Shortly after he signed the Munich Agreement in
September 1938, Adolf Hitler privately complained to members of his SS
bodyguard, "That fellow Chamberlain spoiled my entrance into Prague."
Hitler originally wanted to smash Czechoslovakia
via a lighting military strike and then make a Caesar-like entry into the
old capital city. But he had been overwhelmed by the eagerness of Britain
and France to serve Czechoslovakia to him "on a plate."
For Hitler, the Munich Agreement was nothing more
than a worthless piece of paper. On October 21st, just three weeks
after signing the document, he informed his generals that they should begin
planning for "the liquidation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia."
Hitler had promised British Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain and the German people that the Sudetenland would be his "last
territorial demand" in Europe. In reality, it was only the beginning.
And Hitler now wanted to grab the remainder of Czechoslovakia due to its
By now, the Nazis had perfected the art of stealing
neighboring territory. They would start by encouraging political unrest
inside the area. At the same time, they would wage a propaganda campaign
citing real or imagined wrongs committed against local Germans. When neighboring
political leaders finally came to see to Hitler to resolve the ongoing
crisis, they would be offered help in the form of a German Army occupation
to "restore order."
The new political leader of Czechoslovakia was
66-year-old Dr. Emil Hácha, an inexperienced politician with a bad
heart condition. He had replaced Czech President Eduard Benes who fled
to England after the Munich Agreement fearing assassination by the Nazis.
Hácha now presided over an ever-shrinking republic. By early 1939,
two outlying border areas had already been seized by Poland and Hungary
with Hitler's approval.
At Hitler's instruction, nationalist Slovaks living
in the eastern portion of Czechoslovakia began agitating for a completely
independent state, which would take another huge chunk out of Czechoslovakia.
On March 10, 1939, President Hácha responded to the Slovak demand
for independence by ousting the leaders of the Slovak government and declaring
martial law inside the province of Slovakia.
Hácha's unexpected and defiant action took
the Nazis by surprise, upsetting their carefully laid plans. Hitler reacted
to this turn of events just as he had when Schuschnigg took a defiant stance
in Austria – he ordered his generals to prepare for an immediate invasion.
Meanwhile, the pro-German Slovak leader, Monsignor
Tiso, was summoned to Berlin to see Hitler. Tiso arrived at the Chancellery
on Monday evening, March 13th, and was told by Hitler that the situation
in Czechoslovakia had become "impossible." Time was running out
said Hitler. Tiso had to decide right then and there whether Slovakia wanted
to break off from Czechoslovakia and become an independent country. Hitler
promised Tiso that he would protect Slovakia after its independence was
Tiso hesitated briefly then decided to go along
with Hitler. The Nazis then drafted a proclamation of independence for
Tiso to use, along with a phony telegram to be sent later containing an
appeal for the Führer's protection.
The following day, Tuesday, March 14th, Tiso returned
home and presented the independence proclamation to Slovakia's parliament.
He told the assembly that if they failed to approve this proclamation,
Hitler's troops would simply march in and take Slovakia. Faced with this
prospect, the Slovak assembly gave in and voted with Tiso. Thus the independent
country of Slovakia was born.
Now, all that remained of shrunken Czechoslovakia
were the two central provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. At this point, Goebbels'
propaganda machine went into high gear spreading reports of alleged persecution
of local Germans there by Czechs. Out of convenience, or perhaps out of
laziness, Goebbels' propaganda people used the same fake newspaper stories
they had printed six months earlier concerning the Czech "reign of
terror" in the Sudetenland.
President Hácha, bewildered by all that
was happening to Czechoslovakia, sent a message to Hitler asking for a
face-to-face meeting to resolve the ongoing crisis. Hitler, of course,
agreed to see him as soon as possible.
Hácha was unable to fly due to his heart
condition and arrived by train in Berlin at 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday evening.
He was met by Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and taken to the Adlon Hotel
to await Hitler's call.
Nearly three hours later, at 1:15 a.m., Hácha
was finally summoned to the Reich Chancellery to see the Führer. At
this meeting, Hitler let the Czech president speak first and for as long
as he wanted. President Hácha proceeded to humble himself unabashedly
in the presence of the all-powerful German dictator. He disavowed any link
with the previous democratic government in Czechoslovakia and promised
to work toward eliminating any anti-German sentiment among his people.
He then pleaded for mercy on behalf of his little country.
But Hácha's pitiful pleading brought out
the worst in Hitler, a man who had utter contempt for human weakness. When
Hácha finished his monologue, Hitler launched into a blistering
attack, citing all of the alleged wrongs committed by Czechs against Germans.
Working himself into a self-induced state of rage,
Hitler hollered out that his patience with Czechoslovakia had ended, and
that the German Army was about to invade the country, beginning in just
a few hours.
Now, the Führer bellowed, the Czech people
had two options. They could offer futile resistance and be violently crushed,
or, the president could sign a document telling his countrymen to peacefully
receive the incoming troops. The president had to decide soon. The troops
would march in regardless beginning at 6 a.m. that morning.
President Hácha, taken completely by surprise,
was at first too shocked to respond and just sat there as if he had turned
to stone. Hitler was done with him for the time being and sent him into
an adjoining room for further discussions with Göring and Ribbentrop.
The two Nazis immediately pounced on the sickly
president, badgering him to sign the surrender document which was
placed on the table before him. But Hácha, after regaining his composure,
refused outright. The Nazis insisted again, even pushing a pen at him.
He refused again. Now, Göring played his trump card. He told the Czech
president that unless he signed, half of Prague would be bombed to ruins
within two hours by the German Air Force. Upon hearing this, the frail
president collapsed onto the floor.
The Nazis panicked, thinking they had killed the
man with fright. Hitler's personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, was rushed
in and injected the president with vitamins to revive him. When Hácha
recovered his senses, the Nazis stuck a telephone in his hands, connecting
him with his government back in Prague. Hácha spoke into the telephone
and reluctantly advised his government to surrender peacefully to the Nazis.
After this, Hácha was ushered back into
Hitler's presence. At 3:55 a.m., Wednesday, March 15th, the Czech president
signed the document stating he had "confidently placed the fate of
the Czech people and country in the hands of the Führer of the German
Two hours later, amid a late winter snowstorm,
the German Army rolled into the first non-Germanic territory to be taken
by the Nazis.
"Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist!"
Hitler announced to the German people later that day, just before departing
for Prague. That evening, Hitler made his long-awaited entry into the grand
old city at the head of ten vehicle convoy. But there were no cheering
crowds. The streets of Prague were deserted.
Hitler spent the night in Prague's Hradschin Castle,
former home to the Kings of Bohemia. The next day, Thursday, March 16th,
from inside the castle, Hitler issued a proclamation establishing the Protectorate
of Bohemia and Moravia. "Czechoslovakia," Hitler declared, "showed
its inherent inability to survive and has therefore now fallen victim to
That same day, Tiso sent his pre-arraigned telegram
from Slovakia urgently requesting the Führer's protection. The two-day-old
independent country of Slovakia thus ceased to exist as the German Army
rolled in, supposedly at the request of the Slovaks themselves.
At this point, the whole world waited to see how
Prime Minister Chamberlain would react to the incredible happenings in
Czechoslovakia, all of which were gross violations of the Munich Agreement.
Chamberlain responded to Hitler's aggression by
claiming the British were not bound to protect Czechoslovakia since the
country in effect no longer existed after Slovakia had voted for independence
on March 14th. And Hitler's actions had occurred the next day, March 15th.
The Prime Minister's willy-nilly statement caused
an uproar in the British press and in the House of Commons. Chamberlain
was lambasted over his lack of moral outrage concerning Hitler's gangster
diplomacy. Angry members of the House of Commons vowed that Britain would
never again appease Hitler.
Interestingly, while traveling on a train from
London to Birmingham on Friday, March 17, Chamberlain underwent a complete
change of heart. He had in his hand a prepared speech discussing routine
domestic matters that he was supposed to give in Birmingham. But upon deep
reflection, he decided to junk the speech and outlined a brand new one
In the new speech, which was broadcast throughout
England on radio, Chamberlain first apologized for his lukewarm reaction
to Hitler's recent actions in Czechoslovakia. Then he recited a list of
broken promises made by Hitler dating back to the Munich Agreement.
"The Führer," Chamberlain asserted,
"has taken the law into his own hands."
"Now we are told that this seizure of territory
has been necessitated by disturbances in Czechoslovakia...If there were
disorders, were they not fomented from without?"
"Is this the last attack upon a small state
or is it to be followed by others? Is this, in effect, a step in the direction
of an attempt to dominate the world by force?"
If so, Chamberlain declared: "No greater
mistake could be made than to suppose that because it believes war to be
a senseless and cruel thing, this nation has so lost its fiber that it
will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge
if it ever were made."
Now, for the first time in the history of the
Third Reich, Great Britain had finally declared it would stand up to the German
dictator and was willing to fight.
The next day, March 18, British diplomats informed
the Nazis that Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia was "a complete
repudiation of the Munich Agreement...devoid of any basis of legality."
The French also lodged a strong protest saying they "would not recognize
the legality of the German occupation."
However, Hitler and the Nazis could care less
what they thought. Hitler had seen his "enemies" at Munich and
considered them to be little worms.
But now, in an ominous development for Hitler,
Britain and France went beyond mere diplomatic protests. On March 31st, Prime
Minister Chamberlain issued a solid declaration, with the backing of France,
guaranteeing Hitler's next likely victim, Poland, from Nazi aggression.
The era of Hitler's bloodless conquests had ended.
The next time German troops rolled into foreign territory there would be
an actual shooting war.
It had been just six months since the Munich Agreement
and there were only about six months left until the outbreak of World War
II. During these months, the various countries of Europe formed military
alliances, choosing up sides like schoolboys preparing for a game of football
– France with Britain and Poland, Italy with Germany and so forth. No one,
however, could figure out what Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin would