. This represented a complete turnaround by Stalin on Israel. The Soviet Union had supported the struggle of the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs and had supplied them, through Czechoslovakia, with essential weapons in 1947 and 1948. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise de jure the state of Israel, within minutes of its birth in May 1948. Two years later, perhaps fearful of Israel’s appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, and suspicious of its close ties to the United States, Stalin became convinced that Israel was in the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy against him.

011Slánsky was, in fact, a loyal Stalinist. But he was forced to confess that, due to his bourgeois and Jewish origins, he had never been a true Communist and that he was now an American spy. Slánsky and his co-accused were told that their sacrifice was for the party’s good. Their confessions were written out in detail by Soviet advisers in Prague, and each of the accused was carefully rehearsed for his “performance” at the trial to come. They had time to learn their “confessions” by heart, for preparations took a year. In November 1952, the show trial began. One by one, Slánsky and the others confessed to the most absurd charges made against them by their former associates.

Public prosecutor Josef Urvalek read out the indictment, condemning the gang of traitors and criminals who had infiltrated the Communist Party on behalf of an evil pro-Zionist, Western conspiracy. It was now time, he said, for the people’s vengeance. The accused wondered how Urvalek could fein such conviction. The ‘defence’ lawyers admitted that the evidence against their clients confirmed their guilt. In his last statement, Slánsky said, “I deserve no other end to my criminal life but that proposed by the Public Prosecutor.” Others stated, “I realise that however harsh the penalty – and whatever it is, it will be just – I will never be able to make up for the damage I have caused”; “I beg the state tribunal to appreciate and condemn my treachery with the maximum severity and firmness.” Eleven were condemned to death; three were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the sentences were announced, the court was silent. No one could be proud of what had been done. A week later, Slánsky and the other ten were executed.

010

Absolute rule demanded absolute obedience, but it helped if people loved their leader rather than feared him. In the Soviet Union, the cult of Stalin was omnipresent. In the picture on the left above, Stalin appears as the ‘Father of His People’ during the Great Patriotic War, and on the right, world Communist leaders gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21st December 1949. Stalin treated the whole of Central/Eastern Europe as his domain, with the leaders of the Communist parties as his ‘vassals’, obliged to carry out his instructions without question. When he died on March 1953, the new spirit which emerged from the Kremlin caused nervousness among the various ‘mini-Stalins’ who held power, largely due to his support. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the era of the Third Reich in Moscow. One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the accelerated construction of socialism in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivisation was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialisation, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin had intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the ‘Stasi’, were everywhere, urging friends to inform on friends, workers on fellow-workers.

007

Ulbricht was therefore uneasy with the changes taking place in Moscow. In May 1953, the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its huge industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalisation and to ease the pace of enforced industrialisation. But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Angry at their expectations being dashed, East German workers erupted in protests calling for a lifting of the new quotas. As their employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicised the demands and reported that there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.

006

Over the next four days, more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast, spontaneous display of worker power. But the demonstrations lacked any central direction or coherent organisation. Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht régime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high command “not to spare bullets” in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers’ economic demands. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners’ strike in Siberia.

011

The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of the “rollback” policy of the new Eisenhower administration, which had replaced the Truman Doctrine of 1947. The United States ‘suggested’ openly that it would now take the initiative in ‘rolling back’ communism wherever possible. The architect of this new, more ‘aggressive’ policy in support of ‘freedom’ movements in Eastern Europe was the new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed a new era of liberty, not enslavement. He added that…

… the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends. … For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige. 

004

The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had written to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf. But for the moment Eisenhower had ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership. In reality, it was never clear how this new policy could be put into practice, especially in Europe, without provoking a direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, Eisenhower had made a speech in which he called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin’s legacy by offering “concrete evidence” of a concern for peace. He had appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. His ‘Chance for Peace’ speech had been widely reported in the Soviet Union and throughout Central/Eastern Europe, raising hopes of ‘a thaw’ in the Cold War.

Only two days later, however, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms, declaring we are not dancing to any Russian tune. A secret report for the National Security Council had also concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory, but at the same time that any military confrontation would be long drawn out. But Radio Free Europe continued to promise American assistance for resistance to Soviet control in its broadcasts into the satellite countries. In doing so, it was promising more than the West was willing or able to deliver. In Hungary in 1956, these ‘mixed messages’ were to have tragic consequences.

005

The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached a new intensity. Molotov continued to see the Cold War as an ideological conflict in which the capitalist system would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited the differences he perceived between the United States and its Western European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, the conflict was viewed in strictly practical terms.

017

First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West’s predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin’s death, Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project, ordering scientists to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America’s thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power. But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin’s terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. His removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet.

005

During the next two years, Khrushchev simply out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to become the new leader. In September 1954 he visited Beijing to repair the damage to Sino-Soviet relations resulting from the Korean War, agreeing to new trade terms that were far more beneficial to the Chinese than they had been under Stalin. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. In the same month, he also made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to “bury the hatchet” with Tito. However, he was not so pleased when, also in May, the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response of Moscow to this setback was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance of all the ‘satellite’ states with the Soviet Union and each other. The Pact was really no more than a codification of the existing military dominance of the USSR over Central/Eastern Europe, but it did signify the completion of the division of Europe into two rival camps.

003

015

The rejection of Stalinism and the widespread acceptance of the new process of reform culminated in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in February 1956. This was not merely a Soviet Russian affair, as delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from non-aligned movements involved in “liberation struggles” with colonial powers were invited to Moscow. In his set-piece speech, Khrushchev challenged the conventional Marxist/Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. Then, on the last day of the Congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in a closed session. For six hours, he denounced Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’ and its crimes, going back to the purges of the 1930s. The speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc. Washington also acquired a copy of the text through the CIA and Mossad, Israeli intelligence. It was passed on to the press and appeared in Western newspapers in June 1956. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that genuine change was taking place in the Soviet Union; the Chinese, on the other hand, were deeply offended. In Eastern Europe, many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian régimes.

002

Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved the Cominform, the organisation that Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister and banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito, but now the door was open again. Tito made a state visit to Moscow in June 1956, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new Soviet attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviets be prepared to go in relaxing its influence there?  In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule after almost a decade down at heel, people wanted more control than ever over their own individual lives and their national identities and destinies.

 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

Mark Almond, Jeremy Black, et.al. (2003), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books (Harper Collins Publishers).

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted June 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civilization, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, decolonisation, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, Family, First World War, France, Gentiles, Germany, Hungarian History, Hungary, Israel, Jews, Journalism, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Oxford, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Russia, Satire, Second World War, Serbia, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘These Tremendous Years’: A Chronicle of Britain in 1938: Chapter 1   3 comments

Chronology: 

January:

16  Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgaard.

25  The First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff wrote that the imperial fleet was so weak that the Navy would be unable to deal simultaneously with threats from Japan in the Far East, even in conjunction with the United States, and with aggressor nations in Europe.

018

February:

16  Gracie Fields (Mrs Grace Selinger), awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List, was presented to the King at Buckingham Palace.

18  The The Midland Daily Telegraph reported significant overcrowding of the Coventry’s schools, carrying a major report, entitled, ‘Coventry as the Nation’s School’, claiming that in the previous twelve months children of school age from the Special Areas had been moving into the city at the rate of a hundred per month,

20  Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden resigned from the Cabinet over Mussolini’s role in the Spanish Civil War.

001

25  Lord Halifax became Foreign Secretary

March:

6   Sinking of the rebel ship Baleares by torpedo off the coast of Cartagena, Spain; five hundred of the crew burnt to death, two hundred were rescued by British vessels & rebel ships.

019

 

11  Resignation of Austria’s Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, under pressure from Hitler for Nazification of Austria.

020

12  German troops crossed the Austrian border without a shot being fired: Hitler annexed Austria.

006

14  Hitler arrived in Vienna, Vast crowds lined the streets to welcome him with cries of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer‘: Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons, regretting what had happened.

16  The minutes of the Oxford Branch of the National Union of Vehicle Builders recorded details of a ‘stormy meeting’ at the Nelson Arms in Cowley about the ‘alleged poaching’ of NUVB members by the TGWU, in the trim shop of the Pressed Steel works.

24  Chamberlain told the Commons that Britain had no vital interests in Czechoslovakia.

28  Hitler gives full instructions to Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, on how to build up tension over their demands.

English: Konrad Henlein in Karlovy Vary Česky:...

April:

20  The Listener publishes a report, ‘Exiled in London’ by Miles Davies into the London Welsh, a transcript  of his radio broadcast.

25  Agreement signed between Britain and Ireland (Eire).

May:

3-9  Hitler & Mussolini met in Rome.

005

13  Konrad Henlein attended a tea party as guest of honour of Harold Nicholson MP, and four other Conservative MPs.

30  In another secret directive, Hitler decides ‘to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future’.

July:

20  The Coventry Labour Party was accused of ‘dirty tactics’ in quoting a Conservative candidate in the local elections as claiming that Labour’s rise in the polls was due to ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ coming to Coventry.

August:

12  German mobilisation.

September:

7  The Times published an article arguing that the Czechoslovak government should cede the Sudetenland to Germany. It is badly received in Prague (see documents below).

003

12  Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg demanding self-determination for Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia.

15  Chamberlain meets Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

18  Meeting between Chamberlain and the French Foreign Minister in London. The British government expressed its readiness to  participate in a general European guarantee for Czechoslovakia, along with other powers.

19   Anglo-French proposals for the transfer of the Sudetenland presented to the Czechoslovak Government (see documents below).

21  Crowds gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Police estimated 200,000 on the streets, protesting against Anglo-French initiative.  Runciman sends his letter to the PM (see documents below) supporting Sudeten German demands to join the Reich.

22  Chamberlain met Hitler at Godesberg. Hitler demands the immediate transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany and the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims on Czechoslovak territory.

23  The Godesberg talks broke down. The chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper that stated that to take offensive action against Germany before placing their forces on a war footing would be ‘to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.’

25  Czechoslovak government called up all men under 40

27  Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, stressing: 1) The fate of the Empire could not be decided by the plight of a small nation; 2) his deep personal commitment to peace, and 3) his conviction that any nation seeking to dominate through fear of its strength had to be resisted.

28  British fleet mobilised. Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons on the crisis and the negotiations with Germany. Towards the end of his speech, he received a message from Hitler agreeing to Chamberlain’s request for further talks with him and Mussolini.

010

29-30   Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich: Four-power Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, providing for German occupation of the Sudetenland by 10th October 1938.

011

30  Chamberlain returned to Heston Airport and reads the bi-lateral agreement between himself and Hitler signed that morning. The news was greeted by cheering crowds as he made his way to Buckingham Palace, where he later appeared on the balcony with the King and Queen.

004

The third Report of the Special Commissioner for the Special Areas, for the year ended 30th September 1938, was published.  By September, seventy-two firms had been assisted to settle in the ‘Special Areas’, including fifty-one at Treforest, south Wales.

October:

1  German troops entered the Sudetenland. Harold Nicolson attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in Manchester.

008

2  Poland occupied Teschen, a rich industrial region, which it claimed as part of the Munich Agreement, and Hungary annexed a broad strip of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia.

3-5  House of Commons debated the Munich Agreement. Nicolson spoke on 5th.

18  The management at the Pressed Steel works in Cowley near Oxford, estimated that there were up to 3,000 members of the 5/60 TGWU branch, founded in 1934, at the works, and about 800 members of unions for skilled workers.

November:

3   Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded details of victimisation of the TGWU shop stewards at the Pressed Steel works, leading to a strike,

017

15  The International Brigades were formally withdrawn from Spain late in 1938 as part of Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s attempt to win British and French support for his government. The last battle in which they participated was that of the Ebro. A farewell parade was held for the volunteers in Barcelona, Spain, on November 15, 1938.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/290718/International..

December:

1  Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded the failure of the strike at Pressed Steel, and further cases of victimisation.

Christmas: Jewish refugee boys from Germany and Austria arrive in London, from their base camp at Dovercourt, to spend the holiday with foster-parents. The continental clothes made them conspicuous among the London crowds.012

Also in the year:

First British National Register introduced.

Queen Elizabeth, the liner, launched

Nylon first produced in Britain

Picture Post first published: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38 published (by the Daily Express?)

400,000 Anderson shelters manufactured for civilian use

Women’s Voluntary Service & Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Force founded

BBC began foreign broadcasts

Empire Exhibition in Glasgow

Holidays with Pay Act passed

England made record cricket score of 903 for 7 v. Australia

Among the plays of the year was Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green. Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other films included The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Colman, The Lady Vanishes directed by Alfred Hitchcock and The Citadel directed by King Vidor and starring Robert Donat (see chapter two). Ironically, both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Orchestra visited Britain. Popular songs were ‘Blue Skies are round the Corner’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Whistle While You Work’.

Chapter One: ‘And Now What? – What Will He Grow up to?’

Narrative:

021

The picture post style publication, These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, published in 1938, concluded its chronicle with pictures of the panzer divisions that had raced through the night to reach Vienna a week earlier. “The first job of the new Chancellor”, the Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the journal reported, “was to ask the German army to help him keep order”. Hitler “received a tumultuous reception”, it concluded. On the next and final page, it featured a picture of a young British boy, about eight years old, and asked the question “AND NOW, WHAT – WHAT WILL HE GROW UP TO?” This publication clearly did not have the benefit of hindsight, and although uncertain of what the future might hold for the young Briton, there was no tone of ‘inevitability’ that he, like the whole of the European population, was well down the road to war. Indeed, had publication of the journal been delayed until the new year of 1939, the question might have been turned into a more certain and confident statement, following the events of the autumn of 1938.

014Lionel Curtis, one of the leading lights behind ‘Chatham House’, the British Institute of International Affairs in 1920, when Harold Nicolson had first heard him speak, told Nicolson in the Spring of 1938 that the programme he was sponsoring for Germany would bring ‘twenty years of peace’ which ‘were worth any price’. Besides the Anschluss, ‘the package deal’ he proposed contained the provision of ‘cantonal status’ (autonomy) for the Sudetenland by the Czechoslovak government, recognition of Germany’s colonial rights, and of its economic interests in eastern Europe. It also conceded that Germany should be free to develop its armed forces to the extent that it would become the strongest power in central Europe. This was too much for Nicholson, whose ‘anti-German stance’ shocked Curtis.  Harold emphasised his belief that Germany harboured ‘aggressive ambitions’ and would not support its economic designs on eastern Europe. He opposed the attempt of Curtis and others to appease ‘the strong’. However, he accepted that his views and talents as a new MP were not widely respected in the House. “1938 will decide” he concluded. However, as the international crisis deepened, his opportunity presented itself sooner than he had expected. On 15th February news reached London that, at Berchtesgaden, the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg had effectively handed over control of Austrian affairs to Germany.

Hitler took the Nazification of the German army and foreign policy a step further, “Adventurism is now in the ascendancy in Germany,” Nicolson declared to the Foreign Affairs Committee, advising his audience “to keep a stiff upper lip, not throw sops or slops around, wait, and, above all, rearm”. Privately, he suggested two days later that if Britain could play for time and “gain two years of peace, then we are almost home”. However, he added the caveat that “there is no doubt that Germany is out for Weltmacht and will carry that through with grim determination”.  Three days after this statement, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary.

Though Neville Chamberlain had little experience in foreign policy, he quite quickly established that his policy was not the same as Eden’s. His policy was what came to be known as ‘appeasement’. There was nothing new in it, of course, since every liberal-minded British politician and political commentator believed that the Versailles Treaty had been unjustly harsh on Germany and that more ‘give and take’ was required to to dampen the explosive situation on the continent. Eden was contemptuous of Italy and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention, insisting that the Germans and Italians should take their promises not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War seriously. Chamberlain thought Eden was being inconsiderate towards Italy and set about conciliating Mussolini, including accepting Il Duce’s conquest of Abyssinia. In a meeting between the two of them and Grandi, the Italian Ambassador,  he even took Grandi’s corner against his own minister. When Eden resigned, Chamberlain appointed Lord Halifax to replace him, since the latter had no objection to Chamberlain’s running the Foreign Office.

Eden’s resignation affected Harold Nicolson deeply, and he told the House that Eden had resigned over a matter of ‘great principle’. He lashed into Italy, “a country which has consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered”. His speech was well-received by Lloyd George and Churchill. Nicolson had little doubt that the PM was blindly leading the country into a diplomatic minefield. When Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss from the balcony of Linz Town Hall, Nicolson commented that it was an act, not of union, but of “complete absorption”. Depressed by the British Cabinet’s response, he emerged from the government benches as its leading critic. Chamberlain seemed less affronted by this deliberate breach of the Treaty of Versailles than by how it was accomplished, without diplomatic activity of any kind, a simple snatch. Harold characterised Chamberlain as an unintelligent “ironmonger” who would “allow Germany to become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us”.

002

However, for the time being, the argument was lost. Chamberlain, as Nicolson himself well knew, had to play for time. The PM’s long years in government had developed his eye for detail, and he knew how unprepared Britain was for war. It had been estimated by expert advisers that, on the outbreak of war, the Luftwaffe would be able to deliver six hundred tons of high explosive over Britain every day, and that each ton was capable of killing sixteen people. That would mean that, in the first month of hostilities, 300,000 civilians would die in air raids. In the event, this estimate proved to be wildly wrong, since even with bases in France, the Germans were never able to approach this weight of bombardment, and the death rate per ton turned out to be one person per ton. However, people feared the unknown effect of bombing and gas attacks. By comparison, they cared little about the Anschluss. Austria was barely viable as a country after its separation from Hungary and their joint Empire, and the Austrians, after all, were German-speakers. If they wanted to join the Reich, that was their right. For diplomats and politicians, Austro-German relations were not a matter for those countries alone, as Chamberlain himself acknowledged to the House of Commons. He deplored the use of force, but what more could be said or done? Reports suggested that, on the whole, German troops had been well received and that Hitler was popular in his homeland. How could Britain come to the aid of a country that did not want to be saved, or to survive as a separate state.  Besides which, he had had no troops to deploy to stop the invasion, although he could not admit this openly. Only a few days before, however, debating the Army Estimates, the Commons itself had come to a general consensus that Britain did not need a large continental army. Some MPs had even been puzzled as to why Hitler thought he needed one, but now they had a very clear answer to their somewhat naive question.

Nevertheless, Spain remained an issue, and Nicolson chose to speak out forcefully against Franco’s renewed offensive, challenging the House to imagine Gibraltar falling to him, and its straits  coming under Mussolini’s control. However, all he could suggest to an exasperated Chamberlain was the occupation of Minorca.  This revived fears of a Mediterranean War between Britain and France on the one hand, and Italy and Nationalist Spain on the other. The Spanish war gave Germany cover for its ambitions in central and eastern Europe and the ideological issues involved divided popular opinion in both Britain and France. Soviet intervention, through the supply of arms to the loyalists, sowed the seeds of mistrust towards Soviet intentions in the east and had a direct bearing on the Sudeten crisis, since President Benes feared the danger of civil war breaking out in Czechoslovakia. In addition, as A J P Taylor wrote later, the Spanish Civil War “did much to prevent national unity in Great Britain and France” and “drove a further wedge between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers”.  Moreover, the psychological effects of the civil war were breaking down the resistance to the idea of another war, creating the feeling that Europe was already on the brink of another general conflict. Soon after his exchange with Chamberlain in the House, Nicholson was forced to resign as vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.  In the second half of April, he went to the Balkans with the British Council, to assure the people of central Europe that Britain would stand firm against any attempt by Germany to take over Mitteleuropa. He now believed, with sound justification, that should Germany strike again in central or south-east Europe, Britain would not stand by these countries, but would rather stand aside while Hitler took them into his Reich.

We now know that Hitler had confirmed his intention to take control of Czechoslovakia, first in the Hossbach Memorandum of 5th November 1937. There is no need to make exaggerated claims for the importance of this document, but it does confirm Hitler’s long-term intentions, originally set out in Mein Kampf, to take control of both Austria and most of Czechoslovakia, without war if possible, but through force if favourable circumstances arose, as he thought they might in the early Spring of 1938. Throughout the winter of 1937-8, Hitler had not been talking timetables, but had been thinking tactics out loud. However, this did not mean that he had committed himself  to securing Lebensraum by force. This determination did not come until at least a year later, following his directive to his staff to be ready to attack Poland after 1st September 1939, issued on 3rd April of that year.

Neither did the Sudeten crisis suddenly arrive on the agenda of western diplomats following The Anschluss.  If anything, Hitler had intended to try his will, and theirs, over the Sudeten question before his takeover of Austria, which he believed would happen at some point without much effort on his part, perhaps later rather than sooner.  He was prepared to wait for an opportune moment, which, in the event, came sooner rather than later.  The Sudeten question needed more careful nurturing, however. Czechoslovakia was a creature of three of the Paris Peace Treaties of Versailles, St Germain and Trianon, It was very much an experimental, multinational state, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been, except that it was also supposedly democratic. It was in border disputes with all its neighbours and was divided internally along ethnic and religious lines. Many British diplomats were concerned about the Prague government’s treatment of minorities, especially the Sudetens, which received a good deal of sympathetic treatment in the British press.

English: Konrad Henlein in Kraslice 1936 Česky...

The Sudetenland, an area of eleven thousand square miles in northern Bohemia, lies to the east of a mountain range which forms not only a natural and strategic barrier between Germany and Czechoslovakia, but also a vital link in the encirclement of Germany after the Paris ‘Settlement’. As such, it was especially important to the French, with a very strong line of fortified defensive positions holding the ring with their western defences along the Maginot line. It had recently been fortified, and Benes was often criticised as being a tool of French foreign policy. It was populated by almost three million ethnic Germans who, before 1919, had been part of the German Confederation. This ‘fringe’ of mountain territory had been given to Czechoslovakia to form a defensive barrier at its western end, in defiance of the principle of self-determination. From the beginning of their incorporation, the Sudetens had complained that the Prague government discriminated against them on religious and cultural grounds. This discrimination worsened during the economic depression of the thirties, so that Nicolson realised that although the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia was in Britain’s interest, this aim could only be secured if the Czech government could be persuaded to address the Sudeten grievances. This could then be “coupled with assurances that if they do we will protect their future”.

Henlein in Sudetenland with Dr. Wilhelm Frick.

Henlein in Sudetenland with Dr. Wilhelm Frick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One reason for the acceptance of Sudeten German claims by British diplomats and politicians, such as Nicolson, was the personality of Konrad Henlein, their leader. A few days after the Anschluss Hitler, his financier, had told him to raise his demands to a degree unacceptable to the Czech government, which he did in a speech at Karlsbad on 24th April, demanding full equality of status between Germans and Czechs, full autonomy for the Sudetenland, including the right of Sudeten Germans to to support the domestic and foreign policies of the German Reich,  and the complete revision of Czech foreign policy. However, he claimed  only to want justice and a measure of autonomy when he visited London in May 1938, and even Churchill was taken in by his performance.   At Nicholson’s tea party for Henlein and four other Conservative MPs , the Sudeten leader told his hosts, in German, that he sought no more, but no less, than cantonal autonomy for his people, so that finance, foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the Prague government. The only alternative he could see would be war between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nicholson made it clear that Henlein should not return home with the impression that “not a single British soldier would fight for the Czechs” , but rather that “on his shoulders rested the grave responsibility for avoiding a second European War”. Little did Nicholson know that the day before this tea party Henlein had been in Berlin, receiving further instructions on how best to dupe the British.

Hitler did not need to prepare for a second general European war because he believed he had already developed an alternative military strategy to the war of attrition which the first had been. This was characterised by Blitzkrieg;  short, limited, intensive wars to bring about a speedy victory, first against Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then against Poland a year later. Finally, he would then be ready to take on Soviet Russia.  The key to understanding Hitler’s policy was that for him, war was not an alternative to diplomacy, but an extension of it. Conversely, if he could gain territory by diplomacy, so much the better for the conversation of military resources for when he would have to fight. From the autumn, if not the spring and summer of 1938, Hitler was waging an undeclared war in which all means – diplomatic, economic and military – were deployed to achieve his stated aims.

By August, the ‘screaming’ for justice of the Sudeten Germans had reached such a fever pitch that Chamberlain sent Walter Runciman to investigate the situation. The Czechs resented this, feeling that it placed a question mark against their entitlement to the Sudetenland, but Chamberlain made it a condition of Britain’s continuing support for them that Runciman be allowed to finish his investigation. He stayed until September, by which time the demands of the Sudeten Germans, prompted by Hitler, had been stepped up to such an extent that only a “transfer of territory” as The Times put it, would satisfy them. So, the stage was set for Chamberlain’s dramatic gesture. He became convinced that if he did not act there would be a rising in the Sudetenland, and Hitler would declare that he could not simply stand aside. So, on 13th September, he wrote a brief personal note to Hitler, soliciting a swift invitation. Both the Cabinet and the country were startled, since, at that time, British PMs did not usually fly off suddenly on diplomatic missions. That, calculated Chamberlain, was why Hitler would be impressed. The journalist René Cutforth painted a contemporary’s retrospective picture of this:

So began the most macabre of all the Thirties spectaculars: the spectacle of Mr Chamberlain, with his umbrella and his winged collar and his thin smile, flying about through the skies of Europe like some great black stork of ill-omen, smoothing Hitler’s path, and all with the best of motives.

Harold Nicolson followed the unfolding drama with mounting concern but also, at times, with sighs of relief. He knew that Chamberlain had “no conception of world politics”, and was quite unsuited to conclude a successful negotiation. Yet such was the general fear of war that when Chamberlain set out on 15th September for Berchtesgaden to confront Hitler, the first of his three flights to Germany, Nicholson felt “enormous relief”, tinged by shades of “disquiet”. “I shall be one of his most fervent admirers if he brings back something which does not constitute a Hitler triumph”, Harold wrote. When he arrived at Berchtesgarden, Chamberlain was met, among others in Hitler’s entourage, by the young German General Keitel, no doubt calculating how many panzer divisions he would need to penetrate the Czech defence system along their equivalent of the Maginot line. Mr Chamberlain was there to give them a safe pass through that line, so that they would no longer need to fight their way through difficult terrain. The gentler hills and plains of Bohemia beyond would then be exposed, and his divisions could be in Prague within days from their new border.

In his first conversation with Hitler, therefore, Chamberlain made no serious attempt to keep the Sudetenland inside Czechoslovakia.  Stressing his opposition to the use of force, the PM confined himself to the question of how the transfer would take place. So Hitler agreed not to act precipitately, allowing Chamberlain to return home and consult his Cabinet as well as the French. He was acclaimed in London and allowed himself to be portrayed as having headed off an invasion. In his report to the Cabinet, he stated that while yielding on the principle of self-determination, he had not gone beyond this point. He made the same point in his meeting with the visiting French minister on 18th. He suggested that Britain would stand ready to guarantee the borders of the rump Czechoslovak state which would survive.

Harold Nicolson’s sense of relief had been short-lived. It was clear to him now that Chamberlain “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it” and that he had brought back the bones of an agreement which were bare indeed, ceding to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept the ceding arrangement. The Times concluded that ‘the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not. in the nature of things, be expected to make a strong primae facie appeal to them’.

The only obstacle to an agreement, Chamberlain now calculated, would be if Hitler advocated the claims of the other minorities, including the Hungarians, for to concede to these would make the survival of Czechoslovakia impossible. When the PM arrived in Bad Godesberg on 22nd September, he was therefore disappointed to find that this was exactly the issue which the Fűhrer now raised. Moreover, Chamberlain could not understand why Hitler seemed so anxious to occupy the Sudetenland immediately. Added to this, Hitler showed him the map he had had drawn up showing the areas to be ceded, which included areas with Czech majorities. Angered by these tactics, Chamberlain broke off the negotiations and returned to London. He knew he would have difficulty in gaining Cabinet support for Hitler’s more intransigent terms, but was even more convinced that not to do so would result in a general European war, given the strident tone with which they had been put forward.

There was also a shift in tone in Britain, at least among the political élites, when Chamberlain returned empty-handed.  The novelty of his flights was beginning to wear off and his stance was increasingly seen as one of ubiquitous obsequiousness. However, both his party and public opinion remained firmly behind his peace efforts. The hard-liners now grouped around Churchill, including Harold Nicholson, knew they had an uphill struggle to persuade the country to change course diplomatically, so they decided that they should “rally behind” Chamberlain  while pressing for the formation of a Coalition Government to prepare the British people, the Admiralty and the Fleet and for war. In Green Park, outside Churchill’s apartment, trenches were, in any case, already being dug. In his radio broadcast later that evening, Chamberlain commented, “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying out gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

As Chamberlain entered the House of Commons on 28th September to brief it about the negotiations, he met with two very different reactions. Many of his own supporters rose to their feet and waved their order papers. The opposition remained silent and seated, as did Churchill’s group. Hitler had convinced him, said Chamberlain, that he was willing to risk a world war for the sake of the Sudeten Germans. At this, Nicholson reported, “a shudder of horror passed through the House of Commons”. At 4.12 p.m., Sir John Simon tugged at the PM’s coat, passing him a note from the Foreign Office. Chamberlain’s sombre discourse came to an abrupt halt as he read, and then announced triumphantly that Hitler had just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet with him, Mussolini and Deladier in Munich. The House erupted in a great roar of cheers, the whole performance reminding Nicholson of “a Welsh Revivalist meeting”. In the Foreign Office itself, there was a ditty circulating, mocking the PM’s servile and senile shuttle diplomacy: “If at first you can’t concede, fly, fly again!”

However, it was Chamberlain’s naivety rather than Foreign Office cynicism which matched more exactly the mood of the country as he flew to Germany for a third time. Britain was suffering from a mild panic in the summer of 1938. The air-raid precautions, the sandbagged buildings, the trenches in the royal parks, soldiers suddenly visibly in uniform and in authority everywhere, officials of new quasi-governmental organisations ordering people about, so that they seemed like ‘little Hitlers’: all these visible and audible signs of war were seen as sinister. The Press and the newsreels showed pictures which exaggerated the effects of air-raids, so that it was widely believed that half a million people would be killed on the first day of the war. The precautions reassured no-one, but rather confirmed their worst fears.

When Chamberlain flew to Munich on the 29th of September, he was given a tremendous sen-off. Sixteen ministers were at the airport to wish him well, together with the High Commissioners of Canada, Australia and Eire. As he climbed into the aircraft, there was a great cheer.  Meanwhile, there was a story going around the Continent that Haile Selassie of Abyssinia had written to the Czechoslovak President, Benes: “I hear you are receiving the support of the British. You have my profound sympathy.”

At Munich that evening, the French and British did not resist any of the German territorial claims, except to ask for plebiscites in doubtful areas. They even agreed that the Germans could take control of some fortified areas immediately, so that the Czechs lost not only their defensive system, but also most of its heavy equipment. They were excluded from the conference and were simply informed of its results afterwards. One of their ‘observers’ was reported as telling a French delegate: “When your time comes, you will ask, ‘where are those two million Czechs who might have been fighting with us?’ They couldn’t even destroy their own military installations along the northern frontier; they simply had to hand these over to the Germans. In its annexe, the agreement called for the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims, in addition to guaranteeing the new borders of Czechoslovakia.  This ‘guarantee’ was never ratified by any of the powers.

016

 

Hitler and Chamberlain each signed a separate document declaring that their countries would never go to war with each other. Later, Hitler was reported as saying: “Well, Chamberlain seemed such a nice old gentleman, I thought I would give him my autograph as a souvenir”.  Waved by Chamberlain on his return, this document procured so ecstatic a reception that one disenchanted observer said, “I thought they were going to grovel on the ground in front of him”.  He had, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare, plucked the flower safely from the nettle danger. In the euphoria of the moment, it seems that he believed this. The strain on him personally had been immense and he had shown remarkable resilience for a man of his age. Chamberlain’s own account of his rapturous return reads:

Even the descriptions in the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace. They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street when I spoke to the multitude below from the same window, I believe, as that from which Dizzy (Benjamin Disraeli) announced peace with honour sixty years ago.” 

 

 

 

 

007015

Whether or not he really believed that he had really achieved a long-term ‘peace with honour’, Chamberlain did not stop, or slow down his government’s rearmament programme.  Despite the apparent euphoria which greeted his ‘triumphant return’,  just a few days after Munich a poll revealed that very few people believed that Hitler would keep his promise. It was no longer a realistic question if war would break out, simply when it would come. For the next few months, Britain was in a kind of dream-like state in which people did what they had always done, mesmerised by fatalism. But, at least, the year was allowed to end without further diplomatic ado. There were signs that he was looking to the future and playing for time. As a Midland industrialist, he knew that the shadow factories being built on the outskirts of Coventry and other cities would need time to attract sufficient labour to swing into full production. Housing had to be found for these workers. As Minister for Health and Local Government a decade previously he had developed a detailed knowledge of every locality in the country, and could now put that to good use in planning the war effort. He had persuaded Hitler to put his name to a document in which he had at least agreed to consult before taking any further action. His word was on trial. He had staked his premiership on achieving the Munich Agreement. He may well have hoped that it would last and bring about lasting peace in Europe, but, if not, at least Britain would be readier in September 1939 or 1940 than it was in 1938.

 

Sir Robert Vansittart advised Harold Nicolson to forget the past and concentrate on bringing people together to meet the next danger. Nevertheless, Nicolson voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging support for the PM. Unfriendly letters began appearing in the Leicester newspapers attacking him for his disloyalty. Despite this, he remained uncompromising in his criticism of the government’s foreign policy after the Munich Agreement. In the Parliamentary debate which followed, he spoke with great authority, for in 1919 he had served on the committee that had laid down the Sudetenland frontier. Hitler, he stated, had three objectives: to swallow the Sudeten Germans, to destroy Czechoslovakia, and to dominate Europe. “We have given him all these three things”, he asserted. He would have met the first of these demands, though with ‘unutterable sadness’, for the Sudetenland ‘was not worth a war’, but Chamberlain’s total capitulation on this point had set off a chain reaction that would lead to total surrender on the other two. “The essential thing”, he put forward, “the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still should resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany.” He spoke of “this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat” as “one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occurred in our history”. He characterised  Chamberlain’s ‘bit of paper’ supposedly bringing ‘peace with honour’ as ‘a little after-dinner extravaganza’.  The so-called ‘guarantee’ of Czechoslovakia’s new borders was ‘the most farcical diplomatic hypocrisy that was ever perpetrated’.  Nicholson’s speech was followed by other powerful speeches by Churchill and Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the Cabinet, but the government was given a huge majority, declaring its confidence in the appeasement policy by  366 to 144. The opposition case was weakened by its lack of new ideas to pose as realistic alternatives. In November, the Nazis instigated their pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht.  It was harshly criticised by enlightened British opinion. Harold feared what the New Year might bring and labelled it ‘This Year of Destiny’. His faith in Chamberlain’s judgement was at an all-time low. ‘What would you have done if you had been in Chamberlain’s place at Munich?’ he was asked. He retorted:

I should never have allowed myself to be manoeuvred into so impossible a position. I should not have acclaimed myself as having brought peace with honour. I should have got out of that aeroplane, slowly and sadly, and I should have said, ‘we have avoided war, but at the price of honour. There is no cause for rejoicing’.

001Historian Keith Robbins has written, “Munich has always been seen as the apotheosis of appeasement in action”, pointing out that it was Chamberlain’s behaviour over the whole three weeks of the Sudetenland Crisis which gave the entire strategy of appeasement a bad name. Although he may have had the best of intentions, his zeal was humiliating for Britain. He was outplayed by Hitler on almost every point. That has been the verdict of posterity, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. At the time, however, as Vanttisart had pointed out, the question of the policy’s justification depended on what happened next.

 

 

 

 

 

Primary Sources:

Daily Express (?), (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war.

 

Secondary Sources:

013Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

René Cutforth (1976), Later than we thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Open University (1973), Between Two Wars: A Third Level Course, War and Society, Block VII Units 19-20 (The Origins of World War II). Bletchley: OUP.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (second edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Appendix To Chapter One: Documents & Discussions

Document A:

The Duchess of Atholl, Searchlight on Spain (1938):

British Naval Strength, much greater relatively to Germany’s than in 1914, should be able to prevent the passage of any more arms from Hamburg  or other German ports to Spain. A combined British and French fleet in the Mediterranean should be able to prevent many Italian reinforcements from reaching General Franco…

Unless, indeed, the Fascist Powers wish a European war here and now, a rapid flow of arms to the Republicans plus the possibility of a Franco-British blockade, might induce the aggressors to withdraw at least part of their armed forces. If the Spaniards were at last left to fight it out, a loyalist victory would be assured, and a heavy blow would have been dealt to aggressive dictators.  A new hope of peace would dawn for Europe.

….If Spain be allowed to pass under Fascist control, the dictators will have won the first round of the game, and the succeeding ones will be infinitely hard, and more costly, to wrench from their hands. 

Is it not clear, then, that whatever our next move may be, the first, if we are not to be parties to an appalling tragedy and to a terrible blunder, must be to abandon the so-called Non-Intervention policy and restore to the Spanish Government its right under international law to buy arms?

Document B:

A correspondent for  The Times living in Prague in 1938 gave this account of the reaction in Prague to The Times article of the 7th September:

Everywhere I went in Prague during the next few days I was pounced upon by officials, diplomats and journalists. I could shake very few of them out of their treasured opinion that ‘The Times’ was the direct voice of the British Government….Given the standing and great influence of ‘The Times’ in those years… I knew the damage would be at least as great as if the article had been  inspired directly by the Government…. The article was a signal that Chamberlain had allies…

Geoffrey Dawson (the editor) was of course in sympathy with Chamberlain and Halifax… His deputy editor… was carried forward by a burning mission to save the world from another war… Like Halifax, he told me more than once that Germany was ordained to the exert influence over central and eastern Europe…

(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976).

Document C:

Newsreel, September 1938:

The Gaumont-British newsreel, transcript, reporting on the scene at Heston Airport, 15th September 1938:

The hour of need has found the man, Mr Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Since he took office Mr Chamberlain has never wavered in his determination to establish peace in Europe. At the hour when the dark clouds of war hung most menacingly above the world of men, the Prime Minister took a wise and bold decision. Well may we call him Chamberlain the Peacemaker. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was at Heston to see the Primier off on this epic-making flight to Germany, the first flight he has ever made. We know that no man could do more than he, but since we also know that it lies not in the power of mortals to command success, we say with all our hearts, ‘May God go with him! Three cheers for Chamberlain!…   

Document D:

The Anglo-French proposals were presented to the Czechoslovak Government on 19th September 1938:

The representatives of the French and British Governments have been in consultation today on the general situation, and have considered the British Prime Minister’s report of his conversation with Herr Hitler. … We are both convinced that, after recent events, the point has been reached where the further maintenance within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak State of the districts mainly inhabited by Sudeten Deutsch cannot, in fact, continue any longer without imperilling the interest of Czechoslovakia herself and of European peace… both Governments have been compelled to the conclusion that the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia’s vital interests cannot effectively be assured unless these areas are now transferred to the Reich… 

(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous 7, (1938) pp 8-9).

Document E:

Lord Runciman had been asked to report on the German Sudetenland question for Chanberlain. He did so by letter on 21st September:

My dear Prime Minister,… The problem of political, social and economic relations between Teuton and Slav races in the area which is now called Czechoslovakia is one which has existed for many centuries… I have much sympathy, however, with the Sudeten case. It is a hard thing to be ruled by an alien race; and I have been left with the impression that Czechoslovak rule in the Sudeten area for the last twenty years, while not actively oppressive and certainly not ‘terroristic’, has been marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance and discrimination, to a point where the resentment of the German population was inevitably moving in the direction of revolt…

Local irritations were added to these major grievances. Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land transferred under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these… invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work  and relief for Czechs more regularly than Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified… the feeling of the Sudeten Germans until three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in these circumstances.

(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 7 (1938), pp. 3-5)

Document F:

The Times correspondent in Prague described the atmosphere of crisis as it developed around Wenceslas Square on the 21st September:

 … the people of Prague decided… to take a direct hand in events. Very quickly crowds began to gather… At first they stood about in threes and fours, reading the papers and arguing. Some larger groups were mainly young men and girls, shabbily dressed. Soon men and women came in hundreds, then thousands, filling the square. They began by seeming wholly bewildered. Many were weeping. ‘What fools we were to spend such money on frontier defences’, I heard one man say, but few followed that line. ‘We don’t need any more guarantees,’ said another, ‘we want aeroplanes.’ A well-dressed woman stopped, guessing that I was British.  ‘Each night,’ she said in a cultured voice, ‘I pray that Heaven may punish France for her treachery and Britain for her blindness,’…

Still without anyone giving orders the crowds began moving out of the bottom of the square, shouting and singing the national anthem… In front of the Hradcany Palace the people called again for General Syrovy, the highly popularInspector General of the Forces, to take over and for all concessions to be stopped. Then the shouting changed. It took on a deeper meaning that caught one’s breath. ‘Tell us the truth. We want the truth.’ It was a sovereign demand…

(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976)

Document G:

The second demonstration was on the 25th September, following the announcement of the call-up of all men under forty:

It was announced at 10.20 p.m. … In ten minutes the whole of the broad boulevard, which had been as bright as Piccadilly with moving cars, became dark, as a mass of men, walking shoulder to shoulder the whole width of the thoroughfare, passed on to the station. In place of the noise of trains and cars all one heard was the heavy swish and slur of hundreds of shoes. Some women walked with the men, the older ones tearful, the younger ones proudly holding on to the arms of their fathers and husbands. ‘Well, it had to come. We won’t let those German brutes through.’…

(McDonald)

Document H:

The Terms of the Munich Agreement, 29th September, 1938:

Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy… have agreed on the following terms and conditions… governing the said cession:

1. The evacuation will begin on 1st October

2. ….the evacuation… shall be completed by 10th October, without any existing installations having been destroyed…

4. The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territory by German troops will begin on 1st October… The remaining territory of predominantly German character will be ascertained by… international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by 10th October.

5. The international commission will… determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held…

6. The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission…

7. There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories… A German-Czechoslovak commission shall… consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population…

(Documents Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 8 (1938), pp. 3-4)

Document I: 

Newsreel, October 1938:

The Sudetenland Crisis was the first major crisis covered by the newsreels: British newsreel companies co-operated with the German Ministry of Propaganda to provide massive coverage of Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany, providing the cinema audience with a diet of mounting excitement. The now famous newsreel of Chamberlain’s return from Munich on the 30th September is both the climax of the media campaign and historical evidence of its result. Here is the transcript:

Commentary

(on-screen caption: PEACE INSTEAD OF WAR)

(On-screen caption: ONE MAN SAVED US FROM THE GREATEST WAR OF ALL, fading into film of Chamberlain at Heston Airport) 

… So our Prime Minister has come back from his third and greatest journey and he said that “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. (cheers)

“This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name on it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you: (cheers)

” ‘We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.’ ” (cheers)

There was no sign of British reserve as the crowds fought to get near the Premier’s car. As we travelled back with Mr Chamberlain from Heston we drove through serried masses of people, happy in the knowledge that there was no war with Germany. (cheers)

The Premier drove straight to Buckingham Palace; here he was received by the King while London waited. And history was made again when their majesties came out on to that famous balcony with the Prime Minister. (‘Land of Hope and Glory’)

Posterity will thank God, as we do now, that in time of desperate need our safety was guarded by such a man: Neville Chamberlain. 

(Gaumont-British, October 1938)

Document J:

Meanwhile, there was a third demonstration in Prague, as the news from Munich filtered through on the 30th September:

It is something any westerner would wish he had not seen. Munich had happened. Threatened with immediate war with Germany, and told by Britain and France that Czechoslovakia would be left to founder alone unless she submitted, Dr Benes and his ministers surrendered. Long sleeplessness and hours of browbeating from friends and allies had brought them… to a state when they were long past coherent thought. So Czechoslovakia was to be broken up. The people came onto the streets, again in their thousands, but this time weeping with grief, rage, shame and exhaustion.

(McDonald)

Document K:

Spontaneous demonstrations continued over the next days:

One morning I saw a large number of men and women in the Old Square around the statue of Jan Hus, burnt for his faith in 1415: they had been drawn there by a common impulse yet they could say nothing, only sit there, their eyes streaming, and their faces working.

(McDonald)

Document L:

Under the title, Two Incompatible Worlds, Professor Arnold Toynbee, who himself visited Hitler, described the mental gap between the dictators and western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany… and the outbreak of war… had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey … that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

(Survey of International Affairs, 1938, Volume II: The Crisis over Czechoslovakia, ed. R G D Laffan, with an introduction by Arnold J Toynbee, Oxford University Press, 1951)

Document M:

On 17th March, 1939, Chamberlain made a speech in his home town of Birmingham, looking back on his decision to negotiate with Hitler:

… When I decided to go to Germany I never expected that I was going to escape criticism. Indeed, I did not go there to get popularity. I went  there first and foremost because, in what appeared to be an almost desperate situation, that seemed to me to offer the only chance of averting a European war… the first and the most immediate object of my visit was achieved. The peace of Europe was saved;… Nothing that we could have done… could possibly have saved Czechoslovakia from invasion and destruction. Even if we had subsequently gone to war and… been victorious in the end, never could we have reconstructed Czechoslovakia as she was formed by the Treaty of Versailles.

But I had another purpose, too, in going to Munich. That was to further the policy which I have been pursuing ever since I had been in my present position – a policy which is sometimes called European appeasement… If that policy were to succeed, it was essential that no Power should seek to obtain a general domination of Europe; but that each one should be contented to obtain reasonable facilities for developing its own resources, securing its own share of international trade, and improving the conditions of its own people… it should be possible to resolve all differences by discussion and without armed conflict. I had hoped in going to Munich to find out by personal contact what was in Herr Hitler’s mind…

When I came back after my second visit I told the House of Commons of a conversation I had had with Herr Hitler, of which I said that… he had repeated what he had already said at Berchtesgaden – namely, that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe, and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than German…

 … And lastly, in that declaration which he and I signed together at Munich, we declared that any other question which might concern our two countries should be dealt with by the method of consultation…

(Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations, Miscellaneous No. 9, 1939)

Document N:

In 1953, Duff Cooper, a critic at the time of Munich, wrote about Neville Chamberlain in the following terms:

… He had never moved in the great world of politics or finance, and the continent of Europe was a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and for him the Dictators of Germany and Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally reasonable, decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.

(Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 1953)

Questions for Discussion & Debate:

Use the chronicle, narrative, photographs in the text, the documents in the appendix, and the gallery of photographs below to discuss and debate the following:

1.  What impact did the Spanish Civil War have on the course of international relations?

2.  How did the newsreel of the return of Chamberlain from Munich support his peacemaking efforts?

3.  ‘A piece of film is not some unadulterated reflection of historical truth captured by the camera which does not require the interposition of the historian’ (J A S Grenville). Discuss, with direct reference to both of the Gaumont-British newsreels transcribed above.

4.  Why was The Times article (7th Sept 1938) published, and why was its effect so considerable in Prague?

5.  According to McDonald, how did the people of Prague react to the Sudetenland Crisis from 21st  to 25th September?

6.  What does McDonald’s eye-witness account add to the narrative account of the Sudetenland Crisis and the Munich Agreement?

7.  How justifiable was Churchill’s statement (made to the Commons on 5th October) that ‘we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat’?

8.  With reference to the narrative, and all the sources above, examine the view that appeasement was a noble and virtuous policy unsuited to dealing with a power like Nazi Germany.

9.  Attempt a defence of Chamberlain’s foreign policy in 1938. In your defence, refer to the evidence from those opposed to the policy at the time.

10.  In January 1938, the Chief of Naval Staff had written that the Royal Navy would not be able to deal simultaneously with hostilities from Japan and Germany. To what extent was appeasement a response to Britain’s wider problems of imperial responsibility, in which Europe took second place?

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Č...

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming Ger...

A woman in the Sudetenland greets incoming German troops with tears and a Nazi salute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German priests health arrival...

English: Sudeten German priests health arrival of German troops Česky: Sudetoněmečtí kněží zdraví příjezd německých vojsk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German Freikorps Česky: Defil...

English: Sudeten German Freikorps Česky: Defilující jednotky sudetoněmeckého Freikorpsu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Č...

English: Sudeten German women welcome Hitler Česky: Sudetoněmecké ženy vítají Adolfa Hitlera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: The Sudeten Germans destroyed Czech n...

English: The Sudeten Germans destroyed Czech name of the city Šumperk Česky: Sudetští Němci zamazávají český název města Šumperka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

%d bloggers like this: