Any book with the title The Bell of Treason should be a warning to us that we are about to read a morality tale. While ‘Munich’ – the Munich conference of 1938 – has long been a byword for appeasement, it has also often been represented as a classic case of international treachery, one in which Britain and France disgracefully broke their word and handed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland over to Hitler. In 1968 the British journalist Laurence Thompson duly entitled his own account The Greatest Treason. So this interpretation of betrayal has had a long life.
In the Czech popular imagination, Munich has loomed large, serving to reinforce the myth of Czechs as a peace-loving and democratic people who in 1938 were left alone to face a totalitarian monster. After 1948, and for the next forty years, that myth helped legitimise Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, allowing it to label the Western powers as duplicitous allies of fascism. With the end of communism in 1989, many Czech historians hurried to construct a new national narrative. They resurrected the image of their state as a democratic bastion, an oasis of calm in interwar Europe that only Hitler and the cowardly West had brought to an abrupt end.
But how viable is this morality tale? Over the past twenty years it has been much critiqued by historians, including many in the Czech Republic. This new research has radically transformed the ways we think about interwar Czechoslovakia. It not only undermines the simple notion that Czechoslovakia was