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 19 820583 X

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.

At first sight, Benes’s politics seem a mass of contradictions. He was a panslavist, yet also – until 1938 – a passionate believer in Czechoslovakia’s Western orientation. He was at once an egalitarian socialist and a convinced Social Darwinist. As Zeman and Klimek show, however, there was an inner consistency to his politics: ‘Equality was for him the cornerstone of democracy; and freedom was subordinate to equality.’ Moreover, Benes’s Social Darwinism – ‘a clue to his intellectual development’ – arose naturally out of his concern for the Czech predicament, trapped as it was in the centre of Europe, between hostile larger nations. The various contradictions were reconciled in the expulsions of 1945, a measure which could be portrayed as both a national and a ‘socialist’ revolution: the expropriation of Sudeten property made it much easier for the deeply bourgeois Czechs to come to terms with Communist programmes of nationalisation.

The key to Benes’s politics was his foreign policy and his concept of the nation-state. He was a staunch believer in a Bismarckian – or Rankean – ‘primacy of foreign policy’, as ‘the quintessence of politics in general’. For Benes, domestic concerns were a mere adjunct to foreign affairs. The longest serving foreign minister in interwar Europe, he was able to put these principles into practice and able, too, to retain control of foreign policy after he became president in late 1935. Unlike other Czechoslovak politicians, he never forgot that the fate of the country would be decided at the conference tables of the Great Powers.

His achievements were considerable. During World War One, the Czech national movement in exile, headed by the ‘mafia’ under T.G. Masaryk, and ably seconded by Benes, started from a disadvantage. Many Czechs who had remained in Bohemia after 1914, perhaps the majority, disagreed with the independence platform hammered out in London and among the diaspora. Hundreds of thousands of Czechs served in the Habsburg army; the vast majority did not desert. One of them, oddly enough, was Jan Masaryk, son of the exiled T.G., who defended the Dual Monarchy to the bitter end and was even decorated for it. In spite of all this, Benes and Masaryk senior persuaded the Allies in August 1918 to recognise Czechoslovakia as a ‘belligerent nation’ within as yet undefined borders. They also managed to turn a liability into an asset: after 1917 the large number of Czech POWs in tsarist camps were turned into an anti-Bolshevik Legion in the Far East. Their frantic desire to clear a passage home was translated into diplomatic gain at the conference table. Then, at the peace negotiations, a mixture of guile and special pleading persuaded doubtful Allied statesmen to meet Czech territorial demands.

First, Benes persuaded them to recognise the dynastic boundaries of Bohemia as the ‘historic’ boundaries of the Czech nation-state, thereby denying the right of the Bohemian or ‘Sudeten’ Germans to self-determination. At the same time, he applied ethnic and linguistic criteria to sever the Slovak lands from their historic link to the Hungarian crown. Subsequently, he allayed concerns about the fate of the Sudeten German ‘minority’ by promising to apply to Bohemia the Swiss model of national coexistence. In practice, of course, nothing of the sort happened. The new state included many more Germans than Slovaks, yet the Constitution of 1920 merely referred to the Czechoslovak ‘nation’ and made no mention of minorities. As the new President, T.G. Masaryk, observed fatefully in 1918, ‘we have established our state; this fact will determine the constitutional position of our Germans, who originally came to the country as immigrants and colonists.’ And in 1926, the Government moved to implement precisely the sort of triumphant and discriminatory language laws which the Czechs had always opposed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This achievement was repeated during World War Two, under even more difficult circumstances. In the early years, Allied governments, wary of repeating the mistakes of 1918-19, rejected Benes’s demands that the Munich Agreement be rendered null and void. Nor were they impressed by Czech behaviour under the Nazi occupation. Unlike Yugoslavia and Poland, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia by and large co-operated with the German war effort. Indeed, one prominent Czech historian has referred to ‘the failure of national resistance’: the percentage of Jews who were sheltered by gentile neighbours, for example, was no higher than in Germany itself. Benes succeeded in putting the Czechs’ victim status to good effect. Not merely did he eventually persuade the Allies to revoke the Munich Agreement; he also managed to marginalise the Sudeten German émigré community in London and to generalise the undeniably high level of Sudeten involvement with the Nazi regime into the ‘collective guilt’ of all Bohemian Germans. At the same time, he both played down Slovak complicity in the vicious collaborationist regime of Monsignor Tiso and appropriated the incipiently separatist Slovak rising of 1944 for the Czechoslovak cause. Above all, Benes secured vital Soviet backing for his territorial and ethnic vision. In 1945, this paid off handsomely: an ethnically cleansed Czechoslovakia was restored, more or less within the borders of 1918. The ‘pure’ nation-state dreamed of for so long by Czech nationalists had come to be, at least in Bohemia and Moravia.

There was a price to be paid, however. The Moscow option involved territorial and diplomatic compromises – or capitulations. Thanks to Benes, Czechoslovakia became the only Central and Eastern European state seen as entering the Soviet orbit voluntarily. Indeed, so keen was he to avoid a repetition of the events of 1938, when the lack of a common border hampered any (notional) direct Soviet intervention, that he actively pursued the cession of sub-Carpathian Rus – the easternmost province of the old state – to Stalin. This was the paradox of Benes’s achievement: his Faustian pact with the Soviets had created an ethnically homogeneous Czech nation-state, but surrendered its external independence.

This did not mark a departure from the ‘primacy of foreign policy’, nor does it necessarily indicate a lack of diplomatic skill on Benes’s part. In both 1938 and 1948, the Czechs were the victims not so much of their own political mistakes, though these, too, played a part, but of shifts in the balance of international power. In each case, Benes bowed to force majeure. As the Communist leader Klement Gottwald remarked in 1948, ‘he has one good side, and that is that he knows what force is and can appreciate it realistically.’ In each case, also, the alternative was too dreadful to contemplate. Poland – which had helped to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938 – later put up heroic resistance against both Hitler and Stalin, but this did not save the country from war, occupation, genocide and ultimately partition. Thanks to Benes, the Czechs largely escaped physical and cultural destruction, and territorial losses. As A.J.P. Taylor also observed, it was a moot point whether it was better to be a ‘saved’ Pole or a ‘betrayed’ Czech.

Zeman and Klimek’s treatment of these diplomatic and high-political issues is persuasive. Yet inevitably, in such a relatively short biography, some questions are left unanswered. It is surprising, for example, not to find any mention of Benes’s role (if any) in the downfall of the Soviet Marshal Tukhachevsky during the Stalinist purges. For a long time it was believed that Benes had unwittingly served as the conduit whereby disinformation could be ‘planted’ on the Nazis; more recently, Igor Lukes has argued that while Benes did pass on details of Tukhachevsky’s alleged treason, he sat on them until after the execution. Either way, the incident is central to an understanding of Benes’s relationship with Stalin. Similarly, one would like to know more about Benes’s role in Heydrich’s assassination: the execution of the ‘Deputy-Protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia by British-trained Czech commandos in 1942 provoked ferocious German reprisals, above all in Lidice, where the entire adult population was massacred. Klimek and Zeman merely note that there is no evidence to link Benes to the assassination; and Benes himself later denied involvement. Yet on 15 May 1942, just before the assassination, Benes had observed that ‘an act of violence such as disturbances, direct subversion, sabotage or demonstrations, might be imperative or even necessary in our country. It would save the country internationally, and even a great sacrifice is worth it.’ He was no stranger to the idea of sacrificing thousands of lives for reasons of state. In 1917, he had dispassionately weighed the likely cost of sending Czech troops to the Western Front against the projected diplomatic gain: ‘nothing much would be left of our army in France – those people go to the slaughter.’

Oddly enough, another lacuna is the vexed question of Benes’s relations with the Habsburg Empire, and with Germany and the Germans, which are treated almost entirely from a diplomatic perspective or in the context of Czech Parliamentary politics. How did Benes see national coexistence within the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1918? Was he involved, for example, in the controversial attempts of the Czechs to secure special status in the imperial capital of Vienna, where by 1900 they made up about one fifth of the population? When did Benes finally decide to break with the venerable Habsburg model of dynastic unity and national coexistence? They refer to his doctoral dissertation of 1908 in passing, yet this contained the surprising observation that ‘People have often spoken of a dismemberment of Austria. I do not believe in it at all. The historical and economic bonds among the Austrian nations are too strong to make such a dismemberment possible ... the reconciliation of the two nations in Bohemia is only possible if each people enjoys full autonomy.’ It is plainly a long way from this to Détruisez l’Autriche-Hongrie, the inflammatory pamphlet with which Benes shot to public prominence in 1916.

There is a similar ambiguity in his attitude to Germany. At the Peace Conference in 1918 he had described the Germans as ‘mortal enemies’, whose defeat was the ‘historic mission’ of the Czechs. Yet, in the Twenties he spoke quite differently: ‘There is not only the Germany of Bismarck and William, there is also a Germany of Herder, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Mozart, Kant and of Humboldt. There were two Germanies before the war, just as there are two Germanies today ... A nation which has given so much to mankind ... is a great nation.’ Once again, it is a long way from sentiments such as these to the climax of his speech in May 1945, when he declared that Germany had ‘ceased to be human in the war, and appeared to us a single, great, human monster ... we have decided that we have to liquidate the German problem in our republic once and for all.’ This begs the question whether Benes’s anti-Germanism was less a crude, xenophobic impulse, than the logical – if brutal – consequence of his Social Darwinism, whereby only one of the two rival peoples could ultimately prevail in the struggle for mastery in Bohemia and Moravia. In the end, it was the Benes of 1945 who was to leave an enduring mark in Central Europe. The Czech Republic of today is as much his legacy as that of Masaryk and Havel.