Czech Presidents, Emil Hacha and the Poison Chalice
When you take a look at Czech history especially in the 20th Century you’ll find lots of references to Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (the first President of Czechoslovakia) or Edvard Beneš (longest serving Foreign Minister and second President of Czechoslovakia). Then we have a third President called Emil Hacha but nobody seems to want to talk about him.
Emil Hacha followed in the same vein as Masaryk and Beneš in that he was an intellectual but with a legal background instead of the philosophy background of his predecessors. In fact he was not an active politician having become a judge in Czechoslovakia, an expert in English Common Law and in his spare time did translations of English literature into Czech. Unfortunately he’s not remembered for any of that.
The Munich Agreement
It’s a popular quiz question, which countries signed the Munich Agreement. If you thought that Czech was one of the signatories then you are wrong. In any case, the Munich Agreement was signed on September 30th 1938 and less than a week later President Beneš resigned on October 5th. The Czech Sudetenland had now been ceded to Nazi Germany and Czech had to find a new President so they picked a clever guy with no previous government experience, Emil Hacha.
Emil Hacha was sworn in on November 30th 1938 and I’m surprised he accepted the job. This was the ultimate poison chalice but as an “independent” I expect he thought he could get cross party support. What he got was the record for the shortest presidential term in Czechoslovakian history as his presidency ended on March 14th 1939.
March 14th 1939
Since he took office little more than 3 months earlier Emil Hacha had to deal with the death of his wife and had been struggling to hold the country together as the “Slovakia” part of Czechoslovakia had it’s own ideas about independence conducting clandestine negotiations with Hitler’s government. This all came to a head on March 14th when Emil Hacha met with Hitler in Berlin and was faced with a choice. He was told that half of the country was now recognised as the First Slovakian Republic. As for the Czech half, he would have to capitulate and accept being ruled under the German Empire or be bombed into submission and then be ruled by the German Empire. He chose the first option (a fact that the Polish often remind the Czechs about) and the following day on March 15th 1939 there was no Czechoslovakia, only the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
A Rock and a Hard Place
As Czechoslovakia no longer existed as a country, Emil Hacha continued in a role of “state” president i.e. one of the German states. The question was whether he actively supported the new regime or not. It’s not clear-cut. Many people still view him as complicit with the Nazis in asserting their control over the country early on in WW2. But historically it was shown that he was in contact with the exiled Czech government then in London. If he was so complicit then others ask why Reinhard Heydrich considered him and his political allies to be traitors to the Reich, murdering several of his supporters. But by 1943 Emil Hacha basically had no control over any matters of government, a figurehead puppet and a 71 year old man with arteriosclerosis. He was arrested on May 13th 1945 at Lany, the Presidential retreat and taken to the Pankrac Prison.
On May 16th the former President Beneš arrived back in the country and immediately faced a constitutional problem. The Protectorate was to be dissolved but there was still the small matter of recreating Czechoslovakia and Article 58.5 of the Czech Constitution said, “The former president shall stay in his or her function till the new president shall be elected” so in that case you would assume that meant Emil Hacha would resume his role as President of Czechoslovakia as he was the last person in that role. It could have been a big problem except that on June 27th Emil Hacha, still in Pankrac Prison, was found dead in his cell.
Beneš went on to be elected to be the fourth President of Czechoslovakia. Emil Hacha was buried in an unmarked grave.