Nazi Germany in the autumn of 1938 was not strong enough to fight a European war let alone win it on military strength. But Hitler maneuvered France and Great Britain into giving in at a cost neither France nor England would have anticipated. On October 5, on the House of Commons Churchill struck an ominous warning, “We have sustained a total unmitigated defeat.” The House rocked by thunderous applause given to the Prime Minister Chamberlain for having brought the country from the brink of war could well dismiss him. His was a voice in the wilderness excluded from the Conservative government. Little did they know that ‘the agreement was the beginning of a war that would consume the whole world one way or other and strip the island to bare bones when it was over. It proved to be the case and all the colonies, crown jewels of Great Britain too dear to be held, one by one was let go.
The principal Allies in their own way suffered from bad blood. France under the Third Republic was a divided house with the Press adding to the internecine war of ideologies. Great Britain on the other hand was ruled by a conservative government without any real sympathies for Europe or understanding. They were for Appeasement.
Great Britain and France were bound by a treaty to come to the help of each other in case of a conflict against Germany. Behind France’s back Great Britain and Germany entered into a Naval Treaty in 1935.
France and Russia were in turn bound to come to the aid of Czechoslovakia. There was no access to France except through Poland and Roumania. Both small nations refused entry on the fear that Stalin would not go back once given permission. It had in a way limited France from rendering any help to the Czechs though a treat existed between them. Edouard Daladier, the French Premier was virulently attacked in the Press and by the elements on the Right for siding with Russia than with Germany. Such was the aversion against Russia that Germany could well exploit it. France left Russia in the lurch while signing the Munich pact. As Field-Marshal Keitel later told the Nuremburg tribunal,”The object of Munich was to get Russia out of Europe.” It was achieved at the cost of France. According to their longstanding pact Russia had proved a dependable ally during the WWI. On October 4 the Journal de Moscou echoed the nation’s feelings,”Who will believe again the word of France? Who will remain her ally? Why would the French government, which has just annulled of her own accord her pact with Czechoslovakia , respect the Franco-Soviet Pact?”
Yes the Czechs were not given a hearing while France and Great Britain sat down with Hitler and Mussolini to determine her fate.It would prove a costly blunder and morally repugnant.
In order to avert a wider conflict a short term gain could be too costly when there is a moral opprobrium attached to it. The French Premier knew what a disgrace it was and it rankled him. When he landed back in Paris he saw a tumultuous welcome along his route back to the capital he turned to an aide and said, ”The imbeciles-if they only knew what they were acclaiming!”
In Berlin the German generals could breathe a sigh of relief. They were not sure if they could have penetrated the Czech fortifications. In the west their Siegfried Line was mere skeleton,12 divisions most of them half-trained reserves. As General Jodl expressed doubts if they could have stood up to 100 well-trained divisions of the French Army. Even Hitler was astounded after inspection of the Czech fortifications to comment,”The plan prepared by the Czech was formidable. I now understand why my generals urged restraint.” ( In fact there was an assassination plan hatched by some top ranking generals on the life of Hitler but was shelved since Chamberlain capitulated to the demands of the führer that prevented a war.)
For France her slide into inescapable disaster was now irreversible. In deferring from a punitive action in 1936 when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland she let the German guns come within reach of Strasbourg. In sacrificing the Czechs at Munich in order to buy time gave Germany far greater military advantage than her short-term gains. No more she could encircle Germany or pin down the enemy from the rear. The loss of 35 divisions of the Czechs was grievous. It also gave the Skoda works to the Germans who doubled the output of armaments and planes and when the war came Germany was ready. .
In diplomatic circles France was distrusted by her remaining allies. Warsaw, Belgrade, Bucharest would work out their own alliances and worse still Russia realized how futile was to depend upon Great Britain and France. It would pave the way for Stalin to seek an alliance with Germany in her own fashion.
The Pact proved what it is to have the honor of France tied to an ally that was for Appeasement. Chamberlain was treating France as a client state and deceit of Great Britain would prove the epithet of ‘perfidious Albion’ as apt. Earlier Great Britain and the US had stood as guarantor (Treaty of Guarantee of July 1919) and forced Clemenceau to relent on his hardline on Ruhr. Great Britain’s parliament later approved the treaty on condition that the US also ratify it. In effect it was merely an eyewash for the US Senate never ratified it. (Their deceit would have fateful consequences. Germany, even if under Hitler , would never have risked invading France again if her Allies had proved steadfast and honourable.) The US senate’s rejection of the Treaty would change the German perception. Later when the WWII broke out it would prove to be infinitely more costly in American lives and materials than it would have been, had a President’s word been honoured in the first place by the Senate. Complacency of policy of Isolation had blinded the nation who had no choice but to be part of the wider arena of international politics.France felt shafted by both allies which truly was the case, as Britain and the US found restoration of the German market in post WWI would boost their own sluggish economies.
The most important lesson France needed to learn was “no great nation could , and with impunity, allow its destiny to be decided largely by another with different interests and outlook,…” In the 1960s we may see how far this lesson had impacted in de Gaulle’s foreign policy. Also policy of Israel hinge on this principle (ack. William L. Shirer-The Collapse of the The Third Republic/pub. Pan books)