The Munich Crisis: Waiting for the End of the World
The wait for the outcome of the Munich Conference and the looming spectre of another war hung over Britain in 1938. Its impact was deeply felt.
After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, Hitler set his sights on the Sudetenland. This part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia had a majority German-speaking population. Hitler’s territorial ambitions threatened to propel Europe into another world war. Both the democracies and the dictatorships, as well as their respective populations, were materially and psychologically unprepared and ill-equipped for another total war. It was feared that this would be a war in which ‘the bomber will always get through’, making little distinction between civilian and soldier. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain personified both the policy and the sensibility of appeasement, ready to make concessions to Germany to avoid war. In an act of personally courageous statesmanship, in the eyes of many, Chamberlain paid three visits to Hitler in a span of two weeks, the third on 29-30 September for the Four Powers Conference (Germany, Britain, Italy and France), where the Munich Agreement and the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed. The Agreement, betraying and dismembering Czechoslovakia for the sake of what turned out to be only temporary peace, and Chamberlain’s triumphant return to London, when he declared his achievement as ‘peace for our time’, are some of the most memorable and memorably disconcerting moments in modern history.
This is a familiar story most often told from the point of view of the great and ‘guilty’ men who acted in the unfolding drama. But what about the masses? The anxiety, relief and shame of what was immediately dubbed the Munich Crisis had a profound impact on every stratum of the population. These weeks, and especially the four days from 25 September, saw a population in hand-wringing, edge-of-their-seats suspense, waiting to hear if it would be peace or war.