Edvard Beneš: a choice of evils


In sombre tones the second Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš announced his resignation on Czechoslovak Radio on October 5 1938. Since becoming president in 1935, he had been haunted by the spectre of Nazi Germany, as Hitler had fuelled separatist sentiment among the country’s 3.5 million German speakers. Here is an extract from one of President Beneš’ vain appeals for reconciliation, in April 1938.

Edvard Beneš
“The Czechoslovaks and the Germans in Czechoslovakia are mature factors in European culture. Theirs is the duty and theirs should be the ambition to set the rest of Europe a good example and show how nationality difficulties should be correctly and rationally solved in the interests of the country which has been their common home for centuries.”

Beneš had put all his efforts into persuading Czechoslovakia’s allies not to let Hitler annex the Czech borderlands, but when his appeals were ignored, he resigned and went into exile in Britain. Five months later, in March 1939 German troops marched into Prague, and it was not long before the world was at war. From 1940 Beneš was Czechoslovak President in exile. The following extract is of Beneš speaking on a British newsreel of 1942, just after the Nazis had destroyed the Czech village of Lidice.

“Lidice shall really live again. And we must all stand together, in order to prepare, after victory has been achieved, a peace in Europe, over which we could already today solemnly declare that all that we are passing through now, today, in this war, will never happen again.”

Immediately after the war, Beneš returned home as president, along with many Czechs and Slovaks who had fought alongside the British. On September 29 1945, he addressed thousands of Czech veterans on Prague’s Old Town Square, part of which was still in ruins after the fighting in the last days of the war. He took the opportunity to say some words in English.

“Hearty words of thanks to the government of Great Britain, which for nearly five years offered us hospitality at a time when we all were exiles, which afforded you proper training and gave you the most modern arms and the opportunity in splendid fighting and brotherhood with your British comrades, to engage in the struggle against our national enemies.”

Three years later, President Beneš was dead. In June 1948 he resigned, having been completely marginalized by what amounted to a communist putsch four months before. He died of natural causes in September 1948, as his country slipped back into totalitarian rule.