WWII historian's new book views Munich agreement through Czech eyes

The Bell of Treason should command the attention of anyone interested in the origins of World War II.

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper he and Hitler signed committing to peaceful methods, on his return to London from Munich September 30, 1938. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Neville Chamberlain holds the paper he and Hitler signed committing to peaceful methods, on his return to London from Munich September 30, 1938.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera asks whether the Czechs should have fought against the Nazis in 1938, or surrendered control of their country after England and France abandoned them at Munich. If Czech history could be repeated, Kundera suggests, the counter-factual hypothesis could be tested. Without such an experiment, only a game of hypotheses remains: “Einmal is keinmal. What happens once might as well not have happened at all. History is light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling in the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.”
In The Bell of Treason, P.E. Caquet, an international historian and senior member of Hughes Hall, Cambridge University, takes a stab at the what-ifs surrounding the infamous agreement at Munich. Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined sources and his fluency in English, Czech, Slovak, French and German, Caquet examines the crisis through Czech eyes and endorses Winston Churchill’s assessment of prime minister Neville Chamberlain: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” A war that could have been won much more easily had it begun in 1938.
The contours of Caquet’s argument – England and France could have stopped Hitler in his tracks in 1938 – will be familiar to many readers. And, at times, Caquet puts his thumb on the scale to bolster his thesis. That said, The Bell of Treason should command the attention of anyone interested in the origins of World War II.
Again and again, Caquet reminds us, Neville Chamberlain and French prime minister Edouard Daladier pressured Czechoslovakia’s president Edvard Beneš to cede sovereignty over the Sudetenland to Germany. With good reason, Caquet suggests, Hubert Masarik, counselor at the Foreign Ministry, described the British prime minister as “that asparagus with a long neck and bird head... [who] was visibly intoxicated by the idea of having prevented war,” and the French premier as “the only one to appreciate the stakes,” who “appeared despondent at the role he was made to play.”
Caquet disputes the claims of “apologists for appeasement” that public opinion in England and France was unprepared for war. The shadow of World War I, “sheer relief at not having to fight,” and the apparently triumphant conclusion of Chamberlain’s shuttle diplomacy, he maintains, account for the support for Munich in public opinion polls. Fair enough, but Caquet cites no evidence of an appetite in either country for a war to defend Czechoslovakia. And, after documenting the determination of Czech officers and enlisted men “to go to war, whatever the consequences might be,” Caquet allows himself to speculate that “perhaps, moved by the spectacle of the brave but doomed Czechoslovak resistance and revolted at the sight of Nazi atrocities, the French and British publics would have risen in favor of war and carried their governments with them.”
Caquet’s most potent argument, borrowed as well from Winston Churchill, is that in 1938 the Allies were in a much stronger military position than Germany. By virtually every measure, including the number of soldiers, ammunition, tanks and aircraft, he reveals, the combined armed forces of England, France and Czechoslovakia greatly exceeded those available to be deployed by the Nazis.
In 1938, Germany was only about halfway through its rearmament initiative, and remained somewhat constrained by restrictions in the Treaty of Versailles. France and Czechoslovakia alone could produce twice as many armored divisions than the Reich, following a general mobilization. German supplies of oil, iron and aviation lubricants sufficed for three months or less. German construction of battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines had just begun. German bombers lacked the range to effectively bomb Britain. And in 1938, Caquet points out, with Czechoslovakian forces on high alert, Germany could not launch a surprise attack. That the Allies did not call Hitler’s bluff and go to war, he implies, resulted from a lack of political will and not inferior military might.
The Bell of Treason concludes with some provocative observations about the lessons which Munich teaches about the ambiguities embedded in the concept of self-determination of ethnic and racial groups. The flowers thrown at Hitler’s troops in the Sudetenland, Caquet maintains, do not prove that a majority of its citizens wanted to be annexed. Self-determination, he adds, can, and often does, come at the cost of regional and global stability.
And self-determination begs the question of minority rights. After Munich, the Nazis eliminated civil rights protections for non-Germans. They closed newspapers, restricted radio programming, and punished conversations conducted in the Czech language. Kristallnacht began in the Sudetenland. Synagogues were desecrated and destroyed; Jewish homes and businesses attacked and seized. Caquet estimates that about half of the 40,000 Jews living in the Sudetenland got out. Thousands more, including Max Brod, the editor and friend of Franz Kafka, scrambled to leave what remained of Czechoslovakia.
“The tragedy of Munich,” Caquet writes, “rested ultimately in an inability to communicate the right message, an almost nightmarish powerlessness to get through what the Czechoslovaks knew to be the situation”: the nature of the Nazi regime, Hitler’s ultimate ambitions, and his exploitation of the complicated concept of the self-determination of people. 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The Bell of Treason: The 1938 Munich Agreement in Czechoslovakia
By P.E. Caquet
Other Press
287 pages; $27.99