In 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy sought to unite all ethnic Germans under the National Socialist flag. In March of that year, he had united Austria and Germany in the Anschluss. Hitler’s next target was the Sudetenland, then a part of Czechoslovakia, which contained a sizable German minority. However, the amalgamation of the Sudetenland was just an excuse for the conquest of Czechoslovakia, which stuck into Germany like a lance into the belly of the Third Reich.
The rugged mountains and hills of the Sudetenland were key to Czechoslovakia’s defense against invasion from Germany. The Czechoslovakian Army was every bit comparable to the contemporary Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. The Czech Army of 1938 was based on a quick mobilization while the professional army held extensive fixed fortifications in the rugged terrain through which German troops would have to pass. (The regular army was already fighting German Freikorps in the Sudetenland). Also, the Czechoslovakian Army had arguably the best tank designs of 1938, the Skoda Works’ Lt vz 35 and 38 tanks, far superior to the German PzI and PzIIs. Even with Germany’s strategic advantages, a German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 would have been a hard fight, and one that Germany was not guaranteed to win. Had the Czechoslovakians been allowed to resist, or even threaten resistance, the Second World War would have turned out quite different. However, the Czechoslovakians were not part of the negotiations.
Hitler promised the Sudetenland would be his “last territorial demand”. The Soviet Union sided with Czechoslovakia but were also not part of the negotiations. Great Britain and France sought to appease Hitler and Germany. Though France recognized Hitler’s plans for European domination, her perceived weak financial and military situation demanded that Britain also stand in defiance of Germany. On 30 September 1938, eleven months before the start of the Second World War, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland in exchange for peace.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain immediately flew back to London. At Heston airport (now Heathrow) he proclaimed he had secured “peace in our time” and waved the document for all to see.
After the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was fair game for all her neighbors. In October, Hungary was given most of southern Slovakia by Germany, and in November, Poland seized small Polish enclaves in northern Moravia and Slovakia. The Soviet Union rightfully viewed the Munich Agreement as a betrayal of Czechoslovakia, which was confirmed when Hitler seized the rest of the country six months later. In Stalin’s eyes, Great Britain’s and France’s policy of appeasement showed that they could not be relied upon to fight if Hitler decided to demand Soviet territory. The Soviet Army in 1939 was a wreck as a result of the purges of the officer corps in 1937/38 and would not be able to resist. As a result, the Soviet Union began negotiations with Nazi Germany for a non-belligerence treaty which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939.
Emboldened by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Allied fecklessness, Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 which began the Second World War. More than 60 million soldiers and civilians died over the next six years in the most destructive war in human history.