Poland Joined Hitler in Dismembering Czechoslovakia

It’s widely known that Hitler and Stalin dismembered Poland in 1939. Little known is that, a year earlier, Poland had joined Hitler in dismembering Czechoslovakia.

This ironic bit of historical trivia appears in Volume One of The Illustrated World War II Encyclopedia. Hardly a work of conspiracist revisionism [see its credits at the bottom of this article], its recounting of Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia is well known, apart from the details concerning Hungary and Poland's roles.

According to the Encyclopedia, in May 1938, Hitler mobilized his military to annex Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking Sudetenland. When Britain, France, and the USSR threatened war, Hitler backed down, but continued pressing the issue. On September 15, Britain’s Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler to discuss a peaceful solution. On September 22, Chamberlain agreed to allow Hitler to annex the Sudetenland but refused to permit immediate entry for German troops, thus Hitler remained dissatisfied. On September 23, Czechoslovakia mobilized its military and war looked imminent.

Then Poland made its move. On September 27, seeing Czechoslovakia in crisis as Germany prepared to invade, Poland issued an ultimatum demanding that Czechoslovakia cede its Tesin (Teschen) district.

On September 29, France, Britain, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement. This allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland in exchange for him agreeing to "guarantee" Czechoslovakia’s borders – but only after Poland and Hungary (which by now had joined in) had taken their shares.

The Encyclopedia reports: "As Article 1 of the [Munich] agreement put it, u2018when the question of the Polish and Hungarian minorities in Czechoslovakia has been settled, Germany and Italy will each give a similar guarantee to Czechoslovakia'. Poland had been first to share in the spoils. After an ultimatum from Warsaw on September 27, 1938, Czechoslovakia had ceded to Poland the district of Tesin (Teschen) – an area of some 625 square miles with a population of 230,000 people."

Returning in Britain, Chamberlain made his famous "peace in our time" statement while waving the Munich Agreement. Today, many people know that the Agreement gave Czech territory to Germany; few know that it also gave Czech territory to Hungary and Poland.

After Poland annexed Czechoslovakia's Tesin district, Hungary took some of Czechoslovakia's Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia region, claiming that it had been stolen from Hungary after World War One by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

If Czechoslovakia appears to have rolled over without a fight, it was partly because, even as it was being dismembered, it was contending with secessionist demands from its Slovakian region. To appease its Slovak citizens, Czechoslovakia agreed to grant more autonomy to Slovakia, and to hyphenate the country’s name, so it became Czecho-Slovakia.

Abandoned by its allies and threatened with civil war, the Prague government hoped that Germany, Hungary, and Poland would be satisfied with their immediate territorial demands. The Encyclopedia reports that: "Having appeased the Polish and Hungarian demands in accordance with the Munich Agreement, Czecho-Slovakia was now entitled to ask for the promised guarantees from Italy and Germany. On November 5, Chvalkovsky raised the point in a discussion with Dr. Hencke, German charge d'affaires in Prague, only to be dismissed with the reply: u2018The question of the guarantee will not arise until the new frontiers have been defined in detail by the commissions.'"

But instead of guaranteeing the new borders, Hitler took advantage of Czecho-Slovakia's internal divisions. He encouraged Slovakia to declare independence, so that he could more easily take the remaining Czech region. As enticement, in March 1939, Hitler promised Slovakia that if it declared independence, he would protect it – from Hungary and Poland.

The Encyclopedia states that Hitler gave Slovakia a choice: "[O]n one hand, the autonomous Slovak Government could continue to exist according to the statute granted to it in the previous autumn by the Prague Government – in which case Germany would settle accounts with the Czechs and leave the Slovaks to the mercies of Poland and Hungary. Alternatively, if Slovakia demanded immediate independence from Prague, the Reich would offer all-powerful protection to the new state, and would shield her from the territorial greed of Warsaw and Budapest."

Most of us know the fallout. Hitler annexed the remaining Czech region. Slovakia won its independence, only to be reunited with the Czechs under Communism, then seceded again after Communism's collapse.

After the USSR was cut out of the Munich Agreement by its French and British allies, Stalin, always paranoid and now distrusting France and Britain more than ever, did his own about-face and signed the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler.

Less than a year after taking its piece of Czechoslovakia, Poland was conquered by Hitler and Stalin. To this day, Russia has not returned much of the territory it took from Poland during World War Two.

Were Poland or Hungary's claims to Czechoslovakian territory valid? I truly don't know. But in any event, I do think it makes for an interesting and ironic bit of historical trivia.

August 16, 2003