Post-blogging the Sudeten crisis: thoughts and conclusions

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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12 thoughts on “Post-blogging the Sudeten crisis: thoughts and conclusions

  1. This was full of surprises for me. I had no idea that Poland and Hungary were also trying to grab bits of Czechoslovakia. That changes my opinion of Poland as an innocent victim of Nazi expansion.

    As you pointed out above, Churchill wasn't exactly the lone voice that he's often assumed to have been. I was also quite surprised that so much opposition to appeasement came from the left, but maybe I shouldn't have been.

    It's interesting that fear of war was partly about the knockout blow and partly about a repeat of WWI. Sometimes it seemed to me that the appeasers wanted to have their cake and eat it: it's going to be exactly the same as the last war, and completely different and much worse!

    I got the impression from the newspaper reports (which might not be accurate) that the Soviet Union would have been prepared to fight Germany in 1938 as long as Britain and France joined in. With the benefit of hindsight it looks like Chamberlain threw away the best chance to build a strong anti-Nazi coalition. Maybe no-one could have foreseen the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1938, but did the Munich agreement help to make it possible?

    And it seems kind of ironic that the government used exaggerated claims of enemy WMDs as an excuse to *not* start a war!

  2. Very interesting, particularly for this non-Europeanist: I've had a great deal of fun reading it. This should be publishable: some educational supplement publisher should snap it up in a minute.

    But, and I know you don't want to hear this, it needs more. What would be really neat would be to do the same thing with the German press, the French and the Czechoslovakian (at the least). That would rock!

  3. Post author

    Gavin:

    Yes, I think that's right about the Soviet Union. Chamberlain was not a fan and did not seriously pursue the possibility of co-operation with the Soviets. To be fair, the purges had seriously impaired Soviet military effectiveness by this time, and Soviet forces would have had to go through Poland to get to Czechoslovakia or Germany, and the chances of Polish permission for that were minimal (for one thing, as we've seen, they had their own interests in dismembering Czechoslovakia). But I agree that it was the best chance for a non-appeasing strategy in 1938.

    Jonathan:

    I don't mind hearing it, because I wouldn't be doing it! :) But yes, that would be fascinating. Hopefully somebody will take that up. Actually, a book has recently been published on how the crisis unfolded on radio -- I think with an emphasis on Czech radio but also other languages as well: David Vaughan, Battle for the Airwaves: Radio and the 1938 Munich Crisis. There's an interview with the author here. Sounds fascinating (and I didn't know of Jonathan Griffin's broadcasts on Czech radio at the time: he wrote a couple of important knock-out blow books). Thanks to Jonathan Murphy for the tip!

  4. Alan Allport

    An excellent series, Brett; it should be required reading for everyone who uses the Munich analogy in the old pat, facile way.

    But I'm curious about something above:

    I had initially hoped to talk about radio and even television coverage of the crisis.

    Was there any? The latter, I mean. I realize that in 1938 we're just - barely - into the television age. But I have always assumed that TV before the war was basically a light show, a glorified toy - Mickey Mouse cartoons and potter's wheels and so on. Did the BBC, for instance, do any news or current affairs broadcasting on it?

  5. ErrolC

    An interesting and worthwhile exercise, someone spoiled for me by being on holiday (with limited connectivity) for most of the last 3 weeks.

    Although I knew of most of the main facts, I certainly learnt plenty.

    BTW, there was a wargame in a magazine covering a German invasion (published 20-odd years ago). IIRC, I luckily managed a marginal win as the Czechs.

  6. Post author

    Alan:

    Yes, indeed they did! You're right that for the most part, programming was mostly light and fluffy. But what sounds like the BBC's first TV current affairs show premiered during the crisis: News Map (hosted by Frank Horrabin and Vernon Bartlett, both socialists, interestingly enough). The first episode (on 21 September) was criticised in The Listener for too obviously having been scripted days in advance, so it was out-of-date by the time it aired. An even more impressive first came on 15 September, when Chamberlain's departure from Heston was broadcast on TV, I presume live. It wasn't the first live broadcast of a newsworthy event on the BBC, that honour goes to the Coronation -- but they had months to plan that whereas here they would have had less than a day's notice. I've just come across this brilliant resource, Uktvschedules, which shows that Gaumont-British and Movietone newsreels were also shown, and there was a late-night news programme just before the close (see e.g. the schedules for 15 September and 21 September). I'd love to know more about the content of News Map and the news programme especially!

    ErrolC:

    I think I remember that, from Strategy and Tactics? Case Green maybe> At least, I remember drooling over the idea, don't think I ever saw it.

    Ricardo:

    Thanks! That's brilliant!

  7. Erik Lund

    I've said this before, but I still agree that this was a very useful exercise. When I have sketched something like it, it is with the vague notion that British public opinion ended 1938 very pessimistic about the air balance of power, and that the flood of favourable technological aviation news beginning in December, 1938 began to move public opinion towards consensus for war.
    Now I am rethinking this, or at least the role that the "knock out blow" funk of September plays in my scenario. This isn't about air power at all, Brett says. The RAF is invisible.
    So I'm thinking that what it is about is securing public assent for peace. A world war over the Sudeten would be a bad thing even if the bombers did not get through. It is not unknown for progressive circles to push war with a certain reckless enthusiasm (see 1859 or Alexander Cockburn). Or am I pointing the finger in altogether too partisan a way?

  8. Post author

    Well, I wouldn't say that it's not about airpower -- it's just not about British airpower. All the attention paid to ARP shows that German airpower was deemed very important :) So that means that visible signs of an increase in British airpower could turn this around.

    Public assent for peace ... hmmm. Can you explain further? I wouldn't have thought they needed much convincing, other than, as you say, some on the left.

  9. Erik Lund

    By the way, brain cramp over, I do know Christopher Hitchens is not Alexander Cockburn.
    Now, the crisis.... I'm just thinking about the way that media works. It feels around a complex event, finds a story with resonance, and goes for it. The knock out blow is the story of the Sudeten Crisis. Why? Because what people want to hear is that war would be immediate and terrible. Giving in to Germany on the Sudetenland seemed cowardly and a betrayal of the Czechs. I find it interesting that little is made of the Czechs' rather disingenuous behaviour in getting their hands on, for example, Teschen in the first place. There's little or no blaming the victim going on here.
    So the media here is an echo chamber in which Britons persuade themselves that they're doing a questionable thing for good reasons

  10. Post author

    Thanks, now I've got your meaning! I agree: I wrote something along these lines a while back, actually, the upshot being that claiming that the next war will end civilisation is a pretty good argument for peace at any price.

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