Munich's platinum jubilee

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) 

Attempts to review World War II results and point a finger at new culprits for unleashing it have become "good form" in the past few years in many East European countries.

In trying to include the Soviet Union among the aggressors, revisionists usually start the countdown from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, saying the Soviet leadership gave the aggressor the green light. But amid frequent references to the summer and fall of 1939, they often forget the events of the previous year, 1938, which has gone down in history as the year of the Munich Agreement.

Currently, Russia is declassifying many documents relating to the history of World War II and preceding events. Munich is no exception - on September 29, 2008 Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service announced the lifting of secrecy classification from some diplomatic and intelligence documents dating from that time.

The Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, inhabited mainly by Germans, became the source of a conflict soon after World War I when, with the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the Sudeten Germans tried to unite either with the newly formed Austria or Germany. But all their protests were crushed by Czechoslovak troops. By 1938, Nazi Germany, which had already annexed Austria by proclaiming the Anschluss, had been making preparations for annexing the Sudetenland. Although the rights of the Sudeten Germans were never violated by the Czechoslovak government, which was taking steps to provide school instruction in the German language and gave the Germans parliamentary representation and local government, the tensions continued. Konrad Heinlein's pro-German party made the demand that the Sudetenland be joined to Germany.

On September 15, 1938, during a meeting with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Hitler said he was willing to preserve peace but was ready to fight over the Sudeten issue. As a result, Chamberlain agreed to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany by observing the right of nations to self-determination.

By that time, Czechoslovakia had two agreements on friendship and mutual assistance - one with France and one with the Soviet Union. Both provided for assisting Czechoslovakia in case it were subjected to an act of aggression. But the agreement with the Soviet Union had a proviso: Moscow was to render help to Czechoslovakia only if Paris did the same.

In that way, France, which at the time had Europe's largest army, exercised the decisive say. In the course of British-French consultations on September 18 in London, the parties agreed that areas where more than half the population was German must become part of Germany, while Britain and France would guarantee Czechoslovakia's new borders.

On September 20-21, the Czechoslovak government was told that if the British-French proposals were rejected France would ditch its obligations under the treaty of mutual assistance. At the same time, the Western envoys warned against the Czechoslovak leadership seeking an alliance with the U.S.S.R., saying that "if the Czechs joined forces with the Russians, the war might become a crusade against the Bolsheviks. The British and French governments would find it hard to stay aloof."

At the same time, the Soviet Union offered military help to Czechoslovakia disregarding France's position, provided Poland let Soviet troops pass through its territory (at the time, the U.S.S.R. and Czechoslovakia did not have a common border). Still, as declassified documents show, the Czechoslovak government decided to opt for the French and British guarantees and waived Soviet assistance.

On September 22, Germany issued an ultimatum, demanding that the Sudetenland be joined to it. Czechoslovakia and France declared a mobilization. On September 27, Hitler wrote to Chamberlain to say that he was ready to guarantee the borders of the remaining part of Czechoslovakia and discuss details of an agreement.

On September 29-30, 1938 the government leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Britain met in Munich. No Czechoslovak representatives were invited to attend. By 1 a.m. on September 30, the sides signed an agreement which in effect accepted Germany's demands. Only then was the Czechoslovak delegation admitted into the conference hall to hear the verdict passed by others.

At that point Czechoslovakia had two choices: it could accept the ultimatum on the Sudetenland and give it up, or go to war against Germany. Despite a well-developed munitions industry, an army little short of the German army in size and armaments of superb quality, the Czechoslovak National Assembly accepted the Munich decisions for implementation.

Germany took possession of the Sudetenland complete with three million people - one-quarter of the population - and 20% of Czechoslovak territory, which concentrated half of the country's heavy industry.

Naturally, history did not end there. Poland stepped forward, claiming its piece of the pie - the return of the Tesin (Cieszyn) Region, long a controversial territory. Left out in the cold, Czechoslovakia complied again. Poland, however, did not enjoy the new ownership long - in September 1939, Germany occupied Poland, and after 1945 Tesin was returned to Czechoslovakia.

On October 7, under German pressure, Prague decided to give autonomy to Slovakia, while on November 2, by decision of the Vienna Arbitration Court, Hungary was given the southern regions of Slovakia and Trans-Carpathian Ukraine (Sub-Carpathian Rus) with the towns of Beregszasz (Beregovo), Munkacz (Mukachevo) and Uzhgorod.

In March 1939, Germany overran what remained of Czechoslovakia, and made it part of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The autonomous Slovakia became the Reich's satellite state. The arms industry of former Czechoslovakia spent the war years working for the Wehrmacht and producing hundreds of thousands of small arms, tens of thousands of artillery guns, and thousands of aircraft, tanks and self-propelled gun mounts.

Czechoslovakia was the last to be freed from the Nazi occupation - it was not until May 9, 1945 that the Red Army captured Prague. Sporadic fighting with separate German units continued until May 12.

The Munich Agreement triggered the largest massacre in human history. As for French and British politicians, they showed an astonishing lack of foresight: they failed either to pacify Germany, or turn it against the U.S.S.R. In the context of today, only one lesson can be drawn from the 1938 events: the best remedy for reining in the real aggressor is not a treaty of guarantees or a ceasefire agreement, but a peace enforcement operation.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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