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Appeasement & the Cold War: the Munich Effect

Mark Rathbone analyses the continuing influence of the Munich conference on post-war events.

As Neville Chamberlain returned to 10 Downing Street on 30th September 1938 after the Munich Conference, he went to the first floor window to acknowledge the crowd which had gathered outside and declared, ‘My good friends, this is the second time in our history there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.’ 

Few shared Churchill’s alternative view of the Munich agreement, that it was ‘a total and unmitigated defeat’, but as the events of 1938-39 moved rapidly towards their tragic denouement, it became hard to avoid the conclusion that Chamberlain’s attempt to come to terms with Hitler had been misguided. When German troops invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Hitler’s promise that the Sudetenland was his ‘last territorial demand’ was revealed for the lie it had always been. At best Chamberlain’s summit diplomacy had bought Britain another 11 months to prepare for war at the considerable expense of Czechoslovakia’s freedom. 

When Hitler went on to invade Poland on 1st September 1939, Britain sent an ultimatum demanding that Germany agree to withdraw their troops at once. When, two days later, Chamberlain was forced to broadcast to the nation ‘that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany’, he sounded like, and indeed was, a broken man. 

This article is concerned less with the events of the year after Munich, than with its longer term consequences, first towards the end of the Second World War. 

Yalta

How was the Munich conference viewed in the very different circumstances of 1945? And to what extent did the shadow of Munich influence decision-making in the post-war ear? In February 1945, with Hitler’s Germany on the verge of defeat, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta on the Black Sea to thrash out the outlines of an agreement about the shape of post-war Europe. 

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