An account of Britain and France’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.
A Cambridge graduate and Czech scholar, Caquet (The Orient, the Liberal Movement, and the Eastern Crisis of 1839-41, 2016)—who speaks Czech, Slovak, French, and German—writes that Czechoslovakia, formed after the 1918 breakup of Austria-Hungary, was a vibrant, prosperous democracy. It contained several non-Czech ethnic groups, including German-speakers (Sudetens), about 20 percent of the population. Though never part of Germany proper, Sudetens participated in the government and were not persecuted. When Hitler came to power, he proclaimed that all Germans yearned to join the Reich. With Nazi backing, a Sudeten quasi-Nazi party formed, and its violent tactics soon made it the dominant political force. With Nazi media full of purely fictional accounts of atrocities against Sudetens and Hitler demanding self-determination, Britain and France realized that there was a “Sudeten problem” and offered to negotiate a solution. No one at the time knew that Hitler had ordered Sudeten leaders to make impossible demands. In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew for his first meeting with Hitler, coming away full of praise for his statesmanship. Returning after dragooning the reluctant French and even more reluctant Czechs to agree to cede lands with more than 50 percent German-speakers, he was flabbergasted when Hitler refused. War seemed imminent, which, Caquet emphasizes, might have been a good thing. The Czechs had a fortified frontier and a formidable army, Germany’s generals believed the Wermacht was not prepared, and the Soviet Union declared its support for the Czechs (it became a German ally a year later). Sadly, Chamberlain was indefatigable, warning French leaders that Britain would not support them in any war. Eagerly accepting Mussolini’s offer to help, he returned a few days later and gave Hitler everything he wanted. With access to new material, the author delivers what is likely the definitive history of a disgraceful event.
A book both insightful and painful to read.