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Born in north Bohemian Maffersfdorf (today Vratislavice nad Nisou borough in Liberec) in a mixed marriage (his father was ethnic German while his mother was Czech), he attended a German business academy in Liberec. After the First World War, during which he spent time in Italian captivity as an Austrian soldier, and subsequent breakup of Austria-Hungary he worked as a bank clerk in the interwar Czechoslovakia while taking an active part in the Sudeten German communal life.
In the first half of the 1930s, Henlein made a pro-Czechoslovak and overtly anti-Nazi point in his public speeches and did not turn a follower of Adolf Hitler until 1937, when the pro-German camp within the Sudeten-German Party (SdP) represented by Karl Hermann Frank emerged victorious. He then swiftly aligned himself with the slogan "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer!" (One People, One Country, One leader), thus supporting Hitler's call for Lebensraum and making predominantly German-speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia occasionally called "Sudetenland" a part of Germany. Such political union would, however, have removed from Czechoslovakia not only its richest iron-producing regions but also any geographic barrier to German invasion. Henlein's political party's dominance of the Sudetenland in the 1930s ultimately led to the Munich Agreement on September 30, 1938, which he helped to accomplish by influencing the British delegate Lord Runciman during the latter's visit of Czechoslovakia. Henlein presented his party's policy as one striving to fulfill the "justified claims" of the then largely nazified German minority of Czechoslovakia. In September 1938 he helped organize civil unrest raging in Czechoslovak border areas settled by Germans and instigated by Hitler's frenetic speech in Nuremberg. Since the turmoil was quickly suppressed by Czechoslovak forces, Henlein fled to Germany and made numerous intrusions into Czechoslovak territory as a commander of Sudeten German guerilla bands of Freikorps. After the final secession of the Sudetenland, Henlein's party merged with Hitler's NSDAP on November 5, 1938. Henlein then became Gruppenfuehrer (later Obergruppenfuehrer) SS and a Reichstag deputy. On September 1, 1939 he was nominated Gauleiter of the Sudetenland, a position he held until the end of the war.
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