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The Munich agreement: 'Peace for our time'?

Neville Chamberlain announcing Britain's declaration of war against Germany

In the very early hours of the morning of the 30th of September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini signed an agreement. It gave Nazi Germany carte blanche to carve up significant chunks of Czechoslovakian territory containing the bulk of the country’s industry and most of its defences.

The Munich Agreement, far from being a pathway to peace, was in fact just a stepping stone on the road to the deadliest conflict in human history.

Daladier and Chamberlain hoped that the so-called ‘Munich Agreement’ would slake Hitler’s expansionist thirst and deliver peace in Europe for a generation or more. So sure was Chamberlain that he had secured peace on the continent, he flew back to Britain that same day and triumphantly – and famously - waved the agreement in the air for the waiting cameras at Heston Aerodrome. He later declared on the steps of Downing Street that he and his French counterpart had delivered ‘peace for our time’.

Of course, things didn’t go quite to plan. Hitler broke the agreement and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, forcing the French and the British to draw a line in the sand that was crossed when the Führer began his brutal invasion of Poland in 1939. The Munich Agreement, far from being a pathway to peace, was in fact just a stepping stone on the road to the deadliest conflict in human history.

But what if that line in the sand had never been drawn? What if Britain and France had come to the conclusion that they had nothing to gain from protecting Central Europe, and instead of declaring war, had let Hitler have his way?

It’s an intriguing question. With Britain and France watching on from the sidelines, what might have happened?

History would certainly have been very different. With Czechoslovakia and Poland vanquished, Hitler would have been free to pursue his ultimate goal – a war against the Soviet Union and its tyrannical leader, Joseph Stalin.

Stalin would have been either caught and executed or fled over the Ural Mountains.

In this alternative version of history, this would have been a war the woefully unprepared Soviet Union could not have hoped to win. Moscow would have likely suffered the fate of Warsaw in 1944 - reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. Stalin would have been either caught and executed or fled over the Ural Mountains.

Russia would have ceased to exist west of the Urals, as would, the states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as Nazi Germany consumed them to give Hitler the ‘Lebensraum’ (living space) he had been insisting his country desperately required ever since Mein Kampf was published back in 1925.

Meanwhile, what would have happened to neutral Britain and France? With Hitler and Stalin engaged in a war in the east, the two countries could have devoted the breathing space this would have given them to build up their defences, making them formidable opponents. This defensive strength might well have been enough to put Hitler off the idea of turning his attention westwards after his victory over the Soviets.

So, what would have happened in this alternate reality? It’s likely there would have been no invasions of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark or Norway. There would have been no Dunkirk and no Battle of Britain. No myths of little ships and victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, no standing alone, no finest hours … no Churchill as Prime Minister, even.

With the British, the Dutch and the French having no war to fight on their own doorsteps, would the Japanese have been so bold as to try to take over Britain, France and the Netherlands’ colonies in the Far East? Indeed, would Japan have fancied taking on the USA with European enemies ready for a fight in her backyard? After all, China and the USSR would have presented much softer targets. In this scenario, there is no Pearl Harbor, no Pacific War, no humiliating defeat for the British at Singapore.

In fact, there would have been no need for an isolationist America to get involved at all. And that would have meant no massive build-up of the US’s forces and very possibly no reason for them to become the most powerful military force on earth. Indeed, without Pearl Harbor, would the bomb that wiped the city of Hiroshima off the face of the earth ever have been developed? What, after all, would have been the point?

On the British Homefront, there would have been no evacuations of children, no gas masks, no bomb shelters, no rationing, no Blitz, no Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.

Treasures would not have been so pointlessly lost. Coventry’s magnificent cathedral would have been spared, and the ancient centre of that city would not have been laid to waste. Exeter, a victim of the so-called ‘Baedeker Raids’ would not have lost a sizeable chunk of its once-charming city centre. Hull, Bristol, Plymouth, Belfast, Southampton, Liverpool and a number of other cities would look very different today. Working class areas – built close to industry and therefore especially vulnerable to attack – would not have suffered in the way they did.

Many millions of lives - in the West at least - would have been spared. In the East, of course, it would have been a different story.

London, which received the worst of what the Luftwaffe could throw at the country, would have kept such architectural treasures as the Great Synagogue, Holland House, the Carlton Hotel and a wealth of beautiful churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Nobody would have needed to get lit up when the lights went up in London - as a popular song of the time declared - because those lights would never have been extinguished in the first place, and the blackout curtains would never have been drawn.

On the continent, the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands would not have been razed; the baroque city of Dresden would have been spared the firebombing that ravaged so much of its irreplaceable heritage; even poor Warsaw, a beautiful city purposefully demolished street-by-street by the vengeful Nazis, might well have escaped its terrible fate.

Many millions of lives - in the West at least - would have been spared. In the East, of course, it would have been a different story. The Holocaust would still have happened, such was the Nazis’ monstrous hatred, though the Jews of Western Europe would have escaped the fate of those in Central and Eastern Europe and a conquered USSR. The world would have been spared the heartbreak of Anne Frank, but not the outrage of Auschwitz.

The idea of Britain and France staying out of the war throws up hundreds of questions. Would India have so swiftly departed the British Empire in 1947? Would Europe’s African colonies have been so readily abandoned and left to descend into dictatorship and civil war? Would the State of Israel exist? Would China and the Korean Peninsula now just be colonies of Japan? What now, in 2018, would be the relationship between Western Europe, the USA and the Third Reich?

It’s safe to say our world would be unrecognizable had Britain and France chosen a different path.

Atomic bombs may well have fallen on London and Paris instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of course, none of this came to pass. Hitler wanted his war of conquest in the east, and he was prepared to take a gamble that Britain and France would back away from the idea of another major European conflict so soon after the Great War of 1914-1918. Hitler’s gamble did not pay off, and it was a decision that would eventually lead to Germany’s downfall.

Would the alternative have been better? For western Europe, perhaps yes, but then who’s to say that a triumphant Hitler, fresh from conquering the Soviet Union, would have been able to resist the urge to turn his sights on his co-signers of that fateful agreement? Germany first attempted to make a nuclear weapon in 1939, and there’s nothing to say the country wouldn’t have restarted their nuclear program after the east had been subjugated. Atomic bombs may well have fallen on London and Paris instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Would it have been better to keep out of the war? That rather depends on which side of a very different Iron Curtain you ended up on. Yes, countries such as Britain and France might well have been spared what they ended up enduring in World War II, but the result of their neutrality would have been the Third Reich holding sway over vast swathes of the continent. The concentration camps would still have been built, the ghettos would still have been created, the Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the Slavs and other so-called undesirables would have been cruelly wiped from the face of the earth and whole countries, cultures and histories would have ceased to exist forever.

Would all of that have been a price worth paying to keep hold of the odd cathedral here and the odd colony there? Or was it, with the benefit of hindsight, a good thing that the Munich Agreement turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on?