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, a region sharing a border with Germany and Austria, 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 light tanks and mech­a­nized German troops to splash their way into Prague on this blus­tery, rainy morn­ing in 1939. German war­planes flew over­head. The invaders were greeted with hisses, cat­calls, and cries of “Pfui!” (boo!) and people singing the Czech national anthem, but the occu­pa­tion of the coun­try was effected with­out vio­lent resis­tance. Slo­va­kia became a German puppet state, and the west­ern Czech lands of Bohe­mia and Mora­via (see map), rich in raw materials and indus­try, were incor­po­rated into Nazi 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 simple field-gray 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.

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, ending the country’s 20 years of inde­pend­ence. Czech-mated, Great Britain and France, Czecho­slo­va­kia’s allies, stood stock-still rather than inter­vene to stop Hitler’s blood­less con­quests—Cham­ber­lain going so far to declare that Slova­kian inde­pend­ence cancelled the Anglo-French guar­an­tee to pro­tect Czecho­slo­va­kia’s inde­pend­ence. Within six months Hitler switched from poli­ti­cal coer­cion to mili­tary force that he had been prepared all along to unloose on countries that stood in his way.

Partition of Czechoslovakia: Munich Agreement signatories, Sept. 1938Partition of Czechoslovakia: Chamberlain’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. With the cyni­cal stroke of a pen, four Euro­pean powers had forced a sover­eign demo­cracy to cede a size­able chuck of its terri­tory to a total­i­tarian power. Of the two Western signa­tories, only Dala­dier recognized at the time that Hitler had played them for fools.

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 (3.1 mil­lion people) 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.” Less than a year later Cham­ber­lain took to the BBC, announcing to the world on Septem­ber 3, 1939, that his country and France were now at war with Germany.

Partition of Czechoslovakia: Sudeten citizens watch German invasionPartition of Czechoslovakia: Hitler and Hácha on eve of German invasion

Left: Arms raised in a Hitler salute people in the Sudeten town of Eger (Czech, Cheb), among them a woman wiping away tears of joy, line the street as German troops enter the town in early October 1938 following the Munich Agreement.

Right: Hitler (middle in photo) facing Czech President Emil Hácha in dis­cus­sions in his new Reich Chan­cel­lery in Berlin on March 14–15, 1939, hours before the German inva­sion of the Czech heart­land, Bohe­mia and Mora­via. In poor health any­way, Hácha suffered a heart attack after Hitler placed a docu­ment and pen in front of him, demanding the de facto capitu­la­tion of Czech troops to the Wehr­macht (German armed forces). Hitler quickly sum­moned his always-present per­sonal physi­cian, Dr. Theodor Morell, to revive Hácha. By signing the docu­ment the Czech president ended his country’s 20 years of independence.

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