24.5.04

Edvard Beneš (1884-1948)

Speaking of whipping boys ... The second president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, would have turned 120 yesterday. Beneš is best remembered for the decrees that bear his name, which expelled Czechoslovakia's German minority after World War II. He also stands out in popular memory for having been on watch during two putsches: The Munich Agreement of 1938, which kinda sorta resulted in World War II, and the Communist coup of 1948, which introduced Czechoslovakia 41 years of state-sponsored unpleasantness.


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Although he died shortly after the arrival of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Beneš has been in the news again lately. A measure before the Czech parliament earlier this spring would have recognised Beneš for his contributions to the state. He was Masaryk's No 2, after all. But the Senate rejected the bill and sent it back to the Chamber of Deputies, who overrode the bill and sent it on to President Klaus, who refused to sign the bill, but who said yesterday that Beneš is getting the short end of the stick.

I have to agree on that last bit, but there's an awful lot about Beneš that just doesn't come up in the recent discussions. May 27 marks the anniversary of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one-time SS Obergruppenfuehrer, General of Police, Reichsprotektor and generally unlikeable fellow. This week, I'm taking a look at that assassination and events leading up to and resulting from it. And I'm starting with Beneš. I'm also relying heavily -- nay, stealing liberally from Callum MacDonald's excellent book 'The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich.' I have condensed and paraphrase a lot, and have attempted to indicate direct use of MacDonald's text by quotes and block text. I've undoubtedly inserted errors and typos in the rush -- sorry. Buy the book.

And for everyone without the patience to read the below: Beneš couldn't win. He might have helped himself by not not being such an insecure control-freak, but under the circumstances he held up pretty well. His love of intrigue and politics got a lot of innocent people killed, but undoubtedly saved many lives as well. I still haven't made up my mind about him. As they say

Kdo chce s vlky žíti
Musí s vlky výti


Beneš's involvement with Czechoslovak statehood dates back to the nation's struggle for independence from Habsburg rule. During World War I, while Masaryk stumped abroad for international support for an independent Czechoslovakia, Beneš remained at home to work with the resistance. He was forced to flee in 1915, but continued to forward intelligence to Paris and London. As MacDonald writes, the experience left Beneš with a taste for intrigue.

In the post-war period, Beneš served as Foreign Minister. He was described by others as 'a difficult man to know well', 'machine-like' and 'unemotional', and said of himself

'In the most difficult position I have never despaired. In politics I always behave as though I were playing tennis. When my opponent is "forty" and I am "love" and the next ball may be the last, I am still convinced that I can win the game.'


MacDonald also notes that Beneš was vain and insisted 'that photographers take his picture from angles which concealed his lack of inches.'

Beneš became president as the Nazis began exploiting the Sudeten problem. He saw Czechoslovak national unity as fragile and opposed calls for Sudeten (and Slovak) autonomy. He was criticised somewhat unfairly for not being Masaryk and developed an intolerance of opposition. MacDonald doesn't say as much, but it would appear Beneš was beginning to suffer from profound insecurity. Still, he was pragmatic:

Beneš hoped to convince the major powers that supporting Czechoslovakia was in their own best interests. The Czechs already had a security pact with France but in May 1935 Benes sough additional insurance in a new treaty with the Soviet Union. This committed the Russians to defend Czechoslovakia against aggression although only if the French first fulfilled their military obligations. The pact reflected his conviction that Czechoslovakia could survive only within a European security system which included both east and west. He saw no advantage in excluding the Russians and believed that Czechoslovakia could balance between communism and capitalism, incorporating the best of both sides.


It's hard to appreciate how hard the Munich crisis hit Czechs in general and Beneš in particular. In addition to insult delivered by Britain, France and Italy, he faced pressure from his army to reject Munich and take on Germany alone. Beneš knew that fighting Hitler was suicide, but yielding the Sudetenland wasn't much better. Forced to resign, he fled to Britain and later to the United States where he stewed in his bitter juices.

For Beneš the reversal of Munich became both a national crusade and a personal obsession. As he later recalled: 'From September 1938, sleeping and waking, I was continually thinking of this objective – living for it, suffering on its account and working for it in every one of my political actions.'

By July 1939, Beneš had returned to London to promote the Czech cause. Confident that the coming war would result in Hitler's defeat, he wanted to be sure Czechoslovakia had a place at the peace conference table. But his view that Hitler's aggression had nullified the Munich agreement won little support in London or Paris. Both capitals resisted his attempts to set up a government in exile until the outbreak of war. Even then, the Czech cause played second fiddle to the Polish one, and the French wanted someone other than Beneš to lead the government in exile. And then there were the Communists:

In 1940, Beneš complained that continued delay might lead his people to turn to Moscow, despite the Nazi-Soviet pact and the defeatist propaganda of the Czech communists, who condemned the war as an imperialist quarrel. As he complained to a high Foreign Office official, how could he 'prevent his countrymen displaying hatred towards the West, which betrayed them and now would not even regard them as equals in adversity …? Why should they join the army and how could the rise of the Communist movement at home be prevented?'


Beneš feared that Czechoslovakia would be negotiated out of existence at the peace conferences at the conclusion of the war. He distrusted Britain and France, and neutral America gave him little encouragement. He clung to what little he had: the underground resistance in Czechoslovakia. He exploited the intelligence and exaggerated the strength of the underground to make the resistance appear stronger than it was, and to prevent a compromise peace which would leave Hitler in possession of Bohemia and Moravia. To some extent it worked: Britain became excited about a possible fifth column at the German rear.

Beneš knew that if the Soviets entered the war before Britain rejected Munich, his people would give up on the West entirely. The Czechoslovak people would also demand the expulsion of all Germans from country after the war – which required Munich be repudiated. Beneš needed to convince Britain that the Czechs were pulling their weight in the war. To this end, he massaged intelligence and intelligence officials. Soon word was out that the Czechoslovak resistence was the most formidable in Europe. True, the intelligence network that Beneš had continued to nurture since before World War I was extensive. But it was also plugged in to Soviet intelligence. Beneš was determined that Stalin support the exile government, not the Czech communists.

The fall of France made Beneš organisation even more valuable to the Allies and the exiled president finally gained an audience with Churchill (and official recognition) in 1941.

Beneš represented the underground as active in three areas – undetectable sabotage against German communications, passive resistance such as slow-downs in the factories, and the collection of intelligence. 'Then the underground would emerge into the streets, seize key positions and send flying columns to reoccupy the Sudetenland.'
In 1941, with Germany appeared poised to invade the Soviet Union, the Czechs got the go-ahead to start dropping intelligence teams into Bohemia-Moravia. These men were members of the Czech Brigade, which had barely escaped destruction after the fall of France.

When the Germans invaded, the Soviets were keen to have all the help they could get from Czech intelligence and repudiated the Munich agreement. Beneš used the new arrangement as a lever to break loose Britain's conditional rejection of Munich.
But the Soviets wanted more than intelligence – they wanted to see the Czechs fighting. Beneš was loathe to expose his underground, only to have it destroyed by German reprisals. He claimed that underground had stepped up 'undetectable resistance'. The intelligence teams that were being dropped into Bohemia-Moravia were given orders to engage in sabotage. But the calls for greater efforts continued. Moreover, Beneš was also under pressure to out-perform Czech Communists in Moscow, lead by Klement Gottwald.

So Beneš orchestrated a move to impress Moscow and London with the effectiveness of his resistance. 'On 14 September 1941, the BBC Czech service called for a boycott of the Protectorate press … In the next few days, newspaper sales declined by up to fifty per cent…' Beneš said the boycott demonstrated that events in Bohemia-Moravia could be co-ordinated by orders from London, and that Czechs would obey the Czech service of the BBC before that of Moscow Radio. The boycott also sent a message to Emil Hacha's puppet regime: if forced to choose, the people would follow Beneš.

But the boycott had a third, unexpected development. Perceiving a weak administration in Prague, Hitler recalled Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath and replaced him with SS Obergruppenfuehrer and General of Police Reinhard Heydrich.

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