Czechoslovakia Divided and Conquered
The stage for Hitler's invasion had been set earlier in the year with the dissection of Czechoslovakia. The previous year's Munich Conference, which was thought to have brought “peace in our time,” had given parts of the country to Germany. Then Poland and Hungary received their shares as well. What remained of Czechoslovakia turned into a federation of three republics. Then, in March 1939, Slovakia seceded to become an independent state, though still under German domination.
The Czech Republic was the last prewar domino to fall before Hitler. President Emil Hacha tried desperately to appease Germany by enacting anti-Semitic and anti-Communist laws, but it didn't help. The Wehrmacht, Germany's armed forces, began gathering troops at the Czech border. On March 14, the day Slovakia declared its independence, Hacha traveled to Berlin to beg for his nation's very existence. Hitler met with Hacha and his aides at 1:15
When he received the signed surrender, Hitler hugged Goering and Ribbentrop, shouting, “Children! This is the greatest day of my life!” That evening, he rode with his troops into Prague. Hacha remained in power as a puppet president of the new German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
France and Great Britain knew of Hitler's intentions long before his troops crossed the Czech border but hoped they could placate the mad dictator and avoid a confrontation. At a conference in Munich in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier met with Hitler to work out a peace deal. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to let Germany take the Sudetenland, a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. Hitler promised to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia and the rest of Europe alone, and Chamberlain and Daladier wrote out a pledge of friendship among the nations, which Hitler signed with absolutely no intent of honoring.
Shortly after annexing Czechoslovakia, Hitler demanded the return of the former German port of Memel, which was then part of Lithuania. His demand met with little resistance.
World war became a near certainty on March 31, 1939, when Great Britain and France, embarrassed by Hitler's successful manipulation of their mutual promises, guaranteed aid and assistance to Poland and Romania if Hitler acted against them. To Hitler, England and France — once two of the most powerful nations in the world — were mere gnats buzzing about his head and offered little to fear.
Hitler's remarkable success at snatching nearby countries without rebuke emboldened Mussolini, who was eager to extend his new Roman Empire. Mobilizing his army, he quickly conquered nearby Albania. Shortly after Italy conquered Albania, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a cable to Mussolini and Hitler asking the dictators to promise that they would rein in their armies for at least twenty-five years. As might be expected, both men saw the cable as a sign of weakness.
Mussolini didn't like Hitler, but he admired the fact that Hitler was able to take Czechoslovakia without firing a single shot. In 1939, the two countries signed an alliance that came to be known as the Pact of Steel. Although most people didn't know it at the time, the alliance would soon pit the two daring dictators against the rest of the world.
Figure 2-1 Hitler and Mussolini in Munich, circa June 1940.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (242-EB-7-38)