The "May Crisis"
During the weekend of 19-22 May 1938, war in Europe appeared imminent. Reports of German troop concentrations near the border with Czechoslovakia and heightened tension in the Sudetenland caused the Czechoslovak Government to undertake partial mobilisation. Britain and France issued warnings to Berlin but the German Government denied any aggressive intent and the atmosphere of crisis eased. Subsequently, no evidence of potentially aggressive German troop movements could be found and responsibility for the crisis began to be placed increasingly on the Czechoslovak authorities. The British warning to Germany (sent through the Ambassador in Berlin) is reproduced below, together with a note to France (sent through the Ambassador in Paris) which indicated that the British attitude was not quite as resolute as it appeared.
Viscount Halifax to Sir N. Henderson (Berlin)
FOREIGN OFFICE, May 21, 1938, 3.45 p.m.
1. We have heard from His Majesty's Minister in Prague that it is stated in the press that the Political Committee of the Henlein Party has decided to inform the Czechoslovak Prime Minister that they are not in a position to hold conversations with the Czechoslovak Government so long as peace and order in the Sudeten country, and above all the constitutional rights of the German population, are not guaranteed.
2. All those who are anxious for a peaceful and orderly settlement of the Sudeten German question, and we assume the German Government desire this as much as we ourselves do, would desire that everything possible should be done to reduce the present state of tension. It was for this reason that I urged on the Czechoslovak Minister on May 20 (see my telegram to Prague No. 92) that the issue of an invitation to Herr Henlein should be given early and wide publicity, and I am convinced that nothing would improve the atmosphere so much as an announcement that negotiations would be opened at a very early date. I therefore profoundly regret the decision which has apparently been reached by the Henlein Party.
3. I should be glad if you would speak to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in this sense and if you would urge that the German Government should use their influence with Herr Henlein in order to promote an early opening of the negotiations. The German Government have taken the view that this is a matter which must be settled between the Czechoslovak Government and Herr Henlein. The important thing, therefore, is to ensure that the two parties should enter into contact for that purpose with the least possible delay.
4. You should also say that while I appreciate the assurance reported in your telegrams Nos. 198 and 199 of May 20, I continue to receive persistent stories of troop movements in the direction of Czechoslovakia. I am well aware that the German Government have said that if there was bloodshed in Czechoslovakia affecting the Sudeten German population German intervention is inevitable, and that in German eyes a question of principle is involved, namely the inalienable right to protect people of German blood. This is naturally not a doctrine which His Majesty's Government can be expected to endorse though there would be little profit in entering into an argument about it with the German Government in the present circumstances. But His Majesty's Government feel bound to draw the attention of the German Government to their responsibilities in this matter.
5. His Majesty's Government, as the German Government well know, are doing their utmost to promote a peaceful solution of this question. They have been using all their influence with members of the Czechoslovak Government including the President himself in the direction of a just settlement. These representations have been well received and the Czechoslovak Government have given us the firmest assurances that they are determined to do their utmost to this end. It is therefore imperative to give this opportunity of favourable development every chance of maturing, and in the interests of good relations between our two countries as on every other ground, I would most earnestly beg the German Government to exercise patience and all the influence they can in proper quarters.
6. You should add that if, in spite of His Majesty's Government's efforts, a conflict arises, the German Government must be well aware of the dangers which such a development would involve. France has obligations to Czechoslovakia and will be compelled to intervene in virtue of her obligations if there is a German aggression on Czechoslovakia. Indeed, French Ministers have repeatedly stated to His Majesty's Government that France would certainly so act. In such circumstances His Majesty's Government could not guarantee that they would not be forced by circumstances to become involved also. This point was quite clearly expressed by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on March 24, in the passage beginning with the words:
"Where peace and war are concerned, legal obligations are not alone involved", and ending with the words "devoted to the same ideals of democratic liberty, and determined to uphold them".
Repeated to Prague (No. 94), Paris, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw.
[Source: Documents on British Foreign Policy, (London, 1949), Third Series, vol. I, no. 250, pp. 331-2.]
Viscount Halifax to Sir E. Phipps (Paris)
FOREIGN OFFICE, May 22, 1938, 4.30 p.m.
Your telegram No. 148.
1. It is of utmost importance that French Government should not be under any illusion as to attitude of His Majesty's Government, so far as it can be forecast at the moment, in the event of failure to bring about peaceful settlement in Czechoslovak question.
2. His Majesty's Government have given the most serious warnings to Berlin, and these should have prospects of success in deterring German Government from any extreme courses. But it might be highly dangerous if the French Government were to read more into those warnings than is justified by their terms.
3. His Majesty's Government would of course always honour their pledge to come to the assistance of France if she were the victim of unprovoked aggression by Germany. In that event they would be bound to employ all the forces at their command.
4. If. however, The French Government were to assume that His Majesty's Government would at once take joint military action with them to preserve Czechoslovakia against German aggression, it is only fair to warn them that our statements do not warrant any such assumption.
5. In the view of His Majesty's Government the military situation is such that France and England, even with such assistance as might be expected from Russia, would not be in a position to prevent Germany over-running Czechoslovakia. The only result would be a European war, the outcome of which, so far as can be foreseen at this moment, would at least be doubtful.
6. His Majesty's Government fully realise the nature and extent of French obligations but they feel that in the present highly critical situation the French Government should take full account of the preceding considerations. His Majesty's Government would therefore hope that they might be given an opportunity of expressing their views before any action is taken by the French Government which might render the position more acute or have the result of exposing them to German attack.
7. Please speak in the above sense to French Minister for Foreign Affairs, adding that of course nothing will be said in Berlin to detract from the warnings already given, and that His Majesty's Government will continue to make every effort to restrain German Government and to secure peaceful settlement.
[Source: Documents on British Foreign Policy, (London, 1949), Third Series, vol. I, no. 271, pp. 346-7.]