John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Czechoslovakia


Adolf Hitler’s 1938 threats to, and eventual occupation of, Czechoslovakia bore some similarities to what is now happening between President Putin and Ukraine. 

In 1938,Hitler exaggerated, and stirred up, grievances over language rights in the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. He directed the local German speaking leaders inside Czechoslovakia  to ensure that they did not reach any settlement with the Czech Government. He used the lack of an internal settlement as a basis for seeking to incorporate these areas in Germany, under the pretext of protecting the rights of the German speakers.

Western leaders tried to mediate and negotiate without success, culminating in the showdown at Munich, where Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia in return for piece of paper signed by Hitler and himself in which both agreed on “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.”. 

Eventually, when Hitler broke his word and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, trust broke down completely.
Hitler tried the same game with Poland in August 1939, possibly thinking he would get away with it again and the British and French would again huff and puff but do nothing. If that was his calculation, he was mistaken.

The crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938 played out more slowly than the one over Crimea. Putin has acted with much greater speed. In the former case, there was even time for a British Commission of Enquiry, the Runciman Commission, to spend a few weeks studying the situation on the ground in the Sudetenland and reporting back to London.

There is another important difference between the situation of Ukraine and that of Czechoslovakia. France had a Treaty of Mutual (military) Assistance with Czechoslovakia, which had been signed in 1925, guaranteeing Czech borders. Britain had no such Treaty but was drawn in because of its strategic commitment to France. That is why the Czechs feel, to this day, a particular grievance about France’s lack of action in 1938.

In contrast, Ukraine does not have a military alliance with any western country. It is not a member of NATO, and has no Treaty based military guarantees of its borders.
But, since 1994, Ukraine does have a general guarantee of its borders from Russia, the US, and Britain, given in return for giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal. According to this so called Budapest  memorandum, Russia, the U.S., and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming a member of the nuclear non proliferation Treaty and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia, that they would,

+ respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders,
+ refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, and
+ refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.

This is hugely important, and creates a major moral obligation because one of the goals of global policy is to get countries with military nuclear capacity to give it up in return for guarantees. If such guarantees can be unilaterally abandoned without consequence, this strategy for  opposing nuclear proliferation breaks down.

President Putin may feel that Russia should not have agreed to that memorandum in 1994. But it did. Hitler certainly felt the then German Government should not have signed the Versailles Treaty. But it did. Indeed, German negotiators had much less choice, in signing the Versailles Treaty in 1919, than Russian negotiators had in 1994, in signing the Budapest Memorandum.

There was no duress in 1994.

What is happening to Ukraine, and in a different way what happened to Libya, will make it more difficult to get nuclear armed regimes to give up weapons in return for guarantees, however solemn. This is not just a matter of international law. It is one of practical politics and global security, for everybody including militarily neutral countries, like Ireland.
Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, which also have Russian speaking minorities, are members of NATO and do have military alliance guarantees.

It will be the existential test for NATO, if Russia makes or carries out threats on Latvia or Estonia, similar to the ones it has carried out on Ukraine.


Diplomatic negotiations can only lead to a durable peace, if the negotiators have a genuine wish to leave the other side with something worthwhile. Hitler had no such intention at Munich, but Chamberlain did not see that. 

“Munich 1938, Appeasement and World War II”, by David Faber, describes the negotiations that led to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

It is true that Czechoslovakia was an “unstable unit”, created by the Versailles Treaty, by which 7.5 million Czechs held political sway over 3.5million Sudeten Germans, 2.5million Slovaks, 0.5million Hungarians, and 80,000 Poles.  The supposed principle of “national self determination” was bound to be difficult to apply in such a setting.

As the crisis developed in 1938,  and Hitler’s demands escalated, a number of things became clear. The French were not really willing to stand by their military guarantee to Czechoslovakia, unless forcefully backed up by the British. The British were tepid and unsure, and cultivated the illusion that Hitler was someone they could do business with.

The Czechs were prepared, as the pressure from their “friends” mounted, to concede almost any demand of their German speaking population, but the concessions would never be enough, because Hitler was determined to visibly humiliate the Czechs.

Even before Chamberlain met Hitler at Bad Godesburg, and later at Munich, the Czechs had already agreed that the Sudetenland could effectively secede from Czechoslovakia. The arguments between Chamberlain and Hitler were about timing. 

It is interesting to observe that Czechoslovakia’s immediate neighbours, including Poland which would itself  fall victim to Hitler itself in 1939, were happy to cooperate with him in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.

In these circumstances, the French and the British did not have a strong logistical basis for any military defence of the Czechs. And they were in the same weak position when they eventually went to war over Poland in 1939.

In retrospect, it seems that Chamberlains biggest mistake was in February 1938, when he fobbed off an initiative by President Roosevelt to involve himself directly in the Central European situation.

As later transpired, it was only when US industrial power was deployed, along with the vast manpower resources of the Soviet Union, that Germany could be defeated.

Chamberlain was under the illusion that Hitler could be contained by British and French Empires acting on their own. Now it is easy to see  that he was wrong, but not so easy at the time.

He was also unable to see that he was not just dealing with a “normal” dictator in Adolf Hitler, but with a pathological gambler, to whom the conventional rules of human behaviour did not apply. 


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