During the fateful year 1938, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler took the first two steps in his Drang nach Osten, or drive to the east, by annexing Austria and the predominantly German sections of Czechoslovakia. In order to win Italian support, Hitler had promised to respect Austrian independence and to refrain from interfering in the small republic's internal politics. At heart, though, he had never really abandoned his hope of uniting the land of his birth with his adopted fatherland, a feeling reciprocated by some Austrians. (Indeed, at the end of World War I, Austria asked to be united with Germany, but subsequently this was expressly forbidden in the Treaty of Versailles.) By early 1938 Hitler felt strong enough to cast his promises to the winds.
In February he summoned Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian chancellor, to a conference at Berchtesgaden, the führer's mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps, and demanded the admission of prominent Austrian Nazis to the cabinet. Schuschnigg complied but called for an immediate plebiscite, which he felt certain would demonstrate popular opposition to union with Germany. The Nazis were apparently of the same opinion, for they at once demanded the resignation of Schuschnigg and a postponement of the plebiscite, threatening invasion by German troops as the alternative. Schuschnigg resigned on 11 March. His successor as chancellor, the Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart, immediately called in the Wehrmacht, allegedly to suppress disorders in Austria. On 12 March the German government proclaimed Austria to be a state of the German Reich, and two days later Hitler entered Vienna amid a great show of rejoicing. Anschluss was complete. France and Great Britain protested, but since neither had an interest sufficiently vital to go to war to prevent this action, no one raised a hand in resistance.
Hitler next turned to "rescue" what he termed the "tortured and oppressed" Germans of Czechoslovakia, in point of fact the most democratic state of Central Europe. Of Czechoslovakia's 14 million people, about 3.5 million were Germans. These lived for the most part in the Sudeten area that fringed the western end of the republic, facing German territory to the north, west, and south. The Sudeten Germans, comprising just one of numerous ethnic minorities in Czechoslovakia, had shown little dissatisfaction with their government until 1932, when the Nazi movement first gained some strength among them. From then until 1938, the Sudeten Nazis, led by Konrad Henlein, kept up a growing agitation, first for complete cultural and political autonomy within Czechoslovakia and finally for union with Nazi Germany.
The Czechoslovak government made a succession of compromise offers, but these were one by one rejected by Henlein, who consulted Hitler at each step. By September 1938 it was evident that nothing less than cession of the Sudetenland to Germany would satisfy the führer. The Czechoslovak government did not propose to yield to dismemberment without putting up a fight. It had a relatively efficient army and a defensible frontier. It also had defensive alliances with France and Soviet Russia. If it were attacked by Germany, and if its allies fulfilled their solemn obligations, a general European war was certain. This would, in all probability, involve England also.
In an effort to find a peaceful settlement for the Sudeten problem, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain paid two visits to Hitler, at Berchtesgaden and at Godesberg, on the Rhine a few miles above Cologne. In the first (15 September 1938) Chamberlain ascertained that the führer would take nothing less than surrender of the Sudetenland to Germany. In the second, a week later, he submitted to Hitler a plan for the prompt and peaceful transfer to Germany of the areas of Czechoslovakia with populations more than 50 percent German, the fixing of the new frontier by an international commission, and an international guarantee of the independence of a Czechoslovakia shorn of these important segments of its territory and population. The Prague government agreed to these terms under combined and relentless British and French pressure.
To Chamberlain's consternation, Hitler rejected this proposal as too slow. Instead he demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Czech military and official civilian personnel from areas that he specified, with plebiscites to follow in other areas where the percentage of German population was doubtful. German troops, he warned, would occupy the specified areas on 1 October, whether or not Czechoslovakia accepted his ultimatum.
Czechoslovakia at once rejected this proposal and mobilized its army of 1.5 million men. France followed with partial mobilization, as did Belgium. France and Britain made it clear that they would assist Czechoslovakia if it were attacked, while Italy announced its intention of standing by its Axis partner. The threat of war was real.