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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. Self-determination, democratization, and the homogenizing state

Czechoslovakia’s struggle for freedom

Edvard Beneš

Texte intégral

1Title: Czechoslovakia’s Struggle for Freedom

2Originally published: London, The Dalhousie Review, 1941

3Language: English
The excerpts used are from the original, pp. 1–16.

About the author

4Edvard Beneš [1884, Kožlany (near Rakovník, west Bohemia) – 1948, Sezimovo Ústí (south Bohemia)]: politician and sociologist. He came from a farming family. He studied sociology, economics and law at Prague, Paris, Berlin and Dijon. At an early age he became a follower of Tomáš G. Masaryk and adopted his political and social philosophy, including a deep suspicion of liberalism and political parties. In 1915, he joined Masaryk in organizing the anti-Austrian resistance in exile, was a co-founder of the Czechoslovak National Council and was, together with the Slovak Milan R. Stefánik, its main representative in Paris. Immediately after the declaration of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, Beneš became the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position he kept until 1935, when he became the second president of Czechoslovakia, taking over from Masaryk. From 1923 to 1935, he was a member of the reformist, nationalist Czechoslovak National Socialist Party founded in 1897. Beneš was the principal creator of the Czechoslovak interwar alliance system based on a military pact with France and on the Little Entente with Romania and Yugoslavia. This system, shaped by the Versailles peace settlement and the League of Nations, started to break down in the mid-1930s. Shortly after the Munich Agreement and the German occupation of the borderlands in September 1938, Beneš went into exile again. In 1939, he started to organize the ‘second resistance movement.’ In 1940, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile was formed in London with President Beneš leading the effort for the annulment of the Munich ‘Diktat.’ In 1943, he concluded a new treaty with the Soviet Union, which, it was hoped, would be the basic guarantee of postwar Czechoslovak security. Later, he negotiated an agreement on the postwar political system with Czech and Slovak Communist exiles in Moscow. His name is also connected with the presidential decrees (commonly called the ‘Beneš Decrees’) enabling the expulsion of millions of Sudeten Germans and hundreds of thousands of Hungarians from Czechoslovakia immediately after the war. Beneš was re-elected president in 1946 but was not in a position to thwart the Communist take-over in February 1948. After the fall of the Communist dictatorship in late 1989, Beneš became a matter of intellectual controversy not only in the Czech Republic, but also abroad, especially with regard to the Beneš Decrees. He remains one of the most tragic and contested figures of modern Czech history.

5Main works: Problémy nové Evropy a zahranični politika československá [Problems of the new Europe and Czechoslovak foreign policy] (1924); Světová válka a naše revoluce, 3 vols. [The world war and our revolution] (1927–1928); Francie a nova Evropa [France and the new Europe] (1932); Boj o mίr a bezpečnost státu [The fight for peace and state security] (1934); Demokracie dnes a zitra [Democracy today and tomorrow] (1942); Úvahy o slovanstvi [Essays on Slavdom] (1944); Šest let exilu a druhé světové války [Six years of exile and the Second World War] (1945); Paměti [Memoirs] (1947); Mnichovské dny [The Munich days] (1955).


6In the 1930s, as a consequence of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany, both the internal situation and international position of Czechoslovakia deteriorated. The alliance system built by Beneš in the previous decade based on treaties with France and, after 1934, with the USSR as well as the Little Entente, failed to ward off growing German pressure, which culminated in the Munich Agreement of September 1938. The four Great Powers—Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain—made Czechoslovakia cede large border areas with a German-speaking majority to Germany, but guaranteed the independence of the rest of the country. As a result of this agreement, Beneš resigned from presidency and went into exile. Later, in mid-March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and created the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Slovaks then declared their independence, and Carpathian Ruthenia was annexed by Hungary. This made it possible for Beneš to claim that the Munich Agreement was invalid and revoke his resignation from the presidency, something the Western powers were hesitant to recognize at this point. In 1940, Beneš set up a provisional Czechoslovak government in London and led a campaign for the rectification of the Munich agreement. The British government and French National Committee also declared the Munich Agreement invalid, which, from a legal point of view, opened the way to a renewal of the Czechoslovak Republic in its pre-war territorial form, even though the claim of Czech lawyers about the nullity of the agreement from the beginning remained contested.

7Between September 1938 and the beginning of the Second World War, Beneš wrote the first two chapters of his most important book from the war years, ‘Democracy today and tomorrow.’ Originally, it comprised his lecture notes for a course he gave at the University of Chicago, where as a visiting professor he taught from February to June 1939. In this work he presents his views on the intellectual and political development of democracy in Europe from the Middle Ages to recent times. This was published as a book in New York in September 1939. At the end of 1940, Beneš began to write a third part devoted to the future arrangement of Europe and Czechoslovakia. Along with this part, written in Czech, the whole book was, in its final Czech-language version, published in London in 1942. Like Masaryk, Beneš was convinced of the general progress of democratic principles in modern history and also stressed the social question as an integral part of this process. He was a socialist of reformist conviction refusing every truly revolutionary alternative. In recent times, according to his view, there were two challenges to Western rationality, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: Communist collectivism and the racist revolution of Nazism. Beneš was convinced, nevertheless, that the intellectual predominance of Western rationality would ultimately triumph. In contrast to his earlier works, however, there was a noticeable shift towards the left in his wartime writings. The experience of the Munich ‘Diktat’ and the fall of the first Czechoslovak Republic played a crucial role in his thought. Even though his ‘politics of the atonement of Munich’ by no means meant a refusal of parliamentary democracy, he did not spare the latter criticism. The activity of president Beneš and his government-in-exile during the war was based on a dual theory. On the one hand, it advocated a continuity of the Czechoslovak Republic in terms of international status and the democratic character of the state. On the other hand, it stipulated a ‘revolutionary’ change in the internal structure of the Republic, especially in spheres of social life and economy, for which he proposed a program for a democratic welfare state. At the level of domestic policy, Beneš proposed strengthening the role of government and restricting the power of political parties, also reducing their number to three: left, right and center. In international politics he was convinced of the necessity of cooperation between the Communist East and the capitalist West and their gradual convergence. He sincerely believed that the emergence of Russian nationalism in the Soviet Union had led to the abandonment of its collectivist zeal and police oppression, which contributed towards the development of a more democratic society.

8The article Czechoslovakia’s Struggle for Freedom was published in October 1941 in order to expound and advertise the political position of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile at the time, and drew its ideas mostly from ‘Democracy today and tomorrow.’ However improvised and transient, the article sketches the picture of inter-war Czechoslovakia promoted by the government-inexile in an effort to counter-balance its negative image in German pre-Munich propaganda. It also outlines Beneš’s vague vision of the future domestic political and social arrangement and international order, including possible ‘population transfers’ under international supervision. Noteworthy is Beneš’s insistence on the concept of the Czechoslovak nation as a political nation composed of two branches, Czechs and Slovaks, a concept that at this time was hardly acceptable either inside or outside the country, particularly among Slovaks.

9During the short-lived democratic regime in postwar Czechoslovakia (May 1945 to February 1948), ‘Democracy today and tomorrow’, the most theoretical of Beneš’s works, was reprinted six times. Despite its etatist tendencies—a common phenomenon in most of Europe at the time—it still serves as an example of genuine democratic thinking. In the Czechoslovak circumstances of the late 1940s, it was perceived as an alternative to the Communist collectivist model of society. After the Communist take-over in February 1948, the book was prohibited along with the other works by Ma-saryk, Beneš and other prominent Czechoslovak inter-war democrats’ though their survival in private libraries helped to preserve the memory of the inter-war democracy. After the changes of late 1989, this book, together with Beneš’s other writings’ has been mostly perceived as a historical document rather than a primary source on democratic theory.


Czechoslovakia’s struggle for freedom

11[…] The Czechoslovak nation is one of these nations which in this war can either ensure their recently won independence for all time or can lose everything. It is one of the nations which re-entered the ranks of independent States at the conclusion of the last World War. It did not receive its independence in 1918 merely as a gift from heaven, but conquered it by the toilsome endeavors of many decades. Although in the Thirty Years War it had lost not only its independence but also its political, economic and cultural elite which perished in exile or on the execution block, it was able in the 19th century, after almost two hundred years of complete degeneration, to recreate a cultural life of a European level, to organize itself in the political struggle for the re-attainment of its independence, and also to prepare itself in the economic sense for the tasks in store for independent nations.

12During the World War it also played a valuable part in the attainment of the ultimate victory of the Allies. Through its active and passive resistance, it disintegrated the Austro-Hungarian monarchy from within, and from its military volunteers an Army of 150,000 Legionaries was formed abroad which actively intervened in the fighting in France, in Italy and especially in Russia. […]

13How did the liberated Czechoslovak nation use its freedom? I think it is universally acknowledged that the young Czechoslovak Republic during these twenty years gave a splendid proof of its right to exist, and that it could have been envied by more than one much older State. The spirit of T. G. Ma-saryk, the Liberator and later President of the State, soared above the nation’s struggle for liberation during the World War, as well as above the internal and external life of the Republic, and impressed upon it the stamp of profound spirituality, moral sincerity, and at the same time of a sense for concrete requirements. T. G. Masaryk was able in his philosophy and in his activity to harmonize an understanding for the actuality of life with a profound and uncompromising moral sense. He was a democrat of a deep social conviction; he could seek and find compromises in concrete political practice, but he knew when and in what things to insist unshakenly on his principles. The State which owed to him its origin and seventeen years of happy development sought to act in order to be worthy of him.

14It was a democratic State which until the end was able to maintain its democratic regime, even when it was already surrounded on all sides by dictatorships and semi-dictatorships; it was administered by governments in which, from the very beginning, all the productive elements of the nation were represented. It succeeded in solving painlessly and in a peaceful fashion problems which elsewhere led to revolutions or showed themselves to be insoluble—e.g. the Land Reform or the Capital levy. It was in the forefront of social progress; it was the first of the industrial States to ratify the Washington Convention on the eight-hour working day; it introduced a social insurance system from which other States took their example, paid holidays for workers’ the participation of factory committees in the internal administration of industrial enterprises’ etc. It had inherited more than two-thirds of the industry of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and succeeded in finding new markets for its industry and in ensuring an unheard—of prosperity for its population, a prosperity which continued until the world economic crisis. The State was hard hit by this crisis’ but its internal order was not shaken. It was one of the first States to begin to move again towards economic prosperity after 1934 and in 1938; at the time when the new great European crisis overwhelmed it, production was again in full swing, and there were only about one hundred thousand unemployed out of a population of fifteen millions.

15Similarly fruitful progress was seen in the cultural sphere. Despite the rigorous economy the Republic exercised in its administration of the nation’s finances’ it never saved money at the expenses of schools or of education in general. […]

16In its foreign policy, Czechoslovakia was one of the foremost pillars of the League of Nations. It strove for collective security; it had an active part in the elaboration of the Pact of Mutual Assistance of 1923 and the Geneva Protocol of 1934; it was represented at Locarno; it was one of the first States to sign the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 which outlawed war. […]

17Above all, however, it maintained democratic equality with regard to all the language minorities in the country. Czechoslovakia was not a linguistically uniform State. The innumerable language and nationality migrations in Central Europe brought about the situation that none of the Central European States is, in the linguistic respect, so uniform as the States of Western Europe or America, and that frontiers could nowhere be precisely drawn according to the language spoken by the inhabitants. This was prevented by geographical economic and strategic reasons’ but not the least important obstacle is the fact that the population is often linguistically mixed, that minorities live in towns surrounded by a countryside which speaks the language of the majority. Czechoslovakia also had her linguistic minorities. Of the fifteen million inhabitants’ roughly ten millions were Czechoslovaks’ 3,232,000 had German as their mother tongue, 692,000 Hungarian, 550,000 Ruthene. In addition, the Republic had some 80,000 Poles within its borders’ and of the 357,000 citizens of Jewish religion 187,000 declared themselves to belong to the Jewish nationality. […]

18I shall not go into details. I shall merely say—and the precise researches carried out by the minority section of the League of Nations can prove this— that the minorities in Czechoslovakia had the number of schools of all types to which they had a right according to their number, and in certain sections even a larger number than that to which they were entitled; that they had their press, their theatre, their broadcasts’ and in general a richly developed cultural life, that they played an important part in economic life and enjoyed complete political equality of rights. From 1926–1938 the German minority was represented by number of ministers in successive governments of the Republic.

19There is no one to-day who still believes that Hitler’s demand for the incorporation of the Sudeten territory in the Reich was dictated by the need to protect the Germans from Czechoslovak oppression. To-day, it is clear to all that the disintegration and then the occupation of Czechoslovakia were simply a necessity for Hitler in his plans for the conquest of the world. […]

20What is our program in this war, and what is our aim? Like the other participants in the Allied war against Hitler, we have our specifically Czechoslovak aims as well as our European and world aims. Our national aim is, in the first place, the restoration of the State independence of the Czechoslovak Republic. In this respect we uphold the principle of continuity. Nothing that has been imposed upon us since Munich do we consider to be valid in law. […] This does not mean that we desire as our war aim a mere return to the status quo of September, 1938. For the whole world this war is at the same time a revolution, and Europe will issue from it much changed. But refusing a priori to accept any dictate of any kind, we wish to agree on our frontiers with our neighbors in a friendly fashion, and in this the ethnographic economic, as well as strategic integrity of our State territory must be maintained. Changes in detail are possible, as it will certainly be possible to obtain frontiers corresponding to our requirements and to those of our neighbors. But as we do not desire to dictate to others’ so we shall not admit that they should dictate to us.

21With regard to the internal conditions of our State, we also insist on the principle of continuity combined with the principle of progress. It is not necessary for us to change anything absolutely essential in the political structure of our State. It was a democratic structure which in its detailed aspects corresponded well to the conditions of our country and on the whole acquitted itself very well. Changes in this connection should rather affect political practice than the system itself. We suffered from a hypertrophy of political parties; it is probable that in our restored State the nation will concentrate its political forces into a number of large parties after the English and American models. But this development will be the result of the experiences which in the meantime the nation will have gained at home and abroad.

22It is also probable that in the administration of the State—again following the English and American models—a broad decentralization will be carried out. The centralist system which was a necessity in the first years of the Republic bore within itself great dangers. Already before Munich it had been corrected by a number of reforms; after the war, further modifications will certainly be made. The commune and the country will certainly have to be equipped with a sufficient measure of self-administration for the central State administration not to suffer from bureaucracy, and so that each citizen shall be able to make the most direct decision on the administration of his own affairs. This would also have the advantage of contributing to a solution of the Slovak question, the difficulties of which were in part the result of administrative obstacles.

23It is also probable that certain changes will be carried out in the nationality composition of the State. I do not speak of the total settlement of the relationship of the Czechoslovak majority to the minorities’ more particularly the Germans; on the one hand I should not like to prejudice the decision of the nation at home in this matter, and on the other hand, the German problem in Central Europe is in certain of its aspects a whole which will have to be solved on an international basis. As far as Czechoslovakia is concerned, we shall consider all loyal citizens of the State as equal without distinction of origin, religion or language in the restored Republic. But no one will be able to reproach us if we see to it that no one shall again be exposed to a fate similar to that of our citizens in 1938 and 1939. We shall punish the traitors who served Hitler as instrument for the disintegration of our State; we shall see to it that the security of the State should never again he menaced by any irredentits; it may be that we shall—if this principle will be applied in the other countries—carry out to a certain extent an emigration and exchange of the non-Czech speaking population. We must not forget that Hitler himself has transferred German minorities throughout Europe in the name of the unification of the German nation. […]

24It seems also natural to me that it will not be possible permanently to guarantee political democracy without democracy in the economic and social relations among nations’ and among individuals within each nation. Certainly international trade, the access of all nations to raw material resources’ the international validity of the chief social laws’ etc., will be better and more purposefully organized than after the last war. But I lay still greater stress on what Anthony Eden has called the ‘social security’ of every member of the nation and in which he sees one of the fundamental war aims of fighting democracy. In an orderly and organized society it must be made possible for every member to express himself in accordance with his abilities and decently to maintain himself and his family. As long as this condition is not fulfilled, society will not cease to be undermined by the dissatisfaction of the socially oppressed classes, and political democracy will be in constant danger. The access to higher and highest education will also have to be democratized and made possible for all in accordance with their talents and not with the principles of wealth or origin.

  • 1 George of Podebrady (1420–1471): Bohemian nobleman who was elected King of Bohemia by the estates (...)

25All these problems are being eagerly discussed here in Great Britain and elsewhere. It is comprehensible that a small nation like our own will not have the decisive word to say in the final settlement of these fundamental questions of the post-war organization of the world. But within the measure of the powers of our nation and State we shall endeavor to make this organization as perfect and as just as possible. Many times in history we have been predecessors far in advance of our time. Our Hussites, the predecessors of the Reformation, bore in mind the ideal of a Christian ‘community of God’, and they endeavored to realize it in the primitive social forms of the 15th century. In the same century our national King, George of Po-debrady’1 made the first attempt at the constitution of a sort of League of Nations. By this I only wish to prove that nothing in our spiritual and political tradition is opposed to the great plans of reform which are now being born from the suffering of the present war.


1 George of Podebrady (1420–1471): Bohemian nobleman who was elected King of Bohemia by the estates in 1458. He proposed a Christian League as a peace alliance among the European states that was meant’ among other things’ to serve as bulwark against Turkish expansion. In 1462–64, his emissary’ Leo of Rozmital’ promoted the idea at various European courts but ultimately with no results.


© Central European University Press, 2010

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