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Eduard Beneš

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Eduard Beneš

Edvard Beneš
President of Czechoslovakia
In office
18 December 1935 – 5 October 1938
Preceded by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Succeeded by Emil Hácha
President of Czechoslovakia in exile
In office
1940 – 2 April 1945
President of Czechoslovakia
In office
28 October 1945 – 7 June 1948
Preceded by Emil Hácha
Succeeded by Klement Gottwald
Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia
In office
26 September 1921 – 7 October 1922
Preceded by Jan Černý
Succeeded by Antonín Švehla
Personal details
Born (1884-05-28)28 May 1884
Kožlany, Bohemia
Died 3 September 1948(1948-09-03) (aged 64)
Sezimovo Ústí, Czechoslovakia
Political party Czech National Social Party
Spouse(s) Hana Benešová

Edvard Beneš (Czech pronunciation: [ˈɛdvard ˈbɛnɛʃ]; 17 May 1884 – 3 September 1948) was a leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the second President of Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938 and again from 1940 to 1948. He was known to be a skilled diplomat.[1]

Early life and education

Edvard Beneš was born into a peasant family in the small town of Kožlany, Bohemia, on 17 May 1884.[2] His brother was the Czechoslovak politician Vojta Beneš, grandfather of Emilie Benes Brzezinski. His grandnephew is Václav Edvard Beneš, a Czech-American mathematician.[3]

Edvard spent much of his youth in the Vinohrady district of Prague, where he attended a grammar school from 1896 to 1904. During this time he played football for Slavia Prague.[4] After studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague, he left for Paris and continued his studies at the Sorbonne and at the Independent School of Political and Social Studies (École Libre des Sciences Politiques). He completed his first degree in Dijon, where he received his doctorate of law in 1908. Then he taught for three years at the Prague Academy of Commerce, and after his habilitation in the field of philosophy in 1912, he became a lecturer in sociology at Charles University. He was involved in Scouting.[5]

First exile

During World War I, Beneš was one of the leading organizers of an independent Czechoslovakia from abroad. He organized a Czech pro-independence anti-Austrian secret resistance movement called "Maffia". In September 1915, he went into exile, and in Paris he made intricate diplomatic efforts to gain recognition from France and the United Kingdom for the Czechoslovak independence movement. From 1916–1918 he was a Secretary of the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris and Minister of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs in the Provisional Czechoslovak government.

In May 1918, Beneš, Masaryk, and Štefánik were reported to be organizing a Czecho-Slovak army to fight for the Western Allies in France, recruited from among Czechs and Slovaks able to get to the front and also from the large emigrant populations in the United States, said to number more than 1,500,000.[6]


From 1918–1935, Beneš was the first and longest serving Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, a post he held through 10 successive governments--one of which he headed himself from 1921 to 1922. He served in parliament from 1920–1925 and from 1929–1935 a member of Parliament. He represented Czechoslovakia in talks on the Treaty of Versailles. He briefly returned to the academic world as a professor in 1921.

Between 1923–1927 he was a member of the League of Nations Council (serving as president of its committee from 1927–1928). He was a renowned and influential figure at international conferences, such as Genoa in 1922, Locarno in 1925, The Hague in 1930, and Lausanne in 1932.

Beneš was a member of the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party (until 1925 called the Czechoslovak Socialist Party) and a strong Czechoslovakist - he did not consider Slovaks and Czechs to be separate ethnicities.

First presidency

When President Tomáš Masaryk retired in 1935, Beneš was the obvious choice as his successor. He opposed Nazi Germany's claim to the German-speaking Sudetenland in 1938. In October 1938, the Sudeten Crisis brought Europe to the brink of war, which was averted only as Italy, France and Great Britain signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed for the immediate annexation and military occupation of the Sudetenland by Germany. Czechoslovakia was not even consulted on this agreement. Beneš was all but forced to agree to it after France and the United Kingdom let it be known that if he didn't do so, they would disinterest themselves in the fate of Czechoslovakia.

Beneš was forced to resign on 5 October 1938 under German pressure, and Emil Hácha was chosen as President. In March 1939, Hácha's government was bullied into authorising the German occupation of the remaining Czech territory. (Slovakia had declared its nominal independence by then.)

Second exile

On 22 October 1938 Beneš went into exile in Putney, London. In November 1940 in the wake of London Blitz, Beneš, his wife, their nieces, and his household staff moved to The Abbey at Aston Abbotts near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The staff of his private office, including his Secretary Edvard Táborský and his chief of staff Jaromír Smutný, moved to The Old Manor House in the neighbouring village of Wingrave, while his military intelligence staff headed by František Moravec was stationed in the nearby village of Addington. In 1940 he organized the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile in London with Jan Šrámek as Prime Minister and himself as President. In reclaiming the presidency, he took the line that his 1938 resignation had been under duress, and was therefore void.

In 1941 Beneš and František Moravec planned Operation Anthropoid, with the intention of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich.[7] This was implemented in 1942, and resulted in brutal German reprisals such as the execution of thousands of Czechs and the eradication of the two villages of Lidice and Ležáky.

Although not a Communist, Beneš was also on friendly terms with Stalin. Believing that Czechoslovakia had more to gain from an alliance with the Soviet Union than with Poland, he torpedoed the plans for a Polish-Czechoslovakian confederation and in 1943 he signed an entente with the Soviet Union.[8][9][10]

Second presidency

After the Prague uprising at the end of World War II, Beneš returned home and reassumed his former position as President. He was unanimously confirmed as the president of the republic by the National Assembly on 28 October 1945. Under article 58.5 of the Constitution, "The former president shall stay in his or her function till the new president shall be elected." On 19 June 1946 Beneš was formally elected to his second term as President.[11]

The Beneš decrees (officially called "Decrees of the President of the Republic"), among other things, expropriated citizens of German and Hungarian ethnicity, and paved the way for the eventual expulsion of the majority of Germans to West and East Germany and Austria. The decrees are still in force to this day and remain controversial, with the expellees demanding their repeal. The Czech government, however, maintains that the decrees are no longer valid, and repeated assurances to that effect have been accepted by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Beneš presided over a coalition government, from 1947 headed by Communist leader Klement Gottwald as prime minister. On 21 February 1948, 12 non-Communist ministers resigned to protest Gottwald's refusal to stop the packing of the police with Communists, despite a majority of the Cabinet ordering it to end. Beneš initially refused to accept their resignations and insisted that no government could be formed without the non-Communist parties. However, Gottwald threatened a general strike unless Beneš appointed a Communist-dominated government. Amid fears that civil war was imminent and rumours that the Red Army would sweep in to back Gottwald, Beneš gave way. On 25 February, he accepted the resignations of the non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government in accordance with Gottwald's specifications. It was nominally still a coalition, but was dominated by Communists—in effect, giving legal sanction to a Communist coup d'état.

Shortly afterward, elections were held in which voters were presented with a single list from the Communist-dominated National Front. The newly elected National Assembly approved the Ninth-of-May Constitution shortly after being sworn in. Although it was not a completely Communist document, it was close enough to the Soviet Constitution that Beneš refused to sign it. He resigned as President on 7 June 1948 and Gottwald succeeded him.


Beneš had been in poor health since suffering two strokes in 1947, and was a broken man after seeing a situation come about that he had made his life's work to avoid. He died of natural causes at his villa in Sezimovo Ústí, Czechoslovakia on 3 September 1948.[2] He is interred along with his wife (who lived until 2 December 1974) in the garden of his villa and his bust is part of the gravestone.

In fiction

In 1934 H.G.Wells wrote "The Shape of Things to Come", a prediction of the Second World War. In Wells' decpiction the war starts in 1940 and drags on until 1950, Czechoslovakia avoids being occupied by Germany, and Beneš remains its President throughout. Wells assigns to Beneš the role of initiating a cease-fire to end the fighting, and the book (supposedly written in the 22nd Century) remarks that "The Beneš Suspension of Hostilities remains in force to this day".

See also


Further reading

  • Hauner, Milan, ed. "'We Must Push Eastwards!' The Challenges and Dilemmas of President Beneš after Munich," Journal of Contemporary History (2009) 44#4 pp. 619-656 in JSTOR
  • Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s (1996) online
  • Neville, Peter. Eduard Beneš and Tomáš Masaryk: Czechoslovakia (2011)
  • book review by Richard Crampton
  • John Wheeler-Bennett Munich : Prologue to Tragedy, New York : Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948.

Primary sources

  • Hauner, Milan, ed. Edvard Beneš’ Memoirs: the days of Munich (vol.1), War and Resistance (vol.2), Documents (vol.3). First critical edition of reconstructed War Memoirs 1938-45 of President Beneš of Czechoslovakia (published by Academia Prague 2007. ISBN 978-80-200-1529-7)

External links

  • [1] President Benes in exile in England during World War II
  • Biography at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Czech)
  • (English) - an article published in Time on 26 September 1938 - free archive
  • Pictures of Edvard Beneš funeral (1) - lying in state (in the opened coffin)
  • Pictures of Edvard Beneš funeral (2) - funeral procession with wreaths and laying of coffin into grave
  • Pictures of Edvard Beneš and his wife - archive of Šechtl and Voseček Museum of Photography
Government offices
Preceded by
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia
Succeeded by
Milan Hodža
Preceded by
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
President of Czechoslovakia
Succeeded by
Emil Hácha
Preceded by
Emil Hácha
President of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and President of Czechoslovakia
1940–1945 and 1945–1948
Succeeded by
Klement Gottwald
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Marshal Ferdinand Foch
Cover of Time Magazine
23 March 1925
Succeeded by
George Harold Sisler

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