Seventy-five years ago this month, Adolf Hitler provoked his first major
international diplomatic crisis.
It would ultimately help pave the way
for World War II and the Holocaust.
Hitler sought a pretext to invade
Throughout 1938, the German government-controlled news
media published a flood of wildly exaggerated accounts of the Czech authorities
supposedly persecuting ethnic Germans who were living in the western border
region known as the Sudetenland. (Because of the redrawing of the region’s
borders after World War I, there were more than three million ethnic Germans
residing in Czechoslovakia, constituting about one-fourth of the population.) At
the same time, pro-Nazi Sudeten Germans staged violent demonstrations, claiming
they were victims of “discrimination” and demanding
Matters reached a boiling point in early September,
as the Nazis financed a wave of mob violence by Sudeten Germans, including
attacks on local Jews. Hitler then began threatening to intervene to “restore
In the American press, a number of political cartoonists drew
attention to the spiraling crisis. Some focused on Hitler’s hypocrisy. Jerry
Doyle of The Philadelphia Record
, for example, depicted the German dictator
brutalizing Austria, Czechoslovakia and Jews, even as he pointed an accusing
finger at Czech president Edvard Benes. Likewise, Grover Page, in The Louisville
, and George White, in The Tampa Tribune
, emphasized the
absurdity of the Nazis complaining about alleged mistreatment of Sudeten Germans
while they themselves were persecuting German Jews.
Great Britain and
France had been Czechoslovakia’s allies, but their fear of being drawn into a
war with Germany quickly superseded their friendship with Prague.
summer of 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his French
counterpart, Edouard Daladier, were pressing Czech president Benes to make
territorial concessions to Hitler.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while
not endorsing any specific plan, repeatedly urged the parties to reach a
negotiated solution. In practical terms, that would mean ceding part of
Czechoslovakia to Hitler.
In late September, with Hitler seemingly on the
brink of invading Czechoslovakia, the British and French prime ministers rushed
to Munich for a late-night conference with the Nazi chief. The Czechs were not
Chamberlain and Daladier quickly gave in to Hitler’s
demands, agreeing that all Czech regions where the population was more than 50
percent ethnic German should be transferred to Germany. Abandoned by their
allies, the desperate Czechs went along with what Chamberlain called “peace in
our time.” In Washington, President Roosevelt said he “rejoiced” that a
diplomatic solution had been achieved.
America’s cartoonists were not
quite so starry-eyed. In two consecutive cartoons in the Daily Oklahoman,
Charles Werner (who would win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning the
following year) mocked the British and French for sacrificing Czechoslovakia on
the altar of an illusory peace. Rollin Kirby (himself a three-time Pulitzer
winner), in the New York World-Telegram, invoked Christianity’s most poignant
symbol to skewer the abandonment of the Czechs.
The title of Werner’s
cartoon asked how long appeasement would keep the Germans quiet. The answer: not
very. Just six weeks later, the Nazis unleashed the nationwide Kristallnacht
pogrom against Germany’s Jews. And once again, the international community
failed to mount a meaningful response: not a single country ended diplomatic or
economic ties with Germany.
The Allies’ sacrifice of Czechoslovakia,
followed by their weak response to Kristallnacht, helped convince Hitler there
would be no real effort to stop him. In the spring of 1939, the Germans took
over the rest of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. The West did not respond.
An emboldened Hitler prepared to plunge the world into war and unleash the
Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David
S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
Craig Yoe, a leading
comics historian and publisher, is the former creative director for Jim Henson’s
Muppets and Nickelodeon TV. This feature is based on their forthcoming book,
Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.
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