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Why did Western democracies sign the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany when they knew the nature of Nazi regime? What did they want to obtain by signing this agreement?

In 1938/1939, two pacts/agreements shocked the world and disappointed many European countries:

  1. the Munich Agreement with Western democracies that's to say, England and France in 1938, and;
  2. Molotov_Ribbentrop non aggression pact with Stalin in 1939.

The motive of the pact with Stalin is easy to understand, because they wanted to share Eastern Europe, but I cannot understand the reason behind France's and England's concessions to Hitler. Especially when we know that this agreement was signed after the annexation of Austria and Hitler's expansionist ambitions were revealed.

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    The Munich agreement was signed before the occupation of the Czech border areas. In fact it was all about said occupation.
    – Jan
    Feb 21 at 18:24
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    As to the motive: something between a naive hope for peace and a less benign hope that Hitler would start a war against the Soviet Union sooner or later if the Allies could avoid a war with Germany.
    – Jan
    Feb 21 at 18:28
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    This is a question from a new user, who may not be familiar with our culture on H:SE. Please make an extra effort to be welcoming: phrase feedback in a positive manner and try to explain our assumptions. If possible, offer constructive advice on how to improve the question.
    – MCW
    Feb 22 at 1:54
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    Does Wikipedia answer the question? if not, why not?
    – MCW
    Feb 22 at 1:55
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    Contemporary example of the same: Why Western democracies allowed Putin regime to annex a part of Ukraine when they know the nature of Putin's regime?
    – Alex
    Feb 22 at 3:38
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Naivety vs realpolitik

First of all, don't fall into modern trap of idolizing democracy. Remember that for example Plato consider it second worst regime, slightly better than tyranny, and actually precursor to tyranny. Also, original meaning of demos-kratos is simply rule of the people, not necessarily parliamentary democracy. For example, Hitler considered Third Reich as a from of direct democracy, where German Volk rules directly trough their Fuhrer. USSR of course considered itself democratic, much more then liberal bourgeois democracies of the West.

And even if you have parliamentary democracy, things are far from ideal. As we could see in modern times, much depends on who has more money, media support, support of big business and finally who counts the votes. And even if you have democratic government in one country, that does not mean it is obliged to defend or spread democracy in other parts of the world. For example, US and UK gladly cooperate with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies and are enemies of much more democratic Iran.

Therefore, things in international arena are decided much more by interests and realpolitik than by some imagined ideals. Let's examine country by country:

  • Britain : British longstanding policy towards continent is that it should not not allow single continental power that could unite whole of Europe against it, possibly even challenging it on high seas. In that sense, they could accept Germany as dominant in Central Europe if they block USSR and spread of communism, but not much more than that. Or, in our case, they were OK with Germany getting parts of Czechoslovakia (latter whole of Czechia and Slovakia as puppet state) . But, they could not accept demise of Poland because by then Germany would become that dominant power in Europe and British could not allow this.

  • France: France was afraid of German territorial ambitions on itself (Alsace-Lorraine) , and considered that it would have very though time defending against it alone. French leftist government was against caving in to the Germans, but they could do precious little alone, plus that same government was not really popular among certain parts of French society and in French army. Therefore, they finally consented to Munich.

  • Poland: Poland at that time deluded itself that Germans were lesser evil than USSR, and even dreamed about alliance with them against USSR. They also had some designs on Czech territory, and could be said that they participated in partition of Czechoslovakia. Anyway, they didn't want to let Soviet troops to pass trough their territory to Czechoslovakia and essentially that doomed any effort of relief.

  • Soviet Union: USSR was at that time still engaged against Germany and Italy in Spain, and all of that was before Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. At that time they were willing to go to war in Czechoslovakia but they had their beef with Poland because of lost territory in Western Ukraine and Belarus in Polish–Soviet war. Therefore, they could not intervene.

  • Other players: Among other smaller players in Europe, countries like Romania and Yugoslavia were not amused with what was happening, but they mostly wanted to keep status quo and privately hoped that Germans would be satisfied. Countries like Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria wanted revanche foe what happened in WW1 and they supported Germany. US public opinion on the other hand was mostly isolationist at the time, and wanted to leave European businesses to Europeans and to avoid another bloody war.

Overall, while today Third Reich is presented as an evil incarnate in popular media, in 1930's it was not perceived as such. Germany was just another player on international scene, certainly dangerous, but not something unheard of . And, simply saying, other countries were willing to deal with them.

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    The initial bit about democracy seems irrelevant to the question and conflates what countries said about being democratic with what their leadership actually believed. There are a few good points in here -- e.g., that people in the 30s did not see Nazi Germany as we do -- but a lot of it seems is off-topic or even incorrect.
    – Mark Olson
    Feb 23 at 13:03
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    @MarkOlson Was US democracy in 1860 (slavery) ? Or in 1940 (segregation) ? Athens when they executed Socrates ? How about UK before WW2 (no voting rights for India) ? What would future historians think about this period ( Big Tech censorship, possible voter fraud, corporate interests) ? Obviously, our current standards about democracy are not universal even in this time, not to mention any other period.
    – rs.29
    Feb 23 at 18:01
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    @rs.29 You are perfectly right. Moreover, two years before the Munich Agreement, in 1936, the "Front Populaire" government (Socialists+Communists), headed by Léon Blum, had already decided not to help (officially) Spanish Republic... Have a look to this document Feb 25 at 10:23
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    Germany was not "just another actor" after the Rhineland and Austria, and Munich was not just another "deal". There was a line being drawn in the sand, which was crossed in March 1939 when the rump of Czechoslovakia was occupied. From that point the dealing was over, the trust was gone, and the containment process began. That paper Chamberlain waved (which we have all seen) was a signal to the British public and the world. Mar 4 at 10:47
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    @rs.29 You are missing the significance of the Rhineland and Austria in alerting the British and French to the growing German threat, and you are missing the significance of the Munich Agreement in finally drawing the line in the sand which led to the Mutual Defense pacts which were signed with Poland and others after the betrayal of March 1939. These are pertinent to the question asked. There was no war in March 1939 because the political groundwork for war was still incomplete. Munich was the proof of German deceit which made the completion politically possible. Mar 6 at 13:29
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The agreement was the climax of the appeasement politics of Britain and France. The core intention was clear: Avoid a war as far as possible, even if bad compromises are required.

Further on: The Munich Agreement was about the Sudetenland crisis and was declared as some internal German territory related issue (see historical background of Sudeten Germans). So there was a somehow not totally irrelevant entangled component persistent to this crisis in terms of ethnics. In order to stay consistent to former similar decisions like the appeasement to the annexation of Austria, they granted access for Hitler here again.

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    Good answer; it would be a better answer if it had sources/references.
    – MCW
    Feb 21 at 22:04
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    @MarkC.Wallace , thanks for the edit! I'm new to this stackexchange and was not sure, if linking the wiki is the right way. Besides the core article about the agreement, I think the background of the Sudetenland / Bohemia should complete the picture.
    – Secundi
    Feb 21 at 23:14
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    references are always good; history is about sources like physics is about units.
    – MCW
    Feb 22 at 0:03
  • French were not that much into appeasement, but they didn't have much choice.
    – rs.29
    Feb 23 at 18:06
  • @rs.29 That's right. The influence of Britain and Italy (Mussolini...) was too strong. Besides that, there were well known further territorial intentions of Poland (not part of the contract though) with focus on Czechoslovakia for instance.
    – Secundi
    Feb 23 at 19:29
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There were a number of factors:

Hitler's demands seemed somewhat legitimate. Hitler demanded that those areas of Bohemia and Moravia that had a German-speaking majority population join with Germany, after a referendum. The principle that areas with a population majority of nationality X would become part of country X had been applied in the opposite direction to German border areas with Poland, Denmark and Belgium after WWI, so Hitler's demand that this principle be applied to Czech border areas did not seem entirely unreasonable.

Chamberlain expected Hitler to play by the rules. Hitler had promised to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia alone and Chamberlain seems to have believed him. See his (in)famous remarks re. "peace for our time". In real life the Germans occupied the rest of Bohemia and Moravia a mere six months later, on March 15th 1939.

Neither France nor Britain were really ready to go to war over Czechoslovakia. The population of both countries still remembered WWI (as did the Germans btw) and were not really keen on repeating the experience.

The British were wilfully ignorant of important details. Chamberlain famously spoke of a "quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing". This was a widespread attitude in Britain at the time. In such an atmosphere it is easy to overlook that Czechoslovakia would lose its equivalent of the Maginot line or that the German-speaking minority in Germany's ally Italy had it much worse than the German minority in Czechoslovakia.


There were also allegations that the British conservatives hoped to be able to use Hitler to check Stalin, in an echo of what German conservatives had hoped to accomplish in 1933. Not really sure how much of an influence that was in Munich.

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Until the annexation of Czechoslovakia, German expansionism had the "fig leaf" of claiming only to unite all German-speaking people into one country.

This was apparently the case with Austria, whose name Osterreich means "eastern kingdom" in Germany. The claim was that Austria, who was occupied elsewhere, had been left out of German unification in 1871, and the so-called Anschluss was made only to rectify all of this oversight.

With regard to Czechoslovakia, Hitler's initial claim was that he only wanted the mountainous Sudetenland, where most of Czechoslovakia's 3.5 million Germans (one quarter of the country's population) lived. Of course, the lie was given to this claim when Hitler annexed non-German parts of the Sudetenland (the most defendible parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938, then all of what we later called the Czech Republic in 1939.

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  • This is a somewhat minor point, but I think your description of how Austria and Germany ended up in two different countries is misleading. And you are ignoring attempts to unite the two after WWI, which were thwarted by the Allies.
    – Jan
    Mar 10 at 11:52
  • And your post reads as if Czech was occupied in three steps. First Sudetenland, then the most defensible parts, then the rest. In fact, the so-called Sudetenland was the most defensible part and also were the border fortifications were located.
    – Jan
    Mar 10 at 11:56

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