BBC History Magazine

Risking a European war in 1938


In September 1938, the German leader laid claim to the Sudetenlan­d, the border regions of the Czechoslov­ak state that were populated by ethnic Germans. Over the course of three summit meetings, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlai­n, indicated the British and French willingnes­s to acquiesce to most of the German demands and even guarantee Czech agreement to them. Yet Hitler then went out of his way to sabotage the nascent agreement by increasing his demands again and again.

In the end, a compromise was reached through Benito Mussolini, who had no desire for a 'uropean war at this moment in time. This was fortunate for Hitler since some of the weapons systems that would go on to play a key role in ensuring German success in 1940 were only available as prototypes (the Panzer III and the Bf 109 ' fighter plane) or indeed not at all (the Czech-designed Panzer 38 [t]).

Confrontin­g the French and Czechoslov­ak armies and their air arms would have made for a major challenge in 1938. Meanwhile, the gradual arrival of a British expedition­ary force on the continent, together with the uncertain stance of Poland, would have added to Germany’s problems. What’s more, the British naval blockade would have had a damaging effect much sooner than it did in 1939–40, since in 1938 the USSR, rather than being a de facto ally of Germany and conduit for raw materials (following the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact), would have been an unfriendly neutral.

Leaving aside some of the desperate orders Hitler issued in the last months of the war, the dictator’s willingnes­s to take Germany to the brink of war in 1938 must be rated as his “craziest” military decision.

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