London, England October 1, 1938

The storm clouds of war in Europe seemed to have parted on this date in 1938 in London, one day after British Prime Min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain had returned from his diplo­matic triumph in Munich. Three visits to Germany had been required to part the clouds: the first to Berchtes­gaden in the German Alps on Septem­ber 15, 1938, the next to Bad Godes­berg near Bonn on September 22, and the last to Munich on Sep­tem­ber 29–30. It was the last visit that pro­duced the docu­ment (drafted by Her­mann Goering) agreed to by the Euro­pean Big Four: German dicta­tor Adolf Hitler, Ital­ian strong­man Benito Mus­so­lini, Cham­ber­lain, and Cham­ber­lain’s democratic partner, Premier Édouard Daladier of France.

Following on the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria (now chris­tened Ost­mark) into the Third Reich in March 1938, the Munich Agree­ment of Septem­ber 29, 1938, legit­i­mized Hitler’s land grab of the Sude­ten­land, the Ger­man-speaking, western­most part of Czecho­slo­va­kia that had once been a part of the Austro-Hun­ga­rian Empire before it dis­solved into new multi­ethnic states in the after­math of World War I. To Czecho­slo­vakia the Sude­ten­land was of immense econo­mic and stra­tegic impor­tance, being both home to much of the country’s heavy industry and the location of its front­line defenses. Edvard Beneš, Czecho­slo­vakia’s presi­dent, was not a party to any of the Big Four dis­cus­sions but, under heavy Anglo-French pres­sure, pro­mised to abide by the four-power agree­ment. Equally heavy German pres­sure per­suaded Beneš to resign the pres­i­dency on Octo­ber 5, 1938. Five days later Czech Sudeten­land was in­cor­po­rated into the Reich—this on Octo­ber 10, 1938—and its grate­ful 3.1 mill­ion ethnic Germans became one of the most pro-Nazi regions of the Third Reich.

Hitler callously signed a second document in Munich, pledging no fur­ther terri­torial ambi­tions. “In spite of the hard­ness and ruth­less­ness I thought I saw on his face,” Cham­ber­lain said of his meetings with Hitler, “I got the im­pres­sion that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” It was Hitler’s written pledge of no other terri­torial inter­ests in Czecho­slo­va­kia that the smug and naïve prime minister (in office from May 1937 to May 1940) famously waved to crowds at the West London air­port, declaring that he had secured “peace with honor,” which he believed was “peace for our time.” These words turned out to be Cham­ber­lain’s poli­tical epi­taph. They remain the most indel­ible sym­bol of irony and the futil­ity of appea­sing dic­tators and bullies that exist in the his­tory of World War II. But for the moment both Britain and France expressed relief that Hitler’s saber-rattling had not led to war.

Anglo-French Appeasement: The Munich Conference, September 29–30, 1938

Sudetenland in relation to Czech RepublicChamberlain and Hitler at the Berghof, September 15, 1938

Left: The German-speaking regions of Czechoslo­vakia (high­lighted in bur­gundy with­in an out­line map of the cur­rent Czech Republic) were popu­larly referred to in the inter­war years as Sude­ten­land. The Czech part of Czecho­slo­va­kia (Czech home­land) was sub­se­quently invaded by Nazi Germany in March 1939, with a por­tion being annexed by Germany and Poland (Teschen, the German name for the Polish Cieszyn and the Czech Český Těšín). What remained was turned into the Pro­tec­torate of Bohemia and Moravia (Protek­torat Boeh­men und Maeh­ren) shown in light pink on this map. The Slovak part declared its inde­pen­dence from Czecho­slo­va­kia, becoming the Slovak Republic (Slowakei on the map), a satel­lite state and ally of Nazi Germany during World War II though forced to lose a portion of its territory (Ruthenia) to Hungary.

Right: On September 15, 1938, Chamberlain mounted the steps of Hitler’s Alpine retreat, the Berg­hof near Berchtes­gaden, wearing his trade­mark stiff wing collar and carrying a bowler hat and bumber­shoot (umbrella). The two leaders agreed to German demands that Czech Sude­ten­land be granted self-deter­mi­na­tion. Three days later French Premier Édouard Dala­dier agreed to the same. A week later Cham­ber­lain met Hitler in Bad Godes­berg to con­firm the pre­vious oral agree­ments in exchange for (as it turned out) a few more months of peace. Hitler, having suc­ceeded in out­witting the two slow-thinking states­men, now demanded not only the annex­a­tion of the Sude­ten­land but the imme­di­ate mili­tary occu­pa­tion of the region, giving the Czecho­slo­vak Army no time to adapt their defense measures to the new borders. Czech mili­tary effec­tive­ness was thus fatally weakened when this was accepted.

Goering plus leading European statesmen, Munich Conference, September 29, 1938Chamberlain, Hitler, and Daladier, Munich Conference, September 29, 1938

Left: Hitler (second from right in photo) and Hermann Goering (on left), who authored the proposal Benito Musso­lini (center) pitched to Cham­ber­lain and Dala­dier (extreme right) for a Euro­pean sum­mit to end the Czecho­slo­va­kian “problem” (Cham­ber­lain’s words), listen to the British prime minister speak through the chief German Foreign Office interpreter, Paul-Otto Schmidt (holding folder).

Right: Seated in comfortable chairs in Munich’s Fuehrer­bau (today’s Hoch­schule fuer Musik und Theater Muenchen), Cham­ber­lain, Hitler, and Dala­dier pose awkwardly for a photo­graph during the Munich Conference, September 29–30, 1938. Hitler was contemp­tu­ous of the British prime minister, referring to him days earlier as “that silly old man with the umbrella.”

Chamberlain signs off on the Munich Agreement, early September 30, 1938Chamberlain on triumphal return to London, September 30, 1938

Left: Aided by the light of a table lamp, Cham­ber­lain affixes his signa­ture to the Munich Agree­ment at about 1:30 a.m. on Septem­ber 30, 1938. Standing oppo­site Cham­ber­lain on the other side of the desk is German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Right: On his triumphal return on Septem­ber 30, 1938, to West London’s Heston Aero­drome, Cham­ber­lain held aloft the Anglo-German Declara­tion signed by Hitler and him­self, the ill-famed “Peace for Our Time” docu­ment, which was sepa­rate from the Munich Agree­ment. Like­wise, the sur­prisingly tumul­tuous recep­tion Dala­dier received on his return from Munich suggested that most French­men (the clair­voy­ant Dala­dier called his recep­tion commit­tee “les cons,” “the fools”) were as happy as the English were with the results of the Munich Con­fer­ence. U.S. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, upon learning of the Munich Agree­ment and the avoid­ance of a new world war, sent a two-word telegram to Chamberlain: “Good man.”

Chamberlain Seeking “Peace for Our Time” in Face of German Aggression: The Munich Conference, September 1938