The Czech crisis and the New Statesman

Throughout the 1930s, the <em>New Statesman</em> upheld a principled resistance to Nazi Germany. It

The New Statesman and Nation

27 August 1938

The situation in Central Europe grows worse and the gravest fears are now entertained about Germany's intentions. In a complicated, desperate situation there are two outstanding factors. First, few people in Germany, and perhaps not even the Nazi leaders themselves, believe that an attack on Czechoslovakia would be the signal for a world war. Hitler would like to crush the Czechs, but he certainly does not wish to fight Britain and France. Therefore the most urgent necessity is for Berlin to realise the overwhelming danger of European war in the event of an armed attack on Czechoslovakia.

The other essential is for us to realise that no threat can restore Czech authority in the Sudeten areas. With 75 million Germans just over the frontier the Czechs cannot take strong measures; they cannot even prevent the Sudeten Germans terrorising and suppressing the minority of German Socialists. No policy, however well meant, of concessions here and there materially affects the situation. If Hitler agrees to accept a solution within Czechoslovakia, it may still be possible, if the Czechs make an imaginative offer of partnership to the Sudeten Germans, to reconcile them to the existing frontiers. But if Lord Runciman reports that this is impossible, the question of frontier revision, difficult though it is, should at once be tackled. The strategical value of the Bohemian frontier should not be made the occasion of a world war. We should not guarantee the status quo.

Czechoslovakia is now almost surrounded by enemies, for though Hungary has undertaken not to attack Czechoslovakia, no one believes that Hungary would be more friendly or less avaricious than Poland in the event of a German attack. The USSR will not make any move unless France moves, and the French could do little to help the Czechs, though French mobilisation could force Hitler to place a large part of his army on the western front.

Mobilisation would almost certainly lead to general war. Nothing we or anyone else could do would save Czechoslovakia from destruction; it would be a question of a counter-attack on Germany. The extraordinary difficulty of the situation arises, of course, from the Nazi mentality. People who know of Hitler's certainly sincere desire for our neutrality must be made aware by a score of incidents, such as the glorification of the murderers of Dollfuss [Austrian chancellor killed in 1934] and the coming trial of Schuschnigg [Austrian chancellor at the time of the April 1938 Anschluss with Germany], that the democracies are confronted by a Power which cares little for the usual conventions of civilised behaviour. Schuschnigg's trial is in itself, compared to the barbarities of Fascism, the smallest of incidents, but it is significant that the head of a state who did no more than attempt to maintain its integrity should be tried for "treason" towards Germany. On this reasoning Dr Benes [the Czech president] is, of course, an arch-traitor, and Mr Chamberlain may soon be forced into the same category. It is a more dangerous and difficult situation than that of August, 1914.

24 September 1938

The tragedy is not yet finished. As we go to press, a new Czech Government has replaced that of Dr Hodza [the Czech prime minister], and it is impossible to prophesy whether Hitler will find a pretext for an armed invasion. Up till Wednesday afternoon the Czech people stood resolute and calm, still clinging to the hope that France would honour her obligations in the event of invasion. The final message was that unless they surrendered immediately France would give Germany a free hand. Surrounded by the troops of Germany, Poland and Hungary, the Prague Government had no alternative but to surrender or fight alone. Dr Benes announced his submission in a most moving message in which he declared that "We shall not attempt to throw the blame where it belongs, but leave that to the judgment of history."

We may yet see Hitler invading Czechoslovakia to put down "Bolshevism" with the approval of the British and French Governments. But whether he thinks it wise to destroy Czechoslovakia immediately or permit a nominally independent remnant to remain until a more convenient time, the ultimate result must be the same. The destruction of this last refuge of democracy and freedom east of the Rhine is not to be contemplated without horror and shame.

The consequences of this tragedy are far-reaching. Britain and France may have purchased a few months of uneasy peace. Germany's purpose is the absorption or domination of all South-East Europe to the Mediterranean. If Franco and Mussolini are to be helped to victory as well as Hitler, isolated France will be no more able to defend herself than isolated Czechoslovakia. We need not speculate on the future of an isolated Britain. Continual surrender to every threat of force means the end of freedom, security and of civilised values. If we continue to accept our present rulers, we are condemned to live under the domination of the great God Fear. But the people of England have not yet spoken.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food