The Munich crisis, 75 years ago, through the eyes of cartoonists

The Allies’ sacrifice of Czechoslovakia, followed by a weak response to Kristallnacht, helped convince Hitler there would be no real effort to stop him.

By CRAIG YOE
September 15, 2013 04:36
3 minute read.
AMERICA’S CARTOONISTS confront the Nazis

AMERICA’S CARTOONISTS confront the Nazis370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.

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Hitler sought a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia.

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 “self-determination.”

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 order.”

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 Courier-Journal, 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Britain and France had been Czechoslovakia’s allies, but their fear of being drawn into a war with Germany quickly superseded their friendship with Prague.



By the 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 even invited.

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 Holocaust.

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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