Czech Presidents, Edvard Benes

Edvard Benes – 2nd Czech President

Edvard Benes (pronunced Benesh and by the way “Edvard” is how we say Edward in Czech) worked alongside Tomas Masaryk in the creation and ultimately the governing of the new sovereign state of Czechoslovakia. Edvard Benes became the longest serving Foreign Minister, served as Prime Minister, represented Czechoslovakia at the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) and although it was agreed that Masaryk would be the First President, Benes eventually succeeds Tomas Masaryk as Second President in 1935.

edvard benes 2nd czech president
Edvard Benes 2nd (and maybe 4th) Czech President

Comparisons to Tomas Masaryk have to be made even though Benes was 35 years younger. Like Masaryk, Edvard Benes was born into a poor family and used education as a way out. Like Masaryk he travelled but only as far as France where he studied law. Like Masaryk he had studied Philosophy to degree level. Unlike Masaryk, he was born and bred in Prague. Whereas Masaryk taught as a professor of Philosophy, Edvard Benes qualified as a lawyer and although holding a degree in Philosophy he went on to teach Sociology with strong emphasis on Czech being a “bridge” between Capitalism and Communism.

He would be a 2-term President the first of which was the period 1935 to 1938 and he was well aware of the threat of Germany from his work as Foreign Secretary. Technically he resigned as President “under duress” on September 30th 1938 following the signing of the Munich Agreement which basically ceded the Sudetenland and all it’s associated defences to Germany. Edvard Benes and his government went into exile in England and was replaced by Emil Hacha as President. Emil Hacha had very little choice in the matter and elected to co-operate with the Nazis in the face of overwhelming strength. Following the end of the second world war, Hacha was arrested and thrown in prison where he died in mysterious circumstances.

During the war there were two significant actions carried out by Edvard Benes. The first had been the planning of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the top Nazi in Prague and Hitler protege. The assassination was eventually successful but the retaliation of the Nazis and their process of “guilt by association” effectively ended Czech wartime resistance. The second was the Beneš Decrees which amongst many things, sanctioned the expropriation of properties, businesses, land and even citizenship of people who had declared their nationality as German or Hungarian in the 1929 census.

In June 1946 Edvard Benes began his second term in office and technically became both 2nd and 4th President of the country (the Czech constitution said that as the country had no elected president at that time then the former president retains that office until ratified by the General Assembly before new elections). This time though it’s different. The influence of the Czech National Front party (Communist) with 38% of the vote was such that he is forced into accepting a coalition government with the Communist supporting Klement Gottwald as Prime Minister.

For almost two years there is an uneasy relationship in the government as Klement Gottwald and his supporters sought to take control of important state apparatus including the security service. This culminates in the resignation of 12 non-communist members of his government on 21st February 1948 in protest of the “stuffing” of the security services with pro-communists and in an attempt to force new elections but Benes refused to accept. It’s only on February 25th, under enormous pressure of General Strike and even Civil War from Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, that Benes finally had to accept their resignations. He then had to accept the appointments requested by Gottwald hence the 1948 Communist Coup was achieved. One of the few positions that they could not take over was the post of Foreign Minister and that was held by Jan Masaryk, son of the former President. He apparently “commits suicide” on March 10th!

Primeminister Gottwald prepared the May Ninth Constitution which was so close to Communist doctrine that Edvard Benes refused to sign it and eventually resigned on June 9th 1948. He died on September 3rd 1948.

President Klement Gottwald takes office on June 14th 1948 and begins the Communist era.