So is there any point in drawing parallels with 1938? For an answer to this question, we have to look more closely at what actually happened.
One of the striking features of German propaganda from the late 30s was the way it defined Germany as something other than Europe and defined what today we call the “West” as something alien, decadent and effeminate. “We Sudeten Germans do not feel in any way connected with the Germany of Schiller and Goethe, but rather with the Germany of Adolf Hitler,” is how the Sudeten German politician, Josef Barwig, put it. Germany’s leaders loved to talk of the “German world view”, a term that sounded harmless enough, but meant Nazism at the exclusion of any other set of ideas. The term also found its way into Henlein’s Carlsbad demands of April 1938, hidden amid nice-sounding phrases like “equality of rights and status” and “self-administration”.
The extent to which today’s Russian leaders have got into the habit of defining their own country as the antithesis of the “West” has come as a shock, not least because to reduce the “West” – in all its untidy diversity – to a single menacing entity, requires some pretty far-fetched conspiracy theories. Mr Putin is not doing Russia justice. Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky belong at the heart of European culture every bit as much as Goethe, Dickens, Balzac and Beethoven.
The Nazis loved labels – as a way of glorifying the “German revolution” and demonizing everyone else. Their propaganda spoke of the “terror regime” of Edvard Beneš, a description that even the most pro-Nazi visitor to Czechoslovakia would have found spectacularly wide of the mark. The Czechoslovak government was controlled by “Jewish-Bolshevik” elements and President Beneš a fraud. As Hitler put it three days before Munich, “Czechoslovakia is a lie: and the father of this lie is called Beneš… And the Anglo-Saxon statesmen, badly informed as ever, believed him.” By making Beneš an illegitimate leader, Hitler justified his policy of ignoring Czechoslovakia as a negotiating partner. The “Czechoslovak question” became an issue that was not to be resolved within the country itself, but by those outside.
Russian leaders and the Russian media consistently describe the current Kiev government as “fascists” and “neo-Nazis”, an extraordinary reduction of the complexities of today’s Ukraine, but one which enables a simple opposition: Russia versus fascism. And this enables Russia to rule Kiev out of any negotiation, just as Germany ruled out Czechoslovakia. I’ve lost count of how many times in recent days I’ve seen headlines in newspapers and websites from a multitude of different countries, saying something like: “Kerry meets Lavrov to resolve the Ukraine crisis.” “O nás, bez nás,” goes a Czech saying, going back to 1938: “About us, without us.”
Today we often ask ourselves whether Germans actually believed their own propaganda. In Germany itself, it is likely that many did, for the simple reason that they would not have had access to any information beyond what they were told by the regime. In the Sudetenland it was more complicated. In the virtual absence of German broadcasts from Prague, German speakers would have tended to listen to radio from the Reich. They had access to newspapers representing a variety of views, but by 1938, the great majority of papers published in German in the Sudetenland would have been pro-Nazi, and Sudeten German Party activists kept a close eye on anyone seeking out other sources of information.
The lies and half-truths being broadcast from across the border in Germany created a virtual reality, which did not actually require any element of provable truth on the ground. The propaganda just needed to sustain a constant sense of unease and rumour. It flattered Sudeten Germans, but also bullied them, for example into taking part in boycotts: those who bought their groceries in Czech- or Jewish-owned shops were marked as collaborators. Those who chose Nazism were offered a dream of a bright future, embodied in huge media spectacles like the Berlin Olympics or the 1938 Breslau Sportfest, at which the Sudeten Germans were guests of honour.
Hitler needed to sustain this level of propaganda continuously, because even in 1938 his most active supporters only made up about a third of Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking population. With Prague offering further concessions, Henlein and Hitler had to keep finding excuses for rejecting them. In propaganda terms this was surprisingly easy. Simply invent another Czech atrocity. The most successful example came on the very day that Neville Chamberlain was meeting Hitler in Bavaria on 15 September. German radio was full of reports of the cold-blooded murder of three hundred Sudeten German civilians. “This changes everything,” Hitler insisted at the beginning of the meeting. For humanitarian reasons the only possible topic of discussion was how to get the Sudeten Germans safely and quickly into the Reich. “Very well,” Chamberlain replied, and by the end of the meeting he had confirmed Britain’s support for the annexation of the Sudetenland. The mass-murder was a total fabrication.
In the Russian media over recent weeks such atrocity rumours have been abundant. The threat to the safety of Russian speakers and Russian citizens became an excuse for intervention in Crimea and this could happen elsewhere.
By September 1938, Germany had long been hatching plans for a “spontaneous” coup in the Sudetenland that would de facto make it part of the Reich. The new situation on the ground would then simply be confirmed through a referendum. To give the takeover credibility, Hitler needed to make it seem that Germany itself was nothing more than a sympathetic observer. Agents from the Reich worked to prepare the uprising for the night of Hitler’s big speech in Nuremberg on 12 September. Events were intended to follow a similar pattern to those that unfolded earlier this month in Crimea, but despite widespread demonstrations across the Sudetenland, fired up by Hitler’s speech, the takeover failed and the following day the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party was banned.
The party leader Konrad Henlein and many of his supporters crossed into Germany and with miraculous speed began to organize military resistance in the form of the “Freikorps”. With Henlein’s bullies gone the atmosphere in the Sudetenland itself instantly became calmer, a calm that was punctuated by the Freikorps’ series of armed cross-border assaults, primarily on Czech police stations. Even though the escalation of violence was quite evidently instigated from Germany, as a diplomatic tool it worked. It reminded Chamberlain and his French counterpart Edouard Daladier that they had no appetite for armed conflict.
In mid-September German radio declared: “The number of Sudeten German refugees who have crossed the German frontier has increased to twenty thousand and foreign journalists had ample opportunity of talking to these poor victims of Czech terrorism and of listening to their horrible stories.” Over the following days the number rose to 128,000. The figures were fabricated and the “refugees” were largely volunteers for Henlein’s Freikorps. But refugee stories are perfect propaganda fodder. They arouse emotions. Recent Russian media reports of 140 000 ethnic Russian refugees from Ukraine proved untrue, but the image was etched into people’s minds both within and outside Russia.
For propaganda to work against the evidence of people’s own eyes, the population has to shift into a state of suspended disbelief. This is what happened very rapidly in Germany after 1933. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the nation itself became the “truth” embodied in the will of the leader himself. Any argument was released from the control of the present, because only the future could reveal its merits. Thus liberated from the rules of diplomacy, Hitler proceeded to take every opportunity to redraw the map of Europe: through diplomacy where it worked or through controlled use of force or the threat of force “in order to protect Germans”. In this way he remilitarized the Rhineland and marched unopposed into Austria.
Hitler argued that he was putting right a historic injustice. Ironically, given that the Austrian Anschluss was timed to prevent a plebiscite on the country’s future, the idea of holding a plebiscite in the Sudetenland became an obsession. German radio broadcasts outlined in detail the form the plebiscite should take, claiming the support of an unnamed (i.e. non-existent) English Lord. This was a useful propaganda tool, intended primarily to win the sympathy of Western democracies, which espoused the principle of the “right of nations to self-determination”.
In a highly charged atmosphere, riddled with the most blatant propaganda and open threats from Germany, a plebiscite in the Sudetenland would have been a grotesque parody and in the end, thanks to Munich, it didn’t even prove necessary. But its very mention worked wonders in giving the annexation legitimacy in the eyes of Britain, France and the United States. This propaganda technique still works. Journalists, even for some of the most reputable European media organizations, have in recent days often described the Russian annexation of Crimea as the “choice of the people”. If that is the case, then so was Munich.
The “plebiscite” argument offered Hitler another trump. He could claim that Britain, France and the United States were hypocrites: “In 1918, under the motto of self-determination of peoples, Central Europe was torn apart, and was remade by a handful of deluded and deranged so-called statesmen.” Fed with German and Hungarian propaganda, many in Britain and France began to agree with him. They would point to the injustices of Versailles. Britain’s ambassador in Berlin was typical in warning that “the Teuton and the Slav are irreconcilable”, adding that the Canadian prime minister had warned him that in his country Slavs had never become good citizens.
A further theory that won increasing support in Britain was that if Hitler could have the Sudetenland, then everything would calm down and Czechoslovakia would be a more compact and functional state. With Chamberlain’s backing, this view was expressed by The Times: “The advantages to Czechoslovakia of becoming a homogeneous state might conceivably outweigh the obvious disadvantages of losing the Sudeten German districts of the borderland.” This could not have been further from the truth. After Munich, the rump Czechoslovakia, having lost most of its heavily industrialized areas and nearly all its raw materials, became totally dependent on Nazi Germany. Its democratic institutions and party political system began to disintegrate, and petty nationalism and anti-Semitism began to poison political life. Less than six months later, Prague was occupied. On 10 March 2014, an article in the highly respected American journal “Foreign Affairs” suggested that without the Crimea and much of its territory in the south and east “Ukraine would emerge more compact, more homogeneous, and more unified in purpose. […] The new Ukraine government could confidently proceed with a radical political and economic reform program… and pursue rapid integration into European and international structures.” History suggests that this scenario would be highly unlikely.
When, on 21 September 1938, the Czechoslovak government announced on the radio that it had agreed to the principle of ceding the Sudetenland, a line was crossed. The statement made it quite clear that the decision had only been taken under intense pressure from Germany, Britain and France. Refusing to accept the humiliation to which their government had been pushed, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. In Prague they broke into the radio in Fochova Avenue, with no resistance from the police or radio staff, and one man – an ordinary person in the crowd – spoke into the microphone. He was inarticulate, but his message was simple: that Czechoslovakia’s citizens should have the chance to defend the borders of their country. A second, even larger demonstration followed the next day in front of the parliament and the government fell. Prime Minister Milan Hodža resigned and was replaced by the First World War hero, General Syrový.
These events were witnessed by hundreds of international journalists who had flocked to Prague to cover the crisis, and many of their accounts survive. Here is the English journalist, Joan Griffin. Her conclusions are typical: “In most countries a government with a general at its head would mean a military dictatorship. Here it means a democracy ready to defend itself. The setting up of the new government is an answer to the clearly expressed will of the people, for the thousands who demonstrated two days ago in Prague and in other towns wanted to show only two things. They would rather die than yield, even if they were deserted and surrounded, and they wanted a government with one of their dear generals at its head. But not only was the setting up of the new government an expression of the will of the people. One can be perfectly sure that it will never degenerate into a military dictatorship.” The situation was messy, but when thousands of people take to the streets to demand change, they are not always a mob. A very similar situation was seen in Prague in November 1989, and to suggest that the huge crowds on Independence Square in Kiev earlier this year were no more than a mob would be every bit as inaccurate.
In 1938 Neville Chamberlain made a tragic mistake. He thought that the problem being solved was that of the relations between the Czechs and Germans living together in the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia. He was right in seeing these problems as anything but black and white, and in acknowledging legitimate grievances felt by Sudeten Germans. They would have taken years, perhaps generations, to sort out, and it is quite possible, perhaps even probable, that Czechoslovakia would not have survived in the form in which it was created. But, in the absence of some massive humanitarian crisis, this would always have remained a problem to be solved by the people who lived within the country. Chamberlain’s private letters from the time suggest that he genuinely believed that Hitler was motivated by his concern for the Germans of Czechoslovakia and that his ambitions did not go further.
President Putin does not share Hitler’s dreams of world domination and we are lucky to be living in a world very different from Europe in the 1930s. But the Russian president has stated repeatedly is that he considers the end of the Soviet Union to have been the greatest tragedy in recent Russian history and that he does not consider the status quo to be definitive. In his view there remain outstanding injustices that it is legitimate for Russia to put right on its own terms.
This extends to “solving” the problems of neighbouring sovereign states. In this light, it is hardly surprising that parallels can be found with the way that Germany behaved towards Czechoslovakia in 1938. Like Czechoslovakia, Ukraine has been deprived of one of the basic rights of any sovereign state, the right to seek its own solutions to its own problems. In Czechoslovakia, it was not just the Sudetenland that was at stake. In Ukraine it is not just the Crimea.
David Vaughan is a broadcaster, journalist and university lecturer. He is author of the book “Battle for the Airwaves” on the role of the media in the Munich Crisis. For eight years he was editor-in-chief of Radio Prague, the international service of Czech Radio, and prior to that he was the Prague correspondent of the BBC, travelling widely in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine.