Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
The Life of Edvard Benes, 1884-1948: Czechoslovakia in Peace and War
Zbynek Zeman with Antonin Klimek
(Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1997).
There is an obvious temptation for any recent biographer of Benes. He is a figure whose reputation has been subject to wild fluctuation. After the Munich crisis he could do no wrong in the eyes of the western liberal intelligentsia. He was the man who had been sacrificed for the purblind stupidity, or worse, of the conservative establishment; in its extreme form this argument even implied that the western conservatives wanted to push Hitler into war with Stalin and if Benes and if the destruction of an independent, viable Czechoslovakia had to be part of the price to be paid to achieve this, then so be it. After the war, after the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and above all after the opening of various archives, admiration cooled. Now Benes was seen as the man who had called for, and secured, the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, and some Slovak Magyars; the man who had been tricked by the communists and done nothing to frustrate their machinations in 1948, and above all the man who had been mesmerised by Stalin and who had signed away half of Czechoslovakia's independence in the Moscow treaty of December 1943.
Benes-bashing has been in vogue now for a quarter of a century and how easy it would have been to write a rehabilitatory biography. Zbynek Zeman is much too good a historian to fall into that trap. He has done something much more subtle and far more valuable. He has used entirely new or previously little-known documentary sources and let them speak for themselves. When Zeman allows his judgement to intrude it is almost always measured, sound and convincing.
According to Zeman Benes "became essentially a lonely, and eventually, a tragic figure" (p.2). His loneliness derived from his aloof, cold and basically arrogant character. Only his wife, Hana, it seems, was ever really close to him. Yet he was a man of great attainments and achievements. With Stefanik and the elder Masaryk he played a pivotal role in making possible the creation of a Czechoslovak state when such an idea would have seemed crazy in 1914; his skill at the Paris peace negotiations was legendary, one historian remarking that Benes "made a hand which his cards did not justify". He guided Czechoslovak foreign policy for the entire twenty years from independence to the sell-out of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938; he managed to preserve the notion of a Czechoslovak state during and immediately after the second world war, and for a few years after the end of that mighty conflict it seemed to some that he might have found a third way between Soviet communism and western capitalism.
Yet in the end his accomplishments turned to dust. This co-founder of the nation came to be disliked, if not detested, by almost everyone he had to deal with, Czechoslovak and foreign; the libertarian, tolerant democracy he had nurtured during the 1920s and 1930s became the state which expelled racial minorities; and his alleged mastery of diplomacy left him tied in knots by Stalin. Part of this was Benes' fault and much of it stemmed from the flawed personal characteristics which Zeman makes no attempt to hide. Coldness and distance are not necessarily disadvantageous in a politician, but over-sensitivity to criticism or opposition, and a disposition to dislike or distrust other political leaders are. And Benes disliked and distrusted in spades. As Zeman remarks, "Benes found it hard to tolerate rivals and competition in his proximity; and he did not like men who worked with him to express opinions different from his own." (p.60) Zeman also notes that Benes "had a long memory and he bore grudges: a flaw fatal in any politician." (p.107) To give a few examples: Benes distrusted the able and engaging Slovak Stefanik, tragically killed in an air-crash in the earliest days of the first Czechoslovak Republic; Benes did not get on with the most powerful internal power-broker of Czechoslovakia before 1935, the Agrarian leader, Antonin Svehla; and his relations had been equally bad with Alois Rasin, the finance minister who saved Czechoslovakia from inflation in the early 1920s and was assassinated for his pains. With Masaryk, however, Benes remained on good terms, though the two never spoke to each other in the familiar (ty) form. Ironically, the only two men Benes seemed to have trusted were Stalin and the Czechoslovak minister to Moscow during the war, Fierlinger. Both of them, as Benes recognised later in life, betrayed him.
Benes' confidence in himself was if anything even greater than his disdain for others. During the Paris peace treaty negotiations he told Masaryk, "I am the only person who has credit here and who at the conference can achieve everything." (p.40) On another occasion he stated "I have never failed in my life and never will". (p.47) In 1942, in a document intended as a last will and testament he told his successor, "Be true to the policies of Masaryk and myself. All will be well." (p.285) And it could only have been his abiding self-confidence which in March 1940 allowed him to inflict a two-hour speech on the audience which had assembled to watch him receive an honorary degree at the University of Oxford.
If he was so flawed, one might wonder how Benes ever achieved such prominence. Zeman provides an important clue to the answer. When discussing the Munich crisis he notes that Benes "found it hard to act resolutely when he felt that the tide of events had turned against him." (p.131) This seems a particularly sharp insight. A man consumed by self-confidence and impatient of other opinions will ride confident and high on a tide which he knows is running in his direction; but such a person is hopelessly adrift when he realises that the flow is in the opposite direction.
Thus Benes was in the ascendant when he, hitching his star to that of Masaryk, realised that the first world war could bring about the destruction of the Habsburg empire; skilful use of propaganda meant that by 1918 Benes had convinced many in France that an independent Czechoslovak state must emerge at the end of the war. In the Paris peace negotiations Benes surfed with the tide as never before or after, bringing Czechoslovakia great influence. In the 1930s, however, Benes lost the drift of the tide. Then, as later, he failed to understand the nature of Slovak political feelings and demands, and, more critically, he failed to see that the western powers were not ready to spring to his defence and that France was a busted flush diplomatically and militarily, though in this he was far from being alone. During the war Benes was for a while still floundering but after the German invasion of Russia, and more so after Stalingrad, he felt once again that the times were with him. Czechoslovakia would become a Slav state, i.e. the Germans and Hungarians would be expelled, and its political, economic and social systems would be restructured to make it a form of socialist democracy. This would place Czechoslovakia mid-way between the Soviet Union and the west; Benes in fact saw Czechoslovakia as a bridge between east and west and also as a model towards which both would evolve.
He was of course wrong and with the real intensification of the cold war in 1947 Benes was once again swimming against the tide. Communist, or rather Soviet, aims and ambitions were no different in Czechoslovakia than in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and elsewhere. And it is difficult to escape the conclusion that from an early stage Benes knew this, or should have known it if he had had the humility to allow the evidence to overcome his prejudgements. Why was it that this generally unresponsive and unemotional man broke down and sighed, "Thank God, Thank God" when told that Patton's troops had entered Czechoslovakia? Why, in later years, did he become excited almost to the point of incoherence when Bruce Lockhart asked him if he thought things would have been different had Patton not been ordered to halt before taking Prague? Communist skulduggery was apparent early enough to have put Benes on his guard but he remained convinced that the Reds could be house-trained and that Stalin's assurances that the Soviet Union would not interfere in Czechoslovak internal affairs were genuine - Benes even told the Austrian politician Karl Gruber that an alliance with Moscow was the best way to prevent Soviet meddling in Austrian affairs. For Benes, Benes always knew best whether it was when telling others that the communists could be house-trained, or that Hitler would be brought to book as soon as he crossed swords with the French.
There was one other factor which from the earliest post-war days must have shown Benes how misplaced were his notions of Stalin's mellowing and of bridges forming between east and west: Jachymov. As early as 1945 the Soviets made it plain that they intended to exploit the uranium mines at Jachymov for their own military purposes. Czechoslovakia was forced to sign a treaty allowing them to do so in the greatest secrecy. Zeman shows as no previous work has done how important an issue this was, how determined the Soviets were to establish total control over the mines, and how even in the west intelligent observers who knew of it were convinced that Prague's acquiescence in the Kremlin's plans condemned Czechoslovakia to membership of the Soviet camp.
The section on the uranium mines is probably the most important in the whole book in that it adds significantly to our knowledge of a critical turning point in European if not world history. There are many instances in which this book adds to our knowledge, for example Benes' willingness to use money to buy political support, the extent to which Tomas Masaryk was incapacitated in his last years as president, or the resentment Benes felt when he realised he had been tricked by the British and French into mobilising the Czechoslovak army in May 1938. There are a few points where Zeman makes judgements which to this reviewer seem arguable. Did Benes really understand "the nature of Hitler's regime from the start" and was he really "tireless in warning politicians and diplomats of the danger Nazi policies presented to the order established by the peace treaties..." (both quotations from p.119) D C Watt, in his masterly study How War Came describes Benes, more than once, as "ever gullible", and in 1937 Benes patronisingly told the Yugoslavs that they had nothing to fear from Germany, that the Nazis did not want the Sudetenland, and that Hitler was a puppet in the hands of the army which would soon get rid of him.
These minor differences apart, however, this is a readable, intelligent and hugely informative biography of an important if highly unattractive personality.
Richard Crampton, 18 November 1999
St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
Professor Crampton is a leading authority on Central and Eastern European history, and specializes in the history of Bulgaria. He is the author of many books, including:
The Open Society Archives at The Central European University have extensive materials relating to East European forced labour camps, including Jachymov.
An article describing conditions at the Jachymov camps [in Czech]
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