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  • In the Shadow of Munich: British Policy towards Czechoslovakia from the Endorsement to the Renunciation of the Munich Agreement (1938-1942)
  • Benjamin Frommer
In the Shadow of Munich: British Policy towards Czechoslovakia from the Endorsement to the Renunciation of the Munich Agreement (1938-1942). By Vít Smetana . Prague: Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press, 2008. 360 pp. $20.00 (paper).

In a world dominated by the English language, non-Anglophone scholars often struggle to make an impact on the profession. Czech historian Vít Smetana's challenging book is a welcome exception to this rule and hopefully the beginning of a new trend in publishing. Thanks to the innovative program in American studies at the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences, Smetana wrote his dissertation in English. [End Page 647] Karolinum Publishers (Prague) deserves praise for their decision to publish the book untranslated and to make distribution available in the United States through the University of Chicago Press. Anglophone readers can now be exposed to a different perspective on an old set of questions, in which Smetana provocatively and effectively challenges common assumptions about a critical juncture in twentieth-century history.

The book examines British-Czechoslovak relations from the run-up to the September 1938 Munich Pact through the point (roughly 1941-1942) when Edvard Beneš secured recognition of his government-in-exile, developed plans to expel the Sudeten Germans, and walked away from the project of a federation with Poland. Thanks to the author's impressively extensive archival research in three countries, the book contributes significantly to our understanding of a series of events that first destroyed and then reshaped Central Europe. The book is as much British history as it is Czechoslovak, for the developments Smetana analyzes chart the evolution of British elite thinking from the policies of appeasement to fears of postwar Soviet expansion.

The central organizing theme of the book is Smetana's revisionist argument that the British did not continue policies of appeasement after Munich. Smetana challenges a number of long-held assumptions about British perfidy, for example, when he argues that foreign aid to the Second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-1939) was "surprisingly high." Although Prague had sought more, London gave almost as much to Czechoslovakia as to the rest of the world combined. This relative largesse, in the view of disgruntled British diplomats, came at the expense of spending on armaments (p. 93). Nor did London turn its back completely on the persecuted. Diplomatic officials inquired repeatedly about the situation of the Jews and made aid to the Second Republic contingent on the treatment of them and German refugees. Then again, there were limits to this concern. When the Gestapo tried to expel Jews, the British balked at accepting them (while at the same time helping Gentile political leaders escape). Smetana concludes, "British assistance to refugees from Czechoslovakia before the war exceeded support from any other country," albeit only for the right type of refugees (p. 156).

The book provides an important corrective to facile condemnations of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his diplomats. And yet the British still appear depressingly cynical in the wake of Munich. In December 1938, for example, the British deputy undersecretary of state dismissed the idea of honoring his country's commitments to Czechoslovakia: "It is as though Germany were to guarantee [End Page 648] Egypt!" (p. 68). The antagonism expressed toward the rump state is still striking today: another high-ranking diplomat called Czechoslovakia "a distasteful and indefensible mosaic" (p. 167). As it became clear that the state's days were numbered, the British scrambled to escape responsibility for the debacle and to avoid having to take any action in response. After the German invasion of March 1939, Chamberlain disingenuously claimed that Czechoslovakia had disintegrated on its own, in the hopes of justifying his government's inaction: "our guarantee was not a guarantee against the exercise of moral pressure" (p. 107). When the French called for a joint protest of the occupation, the British did what they could first to prevent any such utterance and then later to water it down. Smetana concludes, "the overall British pattern of influencing the French policy towards Central...