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"This is a tragedy, then and now". Munich and Crimea: how (not) to appease aggression

Radio Liberty 28.09.2018 at 17:46

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a private, non-profit information service funded by the U.S. Congress, broadcasting to the countries of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East and Russia.

Czechoslovak President Benes was awakened about two o'clock. The chief of staff reported that the ambassadors of Britain and France, Lord Newton and de Lacroix, require that the head of state immediately accepted them. He barely brought myself up and went to his office, as the diplomats appeared. They came to announce that London and Paris are advised to take Germany's demands to give her an edge region of the Czechoslovak Republic. On joint military operations cannot be considered. "But we have a Treaty of Alliance that says you have to help us!" – Benes turned to the French Ambassador. "I know. But times have changed, monsieur le Président", – quietly but firmly he replied. So, according to the memoirs of Edvard Benes, and a stenographic record, was the conversation that took place at Prague Castle, the residence of the head of the Czechoslovak state, in the early morning of September 22, 1938. Then Benes finally realized that help in the confrontation with an aggressive neighbor, his country is nowhere to wait. But the agony lasted for another week – until the night of 29 to 30 September, exactly 80 years ago, the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and France signed the Munich agreement, under which inhabited largely by ethnic Germans border regions of Czechoslovakia were to be given "great German Reich". The Czechoslovak representatives to the talks were not invited – they just reported the result. At the same time an ultimatum to Prague presented the governments of Poland and Hungary. The first sought the transfer of part of Cieszyn region, about which she had a conflict with Czechoslovakia in the years 1919-20, the second – the annexation of southern Slovakia and parts of Transcarpathia inhabited by the ethnic Hungarian minority. Contrary to the opinion of a number of leading politicians and army command, and without the necessary according to the Constitution, Parliament, President Benes, supported by the majority of Ministers agreed to accept the terms dictated in Munich. The army was given orders to clear the passed Germany region without resistance. "It would be reckless to lead the people to slaughter now, when we are in isolation," said the President who came to him to protest the generals. One of them was the commander of the Prague military district Sergei Wojciechowski, a former white Russian General who defected to the Czechoslovak service. Later, in 1945, the Soviet counterintelligence "SMERSH" arrested him in Prague and along with hundreds of other citizens of Czechoslovakia – the former leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian and other anti-Bolshevik movements sent to Siberian camps. Returned to power, Edward Benes, will not be able – or unwilling – to help these citizens of their country. After three years in Prague will occur the Communist coup, Benes resigned and give power to the leader of the Communist party of the Klement Gottwald. Times change, monsieur le Président, 80 years later in Munich and its consequences are still considered one of the most tragic and controversial events in Czech and Slovak history. The debate about whether worth or not Czechoslovakia, then to resist, probably can not be solved never: their argument is, as supporters and opponents of the decision of President Benes. Recently, however, the "Munich agreement" has again become the subject not only of historical interest. Four years ago, annexing the Crimea, Russia has returned to the European political practice, the notion of "annexation". That the General at Munich in 1938 and Crimea in 2014 was the Czechs are the most submissive of the peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe, and whether timeless recipes confront the aggressor, Radio Liberty talks with Czech historian, specialist in the history of totalitarian regimes Pavel Accom. – The Munich agreement has long gone down in history as a textbook example of appeasement. What, in your opinion, was the logic of the Western powers, when they came to an agreement with Hitler and his ally Mussolini? – Britain and France sought to gain time. Obviously, they were somewhat stunned by the pace of German rearmament and how strongly Hitler dismantled the Versailles system. And also by how quickly he took in his country's totalitarian dictatorship, which had one advantage in preparing for war – speed of decision-making. So, in this race for time, the Western powers sacrificed Czechoslovakia. – Traditional Czech narrative of those events, "we wanted to fight, but we were not given that opportunity". As an example of the readiness of the army and lifting the morale of the people is a General mobilization on September 23, 1938. On the other hand, many historians, for example, Yang Tesarz in sensational at the time the book "Munich complex", saying that the blame with the then Czechoslovak ruling elite can not be removed, that it failed, showed the helplessness and indecision. Who is right, do you think? – I think that failed, in large measure, the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia, and in regard to the final decision, and the state elite, led by Edvard Benes. 20 years, the country invested heavily in defense and a huge effort in the training of the army, built the line of border FORTS, the army of the Czechoslovak Republic were well-trained and equipped. As a result of mistakes in foreign policy and because of the decision of the Western allies to meet the requirements of Germany it was useless. Army was not at war, equipment and ammunition later went to the enemy. This had tragic consequences: in the end, the crisis of 1938 was provoked by the Second world war, which resulted in the late 1940's, we became part of the Soviet sphere of influence and became a satellite of the Soviet Union. Czech documentary film about a General mobilization of political and diplomatic crisis of September 1938: In Russia they often compare the Munich agreement and concluded a year later "the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact" between the USSR and Nazi Germany. This justified? Is it possible to say that although both agreements were immoral and sacrificed to aggressors neighboring state, respectively, Czechoslovakia and Poland, they still had a certain military-political sense? Failed, in large measure, the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia – These things must, of course, to evaluate in what context. In the short term it was, of course, the success of Nazi Germany: the Munich – limit the weakening and then the destruction of Czechoslovakia, the result of the Moscow Treaty is insulation and then the partition of Poland. On the Soviet side it was about the acquisition by Poland of additional land, moving the Soviet border several hundred kilometres to the West. In the summer of 1941, at the beginning of the Soviet-German war, it had a certain strategic value. On the other hand, the geopolitical changes in 1938-1940 in Central and Eastern Europe has brought the world to war. And the Western democracies, which wanted to buy time to spend upgrading and better for this war to prepare, their goals are not achieved. May – June 1940, rapid and catastrophic defeat of France showed that. Britain was in a situation where it is a year had to fend off the Nazis alone. – The Soviet Union tried to participate in the geopolitical changes in Central Europe during the Czechoslovak crisis, the Prague government and promised military aid. However, according to the terms of the agreement of 1935 between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, such assistance could only be provided if the Czechs and Slovaks will also help their main ally – France. But this did not happen. As historians now refer to this episode: it was then Prague's the chance to be saved by Moscow? – On the basis of available sources, including from the partially open from the beginning of 1990-ies Soviet archives, it can be argued that this was not a serious attempt. There was no specific military plans to help Czechoslovakia – the more that the direct border between the two countries at that time was not, while Poland and Romania refused to miss the Soviets. In addition, the President Benes and the Czechoslovak government is also not eager to turn his country into a second Spain, where in those years the civil war was partly mediated war (proxy war) between the USSR on the one hand, Germany and Italy on the other. It was not and regular cooperation between the Prague and Moscow at the level of intelligence. – What was the Munich for the Czech society? It was a shock, which in a sense broke the Czechs? Indeed, in March 1939, when the Nazis occupied the Czech Republic and Slovakia gave the puppet "independence", the resistance was not there. Sometimes we hear statements like "and the Czechs spent the war quietly and only Hitler tanks riveting". How true this is, and how the stereotype? "Munich" borders made a "residual" Czechoslovakia is not subject to any defense.

Well, after March 1939 that existed here, the defence industry has really become part of the military machine of Hitler's Empire. It must be admitted. Tanks in the Czech Republic participated in the defeat of France and the operations of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union. The Czechoslovak army did not fight and were disarmed. But there is another point: many of its soldiers participated in 1939 in the first stage of resistance in the framework of the underground organization "defense of the nation" (Obrana národa). Hundreds died as a result of repression by the occupation authorities. Thousands unable to get to France, and later Britain and to Poland and then the USSR, participating in the Second world war on the Western and Eastern fronts. So we can not say that this once Republic the military oath was not fulfilled. A key factor was that Czechoslovakia was occupied even before the Second world war. Active hostilities are not conducted until nearly the end of the war, before the Prague uprising at the beginning of may 1945. There will come a time of serious reckoning – Edward Benes said in his tragic speech to Ministers and generals in the day of the Munich security conference that "there will come the great European war, [and allies] who don't want to fight with us in the best of circumstances, will have to fight for us while we have this opportunity will not. There will come a time of serious reckoning." He was a prophet? Or at the time it was more the desire to justify its own indecision, reluctance to join the war that seemed hopeless? – What, then, of course, Benes was right. After the Western powers at the expense of Czechoslovakia was somewhat delayed beginning of the war, the events developed like this, as described by the Czechoslovak President. France then has really paid a huge price, too, being under occupation. Britain barely avoided it. On the other hand, in the words of the Benes there is nothing about the failure of the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia, which was to ensure the country's sovereignty and external security, to add it into the system of international treaties and safeguards that existed in interwar Europe. To make it not happen. Failed to firmly put his side France: this country after the First world war, when it suffered huge losses, very afraid of a new war. Well, Britain, I remind you, directly to the Treaty of Alliance with Czechoslovakia has not concluded, she participated in all of these combinations as an ally of France. The situation was really tragic. But it seems to me that in this situation, the Czechoslovak army could resist. This would have an impact on the post-war situation. It is unlikely in this case so would the Communists and the Sovietization of the Czechoslovak society: the experience of Patriotic self-defense could bring to life such socio-political forces that followed the Nazi dictatorship would be resistance and a new dictatorship – Communist. – The annexation of Crimea in 2014 quite frequently combined, especially in the Ukraine, with the situation in the autumn of 1938, rejection of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. How justified is the comparison? And can I say that from the time of Munich a democratic country learned something, realizing that aggression should be resisted – at least at the level of economic and political sanctions? – Any historical comparison, as you know, is lame, and this is no exception. By signing the Munich agreement, the Western powers actually become complicit in the rejection of part of the territory of a sovereign state – Czechoslovakia and transfer it to Nazi Germany. In the case of Crimea it was about the decision and respective actions taken by one state against another: Russia against Ukraine. It is one thing. Other – Western democracy in 2014, in contrast to 1938, did not agree with the actions of the powers taking territory from a neighbor. They chose a non-military, more moderate way to counter, but it is the opposition, not cooperation. Certain negative impact on the foreign policy position of the Russian economy, the sanctions have had. I think in that situation it was the only real way to tell the aggressor "no." It is clear that this situation is unpleasant for Ukraine, because delaying the solution to the conflict, probably for a long time. In this sense I see a parallel with the past and can say that we, the Czechs, with our historical experience, the Ukrainian situation is particularly well understood – the exclusion of the territory (if you remember, not only Crimea, but Eastern regions of Ukraine), refugees, forced to leave their homes... It's a tragedy – then and now – says Czech historian Pavel Zacek.