The Sudeten-German Tragedy


Since 1938 politicians and journalists have equated a reference to the Munich Pact with shameful appeasement. On June 3, 1953, for example, President Eisenhower, referring to the debate about a Korean truce, said, "There's going to be no new Munich." The reference was to the Pact of September 30, 1938. Freda Utley, author of the best book on the occupation of Germany, The High Cost of Vengeance, showed in Human Events both the origin and the abuse of the Munich Pact as a symbol of appeasement:

Those who compare Panmunjon to Munich are also wrong. All that the much-abused Neville Chamberlain did was to agree to the self-determination of the people of the Sudetenland, which was a part of Czechoslovakia inhabited by Germans, which had formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and which would never have been awarded to the Czechs if Wilson's Fourteen Points had been adhered to. (June 24, 1953)


The Sudetenland is a narrow, irregular strip of land, about 180 miles long, contiguous to Germany, in what in 1918 became the multinational state of Czechoslovakia. It comprised an area of a little less than 11,000 square miles, comparable in size to Belgium or to the state of Maryland. It had a German-speaking population of about 3 million, which compared to 3,123,883 (1946) for Norway, and 2,980,000 (1947) for Eire.

The Czechoslovakia of 1918 had an area of 87,299 square miles and a population of 6,500,000 Czechs, 3,100,000 Germans, 2 million Slovaks, 700,000 Hungarians, and 600,000 Ukrainians (Ruthenians). (See Encyclopedia Brittanica [Micropedia], 1975, Vol, IX, pp. 642-43, for these figures.) Because in this artificial state carved out of the pre-1918 Austria-Hungary, the Czechs did not constitute a majority, the Czech leaders Benes and Masaryk had to assure Wilson and the other St. Germain peace dictators that the Czechs would federate the various nationalities on the model of Switzerland.

The Sudeten-Germans were the second largest ethnic group, skilled in the arts and sciences, and living in an area contiguous to Germany and Austria, with whom they requested unification in line with the principle of self-determination. At the peace conference the Czech delegation minimized the German population by a million and represented them as immigrants and colonists. They succeeded in getting the peace conference to substitute for Wilson's self-determination the old principle of historic boundaries. According to Radomir Luza:

The Committee on Czechoslovak Questions at the peace conference stated in 1919: "Bohemia forms a natural region, clearly defined by its fringe of mountains. The mere fact that a German population has established itself in the outlying districts at a relatively recent date did not appear to the committee a sufficient reason for depriving Bohemia of its natural frontiers." (The Transfer of the Sudeten Germans [New York: New York University Press, 1964], p. 2)

The Sudeten-German tragedy began here—and on the basis of a long discredited principle and a falsification of history. If the principle of historic frontiers were applied, no territory could have been taken from Germany either in 1918 or in 1945, nor indeed from Austria-Hungary. If the principle of "natural frontiers," were applied, Austria and Germany could have claimed the Sudeten mountain range as their natural frontier as validly as Bohemia could claim it.


The fateful falsification of history consists of the assertion that the Sudeten-Germans established themselves in Bohemia and Moravia "at a relatively recent date." This perverts history. Virtually before the dawn of history the Czechoslovak area was inhabited first by Illyrians, then certainly by Celts. These were absorbed by Germanic tribes which around 500 B.C. overran central Europe. Dr. Kurt F. Reinhardt affirms:

As early as in Caesar's time the Germanic tribes had advanced far into central and southern Germany. Germanic settlements had been established on both banks of the Rhine, in Bohemia, and along the Danube.…(Germany 2000 Years [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1950], p. 6)

As against this, the Slav immigration from the East into what in 1918 became Czechoslovak territory, wrote Drs. Josef Starkbaum and Emanuel Reichenberger, "could at the earliest have begun at the end of the 6th century to the 9th at the latest." Almost certainly "the larger numbers of Slavs immigrated into Western Slovakia and the Sudeten area only in the 9th century" (Heimat der Sudetendeutschen: Widerlegung der tschechischen Kolonissationstheorie [Vienna: Volkstum-Verlag, 1967], p. 26). But owing to continuing immigration and superior birthrate the original Germans were pushed into the Sudeten mountain range and by the 10th century "we already find Slav princes as rulers in the Sudeten territory" (Starkbaum and Reichenberger, p. 26).

It conforms to historic precedent that native populations, in the face of a numerous invader, retreat into the hills and there maintain their language and culture, never the other way around. The Celts in the British Isles maintained themselves in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall; the Basques, the most ancient aboriginals in Europe, in the Iberian mountains; and similarly the original German inhabitants of Bohemia in the Sudeten hills, from which in 1902 they got their present collective name.


If the historic principle were to apply—that an area should be subject to the nation that long controlled it—as against the principle of self-determination—that an area should be subject to the wish of the inhabitants long settled there—then Germany and Austria could claim all of Czechoslovakia. As early as 791 Charlemagne incorporated Bohemia formally into the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. And until 1918 it was always under German or Austrian sovereignty, even when Czech princes ruled over Bohemia as a province, under the Empire. Czechs and Germans fought side by side against the Magyars at Lechfield in 955. In 1348 King Charles IV (from German Luxemburg) established in Prague the first European university, Charles University, a cooperative enterprise of Germans and Czechs.

It is true, according to Dr. Kurt Glaser, that:

During the centuries which followed, the Czech rulers encouraged Germans to settle in Bohemia and Moravia.…The influx of Germans reached its peak in the thirteenth century, when Czech nobles competed to obtain settlers to populate their domains. (Czechoslovakia, A Critical Study. [Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1961 ], p. 8)

In 1526, coincident with Archduke Ferdinand's initiating Hapsburg rule, a new and final wave of German settlers supplemented the original Sudeten Germans who had been there since before the Christian era. In 1627 Bohemia was formally declared a Hapsburg crownland. Thus, even if the German immigrants of 1526 had been the first Germans in Czechoslovakia it would be stretching truth and plausibility to call them, as did the peace conference at St. Germain, settlers of "a relatively recent date." Such reasoning would make all the Pilgrim Fathers settlers of a recent date—and expendable!

Furthermore, historically, Bohemia and Moravia had been loosely under German rule since the time of Charlemagne in 791, and very formally under Austrian rule since 1526, and even more definitely since 1627. Thus the Sudeten Germans had been generally subject to German sovereigns for a thousand years when in 1918 the peace dictators denied them self-determination. And they very literally had been subjects of Austria for 290 years, when on March 4, 1919, the Czechs shot to death 54 and wounded 107 Sudeten Germans who were demonstrating for self-determination.

If any deserve to be charged with treason for disloyalty, the Czechs for revolting against Austria in 1918 would be more liable than the Sudeten Germans who remained loyal to Austria and refused to join in the revolt! After the Czechs had proclaimed an independent Czechoslovakia on October 18, 1918, the Sudeten-German and Austrian deputies met in Vienna and resolved on allegiance to the Republic of Austria. When the official spokesman for the Sudeten Germans (Social Democrat Josef Seliger) was sent to Prague to present this wish of the Sudeten Germans, he was told, "We do not negotiate with rebels." And Prague proceeded to a military occupation of the Sudeten territory. The peaceful Sudeten demonstration against this caused the "massacre." The Neue Zuericher Zeitung, on March 7, 1919, commented:

…the acts of Czech brutality against the German Bohemian demonstrators…who had assembled…for entirely peaceful demonstrations for self-determination.…has eradicated any possibility of understanding.…the Czech government is wrong if it thinks it can break the resistance of three and one-half million German Bohemians with terrorist methods. (Glaser, pp. 23-24 n.)


From 1627 to 1848, Czechs and Germans in Bohemia and Moravia managed with little ethnic friction, both under German and Austrian rule. The revolutions in 1848 were less a struggle for ethnic or national independence than for more personal freedom, both among Czechs and Sudeten Germans. And again from 1848 to 1914, Czechs and Sudeten Germans, in spite of some understandable ethnic frictions, managed rather amicably; each kept its language and customs and ethnic complexion. During several decades before World War I, a tendency towards national autonomy was increasing. But until Wilson sloganized self-determination in order to disaffect the minorities of Austria-Hungary, even such Czech leaders as Benes and Masaryk inclined to support the celebrated judgment of Frantisek Palacky, who during the 1848 revolutions said of Austria-Hungary: "If it did not exist, we would have to invent it." In general, Czechs "sought the development of Czech culture and fuller self-government within the empire" (Glaser, p. 13).

Even in World War I, almost to the very end, the various nationalities, including the Czechs, fought loyally under the Hapsburg banner, as they had for virtually 400 years. But not Benes and Masaryk. They had gone to Paris, London, and Washington and formed the Czecho-Slovak National Council which became the Czech government in exile. Even then they did not at first demand independent status for Czech-Slovakia.

Then, on January 10, 1917, the Allied Governments, in the fourth point of a note to Washington, demanded as a condition of peace "the liberation of Italians, of Slavs, of Roumanians and of Czech-Slovaks from foreign domination." Benes and Masaryk could interpret this as full Czech independence.

Giving further impetus to such an interpretation was No. 10 in Wilson's famous Fourteen Points proclaimed on January 8, 1918: "The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development." Of course, Vienna was ready to grant the Czechs and all other minorities every opportunity for autonomous development. In the euphoria of approaching victory and under the poison of hate propaganda, however, "autonomy" was easily perverted into full Czech independence and a tragic breakup of the historic Dual Monarchy.

Even so, however, if this and Wilson's other idealistic pronouncements had been honestly applied, the Sudeten Germans never could have been incorporated into the Czechoslovakia of 1918, and the Munich Pact of 1938 would not have been needed. In his Four Principles Speech to Congress on February 11, 1918, Wilson declared "That peoples and provinces are not be bartered about," and that "Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned." Obviously, if the territory of the Sudeten Germans had been settled in accordance with their wishes, it would in 1918 have remained the part of Austria and Germany which in the Munich Pact it again became.


On October 21, 1918, all the Austrian and Sudeten-German deputies met in Vienna as a Provisional National Assembly, accepted Wilson's principle of self determination, and claimed for the new German-Austrian state "the entire territory settled by German Austrians," including those in the German parts of Bohemia and Moravia. In reply, Czech military forces occupied these parts, and as we have seen, when the Sudeten Germans on March 4, 1919, demonstrated in protest, they were fired upon. It was precisely to avoid this and similar bloodshed that Austria refrained from dispatching its own forces and trusted the promises and sense of justice of the peacemakers. They, however, kept the Austrian delegation at the peace conference behind barbed wire, but kept their doors open to the Czech delegation. The latter, in the important Benes' Memoire III, "underestimated the number of Germans in Bohemia by one million and 'proved' the absence of contiguous German settlements by means of a falsified map" (Glaser, p. 24).

The contradictions and falsifications with which the Czech spokesmen achieved the multinational state of Czechoslovakia is perfectly expressed by Professor A.C. Coolidge, chief of the field mission attached to the American delegation to the peace conference, in a memorandum of March 10, 1919:

The clearest case of a contradiction between nationality rights and those of history and geography is that involving the boundary desires of the Czechs, who—illogically but humanly—base their claims to the two halves of their territory on opposite principles. In Bohemia, they demand their 'historic boundaries' without regard to the protests of the large number of Germans who do not wish to be taken over in this way. In Slovakia, on the other hand, they insist on nationality rights and ignore the old and well marked "historical boundaries" of Hungary. (Quoted in Glaser, p. 22)

To such Czech chauvinism, and to Allied forswearing of its pledges to the vanquished, did Czechoslovakia owe its creation, and some 3½ million Sudeten Germans their loss of self-determination. Carl L. Becker comments:

In arranging the boundaries of Czechoslovakia, the conference departed rather far from the principle of self-determination in order to gratify the patriotic sentiment of the Czechs, or to safeguard their military and economic interests. (History of Modern Europe [Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Co., 1945], p. 199)

The conference included "within Czechoslovakia more than a million Magyars and Ruthenians" and "about 3,000,000 Germans who might properly be united with either Germany or Austria" War Department Education Manual, EM 206, 1945, pp. 199-201).

The tragedy of Versailles and St. Germain—and the logically ensuing World War II—was not due to the principle of self determination, but to the dishonesty with which it was applied. The victors used it wherever they could thus slice some land or people from Germany and Austria, and ignored it or, as in the case of the Sudeten Germans, perverted it whenever its application might have helped the vanquished and made the peace worthy of enduring. With this dishonest use of self-determination the victors broke up Austria-Hungary, which for over a hundred years had been a mainstay of order and relative peace in south-central Europe. The tragedy and the blunder of this ruthless destruction was belatedly attested to by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, when in 1963 it wanted to justify its support of Soviet Russian colonialism. In "Controlling the Police in a Disarmed World," the agency declared:

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we benefit enormously from the capability of the Soviet System to keep law and order over the 200 odd million people in the USSR and the many additional millions in the satellite states.

The breakup of the Russian Communist empire today would doubtless be conducive to freedom, but would be a good deal more catastrophic than was the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1914. (Quoted in Lev E. Dobriansky, The Vulnerable Russians [New York: Pageant-Poseidon, 1967], p. 252)

Here, 45 years later, and after a frightful Second World War, one of the Big Four peace dictators of 1918 admits that the breakup of Austria-Hungary, which included the forcible subjection of over 3 million Sudeten Germans by the Czechs, was catastrophic! And it borders on sacrilege to compare the open-border, gentle Austria-Hungary to the barbed-wire enclosed, police-terror tyranny of Soviet Russia. It is this sort of perverted mentality and morality that produced the peace of 1918, a peace which was granted partial correction in the Munich Pact, and then climaxed in one of the worst mass atrocities in history, the total robbery, expulsion, and decimation of the Sudeten Germans.


Benes and Masaryk had tricked the peace dictators into approving the multinational state of Czechoslovakia by assuring them that they would create a new Switzerland. In it the Czechs (in 1918) were the most numerous, the Sudeten Germans were second, the Slovaks were third, and also included were Hungarians, Ruthenians, and Poles. Benes and Masaryk declared Czech the official language, reduced Slovak to a mere dialect of Czech, and promised that "German shall be the second native language."

With so many rival nationalities, even if the Czechs had been wise and had honestly tried, as they announced they would, to "satisfy the wishes of the population in practice and daily use," a Swiss pattern would have been difficult. As Lord Runciman commented, it is a hard lot to be governed by an alien race as were the Sudeten Germans. But the Czechs were not wise; they kept harassing their Germans, infiltrated Czechs into administrative and managerial posts, and subtly and otherwise tried to de-Germanize them, making them justifiably feel like second-class citizens. Even an apologist for the Czechs, Radomir Luza, admits that there was a "reduction in the number of German schools" and "that German representation in public service was inadequate." Some were "ousted, some retired, and thousands, unable to pass the Czech language tests made expressly too difficult for them, were dismissed. Their places were taken by Czechs who moved to the German areas." (Luza, pp. 42, 43)

But the crucial point remains, namely, the Sudeten Germans wanted and had a clear right to be a part of Germany rather than Czechoslovakia. It was only natural, therefore, given those harassments in addition to the injustice, that the Sudeten Germans became more restive, and more and more insistent on autonomy. And as they saw that the Germans and Austrians under the leadership of Hitler corrected more and more of the injustices of Versailles and St. Germain, they hoped for the same for themselves. When their demands, after Austria had been allowed to join Germany in 1937, became critical, Britain sent Lord Runciman to Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938, to mediate if possible, and to develop a practical policy. On September 16, 1938, he recommended to the British government what common sense, elementary justice, and the Wilsonian principle of self-determination ought to have done in 1918. He recommended that in areas where the Sudeten Germans were in a clear majority they should immediately be given their right of self-determination. (See Hermann Raschhofer, Die Sudeten Frage [Munich: Isar Verlag, 1953], pp. 164-170, for a good report on Lord Runciman's epoch-making analysis.)


n the face of Hitler's evident determination to correct—by force if necessary—the wrong done to the Sudeten Germans in 1918, London and Paris informed Prague that they would not fight to help it retain the Sudeten areas in the event of German military action to free the Sudeten Germans. Under the circumstances, the Czech government acquiesced. Accordingly, on September 29 and 30, 1938, Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini, and Hitler signed the epoch-making Munich Pact. It outlined the three stages in which the territory with predominantly German population should be evacuated by the Czechs and transferred to Germany. "On the basis of the Munich agreement the Reich occupied an area of 28,996 sq. km. containing 2,822,899 Germans and 738,502 Czechs and Slovaks" (Luza, p. 158).

Against the assertion that Czechoslovakia was not legally bound by the Munich protocol because it was not a signatory, Dr. Kurt Glaser explains:

The Prague government did, however, agree specifically to the cession in notes to Great Britain and France on September 21 and again in notes to the British September 25 and 26. Nor can it be pleaded that the cession was invalid because made under duress: if this were true, then the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain would both be invalid. (Glaser, p. 40 n.)

The most cursory knowledge of history indicates that most of the international treaties, especially those after wars, were made under duress. To claim that whatever duress there was invalidated the Munich Pact is a perversion of all historical precedent.

Nor was the Munich Pact appeasement, in the logical meaning of the term, that is, a surrender of rights to another because of fear. The Munich Pact was not appeasement, but belated justice, to which every nation is bound, whether in the face of a weaker or a stronger opponent. The oft repeated cliche, "Not another Munich," especially when used in negotiations with communists, can well suggest to them a Western determination not to allow what, like the self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, is obviously right and just. Nor did the Munich Pact precipitate World War II. That was precipitated because a similarly wise and just acquiescence was denied at Danzig.

The most valid and important judgment of the Munich Pact was written by Professor A.J.P. Taylor, an anti-German British liberal with a respect for historical truth, however. He wrote that the Munich Pact:

…was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and shortsightedness of Versailles. Brailsford, the leading Socialist authority on foreign affairs, wrote in 1920 of the peace settlement: "The worst offense was the subjection of over three million Germans to Czech rule." This was the offence redressed at Munich …. with skill and persistence, Chamberlain brought first the French, and then the Czechs, to follow the moral line. (The Origins of the Second World War [New York: Atheneum, 1962], p. 213)

Austin J. App received an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. He is the author of numerous reviews, articles, and books on English literature and writing, current affairs, and history.