The Sudeten crisis began in February 1938 when Hitler demanded self-determination for all Germans in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Shortly after, Austrian Nazis rioted and invited Hitler to invade, which he did in March, declaring Anschluss.
It was clear that Hitler wanted to do the same in Czechoslovakia. The Sudeten Nazi Party was causing strikes and riots. This was a direct threat to Czechoslovakia, which would lose its industrial areas and defendable frontiers. Chamberlain hinted that an invasion of Czechoslovakia would ‘possibly’ involve other countries. Tension ran so high that, in May 1938, the Czech government mobilised its army, thinking that the Germans were about to invade.
In June 1938, the German Sudeten Party did well in the Czech national elections. It held talks with the Czech President Beneš, but these broke down in September. The Sudeten Germans demanded union with Germany, and caused so much trouble that the Czechs were forced to impose martial law. German newsreels showed ‘evidence’ of Czech ‘atrocities’ against the Sudeten Germans. Hitler threatened to support the Sudeten Germans with military force.
Then Chamberlain intervened. On 15 September he met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened war, but promised him that this was the ‘last problem to be solved’. Chamberlain decided that Hitler was ‘a man who can be relied upon’. He met for talks with the French, and together they persuaded the Czechs to agree to hand over the Sudetenland.
But when Chamberlain met Hitler again to tell him – at Bad Godesberg (22 September) – there were more demands. Hitler said that other Czech lands had to be given to Hungary and Poland, and that the Sudetenland should be occupied by Germany before 1 October. He assured Chamberlain that he had ‘no more territorial ambitions in Europe’.
Chamberlain refused. War seemed near, but Chamberlain was not sure that Czechoslovakia was one of the ‘great issues’ which justified war. Instead, he decided that it was ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’. At Munich (29 September), Britain and France gave the Sudetenland to Germany. Czechoslovakia was not even invited to the talks. Chamberlain returned to England with his famous piece of paper. ‘I believe it is peace for our time’, he told the cheering crowd.
The Czechs were free to fight if they wished, but they would have no support. They chose not to fight. In October 1938, Hitler marched into the Sudetenland unopposed. He said that it was the start of the great German Reich, and declared: ‘Thus we begin our march into the great German future . . .’