The Invasion and Annexation of Austria

Within three years of the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany and his appointment as Chancellor, Adolf Hitler had begun to rearm Germany and had marched his troops back into the demilitarised Rhineland. These actions were in breach of the Treaty of Versailles, but produced no retaliation from Great Britain and France, and the Nazi leader felt that he could safely embark on military aggression against tiny Austria. After first destabilising its government, Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Many Austrians welcomed the Nazis and were content to see their country incorporated into Germany. The British Government, led by the servile Neville Chamberlain, merely registered a diplomatic protest which was contemptuously rejected by Germany.

Hitler informs jubilant Nazi deputies in the Reichstag that Germany has annexed Austria, 1938.

The Betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich

When Britain and France failed to take a firm stand on his aggression against Austria, the Nazi leader turned his attention to Czechoslovakia and demanded that the Czech government hand over to Germany the Sudeten districts which bordered Germany and had a population of about three million ethnic Germans. The Czechs refused, and called on France to honour her pledge to defend Czechoslovakia from aggression. The Czech request was reasonable because Great Britain, France and Czechoslovakia could easily have combined to defeat Germany at this time. France had an army of one hundred divisions, and Czechoslovakia had thirty-five well-equipped divisions which were deployed behind strong mountain fortifications. However, the political leaders of France and Britain, Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, were both weak leaders who were desperate to avoid a military confrontation with Germany, even if it meant failing to honour their treaty obligations and sacrificing the people of Czechoslovakia to the Nazi dictator.

At a meeting with Hitler at Munich on 30 September 1938, and despite the strong protest of the Czech government which was not permitted to be heard, the British and French leaders dishonoured their countries again. They agreed to allow the Nazi leader to seize the Sudeten districts of Czechoslovakia in return for an assurance from him that he had no further territorial claims in Europe. For their part, the British and French leaders undertook to protect the territorial integrity of the remainder of Czechoslovakia.

The spineless British leader Neville Chamberlain, second from right, hands Czechoslovakia over to Hitler at Munich, 1938.

With no sense of shame for his betrayal of the Czechs, the spineless British leader Neville Chamberlain returned to London and proclaimed that he had achieved "peace with honour".

The Munich Agreement deprived Czechoslovakia of its strong mountain fortifications in the Sudeten districts which were incorporated into Germany. The loss of its mountain fortifications left the unfortunate country unable to defend itself against Nazi military aggression. Hitler then secretly threatened the government of the semi-autonomous state of Slovakia with a brutal military invasion if it did not declare its independence from Czechoslovakia immediately and seek the protection of Germany. The intimidated Slovaks agreed. Hitler then made a similar threat to the government of what remained of Czechoslovakia. Faced with this threat, the Czech government submitted. In documents drafted by the Nazis, the Czech and Slovak governments both announced their desire to become part of Germany. On 15 March 1939, the German army occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia which was then incorporated into Germany.

Even after the Germans had occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain's initial response was to blame the Czechs for their misfortune. In the House of Commons, on 15 March 1939, he cynically excused Britain's neglect to honour its undertaking at Munich to protect what remained of Czechoslovakia on the ground that the declaration of independence by Slovakia nullified the Munich Agreement. To Chamberlain's surprise, the British public and media reacted with outrage to his repudiation of Britain's obligation to Czechoslovakia. Even more ominously, members of his own cabinet and party were turning against him on his policy of appeasing Hitler. Chamberlain realised that his position as Prime Minister was in jeopardy, and on 17 March 1939, he denounced publicly the complete occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany. He warned Hitler that Britain would not necessarily stand idly by if Germany undertook further aggression. It was only after this speech, that formal protests were lodged by the British and French governments with Germany. The Germans dismissed the protests contemptuously.

Despite a warning from the German ambassador in London that the British warning should be taken seriously, Hitler now viewed the British and French with contempt, and felt free to pursue further aggression in Europe.