The Munich Agreement was the outcome of a four-power conference held in Munich, Germany, involving the prime ministers of Britain (Neville Chamberlain) and France (Édouard Daladier) and the dictators of Germany (Adolph Hitler) and Italy (Benito Mussolini) on 29–30 September 1938. It sought to resolve the international crisis that had arisen over the supposed mistreatment of the German minority population in the Sudetenland and the imminent threat of German troops being dispatched to their aid. The Czechs were not invited to the conference but were placed under intense pressure to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. For the Czechs to resist would have meant fighting Germany alone. Reluctantly and amid recriminations the Czech government complied.
Czechoslovakia became the center of diplomatic attention after Germany seized Austria in March 1938. It left the Czechs, as the British chiefs of staff observed, like a bone in the jaws of a dog. A vocal German minority in the Sudetenland, led by Konrad Henlein, was being actively stirred up by Nazi propaganda. As tension increased Hitler decided upon the need to destroy Czechoslovakia at the first opportunity. It forced the British to abandon their policy of "realistic isolationism" and directly intervene by dispatching Lord Runciman, a former cabinet member, to the region in August. While Runciman shuttled between Prague and Berlin seeking to resolve the crisis, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, took the view that a personal appeal to Hitler would dissuade the dictator from any preemptive act of aggression. He secretly devised Plan Z on 28 August with Horace Wilson, acivil servant and confidant of the prime minister. Most foreign-office officials and senior British cabinet members were not informed of the plan until 8 September, with the rest of the world being kept in the dark until the day before Chamberlain flew to Germany for the first time to meet with Hitler at Berchtesgaden (15 September). During their meeting Hitler lay out his demands for an "instant solution" and a plebiscite of the Sudeten people. Chamberlain asked for time to discuss matters with the cabinet and the French government, although crucially he made no mention of the Czechs. When he returned to Bad Godesberg on 22 September, he found that Hitler had upped the ante, warning that German forces intended to occupy the Sudetenland on 28 September. Chamberlain returned to London expecting that Britain would have to go to war in defense of Czechoslovakia. War was postponed when an invitation was received from Mussolini, acting for Hitler, to attend a four-power conference to resolve the crisis.
The agreement reached at Munich was for the German occupation of the Sudetenland to take place between 1 and 10 October. Plebiscites would then be held to determine the new borders. The British and French would guarantee the remainder of Czechoslovakia. For the Czechs forced into accepting this arrangement, it meant that their natural and constructed defenses were lost to the Germans, as were vital industrial plants. Whether the defense of Czechoslovakia in 1938 would have been as desperate an undertaking as British and French military planners believed has been open to interpretation and has led to questions about whether appeasement was the only practicable policy for the democracies to follow. Chamberlain, anxious to further Anglo-German relations, also managed to have a private meeting with Hitler at which the pair signed the piece of paper, later waved at Heston Airport, promising that Britain and Germany would never to go to war again. It was this letter of accord that gave Chamberlain the confidence to declare "peace in our time."
While Munich was initially hailed as a triumph for the diplomacy of Chamberlain, Hitler took the view that it was a defeat, that he had been bluffed out of war. German troops had been primed to attack on 1 October. It meant that in 1939 Hitler was determined not to repeat what he had come to believe were the terrible mistakes that had led to the Munich Agreement. Any hopes that Chamberlain held of further diplomatic initiatives with Germany were dashed first by the Kristallnacht pogrom (9–10 November 1938) and finally in March 1939, when Hitler tore up the Munich settlement and sent troops into Prague.
The agreement has become synonymous with surrender. The stigma of the settlement still burdens the leadership of the modern British Conservative Party. In May 1992, John Major, the prime minister and party leader, signed an Anglo-Czech declaration formally nullifying the Munich Agreement. Two years previously his predecessor Margaret Thatcher had apologized for the "shame" of Munich while visiting Prague.
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C. J. Bartlett