Publication Date: Sep 24, 2019
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Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined material, this staggering account sheds new light on the Allies’ responsibility for a landmark agreement that had dire consequences.
On returning from Germany on September 30, 1938, after signing an agreement with Hitler on the carve-up of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain addressed the British crowds: “My good friends…I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Winston Churchill rejoined: “You have chosen dishonor and you will have war.”
P. E. Caquet’s history of the events leading to the Munich Agreement and its aftermath is told for the first time from the point of view of the peoples of Czechoslovakia. Basing his work on previously unexamined sources, including press, memoirs, private journals, army plans, cabinet records, and radio, Caquet presents one of the most shameful episodes in modern European history. Among his most explosive revelations is the strength of the French and Czechoslovak forces before Munich; Germany’s dominance turns out to have been an illusion. The case for appeasement never existed.
The result is a nail-biting story of diplomatic intrigue, perhaps the nearest thing to a morality play that history ever furnishes. The Czechoslovak authorities were Cassandras in their own country, the only ones who could see Hitler’s threat for what it was, and appeasement as the disaster it proved to be. In Caquet’s devastating account, their doomed struggle against extinction and the complacency of their notional allies finally gets the memorial it deserves.
Excerpt from The Bell of Treason
The night before the invasion, at a reception at the “airmen’s house,” Goering had taken the Czechoslovak ambassador, Vojtech Mastný, aside and assured him that “Germany has no unfriendly intentions towards Czechoslovakia and that, on the contrary, after the completion of the Anschluss, it expects an improvement in relations with it—as long as you don’t mobilize.” Goering threw in his “word of honor” and, for good measure, Hitler’s as well. Such assurances were repeated by the German ambassador in Prague and the newly appointed foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop’s predecessor, Konstantin von Neurath, even took the trouble to confirm that Germany still considered the 1925 Locarno arbitrage treaty as valid—
interesting in the light of future developments, as the Czechoslovaks would only be ridiculed when they tried to invoke it a few months later
In Prague, though, no one rejoiced. Mastný himself was unimpressed, and neither was anyone fooled at the foreign ministry. The shock of Hitler’s February 20 speech, in which he had lumped Austria and Czechoslovakia together, was all too fresh and Nazi hostility too longstanding for Goering’s sudden bonhomie to convince. As was well understood, the Nazis were anxious lest a Czechoslovak mobilization derail their assault on Austria, either by encouraging international resistance to it or simply by throwing a spanner in a military exercise that was not going as smoothly as they liked to pretend. Italy, once the protector of Viennese independence, had furthermore become acquiescent in and even supportive of German expansionism. The Czechoslovak border system of defensive bunkers, finally, now lacked a strong enough section on the south side against the old Austrian frontier.
It was clear to all that Czechoslovakia was only more exposed, and that it was next on the list.
“The definitive history of a disgraceful event. A book both insightful and painful to read.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Accessible and well-written…an intelligent and valuable addition to WWII history.” —Publishers Weekly
“Caquet’s powerful argument on the actions of the British and French in this crisis is strengthened by his points on Czechoslovakia itself…a moving account.” —Dublin Review of Books
“Caquet revisits luminously one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of history. Carefully documenting every detail, but in white-hot language, he shows how Britain and France let slip at Munich in September 1938 their best chance of stopping Hitler. We see the Sudetenland crisis afresh through Czech eyes, and can measure at last the tragedy of that lively small country’s betrayal.” —Robert O. Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism
“The disastrous 1938 Munich conference eighty years ago is usually seen from the vantage point of the victorious Hitler or the supine Anglo-French. Caquet’s superb new account restores agency and subjectivity to the Czechoslovaks. Grippingly written with an eye for drama and dialogue, this book shows how close they came to resisting and just how traumatic the outcome was, not only for them but for the German democrats handed over to the Third Reich.” —Brendan Simms, author of Britain’s Europe
“What strikes the modern reader is how this is so much more than mere history—it is a frightening exploration of dangers that we see in the world today: fake news, lying politicians, and narrow-minded nationalisms all conspiring to threaten what is decent and open and honest. In this respect The Bell of Treason is more than compelling reading: it is essential.” —Simon Mawer, author of The Glass Room