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obálka čísla

(One of the main three founders of Czechoslovakia)

May 28. 1884 in Kozlany District Rakovnik - September 3, 1948 in Sezimovo Usti in Bohemia District Tabor

He was born as a tenth son into a peasant family in the above-mentioned small village, located in the district of Rakovnik in Western Bohemia. At that time, his mother was almost (in three days thereafter) 44 years old, while his father was three years younger than his wife.

Edvard spent most of his late youth in Prague’s quarter Vinohrady, attending the local schools from l896 to 1904. Afterwards, he studied briedly at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague. Before long, he traveled to France, where he continued his studies at the Sorbonne University as well as at the Independent School of Political and Social Studies in Paris. He then completed his studies at Ecole des sciences politiques in Dijon, France. However, his foreign degree was not recognized in Prague. In 1909, he returned to Prague to be active as a teacher at the Academy of Commerce for three years. But he wanted to become a university professor. Therefore, after having accomplished his habilitation and attaining his doctor’s degree at the university in the field of philosophy [attending previously Masaryk’s courses], he became a lecturer of sociology at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University ( i.e. its Czech branch had divided from the German university in 1883) . In 1912, he also started to lecture that same subject at the Technical Faculty of the same university.

While still at school, he translated a French writers Emile Zola’s novel "L’assommoir" [=Drinking Den/Low Tavern], acquiring first a more thorough knowledge of French language from the foregoing assiduous study. He had to learn foreign languages first, before learning how foreign countries functioned. France became his beloved country. Moreover, Paris was already at that time well known under the name City of Light. He wrote many articles, sending them from France to Czech newspapers. In doing so, he acquired some money for his studies there. At that time, he was interested in the question of the relationship between Czech and Austria by writing his doctoral dissertation about "Le probleme autrichien et la question tcheque" (1908). In those days, he appeared, by his preparatory articles, to be a socialist, but definitely not a Marxist. On the contrary, he was decidedly a dedicated democrat.

During his studies in Paris, he became acquainted with Anna who changed her first name later into Hana Vlckova, and they married in November 1909, Considering that she was born on August 16, 1883 at Domaslavice, District of Teplice, Bohemia, she was about one year younger than her husband. Though childless, their marriage was a very happy one,

At the outbreak of the WWI, when Austria declared war on Serbia and on August 4, 1914, five of the six Great Powers were, i.e. Britain, France, Russia, (while Italy first hesitated) on one side and Germany plus Austria-Hungary on the other side drawn into it, Benes organized in the Czech Lands an internal secret resistance movement called "Maffia". In fact, it clandestine communications beween Prague and the future Czech President Masaryk, who was then already exiled in Switzerland.

In September 1915, Benes was also exiled from Prague first to Switzerland and then to Paris, appointing before his departure Karel Kramar as his subsequent Prague communicator. Upon Benes’ arrival abroad, his destiny was from that time on intricately tied to both Thomas G. Masaryk and Milan R. Stefanik. Benes practically lived from then on in Paris, while Masaryk resided in London. Ineed, Benes handled all the emigration cases. At the same time, he was organizing all the publicity actions relating to the Czechoslovak political activities. He wrote many articles on various subjects for French and Czech publications. Also, he lectured on many topics of Slavicism at the Sorbonne University. In those days, he was also much worried about his wife who remained in Prague, where she was arrested and jailed for 9 months during the war because of his exile.

In 1916, he established the Czechoslovak National Concil (CNC), where he then acted as its General Secretary. Benes was then closely co-operating with the Slovak emigre Milan R. Stefanik, who was for some time also a student at Masaryk’s lectures in Prague, and later on focused his main interest on astronomy. To get better scientific progress as a maverick astronomer, he left for France and was soon sent as such by French authorities to various foreign countries to establish there their meteorological facilities. Soon, he got his French citizenship,and became army officer and pilot. His efficiency enabled him before long to achieve the rank of a General in the French army. Benes and Stefanik negotiated closely with important prominent French + Russian + Italian military representatives regarding the establishment of independent Czechoslovak Military Units to fight the common enemies of the Allied Armies.As a result, the first legions were created in France (December 1917), Russia (February 1918), and Italy (April 1918). Due to Benes’ excellent diplomatic efforts, the CNC was recognized as the representative of the new Czechoslovak State. This enabled the representatives of the CNC to be admitted to the collective talks of the Treaty of Versailles, which terminated the WWI in June 28, 1919.

In October 1918, Benes was as a representative of the foreign resistance negotiating with various western politicians in Geneva, Switzerland on the future of the newly established independent Czechoslovak State. Based on previous mutual discussions with Masaryk, Benes advised them about the composition of the Interim Czechoslovak Government in Paris. Later on, in Geneva, the latter was amalgamated with the members of the Prague National Committee to create a sole Czechoslovak Government. At that time, as the first president of the new republic was elected T.G.Masaryk, while Dr.E. Benes was to be the minister of foreign and interior affairs, and M.R. Stefanik the minister of war. Regrettably, in 1920, when he returned to the new Czechoslovakia, his airplane crashed at the airport in Bratislava, and he died. Various complicated problems still had to be thoroughly solved, particularly as regards the determination of the bounderies of the new state. That is why Benes did not return to Prague for another year, for in November 1918, he still had to undertake a lot of clarifying negotiations, which referred not only to the Czech Lands territories with Germany, Austria and Poland, but also to southern parts of Slovakia with Hungary and the eastern area of Subcarpathian Ruthenia with USSR. Hence, Czechoslovakia emerged in a new form.

Desirous to secure the future peace and democracy in Central Europe, in 1924 Benes initiated negotiations with Rumania+Yugoslavia, and then founded with them a Central European Defense Guarantee, called Little Alliance. The latter was to be inseparably tied to the analogous treaty with France. The League of Nations was also duly informed about these important agreements.

Benes stayed in his posts of foreign minister for 17 years. Besides, he was also elected member of the Parlament, and in 1921-1922, he served as Prime Minister. Following T.G. Masaryk’s abdication, on December 18, 1935 Benes became the second President of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Meanwhile, Germany was led by Hitler to rise to the Third Reich. Following the annexation of Austria in 1938, Hitler categorically demanded from Czechoslovakia the territories bordering with Germany, where many Germans were settled, called Sudetenland (Southern Land). Facing this threat, Benes mobilized the Czechoslovak Forces to be prepared for a possible armed conflict. He was reproached by Great Britain and France that he did it without consulting with them first. In spite of the existing pledges of both France and Great Britain to defend Czechoslovakia from the German menace, the British Prime Minister Chamberlain conceded the Sudetenland during his negotiation with Hitler in Munich. Quite naively, he believed the very arrogant Hitler, that in doing so, he would save peace and even war in Europe. Unfortunately, Benes had to exile again for the second time. Before long, Hitler separated Czechoslovakia into Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Czech Lands) and into "autonomous" Slovakia.

Undestandably, Benes was very disappointed by the way, that the West was handling the Czechoslovakian Munich "agreement", which was decided without factual participation of any Czechoslovak politicians. After all, Hitler then attacked Poland and that was the beginning of the WWII. Benes lost his faith in the West. Consequently, he turned for help to USSR in the hopes that it would become a much better guarantor of the future of Czechoslovakia. Accordingly, in 1943, a corresponding treaty was mutually signed, despite serious warnings from Great Britain. On his agenda in Moscow, Benes had to allow a socialist party and initiate a number of radical social and political changes, based on negotiations with foreign leadership and Czechoslovak Communist Party.

Benes was reinstated to his political office on October 28, 1945, and reelected as president the following year. He signed decrees on the nationalization of the mines and of the key industries, as well as banks and insurance companies. He also signed decrees concerning the punishments of war crimes and of collaboration. Besides, he put his signature to a decree on the new status of the Germans, the Hungarians and the Czechoslovak traitors in the new republic. Their lands were confiscated. In such cases when Germans were dedicated Nazis, they were expulsed. There was a great number of those who lived in Sudetenland. After their expulsion, whole villages or districts were empty of inhabitants. But, soon,those areas were gradually filled up with Czech or mixed (German/Czech) families.

At the time of all these crises, Benes’ health deteriorated in stages. He suddenly collapsed in a strong sun, while participating in festivities relating to WWII ( Legionaries battle at Zborov). He was asked for resignation. His faith in the USSR and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was overturned with dramatic events in February 1948. So, on June 7, 1948, he abdicated. He was in an awkward position. It was quite frequently spoken about a possiblity of his third exile. But he was too ill to do that. Even his speech became blurred and some words were badly articulated. He lost the ability to speak and to swallow food. He suffered his fifth stroke, Shortly thereafter, he died on September 3, 1948. His wife was present. Benes was buried in Sezimovo Usti.

Charles Opatrny

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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