Prague, Czechoslovakia · March 15, 1939

From the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1918 a half-dozen new states emerged. Among them were Austria and Czecho­slovakia. When Austria was in­cor­porated into Adolf Hitler’s Greater German Reich in March 1938, Czecho­slovakia found itself inside a Ger­man pin­cer. On Octo­ber 1, 1938, following the Munich Agree­ment signed by Hitler, his Axis partner Benito Musso­lini, Neville Cham­ber­lain, and Édouard Daladier—the leaders of Ger­many, Italy, Great Britain, and France, respec­tively—Czech Sude­ten­land was offered up to Ger­many on a platter of appease­ment after Hitler loudly com­plained that Czechs dis­cri­mi­nated against its Ger­man-speaking citi­zens. Ever the master of in­trigue and deceit, Hitler set out to en­courage in­ter­nal un­rest in the rest of Czecho­slo­va­kia. He focused on the east­ern pro­vinces of Slo­va­kia and Ruthenia, which enjoyed a fair degree of auto­nomy from the cen­tral govern­ment in Prague, en­couraging them to de­mand even greater inde­pen­dence. After Slo­va­kia declared its inde­pen­dence on March 14, 1939, putting an end to the Czecho­slo­vak state, Hitler sent mech­a­nized Ger­man troops splashing their way into Prague on this blus­tery, rainy morn­ing in 1939. The in­vaders were greeted with hisses and cat­calls and people singing the Czech national an­them. Slo­va­kia became a Ger­man pup­pet state, and the west­ern Czech lands of Bohe­mia and Mora­via (see map) were incor­po­rated into Ger­many as a “Reich Pro­tec­torate.” Czecho­slo­va­kia was erased from the map. With­in six months other crea­tions of the post-World War I era also dis­appeared. The “Free City of Dan­zig” and the “Polish Cor­ri­dor”—the nar­row strip of land that sep­a­rated East Prus­sia from the rest of Ger­many—were con­sumed in a blitz­krieg Hitler un­leashed on Septem­ber 1, 1939, to the utter dis­may, revul­sion, and sense of be­tray­al felt by Cham­ber­lain and Dala­dier. (Cham­ber­lain, having met Hitler on a half-dozen occa­sions, described him as “the black­est devil he had ever met.”) Adopting the same stra­tegy he had used in 1938 Czecho­slo­va­kia, Hitler told a rev­er­ent Reichs­tag on that fate­ful Septem­ber day in 1939 that Ger­mans in Poland were being per­se­cuted “with bloody ter­ror” and driven from their homes. No great power could tol­er­ate that, he declared. Dis­carding his cus­to­mary brown party jacket for a field-grey offi­cer’s unif­orm, Hitler told his audi­ence: “From now on I am just the first soldier of the Ger­man Reich.” He vowed not to take off his new uni­form until he had achieved victory or he died trying.

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The Partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938–1939

Constituent parts of Czechoslovakia, 1938

Above: In the map, German-speaking Sudetenland (light purple) sur­rounds Bohe­mia and Mora­via (western Czecho­slo­va­kia). Slova­kia and Ruthenia (east­ern Czecho­slo­va­kia) are indi­cated in goldenrod and pink. Arrows with dates indicate territories that were gobbled up by Czechoslovakia’s hungry neighbors.

Munich Agreement signatories, Sept. 1938Chamberlain’s "peace for our times," 1938

Left: British Prime Minister Cham­ber­lain (left), French Prime Minis­ter Dala­dier, Hitler, Italian Prime Minis­ter Mussolini, and Italy’s Foreign Minis­ter Gale­azzo Ciano pose stiffly for the camera before signing the Munich Agree­ment shortly after 1 a.m., September 30, 1938.

Right: On his triumphal return from Munich on Septem­ber 30, 1938, Cham­ber­lain (right of center) waves the paper con­taining the Anglo-German com­mit­ment to resolve dif­fer­ences between their two coun­tries peace­fully, which he and Hitler had signed a few hours ear­lier. He boasted: “The settle­ment of the Czecho­slo­va­kian pro­blem,” resolved by the Euro­pean Great Powers detaching Czecho­slo­va­kia’s mostly Ger­man-speaking Sude­ten­land and handing it over to Ger­many, “has now been achieved [and] is, in my view, only the pre­lude to a larger settle­ment in which all Europe may find peace.”

Sudeten citizens watch German invasionHitler and Hácha on eve of German invasion

Left: People in the Sudeten town of Eger (Czech, Cheb) line the street as Ger­man troops enter the town in early Octo­ber 1938 following the Munich Agreement.

Right: Hitler facing Czech President Emil Hácha in dis­cussions in Ber­lin on March 14–15, 1939, hours before the Ger­man inva­sion of Bohe­mia and Mora­via. Hácha suffered a heart attack during the meeting but even­tually acquiesced to Hitler’s demand that the Czechoslovak army capitulate.

German Newsreel Clips Showing German Wehrmacht and Hitler’s Entry into Czecho­slo­vakia, March 1939