The Sudeten crisis was a diplomatic crisis among the major powers of Europe in the summer and autumn of 1938 that led to World War II.
Negotiations and mediation
Escalation and mobilization
Czechoslovak response to the ultimatum
Attempts to resolve the crisis
At the urging of the generals, Beneš and the Czechoslovak government met on 27 September with Jozef Tiso and Karol Sidor of the Slovak People's Party, Wenzel Jaksch of the German Social Democratic Workers Party (DSAP) and Erwin Zajiček of the dissolved German Christian Social People's Party (DCV). After much negotiation, the Czechoslovak government at 01:00 A.M. announced the Governmental Decree on Federalization of the Czechoslovak Republic (also known as the Prague Agreement), in which they intented to transforming Czechoslovakia into a federal republic with autonomy for Czechoslovakia's ethnic minorities. The Czechoslovak government also confirmed that they would abide by the British-French proposals of 21 September by transferring territories with 50 per cent of German inhabitants, but refused to abide by the Godesberg ultimatum.
At 4 in the morning of 28 September, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet was by a telegram from Prague. In light of the surprising news from Prague, Prime Minister Édouard Daladier called a emergency session of his Council of Ministers in Elysée Palace at 7:00 a.m. Both Daladier and Bonnet agreed that the Czechs, by agreeing to the Anglo-French proposals and the agreement reached in Prague the evening before, had gone far to settle their minority issues, while the Germans had remained hostile and aggressive. France had to fulfill their treaty obligations (as deciding against this would be political suicide) and urge Germany to return to the Anglo-French proposal and to the negotiation table. Reynaud and Mandel both spoke for French mobilization. Daladier decided on holding off a general mobilization until after a meeting with the Standing Committee on National Defence, to be held as soon as they learned how the Germans reacted after the 2 p.m. deadline. After conferring with chief of staff General Gamelin, they agreed to initiate preparations for a general mobilization.
The news also came as a shock to the British. Winston Churchill, MP told the press that it now was time for a joint Anglo-French-Soviet warning to Germany that an invasion of Czechoslovakia would mean war. Meanwhile, an exhausted Chamberlain called for an emergency Cabinet session at 09:30 a.m. to adress the agreement reached in Prague. While arguing against war and for continued negotiations with the Germans, there was now agreement among many Cabinet ministers that the Prague Agreement had changed the situation. Czechoslovakia had not only agreed to ceding territory to Germany in the Anglo-French Proposal, but now also given concessions to their national minorities. First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper argued that Hitler couldn't be trusted while the Czechs had gone far to and were willing to fight, concluding that "we would be guilty of one of the basest betrayals in history". Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax agreed, stating that public opinion now definitively would be against any more concessions to Hitler, and that it would not be right to put further pressure on Czechoslovakia in light of all of their concessions except for Hitler's Godesberg demands. Cooper urged the Cabinet to immediately order general mobilization, while Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha and Minister of Health Walter Elliot supported Cooper but recommended partial mobilization. Later that afternoon Chamberlain in the House of Commons, where he told the silent crowd that he had hoped to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, but "unhappily those hopes had not been fulfilled." "Today", he warned, "we are faced with a situation which has no parallel since 1914."
Hitler, meanwhile, was furious. Germany immediately broke off diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia. He gave the order for the German army to take up positions at 06:30 a.m. on 29 September. Hitler also issued the Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War, ordered hostilities against Czechoslovakia to start at 6:15 a.m. on 30 September (X-Tag) and silently ordered the full mobilization of the Wehrmacht (Allgemeine Mobilmachung mit öffentlicher Verkündigung). At 9 p.m. on 29 September, Berlin Radio announced that the Czechs had by the deadline at 2:00 p.m. the day before refused to accept the demands at Godesberg, and that the Czechs had intensified the persecution of the Sudeten Germans despite the Prague Agreement, calling it a vicious ploy to buy more time.
On 29 September, the Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, warned that unless something new came up there would be war in a few hours, called Halifax and suggested that Mussolini would approach Hitler with the offer of a four-nation conference on 5 October. Chamberlain's first reaction was to insist that both sides would have to demobilize before any such conference could take place. In Paris, however, Bonnet favoured accepting the idea of a conference. When The French Council of Ministers met later that evening Bonnet pressed the ministers to accept the Italian offer of mediation but Daladier, turning his back on his foreign minister throughout the meeting, warned that the proposal was a "ploy". "Are we to cut up Czechoslovakia and dishonour ourselves?" A press communiqué implied that the Italian offer had been rejected and proclaimed France's commitment to fulfil its obligations to Czechoslovakia, but behind the scenes, Bonnet was engaged in increasingly desperate attempt to secure Italian mediation. In Berlin, meanwhile, Hitler saw the Italian ambassador Bernardo Attolico in the evening of 29 September, where he rejected the possibility of Italian mediation and said that "everything was now at an end."
German invasion of Czechoslovakia
At 06:15 A.M. on 30 September 1938, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Half an hour later, Hitler's proclamation to the Wehrmacht is read out over the radio:
|“|| The Czechoslovak State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms. The Sudeten Germans are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. This is intolerable to a great Power which has sworn to protect them. Mr. Beneš must not only pay for his lies and atrocities against the Sudeten German people, but also the German people.|
In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honour and the vital rights of reborn Germany with hard determination. I expect that every soldier, mindful of the great traditions of eternal German soldiery, will ever remain conscious that he is a representative of the National-Socialist Greater Germany. Long live our people and our Reich!
The same day, Mussolini, with great effort, was able to extract a note from Hitler absolving Italy from its responsibilities under the Pact of Steel. Mussolini noted that while they stood with Germany, Italy was not ready for war at this time. At the afternoon meeting of the Grand Council, the Italians opted for "non-belligerency", a word that Mussolini felt had stronger ring than neutrality.
In Paris, the French Council of Ministers meet at the Elysée Palace, where they decided that general mobilization, which would take 16 days, should begin the next day and that the National Assembly should be convened to vote 75 billion Francs in supplementary military credits. Despite last efforts by Bonnet to agree to Italian mediation, the cabinet refused to debate the issue further. Bonnet then met with Czechoslovak ambassador Štefan Osuský and told him that "France will fulfill all her obligations."
The British were deliberating about what should be done. Officials rejected a mediation proposal by Henderson that only the immediate suspension of hostilities and the withdrawal of German troops from Czechoslovak territory would prevent the outbreak of war. Halifax sent a message to Rome thanking Mussolini for his offer of mediation but regretting that German action made it impossible to move along those lines. At the morning cabinet meeting, Halifax, expecting that Britain, in contrast to Germany, wouldfollow the normal procedures of issuing an ultimatum and a declaration of war before embarking on hostilities, was still reluctant to take the final step. Other ministers wavered as well, fearing taking the final step to war and the nightmares about its consequences. However, full mobilization was declared and, as had been decided on the previous day, the evacuation of children and women from London and other cities was initiated.
On September 30 the British and French ambassadors in Berlin each informed Ribbentrop that his country would, without hesitation, fulfil its obligations to Czechoslovakia unless the German aggression ceased immediately and German troops were promptly withdrawn from Poland.
Bonnet, in his own mind, was seeking any means to restore peace. At midnight, Bonnet published in the official French news agency Havas an equivocal but misleading official communiqué indicating that the French had given a positive response to an Italian proposal for resolving the crisis. He even inquired of Prague whether Czechoslovakia would attend a conference, but given that Czechoslovakia had already been attacked and Prague been bombed twice, Krofta found the enquiry irrelevant. The Czechoslovak ambassador in Paris was outraged, and adding to the confusion were the conflicting signals from Paris and the French embassy in London. Asked when the French would implement their alliance, Bonnet told Osuský that if no reply was received from Berlin, then parliament, meeting that afternoon, would vote for an ultimatum with a deadline, which might be 24 or 48 hours. The Czechoslovak ambassador personally complained to Daladier who promised to expedite matters.
Bonnet was playing his own game. He convinced Ciano that Britain as well as France would support a conference, and new Italian proposals for an armistice and a conference were sent to Berlin on 1 October. The Germans stalled, while the British and French insisted that nothing could be done until the Germans troops had been withdrawn from Poland.
Halifax had a difficult morning. He had already received disturbing news from Paris that the French were dragging their feet and that Bonnet was trembling before the prospect of war. Halifax advised his ambassador to try to infuse some "courage and determination" into the French foreign minister. At 4:00 P.M. Bonnet called Halifax, reviewing what the British had already heard from Ciano.
The French parliament convened at 3 P.M. on 1 October. Daladier's speech to the National Assembly, modelled on that of French premier Viviani in 1914, was well received. Daladier, unsure of his political backing, wanted to show that every effort was being made to prevent the outbreak of war, and thus did not ask for any declaration of war. Debate was cut off in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, as Daladier was not confident enough to let the opponents of war be heard. When the French Council of Ministers met that evening, Daladier agreed that the Italian offer should be followed up. However, he insisted that German troop withdrawal was a prerequisite for a conference, despite protests from Bonnet and de Monize.
The House of Commons had convened to hear the government statement at 6:00 P.M. on 1 October in what would prove to be one of the stormiest parliamentary scenes in the 20th century. When Chamberlain rose to speak, everyone expected to hear that war would soon commence.
When the deadline for the French ultimatum to Germany expired at 11:00 A.M. on 2 October France declared war on Germany. This was followed by a British declaration of war against Germany two hours later. At 01:15 P.M., the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Czechoslovakia had expired. He said the British ambassador to Berlin had handed a final note to the German government this morning saying unless it announced plans to withdraw from Czechoslovakia by 1300, a state of war would exist between the two countries. Chamberlain continued: "I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany."