To the Brink of War: The Czechoslovakian Crisis of 1938

  • Geoffrey Roberts


Russia’s involvement in the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938 stemmed from two sources. Firstly, the USSR’s commitment to collective resistance against Nazi aggression and expansionism — a policy which Litvinov had affirmed time and time again in public statements in 1936–7.l Secondly, there was the Soviet-Czechoslovak mutual assistance treaty of 1935 under which the Soviet Union pledged military aid to Czechoslovakia in the event of an attack on that country by a third party. Soviet assistance was, however, conditional upon France, which also had a mutual assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia, simultaneously fulfilling its aid obligations — a clause inserted in the Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty of 1935 at the suggestion of Benes/ , the Czech President.2


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    See Litvinov’s speeches in Against Aggression(London, 1939).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Dokumenty i Materialy po Istorii Sovetsko-Chekhoslovatskikh Otnoshenii, vol. 3, docs 63 and 65. Jiri Hochman, The Soviet Union and the Failure of Collective Security, 1934–1938(Ithaca, NY, 1984), p. 53 says that the clause in the Soviet-Czechoslovak pact that tied its military implementation to French action was included at the behest of Moscow. His evidence is Czech archives but he neither quotes the evidence nor does he cite the archival reference. It is quite clear from the Soviet documents that this clause came from the Czechoslovak side. The Soviet version is confirmed by a British report on a meeting between Simon and Benes/ in Prague in May 1935 at which the negotiations with the USSR were discussed. See British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part 11, series A: The Soviet Union, 19171939, vol. 12, doc. 302. Moreover, as cited in the present text, on 23 September 1938 at the League of Nations Litvinov stated publicly that the conditional clause was inserted at Czech request — a statement that was not questioned by anyone at the time.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Soviet policy during the Czech crisis is debated by M. L. Toepfer, ‘The Soviet Role in the Munich Crisis’, Diplomatic History(Fall 1977);Google Scholar
  4. B. M. Cohen, ‘Moscow at Munich: Did the Soviet Union Offer Unilateral Aid to Czechoslovakia?’, East European Quarterly, 7, no. 3 (1978);Google Scholar
  5. J. Haslam, ‘The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovakian Crisis of 1938’, Journal of Contemporary History(July 1979);Google Scholar
  6. and I. Lukes, ‘Did Stalin Desire War in 1938? A New Look at Soviet Behaviour during the May and September Crises’, Diplomacy & Statecraft(March 1991).Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Hitler’s speech cited by M. Beloff, The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1929–1941(Oxford, 1949), vol. 2, p. 121.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Dokumenty Vneshnei Politiki SSSR(DVPS), vol. 19, doc. 227.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Soviet foreign policy archives. Cited by V. Sipols, Sovetskii Souz v Borbe za Mir i Bezopasnost 1933–1939(Moscow, 1974), pp. 173–4.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Soviet foreign policy archives. Cited by Soviet Foreign Policy 19171945(Moscow, 1981), p. 328.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    For Soviet press comment on the Austrian events see I. K. Koblyakov, USSR: For Peace, Against Aggression 1933–1941(Moscow, 1976), pp. 85–6.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    New Documents on the History of Munich(hereafter New Documents) (Prague, 1958), doc. 4.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Ibid., doc. 7.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Ibid., doc. 8Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Ibid., doc. 14 and DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 182.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    On the ‘May Crisis’ see W. L. Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic(London, 1972), pp. 380–5. Also Lukes, ‘Did Stalin Desire War’, who argues that the May crisis was provoked by the Soviet Union. This is in line with his general interpretation of Soviet policy during the Czech crisis that it was designed to provoke a European war while the USSR stood on the sidelines. As the author himself admits, the argument is purely hypothetical and speculative. As far as I can see, it is entirely without foundation.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    See J. Degras (ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1953), pp. 282–94 for Litvinov’s speech.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    New Documents, doc. 20Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    New Documents, doc. 24. Also: Documents Diplomatiques Français(hereafter DDF), 2nd series, vol. 10, docs 5, 6, and 289; DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 300; Documents on British Foreign Policy(DBFP) 3rd series, vol. 2, doc. 637; and Documents on German Foreign Policy, series d, vol. 2, docs 381, 396 and 397;Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    DDF, 2nd series, vol. 11, doc. 511.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Ibid., doc. 534 and New Documents, doc. 25.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    New Documents, doc. 26.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    DVPS, vol 21, doc. 325.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Ibid., doc. 330.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    New Documents, doc. 27.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Ibid., doc. 30.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 343.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    Ibid., doc. 348.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    New Documents, doc. 33.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    See Shirer, Collapse of Third Republic, pp. 402–5.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Documents and Materials Relating to the Eve of the Second World War(hereafter Documents and Materials), vol. 1 (Moscow 1948), doc. 22.Google Scholar
  32. 29.
    New Documents, doc. 36.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    Documents and Materials, pp. 203–203; ibid., docs 38 and 39; and Dokumenty i Materialy po Istorii Sovetsko-Chekhoslovatskikh Otnoshenii, vol. 3, doc. 344, n. 1. Articles 16 and 17 of the League of Nations Covenant provided for sanctions against aggressors and military aid to the victims of aggression.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    Documents and Materials, doc. 24.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    Ibid., doc. 27, and Shirer, Collapse of Third Republic, p. 410.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    See I. Maisky, ‘The Munich Drama’, New Times, no. 44 (1966), p. 27.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Degras, Soviet Documents, p. 303.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    Ibid., pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Dokumenty i Materialy po Istorii Sovetsko-Chekhoslovatskikh Otnosheni, vol. 3, docs 352, 354, and 374, n. 1.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    See J. Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, 1933–1939(London, 1984), p. 189 and DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 366.Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 370 and DBFP, 3rd series, vol. 2, doc. 1071.Google Scholar
  42. 39.
    See V. Sipols, Diplomatic Battles Before World War 11(Moscow, 1982), p. 181.Google Scholar
  43. 40.
    DVPS, vol. 21, doc. 369.Google Scholar
  44. 41.
    Telegram from Potemkin to Soviet ambassadors in Berlin, Warsaw, Rome, Budapest and Bucharest, 20/9/38, published in Vestnik Ministerstva Inostrannykh SSSR, no. 18, 1 October 1988, p. 45.Google Scholar
  45. 42.
    For an illuminating discussion of the September 1938 Soviet military mobilisation and the secrecy with which it was initially conducted see G. Jukes, ‘The Red Army and the Munich Crisis’, Journal of Contemporary History, 26 (1991).Google Scholar
  46. 43.
    Maisky, ‘Munich Drama’, p. 28.Google Scholar
  47. 44.
    See Hochman, Failure of Collective Security 19348, pp. 73–5 and Appendix C for the text of the Romanian proposal on Soviet rights of passage. For the background to these negotiations see Haslam, The Soviet Union, 19339, pp. 169–79. There appears to have been no Soviet reply to the Romanian proposals.Google Scholar
  48. 45.
    On this point see B. R. Posen, ‘Competing Images of the Soviet Union’, World Politics(July 1987), 586–8.Google Scholar
  49. 46.
    On Godesberg see L. Mosley, On Borrowed Time(London, 1971), pp. 46–55.Google Scholar
  50. 47.
    New Documents, doc. 55.Google Scholar
  51. 48.
    Dokumenty i Materialy po Istorii Sovetsko-Chekhoslovatskikh Otnoshenii, doc. 386. Also: I. Lukes, ‘Stalin and Benes at the End of September 1938: New Evidence from Prague Archives’, Slavic Review(Spring 1993).Google Scholar
  52. 49.
    ‘Notes on Events in Czechoslovakia in Late September and Early October 1938’, International Affairs(Moscow) December 1988, pp. 125–32.Google Scholar
  53. 50.
    T. Taylor, Munich: The Price of Peace(London, 1979), pp. 452–6.Google Scholar
  54. 51.
    On the triple alliance negotiations of 1939 see G. Roberts, The Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler(London, 1989), chs 6–7Google Scholar
  55. and M.J. Carley, ‘End of the “Low, Dishonest Decade”: Failure of the Anglo-Franco-Soviet Alliance in 1939’, Europe-Asia Studies, 45, no. 2 (1993).Google Scholar
  56. Also: G. Roberts, ‘The Fall of Litvinov: A Revisionist View’, Journal of Contemporary History(October 1992), and ‘The Failure of the Triple Alliance Negotiations 1939: The view from Moscow’ (Unpublished, 1994).Google Scholar

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© Geoffrey Roberts 1995

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  • Geoffrey Roberts

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