Martin Brown: a post-Cold War perspective on the wartime Czechoslovak government in London

Martin Brown

Martin Brown is an English historian with a particular interest in twentieth century Czechoslovak history. His mother is Czech and he speaks both languages fluently, enabling him to move effortlessly between sources in both Czech and English. Martin was recently in Prague for the launch of the Czech version of his appraised study of the Czechoslovak government in exile in London during the Second World War. The book “Dealing with Democrats”, published by Peter Lang, is anything but a dry study of diplomatic history. Instead it offers intriguing insights into the difficult and shifting relations between Czechoslovak wartime émigrés - led by President Edvard Beneš - and Britain’s Foreign Office. I caught up with Martin at the launch to talk about the book.

Martin Brown
“What I was trying to do was to tease out various themes from the relations between the British and the Czechoslovak government in exile that took place in London.”

President Beneš of Czechoslovakia resigned at the beginning of October 1938, just after the Munich Agreement had been signed. He went into voluntary exile at that time in Britain, but Britain had spectacularly let down Czechoslovakia by granting Hitler the Sudetenland, hadn’t it?

“Yes. Beneš came to Britain very briefly immediately after the events of Munich at the end of 1938, and then went off to the University of Chicago, so when Prague was invaded in March 1939, Beneš was actually in Chicago lecturing, and then in the summer – June or July 1939 – he returns to Britain and quite specifically chooses London, because many other Czechoslovak exiles or émigrés had gone to Paris. He felt, I think, the betrayal of France more keenly than he did the betrayal – if we can call it that – of Britain. And I think he probably made the right choice, because, of course, there was an unseemly scramble in the summer of 1940 for those émigrés and exiles who were in Paris, the Poles in particular, who then came to London. By this time he had had a year to try and solidify his position in London. He had gone some way in doing so before 1940.”

But it took some time for the Czechoslovak government in exile in London to be officially recognized.

“Beneš and his colleagues, those émigrés who were in London, tried to get the British to officially recognize the government in exile, which, unlike with the Poles, for example, didn’t happen automatically, because from the British perspective Czechoslovakia had collapsed or fragmented prior to the actual occupation. So Beneš was, at one level at least, a private individual and nothing more.”

And so you’re saying that there were elements in the British political mainstream that didn’t necessarily want to see Czechoslovakia recreated within its pre-1938 borders after the war.

“Absolutely not. The recreation of Czechoslovakia was not inevitable. Beneš and his colleagues fought very long and hard to make sure that it was reconstructed, and there were certainly elements within the Foreign Office and within the British cabinet during the war, whose basic appreciation of the situation was that these inter-war states created or recognized at the Paris peace conference of 1919 were failures. There was no point in recreating them as failures. So what they began investigating was a variety of different options. One of these options was federations: a Polish-Czechoslovak federation, there was also a Greek-Yugoslav federation, that – believe it or not – was actually signed in London, and didn’t come to pass either. The other option, which was, of course, the option that came to pass, which was also being investigated by the British from a very early stage – in fact from September 1939 – was what was eventually referred to as the ‘transfer’ of the Sudeten Germans – physically removing the troublesome minorities from Czechoslovakia. So there was a range of options there that were being looked at.”

In terms of this option of physically removing the German minority from Czechoslovakia – which is of course what happened after the Second World War – I had always thought that the main impulse for these mass movements of peoples had come almost exclusively from the Soviet Union. Is that not the case?

“That was the interpretation during the Cold War, and I think when we look at the history of the Second World War - and certainly it is something that I was very conscious of when I was writing the book, which I was researching and writing in a post-Cold War period - is that most of the interpretations came very clearly either from the Soviet – or communist – side, and we all know what that was, or from the other side. I think that both were actually written in competition with each other and far less in relation to what actually happened. Now it’s very easy to say yes, the Soviets were well known for their brutality, for the mass killings and mass transportations, but from the British perspective, Britain had been using these methods for at least four or five hundred years in empire. Transplantation is a term that you find the British using in Ulster in the late 1500s, early 1600s. The British were sympathetic to this idea far earlier than most Cold War accounts suggest.”

Edvard Beneš
But in the context of political and intellectual debate in Britain and the United States in the second half of the Second World War there were serious reservations about these vast movements of people, weren’t there? It isn’t as if there was a consensus on the political scene that this is an acceptable way to solve the problems between Czechs and Germans after the end of hostilities.

“There was a lot of debate, for example, in the British media, in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords, when these removals of populations began from Central and Eastern Europe, and many people were very much against it. In terms of policy decision-makers, i.e. the upper echelons of government, they were fairly clear from fairly early on that this was probably going to happen whether they agreed to it or not, because it was going to be a revenge, taken against the German-speaking populations in Central and Eastern Europe. It was seen as ‘a desperate remedy’ as one of the phrases went. Many people regarded that the unresolved minority problems of the inter-war period had caused this devastating six-year-long war. So a solution, however brutal, however destructive, however inhumane, was still preferable to allowing this situation to reignite any real conflict.”

Isn’t there a certain paradox, as far as the Czechoslovak government in exile was concerned in that it was based in Britain, in London, and yet by the second half of the war it was clear that the main influence in post-war Czechoslovakia was going to be from the East, from the Soviet Union?

“Beneš, I think, was very aware of this. Although I think he chose well in choosing London in 1939, certainly by 1942, absolutely by 1943, the British were no longer key players. Power had now moved to Washington and to Moscow. What was going to be decided after 1945 in terms of Czechoslovakia’s borders and government, what would happen to the German speakers, a whole range of key issues – even Czechoslovakia’s economy – was now going to be decided in Washington and Moscow, not so much in London. So of course there was a whole lot of jostling and positioning taking place in London among the governments in exile and the various émigrés. We might fondly imagine that the anti-Nazi coalition in London might have been one big happy family. It was not a coalition of the willing. The Poles and Czechs got into all sorts of scrapes and problems; we know from recently released MI5 files that Polish politicians were paying anti-Beneš Czech politicians, so there was a lot of infighting going on.

 'The Abbey' at Aston Abbots,  place of exile of Edvard Beneš
“Of course for the Poles their position was, for very obvious and very understandable reasons, very firmly anti-Soviet. Beneš was perhaps more flexible, some people may accuse him of being more naïve in his relations with Stalin and the Soviet Union. He signed a very infamous – or famous – agreement with Stalin and the Soviet Union at the end of 1943 that the British warned him not to sign. But the problem here is that it was not so much that the British didn’t want him to sign an agreement with the Soviet Union, they didn’t want him to undermine the position of the Poles. That was the British position, because throughout the Second World War the British always had more interest in the Poles than the Czechoslovaks.

“So Beneš was in a difficult position. I think he was astute enough to realize that Winston Churchill and the British were no longer in the driving seat, if they ever had been, and that if Czechoslovakia was going to be recreated - and liberated in particular – that liberation was going to come from the East.”

And do you think that there is some truth in the often repeated argument that by the end of the Second World War Beneš was pretty disillusioned with Western-type democracy, after seeing his country let down by its Western allies, and that he didn’t have such a strong will to resist the drift towards totalitarian rule in his country in the years that followed the war?

“I think it is easy to blame Beneš personally for what happened in 1938 and then to blame him again for what happened in 1948. I’m not sure that’s something supported by the evidence which we see on the ground. For better or for worse we should never forget there was a very strong support for the Soviet Union. Again I come back to the Cold War. Let’s not forget that in the West – in Great Britain and the United States – the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism was written out of history in exactly the same way that on the other side of the Iron Curtain the West’s contribution was written out of history. If you grew up in Britain or the United States during the Cold War you thought the Second World War was won on the beaches of Normandy. Well, it wasn’t, and I don’t know any serious historian of the Second World War who still says that today. Like it or not, Nazi Germany was to a very large extent defeated by the Soviet army and by the Soviet Union, whatever regime it happened to be. Of course, we also know that the Soviet Union would not have been able to do that without American material and economic support.

“I think Beneš was disillusioned to a degree. I think he felt that he wasn’t in some respects getting the support that he wanted from London or Washington. I think by 1945 there were certain key elements in both London and Washington who regarded the Czechoslovaks as already in the Soviet camp. But what choice did he have? Certainly by the time he returned to Prague most of Czechoslovakia was under the occupation of Soviet forces. What could you do? Was he sympathetic to totalitarianism? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think he wanted a Soviet regime, I don’t think he was sympathetic towards that.”

You’re working very much in a post-Cold War context. That, presumably, is what is new in your research and in your book – the fact that you are taking a new angle beyond the prism of the political blocks that existed up to 1989.

“It’s very easy for us to say everything the communists wrote was propaganda and lies. Well, there was a fair amount of propaganda going on on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well. We often forget. I think a good historian is one who realizes there is always propaganda on both sides and attempts, however feebly, however unsuccessfully, to try and navigate a way beyond those positions that we found ourselves in. And I think there’s a lot of work being done in both Western and Central and Eastern Europe looking at the Cold War, looking at Cold War historiography and realizing that a lot that we think we know about the Second World War on both sides of the old Iron Curtain is very heavily influenced by the Cold War itself.”

I was talking to Martin Brown, author of the book “Dealing with Democrats. The British Foreign Office and the Czechoslovak Émigrés in Great Britain, 1939 to 1945.” The book is published by Peter Lang.