13 September: Turning a big key toward World War II

Benes, who may have been manipulated into the conditions that led him to invoke martial law.

Benes, who may have been manipulated into the conditions that led him to invoke martial law.

One of the most crucial keys toward the launch of what became World War II has been turned. Edvard Benes, president of Czechoslovakia, declares martial law, after months of Third Reich-instigated manipulation of events designed to provoke just that and, of course, the eventual Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia.

The declaration is one of the climaxes of months of unreast throughout middle and eastern Europe over the Sudentenland, the Czech region in which over three million ethinc Germans lived, and within which the influence of the Sudetenland German Party (SdP)—led by Konrad Henlein, who forged it into a virtual branch of Germany’s Nazi Party—was enough to build it into the second-largest political party in the region.

The Sudeten crisis began when the anchluss of Austria to Germany was barely consummated. Indeed, Henlein met with Hitler himself in Berlin in March 1938, where der Fuehrer instructed Henlein to raise demands he probably knew Benes would reject mostly out of hand. A month later, the SdP announced its so-called Carlsbad Program: demands for full equality between ethnic Germans and Czechs thoughout the country itself.

The Benes government was willing to provide more minority rights to Germans in Czechoslovakia but not to allow their autonomy. With the British and the French only too obviously seeking to avoid war at any cost (the anchluss had proven that), those two countries found themselves in a considerable bind: France had no wish to confront the Third Reich alone in any venue, preferring to follow the British lead; and, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain happened to believe the Sudeten Germans’ grievances were legitimate—and that Hitler’s own intentions were limited.

By May 1938, Benes rejected French and British urgings that Czechoslovakia concede to Germany’s Sudetenland demands and ordered a partial mobilisation in anticipation of a prospective German invasion. The following day, Hitler handed his military generals a draft that declared der Fuehrer had no intention of smashing Czechoslovakia . . . unless (note the phrasing, as cited from the draft code-named Operation Green) “provoked”; or, unless “a particularly favourable opportunity [or] adequate political justification” presented itself.

Chamberlain, who believed Sudeten Germans should have had equal rights . . . and believed it fatally when Hitler said this was the end of his expansion plans. (Photo: BBC.)

Chamberlain, who believed Sudeten Germans should have equal rights . . . and believed it fatally when Hitler said the Sudeten was the end of his expansion plans. (Photo: BBC.)

Concurrently, Hitler ordered accelerated U-boat construction as well as ramping up the building of the first two Third Reich battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, which were now advanced to be commissioned in early 1940. He suspected this alone wouldn’t be sufficient in any naval war with the British but he hoped, so it was said, that they’d be deterrent enough. Ten days after presenting his general Operation Green, Hitler signed a secret order that war with Czechoslovakia would begin no later than 1 October 1938.

Not only did Hitler’s secret order end up negating any Chamberlain belief that the German dictator could be appeased in any way, but even der Fuehrer‘s own adjutant Fritz Wiedemann would say after the ultimate war that he was staggered by Hitler’s apparent plan to attack England and France within three or four years following resolution of the Sudeten crisis. Other Nazi military commanders would say that change of heart emanated from Czechoslovakia’s mobilisation; still another, General Alfred Jodl, placed the direct inspiration for Operation Green squarely on that mobilisation.

Also concurrently, the Chamberlain government demanded Benes ask for a mediator, to which the Czech president acceded on behalf of not losing ties to Western Europe. Former Liberal cabinet minister Lord Runciman traveled to Prague in August 1938 hoping to persuade Benes to accept a plan acceptable in turn to Sudeten Germans. A month earlier, French foreign minister Georges Bonnet advised Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to France it would be one thing for the French to express public support but something else for the French to go to war over the Sudetenland.

While Runciman worked with Benes in August, however, the Nazi propaganda machine ramped up allegations of Czech atrocities against Sudeten Germans in a bid to force the West into pressuring Benes’s government to make concessions. For his part, Hitler hoped the Czechs would resist that pressure enough that the West would feel no qualms about leaving Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. The Third Reich also sent over 700,000 troops along the Czech border in maneuvers and in an apparent response to the Czech mobilisations.

Earlier in September 1938, however, Benes handed down the so-called Fourth Plan . . . granting just about every demand in the Munich Agreement. And then things went from interesting to chaotic. Under orders from Berlin to avoid compromise at all, the SdP launched demonstrations heavy enough to provoke police action in Ostrava that ended with the arrest of two SdP parliamentary deputies. Thus inspiring the Sudeten Germans, only too willing to use that and false charges of atrocities such as were dominating the German press, as all the reason they needed not to negotiate any longer.

A day before Benes finally declared martial law, Hitler addressed a party rally in Nuremberg condemning the Benes government, declaring Czechoslovakia a fradulent state violating self determination, charging that Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukranians, Poles, and other minorities in the country did not want a union with Czechs. He also accused Benes of seeking to exterminate Sudeten Germans and making his government a client of the French, concurrently charging French military leaders with claiming Czechoslovakia would be a crucial state for launching attacks against Germany.

As the news of Benes’s martial law declaration goes forth, Chamberlain finally asks Hitler for a direct meeting the better to avert war. Two days later, Chamberlain will meet Hitler at der Fuehrer‘s residence, along with Henlein. Hitler’s comments to Chamberlain will provoke Chamberlain first to deny he’d ever made threats against Germany, then to return to England to meet with his cabinet, and finally to the chain of events that led to what Edward R. Murrow would call “Czech freedom [being] swapped for what Mr. Chamberlain called ‘peace, in our time’.”



Fulton Lewis, Jr.: Czech President Benes Declares Martial Law (Mutual, 1938)

Lewis. (Photo: Mutual Broadcasting System.)

Lewis. (Photo: Mutual Broadcasting System.)

“Tense news that makes your spine tingle and your heart go cold”: the declaration provokes Hitler to demand it be revoked within six hours. “It’s not necessary for me to say the world is upside down tonight,” says Lewis, the conservative news analyst and commentator, as the Czech cabinet meets and the country’s ambassador to the U.S. speaks to Lewis on the thinking behind the martial law order and Czech determination and ability to defend itself against Hitler.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Whistler: Mirage (Crime drama; CBS, 1942)
Suspense: The Furnished Floor (a.k.a. Furnished Room) (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
Your AAF: A Report to the American People (Documentary; ABC, 1945)
Quiet, Please: Symphony in D Minor (Fantasy; Mutual, 1948)
The Jack Benny Program: Back from Vacation in Hawaii (Season premiere; CBS, 1953)

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