The Beneš Decrees
As I write this, Ukraine is being invaded by Russia, some towns are being occupied and Russian supporting people are being put in public administrative positions. It made me think of events in Czech in 1945 when the occupying power was kicked out and retribution swiftly followed against those considered, rightly or wrongly, enemies of the State. Did you know that the Ukraine 2001 census identified 17.3% of the population (over 8 million people) who stated their nationality as Russian even if they were Ukrainian citizens. So as you read this post, substitute Russian for German and substitute the Ukraine 2001 census for the Czech 1929 census and you’ll see many similarities. For us it was called the Beneš Decrees but some day you might hear about the Zelenskyy Decrees. 8 million people may soon have to make a choice.
Most people have heard of the 1938 Munich Agreement. Not so many people know that the Czech President at that time, a man called Edvard Beneš, refused to recognise it and stepped down. It’s important to understand that he stepped down “under duress” and was replaced by a man called Emil Hacha. Beneš and his government moved first to Paris and in 1940 to London where they were recognised as government in exile. Over the next 5 years he would develop what would be known as the Beneš Decrees (in English it sounds like the “Benesh Decrees”).
Government in Exile
The recognition of President Beneš and his colleagues as the legitimate “interim” Czech government by the British on July 21st 1940 (the USA and USSR recognised it in 1941) enabled the Czechs to play an active part in war planning but also to develop a set of laws for Czechs living abroad. As the Czech National Assembly (Parliament) not longer existed then only the legitimate Czech President could form a new government. For this to happen the first Beneš decree 1/1940 was to pass its own resolution that gave Edvard Beneš Presidential power so he could appoint a government to co-sign the new laws. What became known as the 1945 post-liberation Beneš Decrees was a collection of 143 laws.
The Beneš Decrees
The Beneš Decrees could not become law in Czechoslovakia until after the post-WW2 reunification of the country and the 1946 elections because the new Czech Parliament had to ratify them. They fundamentally changed the way of life for millions of people and many of these laws are still valid today.
I’m not going to list all 143 laws but I thought that you might be interested in a selection and to understand any effects:
5/1945 Reversed all property transactions after September 29th 1938 (date that the Munich Agreement was signed) and nationalised any company owned by an enemy of the state or somebody who in the 1929 census listed their nationality as German or Hungarian. Parts of this law were still being used in the year 2000 in relation to returning property to Holocaust victims.
12/1945 Seizure of agricultural property belonging to traitors, enemies of the state, Germans or Hungarians.
16/1945 and 17/1945 Determined the punishment for enemies of the state. Military and political membership of banned organisations carried prison terms of up to 20 years. Collaborators or informers whose acts led to the death of a Czech citizen were themselves sentenced to death with no appeal and with execution within 2 hours of sentencing. If execution was to be in public then it allowed a 24 hour delay.
26/1945 Increasing the term of judges. In 1938 the retirement age for judges was 65 but as so many had been murdered by the Nazi regime this decree suspended the automatic retirement.
27/1945 Provided the legal framework for the expulsion of people deemed to be enemies of the state. This involved 2 million ethnic Germans plus another million ethnic Hungarians. In other words they expelled almost a quarter of the population of Czechoslovakia.
33/1945 Determined Citizenship rights. For example if you had listed yourself as having German or Hungarian nationality in the 1929 census then you automatically lost Czech citizenship. People of German and Hungarian ethnicity had 6 months to prove that they were loyal to the Czech state or who had suffered under the Nazi regime. In 1948 this appeal period increased to 3 years. In 1949 a person had to swear an oath of allegiance to become a Czech citizen and renounce any other citizenship. By 1953 it was determined that any German/Hungarian who had been resident in Czech at the time the law came into force was automatically offered Czech citizenship by the Communist regime.
36/1945 Identified the requirement for businesses and individuals in Czech lands to pay obligations in Czech Korun and set the exchange rate at 1 Reichmark equals 10 Korun.
53/1945 Set the legal framework for public employees to seek compensation for persecution due to ethnicity or political opinion during the occupation.
56/1945 Set the annual budget for the combined functions of the President and his Office at 6.3 Million Czech Korun. This law was only abolished in 1993 at the formation of the Czech Republic.
59/1945 Cancelled any appointments of state/public employees during the occupation.
74/1945 Gave the right for married women to get their jobs back which had been terminated in 1938 following the Munich Agreement.
85/1945 Made secondary school education free.
88/1945 Required anybody to be available for public paid works for a period of maximum one year.
91/1945 Stated that the national currency from November 1st 1945 would be the Czechoslovak Korun.
100 to 103/1945 Nationalisation of various industries with remuneration based on the owner’s citizenship status as proved under the 33/1945 decree.
115/1945 Coal and Firewood would be controlled by a central authority.
122/1945 Abolished the entity called “German University in Prague” and returned it to Charles University. Retroactively applied the change to November 17th 1939 (date of a student executions in Prague) and did not recognise any qualification awarded during the occupation.
127/1945 The establishment of the Academy of Performing Arts.
129/1945 The establishment of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
132/1945 Requiring all school teachers to have a university qualification. This law was abolished in 1966 but reintroduced in 2016.