One Good Side

Brendan Simms

  • The Life of Edvard Benes, 1884-1948: Czechoslovakia in Peace and War by Zbynek Zeman and Antonin Klimek
    Oxford, 293 pp, £40.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 01 982058 5

Edvard Benes, as A.J.P. Taylor once remarked, enjoyed the doubtful distinction of having signed away his country twice, once to the Germans, and later to the Russians. His capitulation at Munich in 1938, the betrayal by Britain and France, the tribulations of the Nazi occupation and the final humiliation of the Soviet takeover in 1948 all helped to foster the image of a democratic, peace-loving Czechoslovakia which has endured to the present day. The Western world could not but sympathise with a (relatively) liberal state which, for all its faults, firmly refused to succumb to the tide of authoritarianism sweeping Central and Eastern Europe between the wars; unlike virtually all its neighbours, pre-1938 Czechoslovakia was never guilty of any kind of state-sponsored anti-semitism. The events of 1968, when Soviet tanks crushed Dubcek’s experiment of ‘socialism with a human face’, could only reinforce this impression.

There was another Benes, however, and another Czechoslovakia, as was to become apparent in 1945. In Bohemia and Moravia, victory was accompanied by a brutal and almost entirely indiscriminate expulsion of around three million Sudeten Germans. Eight hundred years of German civilisation and settlement came to an end at a single blow. Similar expulsions of ethnic Germans were carried out in Poland, but there at least they were part of a broader territorial shift, which had displaced millions of Poles in the East, and in which the Germans had merely drawn the shortest straw. The Bohemian and Moravian expulsions – or ‘transfer’, as the Czechs euphemistically called them – made virtually no distinction between ‘guilty’ and ‘good’ Germans, many of whom had followed Benes into wartime exile in London. The decrees ordering the expulsions were among the first signed by Benes at the end of the war and have become known in Germany as the ‘Benesch-Dekrete’. In the words of the Sudeten German Social Democrat leader, Wenzel Jaksch, himself a staunch opponent of Hitler and a refugee, Benes was ‘a fanatic, who combined the weapons of diplomacy, conspiracy and propaganda with superlative skill and wielded them with maximum effect.’

Benes’s conduct was equally controversial inside Czechoslovakia, though for different reasons. His intricate manoeuvres to secure the Presidency after Thomas Garrigue Masaryk’s resignation in 1935 inevitably won him many enemies. As foreign minister from 1918, his unwillingness to continue to let Czechoslovaks participate in the intervention against Soviet Russia had infuriated conservatives such as Karel Kramar. He was also much criticised for failing to head off the Rapallo Treaty of 1922 – which allied Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany – and the Locarno Treaty of 1925, which pointedly refused to guarantee national borders in Central and Eastern Europe. Above all, however, he was censured both for his handling of the Nazi threat and the diplomatic catastrophe at Munich, when he was compelled to cede the Sudetenland to Germany, and for the Soviet-backed Communist takeover of 1948.

Two authors have now set out to rescue Benes’s reputation. Zbynek Zeman is well-known for his numerous books on the history of Central and Eastern Europe before 1948; Antonin Klimek is a military historian with an intimate knowledge of the Benes archive. Their approach is admirably dispassionate: a book which makes virtually no reference to Nazi atrocities in Czechoslovakia cannot be criticised for similarly neglecting the via dolorosa of the Sudeten Germans. The resulting picture of Benes is not unproblematic, but it is one that seeks to do justice to the complexities both of the man and of the international situation with which he had to grapple.

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