Could the coup have been avoided? The legacy of a government in exile

Edvard Beneš

Last week Prague hosted an international conference that looked at the role played during World War Two by the London-based governments in exile of occupied countries. These included not just Czechoslovakia, but also many other European states, among them the Netherlands, Poland, Yugoslavia and France. The exile politicians played a complex, sometimes tortuous role in shaping not just the course of the war, but also the political order that followed. David Vaughan reports.

Vít Smetana,  photo: David Vaughan
The governments in exile had a tough time in London. Former political rivals were forced to bury their differences, detached from their electorate and from any semblance of normal political discourse. They had to fight for diplomatic recognition, often looked on with suspicion by British politicians. And after the war, they returned to countries that had often changed beyond recognition, with the emerging Cold War complicating things still further.

So how important was Edvard Beneš’s exile Czechoslovak government in forging the country’s post-war order, and what do we still feel of that legacy today? I spoke to the main organizer of the conference, Dr Vít Smetana from Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History. He has researched and written extensively on Czechoslovak diplomatic history, including a fascinating study in English called “In the Shadow of Munich” that looks at the twists and turns of British-Czechoslovak diplomatic relations between 1938 and 1942. I began by asking him whether the governments in exile really did play an important role in shaping post-war Europe.

“The influence of the exiles on how Europe looked after the war was limited, but at the same time the exiles certainly played a very important, sometimes crucial role in shaping the post-war regimes, political systems, social networks and so on of their own countries. This applied both to western countries as well as some of the eastern countries, including Czechoslovakia, where some of the exiles, starting with President Beneš certainly played the pivotal role after 1945.”

Until 1989 and the fall of communism, it must have been very difficult for Czechoslovak historians to get access to all the various sources in Britain. Are there ways in which you think that this led to discourse becoming distorted in terms of how the role of the exile government is seen in today’s Czech Republic?

Edvard Beneš
“Yes. I think it is our task to dispel numerous myths and legends that piled up on the historical events, and in many of them Czechoslovakia is presented simply as a victim of great powers’ perfidiousness and efforts simply to split Europe and to let the Soviets do whatever they wished in its eastern part. But when I got to the documentation, I wanted to explore one questionable or problematic event after another. I found that Czechoslovakia and its representatives played quite a significant role in many of these events and that it is very easy and simplified to just blame the great powers for the bitter plight of Czechoslovakia. It is sometimes claimed that everything was decided in Yalta, for example, which is one of the greatest myths, because Czechoslovakia was hardly even mentioned during the conference. If you really look at the active role that Czechoslovak politicians, headed by Edvard Beneš, played in creating the Soviet sphere of influence, one is really stricken sometimes, and it is a sad story.”

You seem to be hinting that the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia of February 1948 could have been avoided. We tend to have the idea that there was a great boulder rolling through the region and precious little could be done in countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary to stop it.

“I really think that Czechoslovakia’s fate was not decided in 1945 at the moment when the exiles returned to the country, when the country was liberated. Of course many things could have happened better, in terms of how to preserve democracy and freedom in this country. The US army could have gone all the way to Prague and then the cards would have been distributed in a different way. But still, if we look at the situation in May 1945, it was still possible in my view to preserve democracy here, but the problem was that for many of those democrats – some returning from exile, others who had stayed in the country – their mental map was significantly affected by the tragic events of 1938-39. Their reliance on the western powers was fatally shaken by Munich, and the fact that the Americans didn’t go all the way to Prague also added to this stereotyping vis-à-vis the west. I think that the Czechoslovak democrats were really haunted by the German menace, and as such they really sought a different security guarantee for Czechoslovakia. I think it has been documented sufficiently that the major architect of the Czechoslovak foreign policy, Edvard Beneš, decided as far back as the months after the Munich Agreement that it was necessary to seek a security guarantee in the east, whatever it would cost. From this starting point the journey went all the way to embracing the Soviet Union at all costs. The Czechoslovak democrats made more and more compromises. They thought that they would have problems, with the communists inside the country, but didn’t bear in mind that they were basically the ‘fifth column’ of Stalin and the other Soviet rulers.”

February 1948,  Prague,  photo: Czech Television
In Britain as well there was a lot of sympathy towards the Soviet Union. I was interested to read a lecture that A. J. P. Taylor, the famous British historian, gave just after the war about Czechoslovakia, where he repeatedly stated that the threat to today’s Czechoslovakia is Germany and not the Soviet Union. This was at a time when Germany was in ruins and the Soviet Union was expanding its influence exponentially.

“Maybe it reflects on the fact how difficult it is to perceive the mental map and the way people look at the world in their own time and to distinguish it from what we know now.”

I think each generation sees the present through how it sees its own recent past, which is always a mistake.

“Yes, it does, but of course the question comes, ‘What could have been done differently?’ I always say that the Czechoslovak democrats and Beneš himself certainly could have made a policy which would have been friendly towards the Soviet Union, but at the same time dignified, with the knowledge or determination that at some point, if they reached a point of too many compromises, it would be possible to say, ‘Enough!’ – to make a stand. There were several options and ideal moments for such a stand, when Czechoslovakia was pressed to a corner by the Soviets, whether it was towards the end of the war already or in 1947 with the Marshall Plan offer.”

The Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk favoured Czechoslovakia’s joining the Marshall Plan. It seems almost unthinkable, looking back, but do you think that really could have been realistic?

“Yes, Masaryk wanted to take part in the Marshall Plan and the same applied to Beneš, but when the Soviet veto on the Marshall Plan came, none of them was willing to say, ‘No, we will not simply obey this order from Moscow’. “

Marshall Plan aid to Germany
You talk about the failure to understand what is really going on in the present, because of looking at it through the prism of recent history. If we move forward in time to the present day and the legacy of the communist regime, there has been an enormous amount of debate over the last few months around the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The director was sacked, several people on the supervisory board left and there has been a lot of accusation from various different angles, claiming that there has been a lot of political interference. Why do you think this is such a problem?

“From the very beginning, when the plan to establish such an institute was presented by some politicians, there were very few historians who supported that plan. I was absolutely critical – as much as I could – and I took part in several TV debates and wrote a few articles against it, because I saw it from the very beginning as a way how to politicize history and historical research, which is really the last thing we need. At the same time the politicians who were quite eager to set up such an institute saw it as a way to influence such research, even though indirectly – through some board which was to be elected by the Senate. From the very beginning it was clear to me that those politicians saw it as a way to perhaps use historical documentation as ammunition against their opponents. In my view this institute was really quite expensive. It has cost us three quarters of a billion crowns during the five years of its existence. I’m just dreaming about how many really significant historical projects could have been completed if some academic institutes had got this sum of money. “

But now it’s up and running, isn’t it worth trying to make it work?

“Well, it is perhaps worth trying to make it work, but, taking into account this amount of money, I think that the contribution of this institute to the real research of contemporary history has been negligible.”

In this country, I sometimes have the impression – for example with the recent presidential elections or with the debate around the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, that there is almost an obsession with recent history, that we seem to come back to it again and again. Would you agree?

“I don’t actually know. I don’t think that the whole of Czech society is obsessed with history. I think that the bulk of the population is indifferent and it really concerns a small portion of the population who really follow these debates. But the politicians are well aware of what ammunition history can be and they are very often willing to use it as a very strong piece of ammunition. This was seen quite clearly in the recent pre-presidential debates. It was used very skillfully by Mr Zeman and in a way that is sad and shouldn’t be the case, because he was able to spark in quite a substantial part of the population the anti-German stereotyping, which is somehow deeply rooted in so many Czechs. If such an important personality as the presidential candidate encourages them to think that the security of this country and this nation is at stake vis-à-vis Germany, even though it is a complete nonsense, quite an important part of the population is willing to listen to it and take it into account in their decision-making over who to vote for. But in normal, ordinary times, most of the people here in this country are quite indifferent.”