What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the South-East?

Background Information

By May 1938, Hitler had successfully broken several terms of the Treaty of Versailles, with no consequence.

He had successfully:

  1. Reclaimed the Saar through a 90% vote in a plebiscite in 1935.
  2. Rearmed Germany, including launching an airforce, in 1935.
  3. Remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936.
  4. Allied with Mussolini through the Rome-Berlin Axis, drawing in Japan through the Anti-Comintern Pact, both in 1936.
  5. United with Austria through Anschluss, in 1938.

These all emboldened Hitler, who was now ready to take his first step in taking something that went even beyond the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. His eyes turned towards the South-East, and his border with Czechoslovakia.

Hitler’s policy in Czechoslovakia takes three crucial steps:

  1. His claims on the Sudentenland.
  2. The Munich Conference
  3. The invasion of Bohemia and Moravia.

We will look at how these two events happened, how other countries reacted, and what they meant for Hitler’s power and growing tension.

Hitler’s Claims on the Sudetenland

What happened?

The Sudetenland was the richest and strongest part of Czechoslovakia. It borders Germany, making the very western part of the new country of Czechoslovakia. Hitler wanted it for these reasons, as it would add great power to the German war machine. In particular, the area produced huge amounts of lignite (a form of coal), and housed the Skoda factor (cars), which could be converted to make tanks.

The Sudetenland was also home to a minority of 3 million Germans. Whilst this is a significant number, it is important to remember that the area was never actually a part of Germany, and was not taken off them by Versailles. This minority group (around 20%) of the population, falsely claimed that they were the victims of persecution by the Czechs, and rioted frequently to protest this. Hitler encouraged this rioting, and indeed funded Nazi groups in the area to spread it.

Just like in Austria, Hitler fanned the flames of rebellion. The Nazis, in both Germany and Czechoslovakia, encouraged wider and more violent rioting until there was a dangerous emergency situation in the Sudetenland. Hitler claimed that this was making it unsafe for these people to remain a part of Czechoslovakia, and that he would fight to free them (and reunite them with Germany).

Hitler particularly threatened to use his Luftwaffe to destroy Czech cities in the area. People were terrified of this threat, as they had seen the devastating effect of the German airforce during the Spanish Civil War. In particular, when Hitler used the Luftwaffe to reduce the Basque city of Guernica to rubble. Europe scrambled to keep peace.

How did other countries react?

France and Britain had made a pact with Czechoslovakia that they would protect them against German aggression. France in particular were very keen to maintain this pact, and thought the tipping point had come as the time to stop Hitler.

In September of 1938, the British Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Hitler’s mountain retreat to discuss a deal. Hitler made it very clear that he would accept nothing less than full handing over of the Sudetenland to Germany, without a fight or struggle. Hitler demanded that Chamberlain force the Czech government to accept this.

Chamberlain was desperate to avoid war and conflict, and agreed. This marked the start of a high point in the Policy of Appeasement, although this had started far earlier. Appeasement – its success and the reasons for it – are covered in different lessons on this course.

Later in the same month (Septemebr), Chamberlain returned to Hitler, now in a town called Bad Godesberg. Chamberlain intended to tell Hitler that he had persuaded the other countries to accept the deal, but Hitler changed his demands. He now insisted that the annexation happen as early as the 1st of October, and that Poland and Hungary should also be given some other parts of Czech land. Chamberlain could not believe this, and did not know what to do.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the South-East?, figure 1

This photograph shows Chamberlain arriving at Bad Godesberg, ready to negotiate the peace with Hitler and tell him that the other countries would support his claim to the Sudetenland.

What did this mean for Hitler’s power and growing tension?

Hitler bullied Chamberlain into accepting a completely illegal and unnecessary annexation of land. This showed just how powerful Hitler’s position was becoming, and just how badly Britain wanted to avoid war.

This vastly increased tension, especially as the Czech government and France were outraged; however, neither felt strong enough to act without Britain. Germany just carried on getting what Hitler wanted.

The Munich Conference

What happened?

The Munich Conference is also known as the Munich Crisis. This was what happened when Hitler stepped up his demands at Bad Godesberg. The leaders of France, Britain, Italy, and Germany were brought together to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia and Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland.

The U.S.S.R., and Czechoslovakia, were not invited.

Hitler proposed a ‘compromise’ at the conference. He would only demand that ‘self determination’ was respected, and that the German parts of the Sudetenland were given over to him, and that the Polish and Hungarian parts were given back as well. Britain and France found this hard to argue against, especially as Mussolini totally backed Hitler.

Furthermore, Britain and France felt somewhat relieved, as they were able to say that they had made a deal in which the rest of Czechoslovakia would be safe. Because Hitler ‘promised’ not to interfere with the rest of Czechoslovakia, Britain and France agreed to these terms.

Again, Czechoslovakia was not consulted. Britain and France simply told them of the decision and expected them to follow along.

How did other countries react?

Czechoslovakia were outraged. Their army was quite strong, and the Sudetenland was well defended. They knew that they could beat Hitler with the support of Britain and France. They felt massively betrayed, but were seriously tempted to fight it out anyway.

The U.S.S.R. felt annoyed at not being invited, and also scared that the next target they would point Hitler towards was them. (This was a logical fear, Britain and France did indeed hope that Hitler would deal with Stalin for them). They began to work out how they might protect themselves. They initially made overtures to Britain and France, but neither country was interested in working with the Soviets.

What did this mean for Hitler’s power and growing tension?

Hitler marched his troops into the Sudetenland on the 10th of October of 1938, with no resistance or international condemnation. He had, once again, successfully bullied his way to success. He had now gone beyond defying Versailles, to redrawing the map of Europe to how Germany had wanted it at the start of World War One.

Tension increased throughout central Europe, and Britain and France knew they had broken their word. There was an increasing feeling that Hitler was pushing too far, and if only Britain and France would summon the courage, war would be dangerously imminent.

The Invasion of Bohemia and Moravia

What happened?

Chamberlain returned to Britain as a hero. Everyone had thought that the Sudetenland would cause war with Germany, and Chamberlain announced that he had prevented this. He waved a new declaration signed between himself and Hitler. The declaration stated that Germany was satisfied with the balance of power in Europe, and that they would never go to war with Britain. Hitler had promised that he would stop expanding Germany.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the South-East?, figure 1

In this photograph, Chamberlain had just dismounted his aeroplane and was giving a press conference. You can see him waving a piece of paper in the air - this is the Anglo-German agreement that Hitler would now ‘stop’. Chamberlain declared that he had achieved ‘Peace in Our Time’, and predicted a ‘peaceful Christmas’ for Europe.

In March of 1939, Hitler broke all of these promises and marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia, starting with the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. This included the Czech capital, Prague.

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the South-East?, figure 2

This map shows the various stages of Czech annexation. 1 represents the initial demands of the Sudetenland. 2, 3, and 4 represent the extra land that Hitler demands are given to Hungary and Poland at Bad Godesberg. 5 represents the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, which Hitler invades in March 1939. 6 represents the rest of Czechoslovakia, which Hitler slowly overtakes throughout the rest of 1939.

This made Chamberlain look really very silly, and showed that Hitler was in no way satisfied with what he already had. It also proved that agreements with Hitler weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Literally, in the case of the agreement paper which Chamberlain had waved when he stepped off his plane.

How did other countries react?

Britain was shocked, and public mood now began to turn quite quickly against Hitler. They were angry that they had been forced to break their word to Czechoslovakia in order to secure some peace, and then Hitler had betrayed that peace anyway.

However, nobody actually did anything about it. The Czechs had been unable to defend themselves, as the main defensible area had been the Sudetenland. Even if any other country had wanted to help, Hitler invaded too quickly.

Britain and France promised Poland that they would defend them unconditionally. The U.S.S.R., however, started to consider whether they might need to ally with Germany, as they had been rebuffed and not impressed by Britain and France.

What did this mean for Hitler’s power and growing tension?

This was the final straw. It was clear now to Britain that Hitler could not be appeased. It was also increasingly clear that Hitler was not just ‘fixing’ the Treaty – he had now gone way past that. They were no longer willing to give Germany anything more. Britain also worried that giving Hitler any more land or industry would make him too powerful to stop.

The next time that Hitler made an aggressive move, it was almost guaranteed that there would be war…

What was Hitler’s Foreign Policy in the South-East?, figure 3

This map, which you have already seen, is a reminder of how over time Hitler encroached upon the land of Czechoslovakia. After March of 1939 Hitler continues to invade the rest of the country.

Your answer should include: land / German / border / Czechoslovakia / rich
Your answer should include: country / created / Treaty / Versailles
Bad Godesberg
Your answer should include: town / Germany / Hitler / demanded / demands / more
Your answer should include: British / Prime Minister / negotiates / Hitler
Munich Conference
Your answer should include: September / 1938 / Britain / France / Italy / Hitler / Sudetenland
Bohemia and Moravia
Your answer should include: March / 1939 / Hitler / invade / invaded / Czechoslovakia