Episode 14. How Adolf Hitler turned to be a “defiant aggressor” (II)

Part I

As we recall, the promises made to Czechoslovakia by both the West and by Hitler himself would not be valid if that country collapsed.  This meant that in order to ensure a peaceful handover to the Fuhrer, “irreconcilable” conflicts needed to quickly flare up that would lead to a schism.  And so Czechoslovakia was “suddenly” engulfed by a separatist movement.  And after the residents of the Sudetenland were transferred to Germany, the Slovaks were immediately seized with a passion for independence.[1]

Historical map of Czechoslovakia in 1918-1992. Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia is marked in the Eastern part of the country.
Historical map of Czechoslovakia in 1918-1992. Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia is marked in the Eastern part of the country.

The government in Prague promised to grant the Slovaks autonomy, and that promise was fulfilled.  On November 19, 1938, a new constitutional law was adopted, officially recognizing the autonomy of Slovakia and … Transcarpathian Ruthenia … which was a section of Slovakia inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians.   This was the territory Hitler could seize in order to spark a conflict with the USSR.

The German press, which had only recently been hotly indignant about the ignominies suffered by the Sudenten Germans at the hands of the Czechs, now shed tears about the fate of the poor Slovaks.  The leaders of the separatist movement, Jozef Tiso and Ferdinand Ďurčanský, made a public appeal to Hitler, requesting protection from their Czech “oppressors.”  The rulers of Transcarpathian Ruthenia initiated similar actions at the same time, and a government was formed there that proclaimed the independence of its own country.  The disintegration of Czechoslovakia was at that point an accomplished fact, and all proceeded in accordance with the prearranged plan.  Slovakia announced its independence and withdrew from the country, and Ukrainian Transcarpathia withdrew from Slovakia itself in the exact same manner.  They both then turned to the Fuhrer, asking for protection of their young states, and as a result, Slovakia and Transcarpathian Ruthenia were then incorporated, in one form or another, into the Third Reich.[2]

The remnants of the Czech lands themselves were also acquired by Germany with equally little loss of blood.  The result was intended to be a solid launching pad for future aggression against the USSR:

• the new boundaries of the Reich now butted directly up against the borders of Soviet Ukraine, facing only a narrow (140-150 km.) strip of Polish territory.[3]

• unlimited numbers of German troops could be concentrated within lands controlled by the Reich, even if those areas had only recently been acquired.

• a very cozy situation was created, in which the USSR was able to watch German troops preparing for aggression, but could take no proactive measures without violating the sovereignty of Poland.

After the troops had been deployed and trained, all that would have been required was a pretext for war, which Hitler could easily have obtained from the Ukrainian nationalists.  The “Soviet” part of Ukraine, crying out from under its yoke, could appeal to the Fuhrer with a request to be rescued from the Bolsheviks.  This would be especially simple if the Reich created a kind of internal protectorate or administrative unit named “Ukraine,” which could later absorb the remaining part.  Thus there were many options, but all required, first and foremost, the annexation of Transcarpathian Ruthenia and Slovakia to the Reich.  This was the main thing that Hitler had to do.

But what did he do in reality?  During a visit to the German capital on March 13, 1939, Jozef Tiso, the leader of the Slovak nationalists, was instructed to convene an emergency meeting of the Slovak parliament and to declare Slovakia’s independence.   The next day, the Slovak prime minister read this statement aloud in parliament and firmly silenced the few deputies who attempted to discuss the issue.  Thus, on March 14, 1939, an independent Slovakia was born.  In keeping with the script, the new state immediately appealed to Germany with a request to be placed under its protection.  On the same day, Emil Hácha, the president of the collapsed state of Czechoslovakia, arrived in Berlin.

Emil Hacha meeting with Adolf Hitler, Berlin, March 14, 1939
Emil Hacha meeting with Adolf Hitler, Berlin, March 14, 1939

In books written about the German Fuhrer one can read how the evil Hitler forced the Czech president, who suffered from a heart ailment, to surrender his country to the Germans.  These writers want to instill the impression in their readers that the leadership of Czechoslovakia did not approve of this step.   But in reality everything proceeded in a peaceful and orderly manner.  Mr. Hácha came to Berlin on his own initiative, which had been announced back on March 13, i.e., before the Slovaks’ declaration of independence.[4]  The train carrying the Czech president arrived in the German capital at 10:40 pm.  Hácha was in Hitler’s office by about 1:15 am.  And he talked.  But one would be quite wrong to assume that the leitmotif of his speech consisted of an attempt to preserve the freedom of his people.  Hácha was reduced to claiming that he had often wondered whether Czechoslovakia should remain independent at all?!  And then he expressed his firm conviction that the destiny of his country lay entirely in the Fuhrer’s hands, and as such, he was reassured as to its safekeeping.[5]

After President Hácha placed the fate of the Czech nation in Adolf Hitler’s hands, the Fuhrer lost his composure.  He was engulfed by a storm of emotion.  “He burst into his secretaries’ room and invited them to kiss him.  ‘Children,’ he declared, ‘This is the greatest day of my life.  I shall go down in history as the greatest German of the age…’”[6]

It is important to grasp one interesting fact that lay behind Hitler’s joy.  The Czech president, Hácha, requested that the Czech lands be taken under the protection of the Third Reich, resulting in the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within the Nazi state!  This was the same request made by the Slovak leader, Jozef Tiso.  Hitler needed only one day, or, more precisely, one night to resolve the Czech question.  But Hitler did not consent to the Slovaks’ petition until March 16.  Even assuming that he wanted to first clarify the situation pertaining to the Czech part of that disbanded country, some unusual actions on the part of the German leader can still be observed in the way he determined Slovakia’s fate.  Although he typically acted decisively and at Blitzkrieg speed, in this case, instead of rapidly annexing Slovakia, Hitler seems to have been dawdling, wanting to prolong the uncertainty surrounding her status.

Indeed, even after agreeing to Bratislava’s request on March 16, there was still no final clarification as to the legal position of the new Slovak state.   Instead of summoning the Slovak leaders to Berlin and signing the necessary papers, on March 18 Hitler left Berlin for Vienna.[7]   Ribbentrop and the Slovak minister of foreign affairs, Vojtech Tuka, did not sign the “Protection Treaty” between Slovakia and the Reich until March 23 in Berlin.[8]

Thus, it was not until midday on March 23 that Britain and France learned that Slovakia would not join the Third Reich.

For nine (!) whole days, Hitler had carefully maintained the illusion that the Slovaks would be incorporated.  Why did he deliberately cause this delay?  Because he had decided to hold negotiations without his Western partners.  During the second Czech crisis, Hitler, along with the British and French, arranged for a takeover of the Czech lands, Slovakia, and, naturally, Transcarpathian Ruthenia.   But in the end Hitler only annexed the Czech territories to the Third Reich.  Neither Slovakia nor Transcarpathian Ruthenia were joined to Germany.   It turns out that the German state had strengthened itself yet again and would have obtained no benefit from planning aggression against Russia.

stalin 1940Let us recall what Stalin said on March 10, 1939: “One might think that the Germans had been given those regions of Czechoslovakia as the price of their commitment to launch a war against the Soviet Union, and now the Germans are not only refusing to pay the bill, they have made it clear exactly what the West can do with it.”  Thus, four days before Slovakia declared its independence (March 14), the Soviet leader prophesied Adolf Hitler’s actions and judged them with 100% accuracy!

During the night of March 15, 1939, German troops crossed into Czechoslovakia.  They occupied the entire failed state – with the exception of Transcarpathian Ruthenia!  Instead of pushing the border of the Reich right up against the boundaries of the USSR, Germany used the independent territories of Slovakia and Hungary (who had been presented with Transcarpathia) as a buffer between itself and Russia!

British and French political circles considered Hitler’s decision of March 15 to have been a fatal error – or so write the majority of historians and contemporaries.   But none of them want to think about the true meaning hidden in this phrase.

It is a paradox of history that when Adolf Hitler was fighting in Spain, harassing the Jews, and measuring the skulls of his own citizens, he was considered a respectable politician by the West. But as soon as he decided not to attack the Soviet Union and refused to appropriate the Carpathians, he was immediately seen as a “defiant aggressor.”
It is a paradox of history that when Adolf Hitler was fighting in Spain, harassing the Jews, and measuring the skulls of his own citizens, he was considered a respectable politician by the West. But as soon as he decided not to attack the Soviet Union and refused to appropriate the Carpathians, he was immediately seen as a “defiant aggressor.”

The West would take a hard line against Germany, not because of the incorporation of the Czech lands into the Reich, but because of the “non-incorporation” of Slovakia and the “non-seizure” of Transcarpathian Ruthenia!  This negated the plans for quickly launching German hostilities against the USSR.   This was not the purpose for which Nazism had been so carefully cultivated, nor why Hitler had been given the Olympics and assisted in his battles in Spain, a blind eye had been turned to his rearmament, and entire nations and peoples had been surrendered to him so that Germany would grow in strength and power.[9]

 To be continued…

ENDNOTES

[1] When a common government for those two fraternal peoples was created out of the ashes of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of October 1918, no one could have guessed that twenty years later the Slovaks would want to sever themselves from the Czechs.   Under the Habsburg monarchy, the Czech lands were part of Austria while Slovakia was part of Hungary.   Having torn themselves asunder from their historical “oppressors,” the Czechs and Slovaks at that time declared Czechoslovakia to be a united, indivisible republic.

[2] Because Adolf Hitler violated the planned agreements, their exact contents have remained “off the record.”  Possibly Slovakia was to remain independent and the plan was to draw only Transcarpathian Ruthenia in the Reich.  However, in terms of troop deployments, it would be easier to take Bratislava as well.

[3] Thanks to the Soviet victory in World War II Slovakia currently shares a border with Ukraine.

[4] Shirer, William.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Pg. 443.

[5] Ribbentrop, Joachim.  The Ribbentrop Memoirs.  London, 1954.

[6] Cited in the book: Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Pg. 596.  (Incidentally, we should note that Adolf Hitler was in no way being immodest at that moment.  He was merely parroting headlines from the British press, which were quoting their own prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, who had called the Fuhrer the “greatest German of the age.” [Preparata, Guido Giacomo. Conjuring Hitler. How Britain and America Made the Third Reich. Pg. 237.])

[7]Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Pg. 596.

[8] Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Pg. 449.

[9] In truth, Hitler actually duped everyone: he annexed Bohemia and Moravia, economically subjugated Slovakia, and presented Hungary with a gift.  France lost face as well as an important ally.  Now Czech workers were sent off to work within the Reich – 40,000 of them by June 1, 1939.  As a result, an equal number of German workers could then don military uniforms and go off to serve in the three Wehrmacht tank divisions that were equipped with Czech tanks and trucks.

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