Edvard Benes

Edvard Benes

* May 28, 1884 Kozlany in the District of Rakovnik
† September 3, 1948 Sezimovo Usti

Czech and Czechoslovak politician, diplomat, president in 1935-48

Edvard Benes was born as the youngest son into a peasant family living in the district of Rakovnik. After his studies at Prague Vinohrady Gymnasium in the years 1896-1904 he enrolled to the Faculty of Philosophy in Prague. After studying briefly he left for Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and at the Independent School of Political and Social Studies. Except for his short stay in London he stayed in France until 1907 when he moved to Berlin. By receiving his Doctorate of Laws he completed his university studies firstly in Dijon (1908) by receiving Doctorate of Laws, and one year later by passing rigorous exams in Prague. He taught for three years at the Prague Academy of Commerce, and later on he came to lecture sociology at Charles University as private associate professor.

The outbreak of the World War I provoked Benes into organising an internal resistance movement called "Maffia". In particular he was responsible for channels of communication between Prague and future President Masaryk, who was exiled in Switzerland at the time. In September 1915 Benes left for abroad and from that time on his destiny was closely tied to personalities of T.G. Masaryk a M.R. Stefanik. Benes then lived in Paris where he also organized and managed individual sections of foreign emigration as well as contributed to promotion of Czechoslovak political programme. He reorganised the courier service, which maintained the covert links between him and "Maffia" in Czech lands. Aside from diplomatic efforts to gain political prestige in the eyes of foreign resistance movements he was giving a cycle of lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris on the subject of Slavicism, and wrote a series of articles for French and Czech foreign newspapers. He was instrumental in establishing the Czechoslovak National Council (1916), where he was bestowed with the function of the General Secretary. Together with M.R. Stefanik, he negotiated with the representatives of consensual powers in order to establish independent Czechoslovak military units. Subsequently, after obtaining consent as well as support the first legions were created in France (December 1917), Russia (summer 1918) and in Italy (April 1918). The outstanding result of Benes' diplomatic efforts led to the recognition of the Czechoslovak National Council as the representative of the new Czechoslovak State by France (June 1918), England (August 1918) and Italy (October 1918). This also enabled representatives of the Czechoslovak National Council to be admitted to the collective talks of the states of the Treaty of Versailles.

On October 28, 1918 Benes acting as the representative of the foreign resistance negotiated with domestic politicians in Geneva on the future of the newly independent Czechoslovak state, and upon reaching an agreement Benes became the first Minister of Foreign Affairs of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. However, he did not return home until September 1919, for already in November 1918 he had to go to Paris in order to secure the previously non-existent southern Slovak border, and to extricate Slovakia from Hungary, as well as to procure the recognition of the historical borders of the Czech State. At that time, Czechoslovakia emerged in a new state form never existing before, on the basis of Woodrow Wilson's principle of nations' rights for self-determination, which was, however, acknowledged only to the purposefully defined Czechoslovak nation in the new state. This concept, accepted to this date by most of the Czech nationals as natural and just, Benes vindicated in Peace Convents of 1919 and 1920, and as a creator of the Czechoslovak foreign politics he endeavoured to secure it by international pacts.

Edvard Benes was present at the inception of the League of Nations, and as its deputy chairman (1920), member of the Board (in 1923-27) and member of the Security Council, and its chairman (1935) he supported the principle of collective security. In 1920-22, Benes founded the Little Alliance with Yugoslavia and Romania, and in 1924, he negotiated an alliance treaty with the post-war European power, the France. He was a renowned person at important international conferences (e.g. in Genoa 1922, Locarno 1925, the Hague 1930, and Lausanne 1932) and had profound knowledge and understanding of international politics and relations. Although his primary domain was foreign affairs, he also played an important role in internal matters.

From the inception of the State, Edvard Benes was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in the years 1919 to 1926 and 1929 to 1935, he was en elected member of the National Assembly, including Prime Minister in the years 1921 to 1922. Following president T.G. Masaryk's abdication, Benes became President of the Czechoslovak Republic on December 18, 1935. As the vice chairman of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party (Benes was its member in 1923 to 1935), he had a profound influence over its policies. He rejected Marxism, but adhered to socialist ideas, the "overall development towards agricultural and workers democratism as well as natural and unavoidable weakening of the municipal bourgeoisie influence" he considered as one of the important results of the World War I. His opinions disallowed him to fully understand totalitarian principle of the Bolshevism, although he disagreed with it. In his endeavour to firmly anchor the security of the State, he tried to abolish the international isolation of the U.S.S.R. and to bring it into the League of Nations. When this was successfully accomplished, he closed an Alliance Treaty with the U.S.S.R. (in 1935). Shortly after that Munich treaty took place in 1938.

It will remain the eternal theme of the Czech history, whether it would be back then better to fight in international isolation than the moral marasmus after capitulation. It is certain that Slovaks longed for autonomy, Hungarians and Germans for alliance with their nations, and Czechs did not compel war from their political representatives including Benes. He abdicated on October 5, 1938, and went to exile. After war occupation of the Czech Lands and establishment of the Slovak State in March 1939 Benes proclaimed Munich treaty as invalid and held the theory of legal continuity of the Czechoslovakia. During the World War II Benes reached acknowledgement of the Czechoslovak exile government by all allied countries.

The Munich treaty meant trauma to Benes the same as to his Czech fellow citizens, and he was literally possessed to rectify it. Already after the events in Munich Benes occupied his mind with the problem of Germans in Czech Lands, and with future foreign-politics orientation, and for his conclusions he was able to win not only politicians of his generation - for example J. Sramek or J. Stransky - but also younger politics: H. Ripka, P. Drtina and others. Benes came to a conclusion, supported from his homeland, that a war is an apt historical moment to solve problems of the State by expulsion of Germans. Far before the Postdam Conference he communicated that end of the war"in our country must mean a great people's vengeance and a really bloody and unmerciful end for Germans" (February 1944).

During the war Benes came to understanding of how the powers will be distributed in post-war Central Europe, which led him to sign treaty with the Soviet Union in December 1943, in despite of initial disagreement of the Brits. He appealed to his countrymen to view his trip to Moscow "in the spirit of our entire national history of the past centuries". He did not event oppose to the significant changes in domestic policy. Besides the Czechoslovak Communist Party he was willing to allow socialist parties and the leftist bourgeoisie parties into the political system, and intended to implement very radical social and economic changes in the country. This was on the agenda of his visit to Moscow in December 1943, and was discussed with the foreign leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. It was also from Moscow that he would return to a liberated homeland.

After his triumphant arrival in Prague on May 16, 1945, Benes began taking steps to realising his intention to "unite the national revolution with the economic revolution" by his Decree. He was reinstated to his political office on October 28, 1945 and re-elected president on June 19, 1946. To much he stemmed from the thought that the Czechoslovakia may become "a bridge" between the Soviet Union and Western democratic countries, and thus help maintain stability in Europe. As a sociologist, he was convinced that politics are "practical sociology" and that his policies were based in science. However, further development has shown that the ideas behind his policies stemmed from wishes, not from science. Benes' faith in democratisation of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party was defeated by dramatic events in February 1948. Shortly thereafter, on June 7, 1948, Benes abdicated and died soon. (mch, ss)

Based upon biographies published by Libri: "Who was who in our history until 1918" and "Who was who in our history of the 20th century"
Quoted with the consent of the publisher.
The President's Office does not take responsibility for the contents of the text.