So the Sudeten crisis experiment has ended. How useful has it been?
I think it's been a very different view of the crisis. It's small-scale, not big-picture; confused, not lucid; bottom-up, not top-down (well, sorta: it could be more bottom-up). Most accounts that I've read are from the diplomatic-political-military point of view: Chamberlain's decision to fly to Berchtesgaden, Churchill's denunciations of the Munich agreement, the lack of readiness of the RAF to defend London. Some of these things are not apparent from the day-to-day press accounts, while others are, but take on a different complexion. For example, Plan Z -- Chamberlain's flight -- was not the sudden, impulsive act that it appeared to be from the press accounts which appeared on 15 September. He had in fact conceived of the idea days earlier -- he announced it to Cabinet on 12 September, and had discussed the idea with Halifax even earlier. Churchill does appear in the press record from time to time, but his voice was only one among many, even among appeasement's critics, and not the loudest. His years in the wilderness seem much more significant in retrospect: 1938 was not 1940. And the RAF is practically nowhere to be seen. Nobody's questioning whether it's ready for war or not, whether it can defend London or bomb Berlin -- with very few exceptions, it's just ignored, as being of no account.
The things which stand out for me are fourfold, corresponding to the evolution of the crisis itself. Firstly, there are the events on the ground in Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland itself. The accounts publish in the British press likely were not fully accurate -- rarely were British correspondents there in person, and some reports came from the Nazi-influenced German press, which definitely can't be taken at face value. But it's clear that there was real tension and some violence between Sudetens and Czechs, and this seems to have convinced people that there was a real problem that wasn't going to go away.
The next phase, which started shortly after Chamberlain's first flight (and the subsequent visit to London by Daladier) is marked by the Anglo-French plan to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. It was generally assumed that this would solve the problem, because it gave Hitler what he said he wanted. But it was this plan that caused deep cleavages in British public opinion -- at least as expressed in the letters columns. Some applauded Chamberlain's work in preserving peace in Europe, other his caving to threats of force by a dictatorship. On balance, I'd guess that the latter group were composed of people already opposed to Chamberlain and appeasement -- mainly the left -- whereas the former had more moderates as well as conservatives.
After that came Hitler's shocking demand for the Czechs to cede the Sudetenland by 1 October. No more talking, no more diplomacy: the territory was to be handed over or else taken by force. This ultimatum upped the ante so ridiculously, given the generosity to Germany of the Anglo-French plan, that it began to look like it was war that Hitler wanted, or at least the destruction of Czechoslovakia, rather than gathering ethnic Germans to the Fatherland. No matter how earnest Chamberlain's diplomacy, he might not be able to prevent war. And it was now that the possibility, in fact the probability of war sank in to the British public. Schools closed to become distribution centres for gas masks (ARP Sunday). Parks in cities around the country were ripped up to provide trenches for air raid shelters. Reservists were called up. Schoolchildren began to be evacuated to the country. People worried about what to do about their pets in the event of a gas attack. Anxiety and fear were clearly widespread. The knock-out blow seemed imminent.
Which explains the intense relief at the sudden resolution of the crisis at Munich. Chamberlain was cheered on his return, thanks were given in church, a hospital bed was donated in his name. And why not? That weekend might otherwise have seen tens of thousands of civilians be killed or maimed in London alone -- or so it was feared. But that doesn't mean Chamberlain got a free pass. He was criticised in Parliament and in the letter columns. Britain was not united either during the crisis or after it. There was a section of the public which was prepared to face the risks of aerial bombardment and go to war, not so much for the sake of a far-away country of which they knew nothing but to stop Hitler from running rampant through Europe. But there was another, probably larger group, which did not see why there should be war with Germany over the Sudeten issue.
From that point of view, my reading of this exercise is that it supports the idea that appeasement was necessary, among other reasons, in order to convince the British people that everything possible -- within reason -- had been done to accommodate Hitler's demands. And this was supposedly the last of them: according to Hitler himself, his last territorial demand in Europe. In March 1939 he proved that to be a lie when Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. There was then no question that Hitler could be appeased, and when another crisis built over the summer of 1939, this time over Poland, there was no question of appeasing anybody. Well, that's not strictly true, of course, but there seem to have been fewer divisions of opinion than there were during the Sudeten crisis.
As far as an experiment in blogging goes, I think the series has been a success. It was a lot of work, that's for sure, something like 30,000 words in total. And I even wrote a chapter of my thesis in the same period, and put in a few extra hours at work too! But the series didn't quite pan out as planned. I had initially hoped to talk about radio and even television coverage of the crisis, but there was far too much material to cover just from the dailies so I had to drop that idea, and the same happened with the weeklies as the crisis heated up. I also couldn't cover all the issues that cropped up, even sporadically; for example, in its letters pages The Times hosted an interesting debate about moral rearmament, which I didn't mention at all. So, inevitably, I had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, framing the material within my own narrative choices. So readers weren't experiencing an unmediated recreation of the Sudeten crisis, but my own version of it. But that's history for you.
I wonder how these posts will be used in future. They were designed to be read sequentially, day-by-day, and some of you have done so; but in future I expect people will more commonly surf in randomly from search engines, maybe read a few entries and surf out again. The context built up by following the development of the crisis will be lost. Also, as far as search engines go, my pedantic insistence on "Sudeten crisis" over "Munich crisis" may be a hindrance; on Google I come in at 4th place for the former term but only 49th for the latter, and even then that was for my earlier post on terminology.
At this point, I'd be very interested to hear what (if anything!) you, the readers, took from this exercise, either as history or as blogging or both!
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