May Crisis 1938
The May Crisis was a brief episode of international tension in 1938 caused by reports of German troop movements against Czechoslovakia that appeared to signal the imminent outbreak of war in Europe. Although the state of high anxiety soon subsided when no actual military concentrations were detected, the consequences of the crisis were far-reaching.
Threat of war
With international tension already high in Central Europe following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and continuing unrest in the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, reports of substantial military concentrations in areas close to Czechoslovakia on 19 May 1938 gave rise to fears of an imminent German attack. In response to the reports, originating mainly from Czechoslovak intelligence sources, Czechoslovakia mobilised a number of military reservists on 20 May and strengthened its border defences. Alarmed by the developing situation, the governments of France (Czechoslovakia's main ally) and Britain warned Germany that they would to come to Czechoslovakia's aid in the event of an attack. The German-government denied that potentially aggressive troop movements had taken place, and in the absence of any real evidence of military activity, the atmosphere of acute crisis had passed by 23 May.
The appearance of decisive French and British diplomatic action in Berlin ran contrary to their general policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany but, ultimately, served only to reinforce that policy. In the wake of the crisis, France and particularly Britain, fearful of war with Germany, intensified their pressure on the Czechoslovak authorities for concessions to the Sudeten German Party (SdP), which, under instructions from Nazi Germany, was promoting unrest in the Sudetenland.
In Germany, being perceived to have backed down in response to Czechoslovak defensive measures and to French and British diplomacy served only to reinforce hostility towards Czechoslovakia. Within a matter of days, the German leader, Adolf Hitler, revised the directive for Case Green – the plan of attack on Czechoslovakia. The new directive, issued on 30 May 1938 and was due to be carried out before the start of October 1938, stated: “It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future.”
The May Crisis was a short-lived but significant episode in 1938. Although no evidence has emerged of any aggressive German military preparations being made at that time, the outcome of the crisis formed a significant step on the road to the Munich Agreement and the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Intriguingly, the identity of the source of the misleading information concerning German troop concentrations that was supplied to the Czechoslovak intelligence service, and the precise motivation behind it, remain uncertain.
- Lukes, Igor, Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s, New York, 1996, pp. 143–5 and Vyšný, Paul, The Runciman Mission to Czechoslovakia, 1938: Prelude to Munich, Basingstoke, 2003, pp. 57–9.
- Henlein's report on meeting with Hitler, 28 March 1938, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, Series D, vol. 2, London, 1950, no. 107. (Konrad Henlein was the leader of the SdP.)
- Directive for Operation "Green", Berlin, 30 May 1938, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, Series D, vol. 2, London, 1950, no. 221. Also available online: Hitler’s directive for “Operation Green” in Historical Resources About The Second World War. (Accessed 5 March 2018)
- Lukes, Igor, Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s, New York, 1996, pp. 148–57. Lukes argues that the intelligence could not have been supplied by the German double agent Paul Thümmel, who is often suspected of being the informant, and speculates that the disinformation might have come from a Soviet source, possibly aiming to precipitate a war between Czechoslovakia and its western allies and Germany.