Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945
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Chapter 1 – CZECHOSLOVAKIA
From Putney to Prague
Beneš’s Second Exile – An Appeal to the World Community – A National Committee and an Army are Constituted – Internal Dissensions – A Provisional Government Recognized – On an Equal Footing – Soviet Recognition – Repudiation of Munich – Beneš Breaks with the Sudeten Germans – The Czechoslovak Communists – Beneš Pursues a Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty – The "Self-Denying Ordinance" – Liberation Tribulations
Hitler’s gamble in the summer of 1938 to annex Czechoslovakia succeeded. Prague’s appeal to France and the Soviet Union went unheeded, proving to the Führer that the promised military support was not forthcoming. He thus felt free to impose his “Munich Compromise” on Britain and France by threats and deception. When he instigated the secession of Slovakia from the Republic, London and Paris refrained from any action on the grounds that their guarantee to truncated Czechoslovakia implied only collective action of the signatories of the Munich agreement (Britain, France, Germany and Italy) and involved no military commitment. The Wehrmacht entered Prague on March 15, 1939, and established a German “Protectorate” over Bohemia and Moravia.
Beneš’s Second Exile [top]
Some five months earlier, in the afternoon of October 22, 1938, former President Eduard Beneš had arrived unheralded at London airport. His departure from Prague was kept so secret that even his closest friend, Jan Masaryk, Minister at the Czechoslovak Legation in London, reached the airport after Dr. Beneš and his wife had left for their new home in Putney.
On October 5 Beneš had relinquished the presidency of the Czechoslovak Republic following a demand by Hitler for his resignation and brutal threats against his country should he fail to do so. The new government in Prague also informed him that Berlin was demanding that he leave the country, and friends in Britain urged him to do so without delay. Hitler’s statement at the Berlin Sportpalast on September 26 that it was a life and death struggle between him and Eduard Beneš left the former president no alternative.
But it was no mere refugee fleeing his country who arrived on that October day in a London suburb. In the midst of catastrophe Beneš remained the wise and subtle politician that he had always been. In the broadcast announcing his resignation he had called on his fellow-citizens to abstain from internal strife and to retain their confidence in the triumph of justice for their country. He hinted that Munich was only a beginning and that “other events would follow.”
In addition to this public gesture, Beneš, before leaving Czechoslovakia, had a short encounter with what may well have been the first cell of the Czechoslovak resistance to Nazi aggression. The group assembled around him consisted of some of his immediate collaborators and trusted political friends. Convinced as he was, that war would start not later than May or June 1939 with an attack on Poland, Beneš told his friends: “As soon as the second European war starts, we must again begin an all-out struggle as in 1914.” He urged the creation of an organization for overall resistance at home and abroad to Nazi Germany as well as large-scale political and military emigration to countries in Europe “which will be forced to go to war in spite of the Munich treason or rather because of it.”
The arrival in Britain of this quiet, modest little man with lively, intelligent eyes and a monotonous voice was for many something of a surprise. Why, they wondered, had he come to the country that had inspired the policy of appeasement? For others Beneš’s presence in England was an embarrassment: what would Hitler say to his arrival in London at a time when the British government still maintained – at least outwardly – that sincere implementation of the Munich agreement was the only way of preventing a deterioration of the situation? Surprisingly, nobody seemed to expect Nazi occupation of Prague within a few months.
Aware of British fears, Jan Masaryk sent a reassuring note to the Foreign Office on October 28, 1938, stating: “He [Dr. Beneš] wishes to assure His Majesty’s Government that he will live here as an absolutely private individual, make no public or political contacts, grant no interviews and in no way make difficulties for His Majesty’s Government or the Czechoslovak Government.”
In the next four months Eduard Beneš corresponded with people at home and abroad. His letter to his unfortunate successor, President Emil H cha, and the latter’s reply are of special interest. On November 30 Beneš wrote congratulating Hácha that “all at home” had united to bring about his election to the presidency of the Republic. He added: “I hope that the State and Nation may emerge from their present situation as soon, and in as good condition as possible.” In his reply from Prague, on December 10, Hácha wrote that he had accepted the presidency with hesitation: “The duties of my present office weigh very heavily on me as I am aware of my insufficiency.” And he concluded philosophically: “I am aware of the fact that I shall be judged severely soon but contemporaries are perhaps never capable of just judgement.”
In another message, addressed to the Counsellor of the Czechoslovak Legation in London, Karel Lisicky, Beneš warned Prague against counting on German goodwill. He stressed that an international war was imminent and that even if an agreement were reached, “a final solution by armed conflict is inevitable.” On immediate issues he concluded with the advice that “if war comes, ... it must be clear to everyone that the State’s watchword is ‘Neutrality’.”
The illusion that the second Czechoslovak Republic could be neutral in the event of war lasted five and a half months until Hitler marched into Prague on March 15, 1939. The four-power guarantee was in fact destroyed by its very authors, who acquiesced meekly in the fait accompli.
An Appeal to the World Community [top]
Hitler in Prague and the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia raised the veil that had for so long obscured the real issues at stake in Czechoslovakia. It was now clear that it was not the question of minority or national rights in the Bohemian mountains that had brought Hitler’s tanks to the Vltava (Moldau), but the desire to destroy the West’s bastions in central Europe. War was imminent.
A few weeks before the fall of Prague, Beneš arrived in the United States to take up a visiting lectureship in sociology at the University of Chicago. In contrast with the silence that had surrounded him in London, he had scarcely reached New York when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia welcomed him amid excited crowds with words that soon splashed across the headlines of the American press: “Four representatives of two European decadent democracies and two violent dictatorships meeting at Munich decided that instead of politics they would perform common butchery.” To the sound of cheering, LaGuardia concluded: “We declare that this nation [Czechoslovakia] will soon again rise to freedom and that its President will again return to his liberated country.” To such public statements Beneš preferred discreet contacts with the academic community and political circles in the United States. The destruction by the Nazis of what remained of his country’s independence took even Beneš by surprise. He was suddenly called upon in his capacity as ex-President of the Republic to perform his first public act for the restoration of Czechoslovak independence. On March 16, 1939, the day after Hitler’s entry into Prague, he sent telegrams to the President of the United States, to the British and French Prime Ministers, to the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations protesting against the rape of his country. “The Czech and Slovak people,” Dr. Beneš cabled, “are victims of a great international crime, ... they cannot protest today ... and cannot defend themselves. Before the conscience of the world, I urge you to refuse to recognize this crime. The Czech and Slovak peoples will never accept this unbearable imposition on their sacred rights ... I entreat your Government to refuse to recognize this crime ... ”
The United States reacted by condemning these “acts of wanton lawlessness and arbitrary force” as a threat to world peace. Neville Chamberlain denounced Hitler’s move in his famous Birmingham speech on March 17. Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov, replying to a note from the German Ambassador, Count Schulenburg, on March 18 rejected the incorporation of Bohemia and Moravia into the German Reich and described the German action as “arbitrary, violent and aggressive.” Referring to “the Berlin document,” whereby President Hácha had supposedly invited the German army to take over his country, he stated: “It can hardly be admitted that any Nation would voluntarily consent to the abolition of its independence and to its incorporation into another State™”
The French Premier, Edouard Daladier, did not even reply to Dr. Beneš’s plea. And the (French) Secretary-General of the League of Nations, Joseph Avenol, rejected his request that the Czechoslovak issue be discussed by the League Council, stating that this request had not been submitted by a government but by a “private individual.” To this, the Soviet representative, Ambassador Ivan Maisky, retorted by announcing that his government was willing to submit the Czechoslovak protest to the Council. The League Assembly was scheduled to discuss it at the September session. By then, however, World War II had started.
Meanwhile the former president worked to unify the various organizations representing American citizens of Czech and Slovak descent representing some 1,500,000 men and women devoted to the cause of Czechoslovakia’s liberation. It was a somewhat delicate operation, since American opinion at that time was extremely sensitive to any action that might be termed “war agitation.” The revived Czechoslovak National Council of America convened in Chicago, proclaimed that the Czechoslovak Republic continued legally to exist, that Munich was null and void, and rejected the regimes established by German diktat in Prague and Bratislava.
Before returning to England, Dr. Beneš visited American President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park on May 28 (1939). In reply to Roosevelt’s questions, he predicted a German Blitzkrieg against Poland any time after the middle of the summer and Poland’s collapse within two weeks because of “the total unpreparedness, lack of seriousness and empty megalomania” of the Polish leadership. He expressed his confidence that Britain would oppose German aggression against Poland and his hope that France would do so, too. To the President’s question, on whose side the Soviet Union would enter the war, Dr. Beneš answered: “Of course on our side.” For his part Roosevelt told him: “We have helped you once. We will help you again.”
A National Committee and an Army are Constituted [top]
When Beneš returned to Britain six weeks before the outbreak of war, the Foreign Office intimated to him that it would not be advisable to air his views in public. Yet a growing number of British politicians flocked to his modest residence in Putney. On July 27, 1939, a private luncheon was held in his honour on the initiative of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, at which leading members of Britain’s three political parties came out wholeheartedly in support of the cause of Czechoslovakia. Churchill stated that there would be no peace in Europe as long as Czechoslovakia remained enslaved. And Britain’s future war leader concluded: “I do not know how events will develop. And I cannot say that Great Britain will now go to war for Czechoslovakia. I only know for certain that the peace which still has to be established will not be made without Czechoslovakia.” Sir Archibald Sinclair, for the Liberals, promised Britain’s continued loyalty to the ideals of democracy, while Labourite Arthur Henderson stressed that there were no differences between the various political parties in Britain with respect to removing the “injustice” done to Czechoslovakia. Most outspoken was the ageing Lord Robert Cecil, who considered Munich the “shameful betrayal” by Britain of her great past.
Beneš in his reply explained that he had refrained from contacting friends in order not to embarrass either the British or the Czechoslovak governments. He asked those present not to forget “the unmerited sufferings of his people.” Describing his impressions of the United States’ attitude, he said that both the President and the Secretary of State had assured him that “America would never recognize the violence done to Czechoslovakia.”
A group of Czechoslovak politicians and officials who had managed to escape to Britain after the German take-over now gathered around Beneš in London. Particularly important from the perspective of future action was the arrival of a group of Czechoslovak military intelligence officers who, in a unique exploit, had managed to leave Prague along with their files as the Germans were entering the city.
Meanwhile in Paris, the Munichites Daladier and Georges Bonnet continued to hold office. As Robert Bruce Lockhart put it, the position of the Czechoslovaks in France at the outbreak of the war was “the tragic illustration of the dislike that men feel for those whom they have wronged.” There was in fact what amounted to a Daladier veto on Beneš’s policies. The French Premier apparently considered that Beneš had not been pliable enough during the 1938 crisis and had dragged him to Munich. He refused to receive him when he visited Paris in October 1939. Georges Mandel, then Minister of Colonies, told Beneš at the time that after what Daladier had done to Czechoslovakia he did not dare to look Beneš in the face.  There were also diplomatic considerations behind this attitude. The Polish Foreign Minister, Colonel Beck, was still bent on splitting the Czechs and Slovaks by creating a common Polish-Hungarian border and, with war on the horizon, there was no desire in Paris to alienate Poland.
By the same token, pacifist circles in Paris now denounced the whole Little Entente policy, for twenty years the pride of France’s diplomacy and her security system, as the source of their country’s ills. Nobody wished to remember that it was from a Paris student hotel a quarter of a century earlier that Tomáš Masaryk and Beneš had launched the historic slogan “Destroy Austria-Hungary,” with the far-reaching consequences that followed.
Once the war started, however, action to restore Czechoslovak government authority centered primarily on France. There were several reasons for this. Continental France bordered on Germany, the Czechoslovak embassy was still recognized by the French government, and the thousands of Czechoslovak refugees reaching the country of their former ally were allowed to join the French Foreign Legion. Later, when an agreement on the recognition of a Czechoslovak National Committee was reached, these Czech and Slovak “légionnaires” were to form the nucleus of the Czechoslovak army in exile.
An agreement to that effect reached on October 2 between the French government and the Czechoslovak Minister in Paris laid the foundations for the reconstitution of the Czechoslovak army on French soil. It stated that “politically” this army would be under the authority of the Provisional Czechoslovak Government. No such government existed at the time, both London and Paris considering its establishment premature. They agreed, however, to “take notice” of the creation of a Czechoslovak National Committee. The French would have preferred someone other than Beneš to head the Committee, but the British insisted on his participation. When the final list of Committee members was published, Beneš’s headed the list because it came first in alphabetical order, but no chairman was mentioned. In a short communiqué issued on November 17, the French Foreign Ministry announced its recognition of the Committee. In London, the letters exchanged between Dr. Beneš and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, were made public on December 20. Britain’s recognition was significantly wider than that granted by France, for as Lord Halifax wrote, it considered that the Committee was “authorized to represent the Czechoslovak people,” the very formulation used in Dr. Beneš’s letter.
The day after the agreement on the new Czechoslovak army was reached, Beneš arrived in Paris, hoping to lay the foundations of a Provisional Government, but was cold-shouldered or ignored by French official circles. After seeing a few friends, he left suddenly, “without taking leave,” as he later wrote, abandoning France led by people “who could neither win the war nor rescue the country from its great weakness.”
Internal Dissensions [top]
Throughout history émigré movements have succumbed to internal dissension, and the Czechoslovak emigration after 1938 was no exception. The “phony war” atmosphere of the autumn of 1939 and the winter that followed was particularly propitious to agitation and intrigue and the first and most obvious scapegoat was the former President himself. It was claimed in some Czechoslovak circles that Beneš had lost his nerve at the height of the crisis and had not gone to war with Germany, even “at the price of Bohemia becoming the Thermopylae and you Leonidas,” as one of his resistance friends, Ladislav Rašin, wrote to him. Later, however, it was realized that in September 1938 nobody would have come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance. The opposite reproach also levied against Beneš was that he had not attempted to negotiate directly with Hitler when Czechoslovakia was abandoned by France and Britain. This reproach died a natural death after the humiliating treatment meted out by Hitler to the aged President Hácha in the Berlin Chancellery on the tragic night of March 14-15, 1939, when he was forced to accept the imposition of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Beneš could not have expected any other treatment from Hitler six months earlier.
After the Nazi occupation of Prague a conflict broke out between Beneš and Dr. Stefan Osusky, for twenty years Czechoslovakia’s envoy to France, who was still recognized by the French authorities even though he no longer had a government to represent. Contrary to practically all other Czechoslovak diplomatic representatives abroad, Osusky was reluctant to submit to the newly-formed Czechoslovak political authority which consisted, as he put it, of “private” persons while he still maintained his “official” position. Beneš and his friends utterly rejected this “envoy-theory.” While aware of the importance of the “vestige of the authority” which had survived the extinction of the Republic, they denied Osusky’s claim to a special position of leadership or to an independent authority not subordinated to anyone. They also denounced his dependence on the host government – France.
Another source of bitterness among the Czechoslovak émigrés was the special relationship that developed between General Lev Prchala, who had escaped to Poland after the German occupation of Prague, and the Polish government in Warsaw. When tension between Berlin and Warsaw reached alarming proportions, General Prchala, first supported by General Ingr in London, offered the Poles Czechoslovak military cooperation despite the recent Polish occupation of Teschen. When war broke out, General Prchala agreed to implement a decree issued by the Polish president creating separate “Czech” and “Slovak” legions, thus undermining Czechoslovak unity. This and the fact that Polish funds were made available to Prchala for political purposes – namely for opposition to Beneš – aroused distrust and condemnation among the London group.
Recriminations about the activities of Osusky in Paris and Prchala in Warsaw became particularly violent when the two arrived in London after the fall of Poland and later of France. They culminated in November 1942 in a sensational and somewhat embarrassing court case in which Osusky and Prchala sued the President’s nephew Bohuslav Beneš and the British publisher Unwin Brothers for libel.
Personal animosity also developed in exile between Beneš and his former Slovak Prime Minister, Dr. Milan Hodža, and during the summer of 1940 this issue delayed further recognition of the Czechoslovak national authority abroad. During the 1938 crisis Beneš, together with the coalition government under Hodža, which included liberals, socialists and agrarians of various shades, had operated in full cooperation and harmony. They had worked out no less than four plans for the solution of the Sudeten German problem, ranging from a “Nationality Statute,” covering minority rights within revised language and administrative reform bills, to the famous “Fourth Plan” which in fact granted the Sudeten Germans their full demands as a “co-inhabiting nationality” of the Republic.
In emigration, however, all that divided these two very different men came to the surface. Beneš had started on the path to an independent Czechoslovakia as a firebrand Quartier Latin student and a clandestine worker in the Czech mafia in Habsburg Prague. Hodža had spent years in the Budapest parliament, where he had acquired all the charm and niceties of a Hungarian nobleman. In a note to the Foreign Office describing the two men, Bruce Lockhart wrote that Beneš was a “lonely figure ... not without vanity ... with courage enough never to show bitterness.... At Geneva he was indispensable by being two moves ahead of his rivals and three or four ahead of his friends....” As to Hodža, Bruce Lockhart noted: “He is intimate with all men ... a party politician who understands Central Europe better than most of his rivals.... On the same day he can discuss the merits of Federal Union with W.B. Curry and the virtues of die-hard nationalism with Sir Alfred Knox.... His defects are slowness and reluctance to take decisions.”
Hodža was censured by the Czechoslovak leadership for organizing while in France a dissident Slovak organization, thus breaking national unity. He was also criticized for having repeated Osusky’s assertion that, were it not for Beneš’s presence, a Provisional Czechoslovak government would already have been recognized in Paris at the outbreak of war. The British authorities were now prepared to recognize a Provisional Czechoslovak government but insisted that it must be “representative in character,” thereby implying agreement between Beneš and Hodža. Bruce Lockhart was entrusted with the task of bringing the two together. He later wrote in a report: “If reconciliation between Beneš and Hodža takes place it will require more suppleness than Beneš possesses and more honesty of purpose than Hodža is perhaps capable of, to make it lasting.”
He recalled that at the height of the controversy Beneš had exclaimed somewhat bitterly: “You admit that I have a big majority. Yet you are trying to force me to accept this insignificant minority of blackmailers.” In the face of British pressure the thought of moving to the United States seems to have crossed Beneš’s mind. In the end, however, Hodža, whose support was dwindling, agreed to become one of the vice-presidents of the State Council then being formed.
A Provisional Government Recognized [top] When the demand for the recognition of a Provisional Czechoslovak government began to mount, Sir Roger Makins of the Foreign Office wrote in a minute written in April 1940: “It is premature to consider the formation of a Provisional Czechoslovak government before the unity of Czechoslovak action abroad has been more clearly and publicly demonstrated.”
Seven weeks later, on June 25, Sir Roger in another minute recommended the recognition of such a movement. Beneš appeared to him “a somewhat tarnished figure” but, he noted, “the Czechs have shown up well compared with other allies.” He added: “Our own position has changed for the worse and having less to lose we can perhaps afford to take on the Czechs.”
This half-hearted acceptance of the Czechoslovaks as formal allies followed upon the catastrophic events of the preceding weeks on the Western front. France, regarded for twenty years as the bulwark of continental peace, had collapsed. All continental Europe with the exception of the USSR and the Balkans was under Nazi rule. The British Isles, isolated, blockaded, poorly armed, threatened by invasion and by destruction from the air, appeared to be the only hope for freedom-aspiring humanity.
It was towards these shores that the bulk of the Czechoslovak forces in France, consisting of an infantry division and a flying corps, were safely evacuated in July 1940, following urgent appeals from Beneš to Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, and Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air. “Whatever may happen,” Dr. Beneš told them, “the Czechoslovak Committee will continue its present policy at the side of your country in the common fight against Germany and Italy.” This statement preceded the “Czechoslovak Dunkirk,” an odyssey reminiscent of the historic evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legionaries from revolution-torn Russia after their “march” across Siberia in the First World War. The Czechoslovak troops concentrated in the areas of Montpellier, Agde, Béziers and Port-Vendres were evacuated on board ships that slipped quietly past Gibraltar and reached Liverpool a fortnight later.
The manifesto that the Czechoslovak National Committee issued soon after its creation went far beyond any of the commitments it had obtained up to then from either France or Britain. It was a somewhat free interpretation and amplification of the Allied aims as stated prior to the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter. The manifesto launched the struggle for “a free Czechoslovakia in a free Europe.” It went on to state that “the freedom and independence of Czechoslovakia is an express war aim and condition of peace of our Allies.” It further declared that the Czechoslovak Republic continued to exist in international law and that none of its citizens “of whatever nationality” would renounce it.
In the three-stage drama of recognition – first as a National Committee (1939), then as a Provisional government (1940), and finally as the Government of the Czechoslovak Republic (1941) – the continued existence of the Republic was accepted without reservations only in the final stage. Even with full recognition the question remained open as to whether Britain still considered herself bound by the Munich agreement.
Three days after Marshal P‚tain requested an armistice from Hitler on June 21, 1940, Beneš, on behalf of the Czechoslovak National Committee submitted a memorandum to Lord Halifax entitled “The Constitution of the Czechoslovak Government.” It mentioned Dr. Beneš as President of the Republic, Monsignor Jan „rúmek as Prime Minister and a membership drawn from liberal, left wing and right wing circles, including five Slovaks in a cabinet of thirteen. It included two members of the Protectorate government (Feierabend and Nečas) who had escaped from Prague and a Slovak autonomist (Pauliny-Toth). The memorandum envisaged the establishment of a National Council, “a kind of provisional parliament,” with controlling and advisory competence to be headed by one Czech, one Slovak and one Sudeten German.
Accompanied by comprehensive comments from the Foreign Office, this memorandum was submitted to the British War Cabinet. The Foreign Office took exception to Beneš’s assertion that Czechoslovak action abroad and resistance at home “are hampered by the British refusal to recognize the Czechoslovak peoples as Allies in the same sense as the Polish, Dutch and Norwegian peoples.” Enumerating arguments against more extensive recognition, the Foreign Office mentioned insufficient unity among Czechs and Slovaks abroad and uncertainty as to the amount of support the National Committee enjoyed in the Protectorate and in Slovakia. The Foreign Office document also outlined arguments favourable to recognition, pointing out that German successes had had such an impact in Prague and Bratislava that some further gesture of encouragement might now be required to strengthen the people’s will to resist; it stressed that if Beneš and his followers were not supported by Britain, the Czechs and Slovaks might look solely to the USSR for salvation. Furthermore, French and Hungarian susceptibilities no longer needed to be considered and little opposition was likely from the Polish government, their “common adversity” having brought Poland and Czechoslovakia closer to one another.
The Cabinet unanimously approved the Foreign Office’s conclusion “that the balance of advantage now lies in favour of meeting Dr. Beneš’s request – if he can secure the collaboration of the persons indicated by him.” Several conditions for recognition were suggested, the most important being that His Majesty’s Government refused to commit itself on specific frontiers of the future Czechoslovak State. Further exchanges between the Foreign Office and Beneš culminated in a letter from Lord Halifax dated July 21, 1940, in which he notified the Czechoslovak National Committee that His Majesty’s Government “are happy to recognize and enter into relations” with the Provisional Czechoslovakia government.
The same evening the decision was announced in the Commons by Churchill and Czechoslovakia’s national anthem “Where is my Home” was played on the BBC for the first time since Munich.
On An Equal Footing [top] The third and last act of the battle for recognition by Britain began with a personal appeal by President Beneš to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, after discreet soundings at the Foreign Office had met with a non-committal response. The occasion was Churchill’s visit to units of the Czechoslovak army at Leamington Spa on April 19, 1941. Beneš seized the opportunity to hand him a short note regarding “the question of the juridical and political equality of the Czechoslovak Government and the Czechoslovak cause with those of Poland, Holland and Norway.” Referring to “legal” difficulties invoked by Foreign Office officials, Beneš termed them “remnants of the Munich policy” and asked for the Prime Minister’s help in settling the matter favourably.
The following day Churchill wrote in a personal minute to Foreign Secretary Eden: “I see no reason why we should not give the Czechs the same recognition as we have given the Poles and encourage the Americans to follow our example. In neither case should we be committed to territorial frontiers.” Eden passed on Churchill’s minute to his advisers, adding: “My view on this question is similar to the Prime Minister’s.”
Eden’s request reached his advisers as they were studying a more detailed outline of Dr. Beneš’s cases. It emphasized that recognition of the Czechoslovak Republic’s juridical continuity would in no way constitute a commitment regarding the question of frontiers; it laid down that the Czechoslovak government in London was the continuation of and successor to the Prague government before September 30, 1938, and stated that there should be an exchange of ministers between the two governments, and that the provisional character of the Czechoslovak government in London “will be understood in the future as being only an internal concern of the Czechoslovak democracy.”
This document was submitted to the Foreign Office through Robert Bruce Lockhart, then British representative to the Provisional government. In an impassioned plea he urged the British government to “back our friends” and the “only Czechoslovak leader.” Summarizing the arguments of the Czechoslovak President, Bruce Lockhart stated, “Beneš is aware that his juridical arguments might be considered controversial and ‘academic’ in the present state of the war;” the case for recognition rested therefore on its “political merits.” He pointed to the close links between the London-based government and the population at home. Limitation of recognition was regarded by Czechs at home “not only as a slur on their national pride but also as casting doubt on the sincerity of our (Britain’s) proclaimed intentions after our victory.”
Impassioned pleas had never been to the liking of the traditional Foreign Office officials and the insistence of both Beneš and Bruce Lockhart was received with misgivings and even resentment. In a series of minutes Frank Roberts wrote that the memorandum of the Czech leader “bears every trace of hasty drafting.” He maintained that the Czechoslovak position differed from that of the other Allies as there were two separate governments in the Protectorate and in Slovakia. The British government had even given recognition de facto to the latter by maintaining a consul in Bratislava until the outbreak of the war. He regarded Beneš’s contention concerning the juridical continuity of the Republic as open to argument, stating that, after all, Beneš had resigned as President and that Britain had recognized a legal Czechoslovak government in Prague until March 15, 1939. Britain’s declared policy of not making territorial commitments while the war was on, and the limitation of the Provisional government’s authority over certain categories of Czechoslovak nationals, including the Sudeten Germans and some leftists who did not support the Beneš administration in exile, was also to be borne in mind, Roberts submitted.
In discussion within the Foreign Office reference was made to the Dominions’ “reluctant acquiescence” in the recognition of the Provisional government. General Jan Smuts was quoted as saying that he disliked Beneš’s “persistence.” “Why increase our commitments while the prospect darkens?” he remarked soon after the fall of France. He further warned that the Empire might again find itself at a peace conference with “insoluble problems.” As to the position of the United States in the spring of 1941, John Winant, the American Ambassador to Britain, had been “noncommittal” on the issue of the Provisional government’s recognition, while Francis Biddle, U.S. Ambassador to the Allied governments, had “pointedly” not been accredited to the Czechoslovak government. As to Sir Roger Makins, he felt that the communications received from Beneš “show him in his worst light and they are in fact replete with over-optimism and untruths.” And though he considered acceptable Beneš’s claim that Hácha and the Czechs at home were behind him, he thought it still advisable “that a second opinion be sought.” The concluding comment in this debate was made by Sir William Strang: “To recognize him (Beneš) in that capacity (head of the Czechoslovak State) is a matter not so much of law or fact as of faith. For such an act of faith there is, of course, a great deal to be said and my understanding is that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State wish to proceed to it.”
There followed a letter from Eden to Beneš on May 26, 1941, which contained the following central passage: “We should like to be assured that you are satisfied that the present situation of your followers in the Protectorate would not be further prejudiced and that a further measure of recognition, if it were found possible to give it, would bring positive political advantages to the common cause, would have some advantage from the point of view of the Czechoslovaks at home, and would not affect the existing collaboration between Prague and London.”
Two days later Beneš replied to Eden stressing his “definite conviction” shared by his colleagues that full recognition could only be advantageous to the Allied cause and that communications with Prague “would be maintained whatever happened.”
And so things stood while in Berlin the countdown started for the invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. When the Nazi panzers burst into the Ukraine, the Foreign Office was busy searching for a convenient way out which, while giving the Czechoslovaks some satisfaction by exchanging ministers with them and dropping the word “provisional” from the accepted name of their government, would still avoid express recognition. With Russia now at war, Czechoslovakia became a major and indispensable link in the expanding anti-Hitler alliance.
Soviet Recognition [top] In the weeks that preceded Hitler’s leap into the Soviet abyss, Beneš and his companions had become more and more convinced that Soviet participation in the war was imminent. When Churchill visited the Czechoslovak army in April, accompanied by two prominent American guests – Averell Harriman, President Roosevelt’s personal representative, and General Arnold, commander of the U.S. Air Force – Beneš told them about German preparations to strike against Russia relayed to him by his well-informed sources in Berlin. He believed that the timing of these operations would be decided by Hitler, not by Stalin, and that Russia would ultimately fight on the Allied side. He stressed that Soviet actions since the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact should be seen in the light of Russia’s desire to prolong its neutrality as long as possible, but now that the danger in the Balkans loomed large the Soviet Union could not tolerate German domination there. He did not doubt Russia’s capacity to resist in spite of the Tuchachevsky purges in the upper echelons of the Red Army.
Beneš by then had two unofficial emissaries in Moscow, dispatched there secretly from Romania, both of the Czechoslovak Intelligence Services. The mere fact that these Czech officers had been invited to the USSR while Berlin and Moscow were still cooperating signified for Beneš that the Russians had not abandoned the idea of a restored Czechoslovakia. To these emissaries who enquired in responsible Soviet circles about the meaning of the de jure recognition by Russia of “independent” Slovakia and the closing of the Czechoslovak Embassy in Moscow in December 1938, it was explained that these measures were “without significance.”
Four days after the German invasion of Russia, Bruce Lockhart reported to the Foreign Office signs of an (official) change of heart of the Soviets towards Beneš’s government. One of the above-mentioned intelligence officers, Colonel Pika, who hitherto had merely been tolerated in Moscow, was now receiving special privileges such as freedom of movement, and a fine villa and motor car had been placed at his disposal. In his first speech after the outbreak of the war, Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov noted the brutal dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In London the Soviet military attaché called on Colonel Moravec, Chief of Czechoslovak Military Intelligence, discussed combined sabotage operations in eastern Slovakia and “dangled the bait of Russian recognition.” Bruce Lockhart further reported that Beneš was “perturbed by the possibility of Russia recognizing the Czechoslovak Government in London before Britain and the United States,” adding that he did not think that “President Beneš’s apprehension is purely tactical.” Beneš had disclosed that Nazi propaganda was already announcing dissensions between pro-Russian and pro-Western Czechoslovaks; he feared the expected national uprising at home might start “under a different leadership and with very different aims.” In a direct question to Bruce Lockhart, Beneš had asked whether the British authorities had “any antipathy” for his person. Bruce Lockhart added: “If I would tell him the truth he would know what to do.”
Within hours of this conversation full Soviet recognition was an accomplished fact. Ambassador Maisky called on Beneš, with whom he had maintained personal contact since the Czechoslovak leader’s arrival in Britain, saluted him as the “President of the Czechoslovak Republic” and delivered to him an official communication in six points: the USSR recognized the juridical continuity of the Czechoslovak Republic from pre-Munich times; the physical restoration of the Czechoslovak Republic was seen as one of the Soviet government’s war aims; Beneš was recognized as President of the Czechoslovak Republic and the Provisional Government as its government; diplomatic relations were resumed and Zdeněk Fierlinger, the former Czechoslovak minister who had been expelled from the USSR in 1938, could return to Moscow; the government of the USSR would refrain from any interference in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia; and the Soviet government was prepared to set up a Czechoslovak Committee in Moscow and to form a Czechoslovak force to fight alongside the Red Army.
An experienced diplomat, Beneš requested and immediately received two major verbal assurances from the Soviet Ambassador. Maisky replied affirmatively that the USSR recognized Ruthenia as part of the Czechoslovak Republic and that the Czechoslovak military units to be constituted in the Soviet Union, while under the operational control of the Soviet General Staff, would be recognized as separate units under the command of the Czechoslovak President and government in London. On one question Maisky was to consult his government again, namely the status of the proposed Czechoslovak National Committee in Moscow. Beneš insisted that the Committee not only acknowledge allegiance to the President of the Republic but should be under the control of the Czechoslovak Minister in Moscow.
Though Soviet recognition of the Czechoslovak government had been expected in British government circles, its timing and extent seem to have taken London by surprise. In a message to Lord Halifax in Washington and in a similar communication to the Dominions, Eden stressed that the Provisional Czechoslovak government was anxious to announce this development “lest their home population may draw an unfavourable comparison between the full recognition accorded by the USSR and the more limited degree of recognition hitherto accorded by the Western democracies.” The Foreign Secretary urged the Dominions to agree to Britain’s according, as soon as possible, a further degree of recognition to the Czechoslovak government. At the same time he urged the United States government “to balance Soviet recognition” and “prevent unfavourable comparisons” being drawn in Czechoslovakia between the Soviet attitude and that of Britain and the United States.
A Foreign Office document laid before the Cabinet on July 18 summed up the issue as follows: “It is improbable that full recognition by His Majesty’s Government of Dr. Beneš will have any material effect on Soviet policy or on the course of events in Czechoslovakia. Dr. Beneš, however, has set his heart on being fully recognized. This issue is therefore a simple one. We have either to disappoint Dr. Beneš or disagree with two of the Dominions.” Eden considered it most important to prevent premature uprisings in Czechoslovakia and to that effect he thought it desirable to strengthen Beneš’s position by granting his government full recognition.
That same evening two letters signed by Eden and addressed to Jan Masaryk, now Czechoslovak Minister for Foreign Affairs, reached Beneš. The first stated that the King had decided to accredit an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the President of the Czechoslovak Republic in London. This meant that Britain now regarded the juridical position of the President and Government of the Czechoslovak Republic as identical to that of the other Allied Heads of State established in Britain. The British government further took note of Dr. Beneš’s statement that the provisional character of the Czechoslovak government “will be understood in the future as being only an internal concern of Czechoslovak democracy.” Two reservations were added, however, in line with Roberts’ suggestion: first, Britain indicated its desire to “set aside” the issue of the juridical continuity of the Czechoslovak Republic for further consideration at an appropriate moment; and second, Britain maintained its earlier position regarding future territorial boundaries, not wishing to commit itself “to recognize or to support” any particular frontiers in Central Europe while the war continued. Another letter limited the exercise of Czechoslovak jurisdiction in Britain “over certain categories of former Czechoslovak nationals.”
Beneš could compare British recognition in 1941 with that which he had received in 1918 from the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour. At that time the Czechoslovak National Committee had been recognized as the “supreme organ of the Czechoslovak movement in Allied countries” and had been granted “political rights concerning the civil affairs of Czechoslovaks.” Finally, just before the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia had become “an Allied nation.” History had repeated itself.
Repudiation of Munich [top] “The Munich Agreement was a tragically misconceived and desperate act of appeasement (undertaken) at the cost of the Czechoslovak State ... in the vain hope that it would satisfy Hitler’s stormy ambition, and thus secure for Europe a peaceful future,” George Kennan wrote some twenty years after the event.
Documents produced before the Nuremberg International Tribunal testify that Hitler made up his mind that Germany needed more space in Europe and that it had to be acquired by force. He had instructed Konrad Henlein, leader of the Sudeten Nazi party, not to agree to any compromise that Lord Runciman’s negotiations might produce, and seriously contemplated the staging of the assassination of the German ambassador in Prague to create the requisite incident for a casus belli against Czechoslovakia in order to break into Bohemia by surprise. Finally, in one of the most blatant instances of duplicity and cynicism ever recorded in history, he told the hesitant Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, on August 23, 1938, five days before the Munich conclave: “Whoever wants to share the meal will have to participate in the cooking as well.”
In the third year of the war, Beneš and his associates concluded that the time was ripe to raise the issue of the formal repudiation of the Munich agreement by Great Britain and the other Allies. Now the denunciation of the Munich Agreement would be not only a gesture to correct a past wrong, but a way to ensure the restoration of the Czechoslovak Republic in its pre-war territorial integrity.
There was, however, a psychological bridge to cross before the “Munich” issue could be tackled in a rational way. The Czechoslovak leadership realized that their British counterparts felt embarrassed about the role they had been forced to play vis-à-vis Czechoslovakia in September 1938. They were equally aware that soon after Munich Britain had been called upon to pay a very heavy price for its attitude during the crisis. In fact many former “appeasers” – and, as Oliver Harvey writes in his diaries, “who had not been an ‘appeaser’ at one time or another?” – were now fighting the common enemy.
The Soviet Union had been conspicuously absent from Munich. However, in June 1942, when Molotov visited Britain, the Munich issue was immediately raised. On June 9th Molotov assured Beneš that the Soviet Union recognized the Czechoslovak Republic in its pre-war frontiers, that it “had never agreed with or recognized anything that happened at Munich and after,” and would maintain this attitude in the future. He further consented that this statement be made public.
There followed what Beneš called a “great and far-reaching” negotiation with the British government in which the issues involved in the restoration of the pre-Munich status of Czechoslovakia were threshed out once again. In meetings with Eden on June 25 and July 7, the Czechoslovak statesman laid stress on the fact that the Munich treaty had been invalidated by Germany; it was illegal and unconstitutional because it had been imposed on his country by coercion and, consequently, the British government should declare itself no longer bound by it; the pre-Munich status of the Republic should therefore be restored. Arguments advanced by the British government during these talks stressed that the Munich Agreement had been “an historical and legal fact” and that, consequently, a unilateral declaration on the part of Britain that it had ceased to exist would not render it void. This could only be achieved through a new international agreement concluded by the original signatories. Britain could not make pronouncements regarding frontiers while the war was on and had given the United States assurances in this respect. An overall negotiation on frontiers would take place at the appropriate moment, and an exception could not be made in the case of Czechoslovakia.
Finally, after further exchanges, Eden on August 5, 1942, sent a letter to Jan Masaryk, stating:
I desire to declare on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that as Germany has deliberately destroyed the arrangements concerning Czechoslovakia reached in 1938, in which His Majesty’s Government participated, His Majesty’s Government regard themselves as free from any engagements in this respect. At the final settlement of the Czechoslovak frontiers to be reached at the end of the war they will not be influenced by any changes effected in and since 1938. In reply Masaryk described Eden’s note as “a practical solution” of the questions and difficulties which had emerged between the two countries as the consequences of the Munich Agreement.
A parallel announcement was made that evening in the Commons by Eden, who paid tribute to the courage of the Czechoslovak people, mentioning horrors perpetrated by Nazis at Lidice. After a minute of complete silence, loud cheers broke out on all sides including, as a prominent observer put it, from most of those who had applauded equally loudly when the Munich Pact was born.
Beneš Breaks with the Sudeten Germans [top] Behind the British reservations regarding the Czechoslovak government’s jurisdiction “over certain categories of former Czechoslovak nationals” lay the whole problem of the future of the Sudeten Germans in liberated Czechoslovakia. During the war years in London the question of the future relationship between Czechs and Sudeten Germans was the subject mainly of exchanges between Beneš and a group of Sudeten German Social Democrats led by Wenzel Jaksch.
The Sudeten German Social Democrats had always maintained an “absolutely positive relationship with the Republic,” and when Hitler became master of Germany in 1933 they came out openly in support of Czechoslovakia “now the last democratic stronghold of the rule of law, of a European outlook, humanity and love of peace.” Just before the Munich meeting they handed to Lord Runciman in Prague a memorandum in which they protested against “a solution which was not guided by the spirit of equality but by Germany’s desire to impose its hegemony in Central Europe.”
Exactly a year later, on August 3, 1939, Wenzel Jaksch called on Beneš in London, where both men were now political émigrés. It was the first of a series of wartime contacts which would end in a complete break with the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. The Sudeten Social Democrats, through their spokesman Jaksch, called for a “constructive programme” for liberated Czechoslovakia based on a kind of federalism that would include no less than the Fourth Plan offered by Beneš to Henlein at the height of the 1938 crisis.
At this meeting and subsequent ones in December 1939 and July 1940, immediately after the fall of France, Jaksch again called for discussions between the Czechoslovak and Sudeten German leaderships, stressing that the Germans in the Republic should not be subject to a “dictate” and that there could be no return to Czechoslovakia in its pre-war form. Beneš at that time considered such talks to be premature, for the defeat of Hitler then still seemed a long way off. He felt that the Sudeten German Social Democrats should first express solidarity with the Czechoslovak cause and cooperate with the Czechoslovak resistance movement in calling for the revocation of the Munich Agreement. Once this was achieved he would favour cooperation with all democratic Germans whose representatives would be included in the State Council then being formed. Beneš justified his attitude by the fact that among Jaksch’s friends there were substantial elements favourable to a post-war solution of the problem of the Sudetenland through its incorporation into a democratic Greater Reich. Jaksch himself told Beneš that among the German emigrants from Bohemia in England 50 per cent were for greater Germany and 50 per cent for the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia in the old pre-Munich frontiers.
While these exchanges were taking place, Jaksch in his capacity as “London representative of the Sudeten German Social Democratic Party” wrote to The New Statesman and Nation (February 24, 1940) that the Sudeten German exiles in Britain must remain independent in their relations with the Czechoslovak National Committee, and that Sudeten Germans abroad must be given the “choice of volunteering either for the British or the Czech Army.” “The Munich Agreement,” he wrote, “was signed against our will and we have never recognized it as binding. On the other hand we have never accepted the pre-Munich position as a final solution of the Sudeten problem. Our slogan has always been ‘equality of rights for all, predominance for none’.”
There was a real desire on both sides to try to find a common ground by negotiation. The small group of émigrés around Jaksch enjoyed a certain amount of sympathy in influential British circles because of their stand for democracy before the war and as a potential link with the German Social Democracy of the future. They were reputed to have been assured by certain British personalities that no further progress on the recognition of Czechoslovakia was possible unless the Czechs reached an agreement with the Sudeten Social Democrats. This was considered in Czech circles as unjustified pressure and it added to the irritation that developed between them and those whom they still regarded as their countrymen.
Meanwhile two developments influenced the delicate Czechoslovak-Sudeten relationship in London: Soviet recognition of the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic and the atrocities which swept the Protectorate, particularly after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Both events no doubt led Eden during the final negotiations on the liquidation of Munich to inform Beneš that Britain would be prepared to withdraw its reservations regarding certain categories of former Czechoslovak citizens at present in Britain (namely the Sudeten Germans) once their representatives were admitted to the State Council. The Czechoslovak government maintained, however, that the reserved attitude of the Sudeten Germans vis-à-vis the Czechoslovak authorities abroad and the Czechoslovak army made their representation in the Council impossible.
The final break between Beneš and Jaksch occurred in the summer of 1942 as recorded in letters exchanged between the two men in June and July of that year, obviously meant as testimonies for future generations.
Jaksch, referring to the suggested transfer of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the liberation of the country, wrote that “their evacuation from the whole territory could only be carried out by brute force” and “would destroy every basis of democratic cooperation for a generation.” The Sudeten Social Democrat leader called on all “responsible elements” of the Czechoslovak State to abandon the idea of a “violent solution” that would drive the German Social Democrats “into a conflict, which might have fatal consequences for both parties.”
Beneš, in his final reply, stated that the great majority of Germans in the Czechoslovak provinces supported the German State. They had declared their solidarity with it and were still helping it effectively and must bear the consequences. He reproached the Sudeten German Social Democrats in Britain with never having come out openly for the revocation of the Munich Agreement and not having appealed publicly during the war years for the triumph of justice for the Czechoslovak Republic “for which it fought so devotedly in 1938.” He went on to recall what Jaksch had written in 1939, namely that the Sudeten German Social Democrats “must not stand where we used to stand,” for the Czechoslovak State no longer existed. Moreover, in a pamphlet entitled Was kommt nach Hitler? [What Will Come after Hitler?] Jaksch had kept open the question of the Sudetenland’s future, leaving undecided the choice between an “autonomous sector” in a restored Czechoslovakia or a “province of a democratic federal Reich.”
This was the prelude to the great transfer of Germans from Sudetenland to Germany that would take place three years later.
The Czechoslovak Communists [top] The other internal problem which created a constant dilemma for Beneš and the London-based government throughout the war was their relationship with the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In the long and complicated pre-war and wartime history of their contacts, two parallel refusals stand out. In the autumn of 1939 Beneš refused a Communist invitation to move to Moscow. And in 1943, during his visit to the Soviet capital, the leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party refused his invitation to join the London-based government.
The Communists in Czechoslovakia drew their popularity from the widespread belief among the masses that they represented the party nearest to Mother Russia which, supposedly, had been prevented from coming to their aid in 1938. This derived from the concept of “Slav brotherhood” which had helped the Czechs and Slovaks to preserve their national identity. In the early days of the century a lively controversy had developed among Czech and Slovak intellectuals as to the real meaning of Pan-Slavism. It was seen as representing a philosophy of supra-national solidarity based on historical and linguistic affinities. The mystical racial colouring that some tried to ascribe to it was less pronounced than in the Pan-German movement, which in a sense, it was supposed to counter-balance. Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomáš Masaryk, did not share these feelings and even before the Bolshevik revolution he emphasized the Bohemian people’s attachment to the Western conceptions of liberalism and democracy. This did not prevent the first Czechoslovak Republic, throughout the twenty years of its existence, from pursuing a foreign policy that opposed the isolation of the Soviet Union and intervention in its affairs.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement and the apparent reversal of alliances by Germany and the Soviet Union was no less of a blow for the Czechoslovak Communists than for the rest of the Western world, but Party discipline stood the test of the shock. A group of Communists in Moravia who protested against the Moscow-Berlin alignment were quickly made to toe the line. Even in London Czech and Slovak Communist ‚migr‚s who began fraternizing with circles close to the Czechoslovak National Committee suddenly broke away on orders from above. A pamphlet entitled “The Guilty Men of Czechoslovakia” widely distributed in London accused Beneš and his friends of being at the service of “British imperialism.” This line of propaganda continued until June 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. Overnight the “Imperialist War” waged by the Allies against Germany became the “Great Patriotic War.”
Secret contacts between Beneš and the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party had been re-established during the unhappy visit to Paris of Beneš in November 1939. Jan Šverma, a former Communist member of the Prague Parliament and a prominent leader of the Communist underground movement, arrived at the hotel where Beneš was staying by a back entrance in order to avoid French police surveillance. He was to have been accompanied by Dr. Vladislav Clementis, who would later succeed Jan Masaryk as Foreign Minister in Prague. Clementis, however, was detained by the French police and never reached Beneš’s room.
The lengthy conversation between the two men took place at a time when the Communists were cold-shouldering the liberation movement inspired by the former president and were accusing him and his followers of having betrayed the country by accepting the Munich accord. ’ initiative was certainly sponsored by high Soviet circles.
Šverma told Beneš that all was lost for the West and that Czechoslovakia’s liberation must henceforth be linked with the Soviet Union’s revolutionary victory that would inevitably follow the imperialist war now raging. He advanced reasons in favour of giving a Soviet orientation to the movement and urged Beneš to move to Moscow and establish the main base for his activities there.
In his reply Beneš stressed that “while the Soviet Union was taking no active part in the war” it was essential for him to stay in the West to ensure the unity of the Czechoslovak liberation movement. To Šverma’s argument that by remaining in the West he would ultimately be drawn into reactionary circles, Beneš replied that in the end the Soviet Union would be forced into the war and that it was indispensable for the cause of Czechoslovakia to maintain “a Western and Eastern line simultaneously.” This would ensure “a correct progressive, all-national and uniting line” and maintain “cooperation between West and East in the final phases of the fight against Hitler.” If he did not succeed in this task, Beneš concluded, he would be prepared to stand aside and leave the leadership to others.
Beneš and Šverma seemed to agree on one point, namely that sooner or later Russia would be drawn into the war. However, while Šverma believed that the Soviet Union would intervene towards the end of the war, when a successful revolution of the German working class inside the Reich would bring hostilities to an end, Beneš thought there was a definite possibility of the Soviet Union being forced into the war much earlier, “even against its will.”
Four years were to pass before the next confrontation between Beneš and the Czechoslovak Communist leadership in Moscow during the President’s visit there in December 1943. This time the meeting took place not in secret but at an official guest-house placed at the disposal of the recognized President of the Czechoslovak Republic by the Soviet government. Beneš had come to sign the Soviet-Czechoslovak Friendship Treaty and was received with honour by Stalin and the Soviet authorities. No longer was Beneš a mere political fugitive compelled to silence and secrecy. He had weathered all the storms that threatened the unity of the Czechoslovak liberation movement at home and abroad, he had secured the formal cancellation of the Munich diktat and the promise of the restoration of the Republic’s independence within its pre-war boundaries. Moreover, he had secured Czechoslovakia’s place as a full and equal partner in the Grand Alliance and the London-based government was recognized by all the Allies. He felt that he could now face his Communist compatriots on the solid ground of achievement.
The group of Moscow émigrés was headed by Jan Šverma, who was to be killed shortly afterwards while parachuting into Slovakia in advance of the Red Army, and by Clement Gottwald, Rudolf Slánský and Václav Kopecký who would all play a prominent part in post-liberation Czechoslovakia. Beneš told them his aim was to remove misunderstandings between them and the government in London and to seek clarification of their conception of home policies during and after liberation. He also invited two of their members to join his government. In the discussion that followed he concentrated on explaining to the Moscow émigrés how things were perceived in London and drew a picture of his government’s plans and problems.
The Communist spokesmen insisted on the need for the war to end in a “real revolution.” With this in view they envisaged the creation of “National Committees” to prepare for the coming “insurrection” and provide the nucleus of a “revolutionary civil administration.” In actual fact, before these talks took place some of these committees had already been established secretly, independently from the resistance movement controlled by the London-based government. Beneš did not oppose the idea in principle, but he outlined plans for the civil administration being prepared by his government and State Council in order to prevent chaos and establish a new “post-revolutionary legal order.” Measures to eradicate Fascism and punish war criminals were also envisaged.
The future of the political parties proved a thorny problem during the discussions, providing as it did a first taste of the Communist concept of the one-party system. On the assumption that the post-war electorate would vote overwhelmingly for the revolutionary lists, the Communist spokesmen declined to commit themselves to the continued existence of the pre-war right-wing parties, particularly the Agrarians. When the Communist leaders suggested a possible merger of all Czechoslovak Socialist parties in the restored Republic, Beneš asked them outright whether in that event they would be willing to forgo the independent existence of their own Party. They replied that they were not yet in a position to answer this question. For the first time the Communists broached the idea of a “National Front” to cope with post-liberation problems, a Soviet-inspired formula which during 1944 and 1945 enabled the Party to gain a dominant position in the liberated areas pending its complete assumption of power. Beneš on this occasion did not rule out the idea altogether, but he qualified it by insisting that all the political parties should participate in the government and jointly prepare a “post-revolution programme.” His invitation to the Communists to join the London government was countered by a call for a “total reconstruction” of the government, which the President considered impossible in the circumstances prevailing at the time. There is no doubt that their demand had the backing of Stalin who was already openly bent on establishing in the countries bordering on the Soviet Union governments built around a nucleus of Moscow-based Communist leaders.
Beneš, who since his resignation and exile had maintained a strict silence on the issues he had faced in 1938, spoke out now in justification of his policies prior to Munich. He explained that Czechoslovakia had been abandoned by Britain and France, threatened by Poland and Hungary, and weakened by the absence of fortifications along the Austrian border. And he also mentioned “the line the Soviet Union had chosen to take.”
“In December 1943,” Beneš later wrote, “each of us held firmly to his own opinion in these disputed questions ... we left the decision partly to the march of events, partly to the judgement of history.”
Beneš Pursues a Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty [top] It is puzzling that Eduard Beneš, the foremost architect of Europe’s pre-war security system based on a network of integrated treaties of alliance and mutual assistance undertakings, who had seen this system crumble and utterly destroyed, should have succumbed once again so soon after the Munich disaster to the fever of pactomania. There is also an apparent contradiction between Beneš’s understanding of and support for the Anglo-American view – that the solution of problems of peace and security should await the end of hostilities and be based on universal, generally-accepted principles – and his unceasing efforts to obtain far-reaching commitments from the Soviet Union while the war was still on. The same was true in regard to the Czechoslovak-Polish confederation envisaged earlier. In those days Czechoslovak circles in London were fond of repeating that the time to forge the post-war pattern of international peace was while the iron was still hot.
The Czechoslovak leadership in London oscillated between feelings of relief, doubt and fear at the prospect of sharing a common frontier with a victorious Soviet Union destined to become the dominant power in Central Europe after the war.
It was only in the summer of 1943 that the Czechoslovak government felt able to tackle the crucial problem of long-term post-war relations with the Soviet Union. By then the alliance between West and East had become a reality, despite mutual recriminations and controversies, especially concerning the persistent Soviet demand for a second front in Western Europe. The landings in North Africa, the collapse of Italy, the overpowering of the German forces at Stalingrad had brought about a turning point in the war. Liberation was on the horizon.
Czechoslovak thinking concentrated on the vital need to avoid in the future any repetition of the 1938 Munich disaster. The fact that the Western powers and the Soviet Union were divided at that time had made Munich possible. It had become urgent to conclude a sincere agreement and establish confident cooperation between the Anglo-Saxon nations and the USSR. Such unity of purpose and action was therefore a matter of prime importance to Czechoslovakia. Beneš also toyed with the idea that Czechoslovakia could serve as a kind of a laboratory-case in demonstrating to the Russians that their immediate neighbour could maintain full friendship with the West while remaining an ally of the Soviet Union. Conversely, the non-Communist world would be offered the image of an independent and democratic Czechoslovak Republic maintaining good neighbourly relations with the USSR and sharing with it mutual defence arrangements aimed at preventing a renewal of Nazi aggression.
Early in 1943 Beneš embarked on a new diplomatic drive. Through the Soviet ambassador in London, Alexander Bogomolov, he enquired whether the Soviet government was prepared to conclude a treaty with Czechoslovakia on the lines of the Anglo-Soviet Pact but adapted to Czechoslovak conditions. In the affirmative would such a treaty include a mutual undertaking not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs? Would the Soviet government be prepared to support the transfer of “Fascist Germans” from Czechoslovak territory? And, finally, would Moscow agree to include post-war Poland in the system of cooperation established between the two countries on the basis of mutually accepted principles? On two vital points – Czechoslovakia’s pre-war frontiers and Soviet “non-recognition” of Munich – Dr. Beneš had already received Soviet assurances when he met Molotov in London on June 9, 1942.
The Soviet government’s reply delivered through Bogomolov on April 23, 1943, invited the Czechoslovak leader to submit a draft of the proposed treaty including the mutual undertaking by both the parties concerned not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. The Soviet government saw no objection to establishing cooperation with Poland along the lines of their cooperation with the Czechoslovak Republic. On the subject of Germany, Moscow would do no more than state its intention of pursuing the war against Germany to the end. Post-war policies vis-à-vis Germany were under discussion with Washington and London and a fuller reply could only be provided later.
A few weeks later, Beneš also received an affirmative reply from Moscow supporting the proposed evacuation of the German Nazi population from the Republic.
Britain and the United States were hesitant in their approach to President Beneš’s suggestions regarding a long-term Czechoslovak-Soviet agreement. They contended that, pending a settlement between the USSR and Poland, and while the war was still in progress, it was advisable to delay the proposed Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty and avoid hasty decisions. Altogether it was not considered desirable that smaller governments undertake long-term commitments vis-à-vis one of the Great Powers pending clarification of future relations between London, Washington and Moscow during the liberation phase and beyond. In some Western circles fear was expressed that the Soviets were exploiting the Czechoslovak statesman’s goodwill and trust.
Meanwhile, in Polish government circles Beneš’s diplomacy aroused criticism and distrust, particularly after the revelation of the Katyn affair [see Chapter 2 – Poland] and the breaking-off of relations between the Soviet Union and the London-based Polish government. The negotiations between the Czechoslovak and Polish governments in London lingered on and finally ended in failure, despite initial agreement on the principle of a Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation. In the controversy that developed the Poles claimed that there was a “Soviet mortgage” on Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy. The Czechs for their part argued that Polish policies carried the heavy mortgage of Poland’s recent past.
Beneš was now determined to formalize the proposed treaty with the Soviet Union, and he proposed to do so during his official visit to Moscow after obtaining the blessing of the United States and British governments. In Washington, during the early summer, in conversations with President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, President Beneš obtained their approval in principle of his policy. In London, Eden, while agreeing in principle to the conclusion of a Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty, considered that its timing was of very great importance. He suggested that while its terms might be agreed upon in advance, it should only be signed after Germany laid down its arms, and that its signature should coincide with that of a parallel agreement with Poland.
In the Foreign Office’s view, it was not advisable that far-reaching agreements between governments should be finalized before the three Great Powers had coordinated their positions. The British position is clearly recorded in the diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, for years Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office. On July 5, 1943, he writes: “Talk with A. [Anthony Eden] and others about Beneš’s desire to sign treaty with Soviet. We can’t stop it ... decided thing to do was to appeal once more to Russians not to do so. If they insist, we must at least urge that treaty must not be directed in any way against Poland, and, if possible, should provide for Polish accession.”
The "Self-Denying Ordinance" [top] This ill-humoured reaction on the part of Britain’s top diplomat reflected the uneasy relations that had developed between the British and Czechoslovak governments in the summer and autumn of 1943. British uneasiness was not only due to Beneš’s insistence that the Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty be signed as soon as possible in Moscow, an initiative which, in the Foreign Office’s view would undermine Allied solidarity at this stage of the war; it was also due to the realization that the so-called “Self-Denying Ordinance” agreement which Eden and Molotov had reached in London a year earlier – whereby prior discussion and agreement between London and Moscow was to precede any treaty between one of the two parties and their smaller allies – was not interpreted the same way in Moscow and London. Beneš learned of the existence of this agreement when he went to inform the Foreign Secretary of his intention of proceeding to Moscow to sign the proposed treaty.
The tension that developed between the Czechs and the British gave rise to a certain amount of mutual recrimination. In Czechoslovak circles there were also complaints about “difficulties” and “delays” caused by the British government. Beneš, they maintained, had to draw inevitable conclusions from the Soviet break with the Polish government and the USSR’s recognition of the Moscow-based Polish Committee of National Liberation. A similar fate, they believed, might befall Soviet-Czechoslovak relations if the right moment for action were missed. This was the interpretation they gave to the Soviet government’s hint that if Beneš came to Moscow it should be to sign the treaty, otherwise he might as well stay in London. Immediate action on a mutually-agreed Soviet-Czechoslovak policy for the liberation and post-liberation was demanded by most members of the Czechoslovak government and State Council. The sense of urgency was overwhelming and for the first time suspicions were voiced in the Czechoslovak Council of Ministers as to British motives for the delay.
There were incidents in September 1943 when Eden appealed to Beneš to postpone his visit to the USSR until after the conference of the Foreign Ministers of the USSR, Britain and the U.S. due to take place in Moscow in October. The Foreign Secretary hoped that the question of the “Self-Denying Ordinance” would be clarified during this meeting. On September 24, a Czechoslovak cabinet resolution exposing British tactics and urging an early signature of the treaty with USSR was delivered to the Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department and the Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs.
This unprecedented action, taken against the advice of Beneš and Masaryk, was almost an act of rebellion by an Allied government in exile which enjoyed tremendous sympathy in popular opinion, and it came as a shock to the Foreign Office. It amounted to a vote of no confidence on the part of the majority of the Council of Ministers led by Hubert Ripka, Minister of State. He no longer believed that Beneš and Masaryk would succeed in persuading the British government of the urgent need to undertake the action they contemplated in Moscow to conclude the agreement with the USSR, to be signed now or never.
At the Foreign Office officials did not conceal their bitterness in the face of the Czechoslovak government’s action in which they saw the hand of Beneš. In fact, over the years a deep resentment had developed against him. He had succeeded in getting his way at the various stages of the recognition of the Czechoslovak government, and now on a point of great importance to British foreign policy he was inflexible. Some considered him less than frank. They suspected him of trying to play off the Great Powers against each other and of exaggerating the importance of his country’s future role in Europe. They also disliked what they considered his attempt to appoint himself as mediator between East and West, Poland and Russia.
The “Self-Denying Ordinance” was agreed upon verbally by Eden and Molotov when they met in London in June 1942. It was obviously seen in Britain as a major diplomatic instrument designed to ensure inter-allied cooperation and pave the way for negotiating the post-war settlement free from previous promises and obligations. Its importance was such that it remains puzzling even today that it had not been formalized before the issue of the Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty was raised fifteen months later and that the Allied governments concerned were not informed of its existence. In terms of immediate policy, the British considered that a bilateral treaty between two East European governments (USSR and Czechoslovakia) was bound to isolate Poland still further, undermine Britain’s policy of confederations in Central Europe and the Balkans, and create an accomplished fact before the Soviet Union had clarified its post-war policies and the Great Powers had reconciled their differences.
When Molotov declared that the Soviet government viewed the “Self-Denying Ordinance” as a mere proposal, not a binding undertaking, the Cabinet approved Eden’s intention of insisting on its acceptance at the Foreign Ministers’ conference in Moscow. The conference was in the main successful in achieving coordination between the policies of the three Great Powers. However, Eden, faced with Russia’s determination to conclude the treaty with Czechoslovakia, used the “Self-Denying Ordinance” as a bargaining platform to obtain the establishment of the European Advisory Commission of the major Allies, to sit in London. Beneš obtained his treaty, while the “Self-Denying Ordinance” sank into oblivion.
Liberation Tribulations [top] On December 12, 1943, the Czechoslovak-Soviet “Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Aid and Post-War Cooperation” was solemnly signed in the Kremlin in the presence of Beneš, Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov and other dignitaries of the Soviet regime. It included the obligation for each party to lend the other “military and other aid in support” against Germany during the war and in the event of a renewal of Germany’s Drang nach Osten in the future; the undertaking not to enter into negotiations with any German government “which does not clearly renounce all aggressive intentions”; “mutual respect of the independence and sovereignty of the signatories and non-interference in the internal affairs of the other signatory”; the promise not to conclude any alliance or participate in “any coalition” directed against one of them; and, finally, to maintain friendly relations after the re-establishment of peace.
Following the differences of opinion that had preceded Beneš’s visit to Moscow and the signing of the Treaty, the governments in London and Washington, at a loss as to how to proceed further in the face of increased Soviet obduracy over the Polish question, sought consolation in the so-called “Polish Clause.” Without mentioning any country by name, a Protocol added to the Treaty stipulated that “if any third country having common frontiers with the Czechoslovak Republic or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and having in this war been an object of German aggression, expresses the wish to adhere to this Treaty, it will be given the opportunity to do so after mutual agreement between the Governments of the Czechoslovak Republic and the USSR.”
It was this ray of light in the otherwise darkening prospects of the Polish government in London that paved the way for Beneš’s visit to Churchill, who was resting in Marrakesh on his way back from Moscow to London. The Prime Minister told Roosevelt and Eden that the Czechoslovak statesman might still prove very useful in reconciling Poles and Russians. The “Polish Clause” was interpreted as opening the door for Polish accession to the Treaty, which would enable her to join a triangular association in that part of Europe.
The impressions Beneš brought back to London had a considerable impact in Allied circles as direct testimony on developments in Moscow and Soviet thinking on the morrow of the Teheran conference. Beneš sincerely believed that a new Soviet Union would emerge after the war, for “it already feels itself to be an equal in the world, is proud of its role and position and will not want to lose them again.” He accepted as genuine the new Soviet attitudes to the Communist International, to religion, cooperation with the West, and Slav solidarity. As to the liberation of Czechoslovak territory, he assumed it was agreed that wherever Czechoslovak units were available in sufficient numbers they would occupy the areas concerned and civil administration would be progressively taken over by the Czechoslovak authorities. He further expressed his belief that “new post-war democracy and Soviet socialism could live one beside the other ... without rivalry and hostility in cooperation and mutual agreement.”
It was about this time that Jan Masaryk told a group of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons that, since Czechoslovakia was going to become a neighbour of Russia, she would have to maintain good relations with her, without, however, losing contact with Western Europe.
These good intentions were soon to be put to the test in the East as well as in the West. President Beneš was allowed into the Western parts of his country in the wake of the advancing Red Army, but officers of the Czechoslovak army in Britain were almost invariably refused permission to join their army in the USSR. To the dismay of London and Washington, the only Allied representative allowed to accompany Beneš to Košice, the first seat of the returning government, was the Soviet ambassador. And when premature insurrections occurred, first in Slovakia and later in Prague, the Russians, though only a hundred miles away, were not in a position to help the insurgents, and the Germans ruthlessly crushed the rebellions. Stalin soon imposed on the Czechoslovak government his own policy with regard to the Lublin Committee of National Liberation and the cession to the USSR of “Sub-Carpathian Ukraine,” namely Ruthenia.
There was undoubtedly a changed attitude in London and Washington after Beneš had had his way over the Treaty with the Soviets. As Allied forces from East and West converged on the heartland of Bohemia, Britain and the United States were hesitant when the Czechoslovak government urgently requested arms for its Home Army. By the autumn of 1944, Slovakia was already in the Soviet theatre of operations. It was felt that the Russians were in a better position to drop supplies from the air than the British or the Americans operating from Italy, but little was known of Russia’s intentions in this regard. American attempts at dropping arms to the Slovak insurgents proved insufficient. But despite repeated demands by Masaryk and General Ingr, the Allied Chief of Staff refused to change his position. Ensuring help to premature uprisings whose success was uncertain had by then become an agonizing problem for London and Washington.
Events were now moving very quickly. At the end of April and the beginning of May 1945, the important question was who would liberate Prague – the Americans or the Russians. It suddenly dawned on London and Washington that the occupation of Prague was bound to determine the vital issue of where the dividing line between the Allied armies advancing from East and West would cut across Europe. It soon became obvious that London and Washington had been caught unprepared and it was too late now for an attempt at coordination with Moscow. Churchill, Eden and Sir Orme Sargent, acting Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, urged Edward Stettinius in San Francisco and President Truman in Washington to instruct General Eisenhower to advance towards Prague. President Truman, however, believed that it was in the best interest of post-war cooperation not to quarrel with the Soviet allies at the time of triumph. When Eisenhower sent a timid enquiry to the Soviet General Staff asking what its plans were for operations in Western Czechoslovakia, he elicited the rather abrupt answer that the Red Army intended to clear the whole Vltava valley, which included Prague.
A curious detail is worth mentioning. Hitler and Goebbels, sitting in the Berlin Chancellery bunker they were destined never to leave alive, were still deceiving themselves. In his memoirs, Goebbels maintained that the Anglo-American armies would drive eastward toward Prague rather than toward Berlin.
But Prague, the capital of Jan Hus and Tomáš Masaryk, was destined to be liberated by the Red Army. Beneš returned there on June 2, 1945. The wheel of history had turned.
Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945
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