September 3, 1948: Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš dies a broken man

Edvard Beneš

One of the founding fathers of the nation, a pillar of Czechoslovak diplomacy and statehood, Edvard Beneš was destined to serve his country as president in the most turbulent years of the 20th century.

Statue of Edward Beneš in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

Edvard Beneš was one of the co-founders of independent Czechoslovakia, working for the creation of the common state of Czechs and Slovaks from abroad, together with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Milan Rastislav Štefánik.

He was the first and longest-serving foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, holding the post from 1918 to 1935 through ten successive governments, one of which he headed himself from 1921 to 1922.

When President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk retired in 1935, Beneš succeeded him as Czechoslovak president.

He served as the country’s president from 1935 to 1938, and again from 1939 to 1948.

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Czech Television

As head of state, Beneš faced two major crises, which both resulted in his resignation. His first resignation came after the Munich Agreement and the subsequent German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, which brought his government into exile in the United Kingdom. The second came about with the 1948 communist coup, when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia.

Edvard Beneš | Photo: Library of Congress

In 1940 he signed the controversial Beneš Decrees on the basis of which Germans and Hungarians, some of whom had ancestors who had lived in Czechoslovakia for centuries prior to World War II, were stripped of their Czechoslovak citizenship and property and were expelled from their homes.

The turbulent years took their toll. Beneš had been in poor health since the spring of 1945, when he suffered a minor stroke. He suffered two more strokes in 1947, and seeing the undoing of his life's work left him completely broken. In a 2018 interview with Radio Prague International, historian Igor Lukes recalled that by February 1948 Beneš was "a shell of a man" who did not have the emotional or physical stamina to hold out against the rough players of the Communist Party.

He died of natural causes at his villa in Sezimovo Ústí on September 3, 1948, just seven months after the communist coup.