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In the Shadow of Munich. British Policy towards Czechoslovakia from 1938 to 1942

In the Shadow of Munich. British Policy towards Czechoslovakia from 1938 to 1942

Smetana, Vít

subjects: history – 20th century, political science and international relations

paperback, 360 pp., 1. edition
published: january 2008
ISBN: 978-80-246-1373-4
recommended price: 345 czk

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summary

The book In the Shadow of Munich. British Policy towards Czechoslovakia from the Endorsement to the Renunciation of the Munich Agreement (1938 to 1942) analyses the varying attitudes and gradual change of British policy towards Czechoslovakia in the period from the Munich Conference in September 1938 to August 1942 when the British government proclaimed the Munich Agreement as dead and thus having no influence whatsoever on the future territorial settlement. The key focus of this work lies in the influence of 'Munich' upon the British political scene and upon the resulting British policy towards Czechoslovakia in the Central European context and also in the repercussions of Munich in negotiations with the Czechoslovak exile representatives. The book is a result of many years of the author?s research conducted primarily in the British and the Czech archives as well as his reflection of numerous documentary editions, diaries, memoirs and secondary sources. It aims to dispel frequent myths and stereotypes that have so far influenced the Czech and partly also Anglo-Saxon historiography in their interpretations of British attitudes towards Czechoslovakia immediately before and during the Second World War.

table of contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Aims and methodology
Bibliographical essay
Structure of the book

British foreign policy and Czechoslovakia before Munich 1938 (historical introduction)
British strategies in the inter-war period
The "Czechoslovak year": 1938

Britain and the crumbling of CzechosIovakia (30 September 1938-15 March 1939)
The implementation of Munich and its immediate impact upon British politics
The question of the Munich guarantee
Britain's policy towards Central Europe between Munich and 15 March 1939
Towards the March ides

Towards the outbreak of war (15 March-3 September 1939)
The immediate repercussions of the March ides in British politics
British international efforts between 15 March and the outbreak of the war
Military and economic implications ofthe German subjugation of Czechoslovakia
"The Czech gold scandal"
Britain and independent Slovakia
Britain's de facto recognition of German annexation and the question of the Czechoslovak balances (a study of interdependence of foreign policy and economic interests)
The problem of the Czechoslovak Legation in London Conclusion

British attitudes towards the development of Czechoslovak political representation in exile (October 1938-July 1940)
Britain's assistance to refugees from Czechoslovakia, 1938-1939
Britain's attitudes to the formation of Czechoslovak political representation abroad before the outbreak of war
Czechoslovakia and the British war aims
The recognition of the Czechoslovak National Committee
Towards the Provisional Government
Conclusion

The other life of Munich and the "unbearable lightness" of provisional status (July 1940-July 1941)
The legacy of Munich and the battles for history
Establishing the governing structures in exile
The thorny way to fuIl recognition - stage 1
The thorny way to full recognition - stage 2
Conclusion

Planning for the future while looking to the past (1940-1942)
The Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation in British, Polish and Czechoslovak plans
The question of the Czechoslovak frontiers and the origins of "permanent solution" of the Sudeten German issue
Conclusion

General conclusions
Bibliography
Biographical notes
Index

reviews

In seinem Schlusswort setzt sich Smetana von jenen tschechischen Historikern ab, die - wie Benes selbst - hinter dem britischen Zögern, auf die tschechoslowakischen Forderungen einzugehen, das versteckte Wirken von "Münchnern" argwöhnten. Die Beamten des Foreign Office hätten erwartet, dass Benes sich selbst und sein Volk davon überzeugen werde, dass die umsichtige britische und amerikanische Politik stetiger und verlässlicher sei als der sowjetische Opportunismus: "This misperception was to have serious impact on the future of Czecho-slovakia" (S.315).
Vit Smetana erweist sich als Vertreter einer neuen Generation tschechischer Historiker ohne nationale Scheuklappen. Er zeichnet ein klares Bild der Beziehungen der Exilregierung und der britischen Regierung zwischen dem "Münchner Abkommen" und dessen Widerruf. Sein Urteil beruht auf der unvoreingenommenen Prüfung der einschlägigen Akten des Central Department des Foreign Office, die den Diskussionsprozess innerhalb der Behörde und die Gespräche mit den Vertretern des tschechoslowakischen Exils belegen. Damit beweist er kritische Distanz zu den bedingungslosen Anhängern des Präsidenten Benes unter den tschechischen Historikern.

Detlef Brandes, Bohemia Band 49, 2009, str. 241

In a world dominated by the English language, non-Anglophone scholars often struggle to make an impact on the profession. Czech historian Vít Smetana’s challenging book is a welcome exception to this rule and hopefully the beginning of a new trend in publishing. Thanks to the innovative program in American studies at the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences, Smetana wrote his dissertation in English. Karolinum Publishers (Prague) deserves praise for their decision to publish the book untranslated and to make distribution available in the United States through the University of Chicago Press. Anglophone readers can now be exposed to a different perspective on an old set of questions, in which Smetana provocatively and effectively challenges common assumptions about a critical juncture in twentieth-century history.
The book examines British-Czechoslovak relations from the run-up to the September 1938 Munich Pact through the point (roughly 1941- 1942) when Edvard Beneš secured recognition of his govemment-in- exile, developed plans to expel the Sudeten Germans, and walked away from the project of a federation with Poland. Thanks to the author’s impressively extensive archival research in three countries, the book contributes significantly to our understanding of a series of events that first destroyed and then reshaped Central Europe. The book is as much British history as it is Czechoslovak, for the developments Smetana analyzes chart the evolution of British elite thinking from the policies of appeasement to fears of postwar Soviet expansion.
The central organizing theme of the book is Smetana’s revisionist argument that the British did not continue policies of appeasement after Munich. Smetana challenges a number of long-held assumptions about British perfidy, for example, when he argues that foreign aid to the Second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-1939) was "surprisingly high.” Although Prague had sought more, London gave almost as much to Czechoslovakia as to the rest of the world combined. This relative largesse, in the view of disgruntled British diplomats, came at the expense of spending on armaments (p. 93). Nor did London turn its back completely on the persecuted. Diplomatic officials inquired repeatedly about the situation of the Jews and made aid to the Second Republic contingent on the treatment of them and German refugees. Then again, there were limits to this concern. When the Gestapo tried to expel Jews, the British balked at accepting them (while at the same time helping Gentile political leaders escape). Smetana concludes, "British assistance to refugees from Czechoslovakia before the war exceeded support from any other country,” albeit only for the right type of refugees (p. 156).
The book provides an important corrective to facile condemnations of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his diplomats. And yet the British still appear depressingly cynical in the wake of Munich. In December 1938, for example, the British deputy undersecretary of state dismissed the idea of honoring his country’s commitments to Czechoslovakia: "It is as though Germany were to guarantee Egypt!” (p. 68). The antagonism expressed toward the rump state is still striking today: another high-ranking diplomat called Czechoslovakia "a distasteful and indefensible mosaic” (p. 167). As it became clear that the state’s days were numbered, the British scrambled to escape responsibility for the debacle and to avoid having to take any action in response. After the German invasion of March 1939, Chamberlain disingenuously claimed that Czechoslovakia had disintegrated on its own, in the hopes of justifying his government’s inaction: "our guarantee was not a guarantee against the exercise of moral pressure” (p. 107). When the French called for a joint protest of the occupation, the British did what they could first to prevent any such utterance and then later to water it down. Smetana concludes, "the overall British pattern of influencing the French policy towards Central Europe ... until March 1939 . .. was marked by constant effort to dissuade France from fulfilling her commitments or entering into new ones” (p. 183).
If British policy toward the former Czechoslovakia was often cynical, Beneš returned the favor. Whereas the British hoped to avoid war, Smetana insightfully notes that "perhaps with the exception of Hitler himself, hardly anybody had desired the outbreak of war more than the Czechoslovak exiles in the spring and summer of 1939, as it meant the only hope for a future reestablishment of Czechoslovakia” (p. 184). Having ceased to exist, Czechoslovakia proved to be a powerful specter. The threat of sharing its fate galvanized opponents of appeasement and led famously to the British guarantees to Poland, Romania, and Greece. Threats, in general, were the Czechoslovak exiles’ greatest arguments. Smetana demonstrates how British and French reluctance to accept and support Beneš contributed significantly to his decision to seek a Soviet alliance. The possibility that Czechoslovakia would fall into the "Soviet sphere” of influence then catalyzed the British to recognize Beneš fully and formally reject Munich (p. 242).
Throughout the war both the British and Beneš were concerned with the reactions of other Central European countries. In the winter of 1938-1939 the British anguished that a pro-Czechoslovak policy would drive Hungary into the Germans’ arms. After September 1939 relations with the Polish govemment-in-exile proved to be both contentious and productive. One of the most interesting sections of the book details Polish-Czechoslovak negotiations over a postwar Central European confederation of the two states. Although the idea ended in the dustbin, Smetana illustrates how far it had developed and how fanciful much of it remained: Beneš once proposed that "the Poles should adopt the Czech spelling reform introduced by (fifteenth-century religious reformer Jan) Hus” (p. 255). Ultimately, cooperation broke down over relations with the Soviets, but by then the willingness to work with the Poles had decisively helped to improve the Czechoslovaks’ standing in British eyes. If the desire for British approval had spurred the confederation project, the desire for Soviet approval doomed it.
Ultimately, British policy stemmed not so much from a lingering belief in appeasement or even from an unwillingness to admit past mistakes. Instead, the British remained reluctant to make commitments to other states, and abrogration of the Munich Pact implied recognition of Czechoslovakia’s prewar borders. British leaders had other concerns and left policy toward Beneš and his followers in the hands of lower- ranking diplomats. Smetana explains, "British policy towards Czechoslovakia during the spring and summer of 1939 deserves criticism for a lack of political leadership, rather than for resemblance to previous appeasement of Germany” (p. 151). The British did not suffer from the notorious "Munich Complex” that obsessed Beneš and his followers in London. After all, the British did not care that much about Czechoslovakia before its occupation; there was little reason to care more after it had ceased to exist.
Over the past several decades American and British scholars have turned away from diplomatic history, a regrettable development in light of the possibilities offered by the opening of archives behind the old Iron Curtain and the declassification of documents in the West. Although Smetana’s book fits within the new field of "international history,” it engages and successfully revises the conclusions of traditional diplomatic history. This important book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in the origins of the Second World War and in the development of postwar plans for Central and Eastern Europe. One hopes that other publishers in non-Anglophone countries will soon offer more works of this quality.

Benjamin Frommer (Northwestern University), Journal of World History, Sept. 2011, 647-650