60 years after his death, what is the legacy of Edvard Beneš?

03-09-2008

Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of the death of the second president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš. Beneš remains a controversial figure: he was one of the architects of the modern Czechoslovak state, but he was also in power during the Munich agreement of 1938 and ten years later he allowed the Communist Party to take over. Probably his most controversial decision was issuing decrees that led to the expulsion of 2.5 million ethnic Germans after the Second World War. What was Edvard Beneš like as a politician, and what is his legacy today? I discussed those questions with historian Jan Adamec.

Edvard BenešEdvard Beneš “Edvard Beneš was probably one of the best foreign ministers of his time. He was hard-working, he was smart and he knew his job. But his role as a politician is more disputable. In this sense he probably never escaped the shadow of his mentor, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. On the other hand, apart from Masaryk, no other politician, with the exception of Alexander Dubček, faced such grave state crisis and had to make such grave decisions with far-reaching consequences for the fate of our nation.”

What is president Beneš mostly associated with nowadays?

“I think he represents the ups and down of the Czech destiny. He was one of the founders of Czechoslovakia and he was also at the centre of two tragedies of our state. We tend to either praise him non-critically or demonize him. I am afraid that nowadays the mainstream opinion associates Beneš mostly with being too soft towards the Communists in 1948 and to the Soviet Union from 1943 onwards. The public tends to blame him for the 40 years of socialism but it is definitely not Beneš who should be blamed for this.”

So you would say that the public opinion today is mostly critical…

“Yes. It also depends on current political agenda. In the 1990s it was probably the Sudeten German question which was in the centre of the political debates. Nowadays it’s the question of facing the problem of Socialism and the 40 years of communism and definitely president Beneš plays a very important role in this.”

Do you actually think he could have avoided the Communist takeover?

“I would say that while in 1938 he was the leader of the state and bore full responsibility for his decision (and we could discuss for hours whether it was a good or wrong decision), the question of the so-called 1948 guilt should be aimed at the whole society, at the political elite and other leaders, not solely on Beneš. I think Ferdinand Peroutka was right when he said that the only big mistake Beneš made was that he didn’t resign immediately after the non-Communist ministers resigned in February 1948. By this he provided his credit and his cover for the subsequent illegal Communist actions.”

03-09-2008