Lessons from the Sudetenland

A Contribution by Benjamin Netanyahu

History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

[Editor's Note: Forty-nine years ago last month, the nation Israel was reestablished in the Land. Thirty years ago this month, as a result of the famed Six Day War, Israel regained Biblical Jerusalem, as well as Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Although these areas were part of the original mandated land, and are undeniably essential for Israel's defense, it has become strangely "politically correct" to assume that peace in the Middle East is dependent upon their yielding these lands-the so-called "West Bank"-back to their enemies which are openly committed to their eventual extermination.

The strategic dilemma in the Middle East is strikingly parallel to the tragic and painful lessons of Czechoslovakia. The following is presented in the words of Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel.1]

Their Strategic Barrier

Czechoslovakia was strategically placed in the heart of Europe, and its conquest was central to Hitler's plans for overrunning Europe. Though small, Czechoslovakia could field over 800,000 men (one of the strongest armies in Europe), and it had a highly efficient arms industry.

To complicate matters from Hitler's point of view, it possessed a formidable physical barrier to his designs in the shape of the Sudeten mountains, which bordered Germany and guarded the access to the Czech heartland and the capital city of Prague only miles away.

A system of fortifications and fortresses had been built in the mountains over many years, making passage by force a very costly proposition, perhaps even impossible. We now know from the Nuremberg trials and other sources that Hitler's generals were utterly opposed to an assault on the Czech fortifications.

Worse from Hitler's point of view, the Western powers had promised at Versailles to guarantee the Czech border against any aggressive attack. France, which in 1938 could field one hundred divisions (an army 50% larger than Germany's), had agreed in writing to come to the Czech's defense, and Britain and Russia were committed to joining in if France did so.

Propaganda vs. Reality

Since an outright military victory seemed impossible, Hitler embarked on an unprecedented campaign to politically force the Czechs to give up the land, and with it any hope of being able to defend their capital or their country.

The inhabitants of the Sudetenland, Hitler said, were predominantly German, and these three million Sudeten Germans deserved-what else?-the right of self-determination and a destiny separate from the other seven million inhabitants of Czechoslovakia; this despite the fact that the country was a democracy and that the Sudeten Germans enjoyed economic prosperity and full civil rights.

To buttress his claim, Hitler organized and funded the creation of a new Sudeten political leadership that would do his bidding, which was, in the words of Sudeten leader Konrad Henlein, to "demand so much that we can never be satisfied."2

William Shirer, who was a reporter in Europe at the time, succinctly summarized it:

Thus the plight of the German minority in Czechoslovakia was merely a pretext ... for cooking up a stew in a land he coveted, undermining it, confusing and misleading its friends and concealing his real purpose ... to destroy the Czechoslovak state and grab its territories .... The leaders of France and Great Britain did not grasp this. All through the spring and summer, indeed almost to the end, Prime Minister Chamberlain and Premier Daladier apparently sincerely believed, along with most of the rest of the world, that all Hitler wanted was justice for his kinsfolk in Czechoslovakia.3

In addition, Hitler backed the establishment of a Sudeten liberation movement called the Sudeten Free Corps, and he instigated a series of well-planned and violent uprisings that the Czechs were compelled to quell by force.4 Hitler's propaganda chief, Goebbels, orchestrated a fearful propaganda campaign of fabricated "Czech terror" and oppression of the Sudeten Germans.

The Czech refusal to allow the Sudeten territories to return to their "rightful" German owners, Hitler prattled, was proof that the Czechs were the intransigent obstacle to peace. For what choice would Germany have but to come to the assistance of its oppressed brethren living under intolerable Czech occupation?

Moreover, the Germans reversed causality, claiming that the Czechs were trying to precipitate a European crisis in order to prevent the breakup of their state, that the choice between war and peace in Europe was in Czech hands, and even that "this petty segment of Europe is harassing the human race."5

But there was a simple way to simultaneously avoid war and achieve justice, Hitler said. The Western powers-meaning Britain and France-could force the Czechs to do what was necessary for the sake of peace: Czechoslovakia had to relinquish the "occupied territories."

The Fickle West

And it worked. With astonishing speed, the governments and opinion-makers of the West adopted Hitler's point of view. Throughout 1937 and 1938, mounting pressure was exerted on Czechoslovakia by the leading Western powers "to go to the utmost limit" to meet Sudeten demands.6 Czech leader Edvard Benes was reviled as intransigent.

The Western press published articles lamenting Czech shortsightedness and its total disregard for the cause of peace in Europe, as well as the injustice of not allowing the Sudetenland to be "returned" to Germany (despite the fact that it had never been part of Germany).

The British envoy who was dispatched to investigate the situation even went so far as to demand that Czechoslovakia "so remodel her foreign relations as to give assurances to her neighbors that she will in no circumstances attack them or enter into any aggressive action against them."7

Land For Peace

On September 18, 1938, under the gun of Hitler's September 28 deadline, a meeting was held between the British Cabinet and the French prime minister and foreign minister, in which it was determined that democratic Czechoslovakia must accede to Hitler's demands.

Despite the fact that the West had promised in writing at Versailles to go to war to defend Czechoslovakia's borders, it agreed that the Czechs must give up the Sudetenland for "the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia's vital interests."

In return, the Czechs would receive from Britain and France "an international guarantee of the new boundaries... against unprovoked aggression."8

If the Czechs did not accept the plan and thereby save the peace of Europe, they were informed by the leaders of the free world, they would be left to fight Hitler alone. In Neville Chamberlain's immortal words: "It is up to the Czechs now."9

But in fact it was not even left to the Czechs. Chamberlain realized that if the Czechs were to fight, France and Britain might be forced to fight too. As the Czechs and Germans mobilized, Chamberlain became increasingly hysterical about averting war by buying off Hitler with the Czech defensive wall. He shuttled repeatedly to Germany to try to arrange the pay-off. Finally, minutes before his September 28 deadline, Hitler "agreed" to Chamberlain's proposal for an international peace conference to bring peace to Central Europe.

At Munich, Britain and France pleaded with Hitler for 11 hours to "compromise" and take the Sudetenland peacefully. In the end Hitler agreed.

Having grasped the fact that his supposed democratic allies had allowed themselves to become tools in Hitler's hand, Prime Minister Benes announced Czechoslovakia's capitulation to the demands of the totalitarians. "We have been basely betrayed," he said.10

The Western leaders returned in triumph to London and Paris. In government, in parliament, and in the press, Chamberlain and Daladier were praised, cheered, and thanked for having traded land for peace. "My friends," said Chamberlain, "I believe it is peace in our time."

For when they shall say, 'Peace and safety'; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. - 1 Thessalonians 5:3

Phase Two

On September 30, the Czech army began its withdrawal from the Sudetenland - from the strategic passes, the mountain fortresses, and the major industrial facilities that would have been the backbone of Czechoslovakia's effort to defend itself. But this was only Phase One of Hitler's plan.

The German annexation of the Sudetenland was followed by a renewed list of demands on the Czechs. The Nazis continued to invent incidents of violence and oppression against the ethnic German minority in what was left of the Czech state.

Less than six months later, on March 15, 1939, the Nazi war machine rolled through the rest of Czechoslovakia. Shorn of their defenses in the Sudeten mountains, the Czechs were now powerless to resist. Phase Two had been implemented.

The Western powers again did nothing. Once more, all their assurance proved worthless.

Grave and Present Danger

Unfortunately, the parallels to today's effort to gouge Judea and Samaria out of Israel are all too easy to see.

Like Czechoslovakia, Israel is a small democracy with a powerful army much aided by defensive terrain. Like the Sudeten district, the West Bank is mountainous territory, a formidable military barrier that guards the slender and densely populated Israeli shoreline and Israel's capital city.

Like the Germans, the Arabs11 understand that as long as Israel controls these mountains, it will not be overrun. They understand too that a military campaign to seize these mountains is at present unthinkable, and that Israel's removal from them can be achieved only by the application of irresistible political pressure by the West on Israel to withdraw.

The Arab regimes have therefore embarked on a campaign to persuade the West that these Arab inhabitants of these mountains (like the Sudeten Germans, comprising roughly a third of the total population) are a separate people that deserve the right of self-determination - and that unless such self-determination is granted, the Arab states will have no choice but to resort to war to secure it.

As in the case of Czechoslovakia, Israel's insistence on not parting with territories strategically vital for its defenses is presented as the obstacle to peace.

Echoing Munich, the Arabs repeatedly advocate "active" American (and European) involvement, in the hope that an American Chamberlain can be found to force "the intransigent party" to capitulate where it is otherwise unwilling to compromise its own security.

That the Arabs have borrowed directly from the Nazis in this, as in so many of their other devices against Israel, is not surprising.

What is surprising, or at least disappointing, isthe speed and readiness with which this transparent ruse has been received, digested, and internalized by the elite of the Western world. Not a day passes without some somber editorial or political comment from august quarters in America and Europe asking Israel to voluntarily accept the same decree that Czechoslovakia was asked to accept.

In 1938, the London Times, the leading newspaper of the world at the time, published a celebrated editorial that summed it all up:

It might be worthwhile for the Czechoslovak government to consider whether they should exclude altogether ... making Czechoslovakia a more homogeneous state by the secession of that fringe of populations who are contiguous to the nation with which they are united by race... The advantages to Czechoslovakia of becoming a homogeneous state might conceivably outweigh the obvious disadvantages of losing the Sudeten German district.12

The foregoing comments by Benjamin Netanyahu were excerpted from his book published in 1993.

It is astonishing how the Western press has swallowed the PLO line that they are "the oppressed people struggling to be free," that Israel is the aggressor, that forcing Israel to withdraw from its strategic defenses will bring peace, and that the survivors of the Holocaust are now the "bad guys." Amazing.

Yet this is consistent with Biblical prophecy. Jerusalem is prophesied to be " a cup of trembling" to all nations round about ... all that burden themselves with it will be torn to pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it."13

For further discussion of this critical topic, see also our featured briefing package, Betrayal of the Chosen. These issues will also be addressed in our expositional study of Zechariah.


  1. Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place Among the Nations, Bantam Books, New York, 1993, pp. 154-159. (The subtitles and Scripture reference have been added.)
  2. William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, Ballantine, New York, 1950, p. 448.
  3. Ibid., pp.488-89.
  4. Ibid., pp.524-26.
  5. Ibid., pp.490, 519, 538.
  6. Ibid., p.489.
  7. Ibid., pp.522, 526.
  8. Ibid., p.527.
  9. Benes quoted Ibid., p.535.
  10. Times quoted Ibid., pp.529, 564.
  11. The term "Arab" is used in a condescension to the Western press, and thus to common (illiterate) usage for the enemies of Israel. There is no common ethnic or geographic discriminator: they are Muslims.
  12. Quoted in Ibid., p.518.
  13. Zechariah 12:2,3.