And now it's time for this week's edition of Czechs in History, in which we examine the lives of famous figures in the history of the Czech Lands. Today, we take a look at Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes...
It was hard to know where to start off today's show. As we are dealing with Eduard Benes, the second Czechoslovak president, the obvious choice might have been Prague Castle. Instead, I am at the top of Wenceslas Square. Why? Well, Benes was president during a dramatic period in Czech history, and twice he had to give way to hostile forces. These are both controversial decisions for the Czechs. The first time was in 1938, when the Munich Agreement was signed, which led to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in March 1939, and the second was in February 1948, when the Communist Party came to power. Both times, in March 1939 and February 1948, the Nazis and then the Communists paraded in triumph on this square...
Up until 1915, Masaryk did not favour an independent Czechoslovakia, but wanted greater autonomy within the Austrian federation. Once he decided to go ahead with obtaining independence, he chose Benes, rather than any other Czech politician, to go abroad to represent Czechoslovak interests. The reason for this was, as professor of philosophy Erazim Kohak told me, his global vision:
Eduard Benes represented Czechoslovakia at the Treaty of Versailles, where the boundaries of Czechoslovakia were drawn up in November 1918. He presented a strong case and the Allies approved his proposal. Benes has been criticised by some over the years this, as what became Czechoslovakia also contained a German minority of more than three million. Is this criticism justified, did Benes ask for too much at Versailles?:
This was not all that he did during this time. He was one of the founders of the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, of which he was the chairman in 1920. He was Foreign Minister up until 1926, and was an MP until 1935, when TG Masaryk abdicated, proposing that Eduard Benes succeed him. Benes was elected president on December 14th 1935.
At the end of the war, Benes returned to Prague, and issued decrees that all Sudeten Germans remaining in Czechoslovakia were to be deported. This is perhaps his most controversial decision, and remains a bone of contention with many Sudeten Germans, now living in Austria and Germany. Were these decrees really necessary?: The final blow in Benes' life came in 1948. The Communist Party took thirty nine percent of the vote in the general elections, and had managed, with Soviet help, to gain control of the police and various key ministries. In protest, the other parties resigned their posts in the government, hoping that Benes would call new elections. Instead, the Communist Party came to him with a new government ready formed. The Soviet ambassador harangued him for hours to accept this, and in the end he acquiesced. Within a few days the Communist Party had taken control of the whole country. Again, Benes has been criticised for not calling elections, or even calling out the army. I asked Erazim Kohak what Benes could have done?: Eduard Benes abdicated a few months later, and died on September 3rd 1948.
Is the criticism of Benes' actions, particularly in 1938, fair? What role did he play in the history of Czechoslovakia, and what significance does he or should he have for the Czech people more than fifty years after his death?: