The Beneš Decrees and the usurpation of power in the Czech Republic

In the last few months, the so-called Beneš Decrees have become the subject of heated debate. This debate has spilled over to involve not just the Czech Republic, but Germany, Hungary, and Austria as well. The Beneš Decrees, signed and executed under Czechoslovakia’s post-war president Eduard Beneš, resulted in the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Sudeten Germans and Hungarians from Czech lands. Today, they have again become the subject of debate, oftentimes with dangerous nationalistic overtones. For example, certain Austrian parties are threatening to block the Czech Republic’s entry into the EU unless the issue of possible compensation to the victims is addressed. Recently, the Czech parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring the Beneš Decrees to be “untouchable.” This action has grave significance, in that it confirms that in the Czech Republic, democracy is in serious trouble.

First, we need to briefly look at president Beneš himself. As Czechoslovakia’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, his career was one of rapid rise. His experiences led him to form close ties to Britain and France, ties which were shattered one night in 1938, when the French ambassador, accompanied by the British ambassodor, told Beneš that France would not honor her pledge to defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler. What followed was exile to London, and Beneš’s progressive fall. In London, Beneš was progressively drawn to Russia.

There were three reasons for this. First, there was the betrayal of the Western allies culminating in the Munich Agreement of 1938 which ceeded Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Second, as opposed to Britain, Russia immediately acknowledged Beneš as the Czechoslovak president-in-exile, acknowledged Czechoslovakia’ s claim over the Sudeten lands, and promised help”without internal interference.” Beneš was very impressed by Russia’s approach. He was invited to Moscow, where he was received with all the pomp and ceremony of a major head-of-state. After his return to Czechoslovakia in 1946, Beneš told his Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaroslav Stránský, that he “felt sure Russia would honor her pledges.” Third, Beneš personally felt that he had a role to play as a great statesman; as he told Jan Stránský, personal secretary to the premier in 1941, Beneš saw himself as a “unificator and creator of a single federation of states, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Rumania and Austria.”

Not just close ties with Russia, but the aim of avenging the past led to the drafting of the Beneš Decrees. However, the groundwork for the decrees didn’t spring from the post-war climate, but actually began many years earlier. In an internal memorandum to his ministers, dated Jan 22, 1941, Beneš states “The problem of minorities must disappear. We will give up some of our lands on the border, and we shall move the rest of the Germans out, just as was the case in the Middle East between Turkey and Greece, and just as did Hitler…there won’t be the need for any guarantees to any minority.” Four months later, Beneš told Jan Stránský that “my twenty-year experience has convinced me, that it just won’t work with the Germans.” Ignoring the above history concerning Beneš’s gradual shifts in allegiance and emotions represents a serious error by those reviewing and debating the Beneš Decrees, especially by the Czech parliamentarians. Even as they were being formulated, the drafting of the decrees was not without controversy.

Though he led the post-war retribution process against the Germans, Jaroslav Stránský wrote: “Today, I am thinking more about consequences than about causes. The misfortune of today’s Sudeten Germans could become our misfortune tomorrow…I know that we have every reason to fear Germany. That is why we should never fear her.” After his return to Czechoslovakia after the war, Beneš facilitated the communist takeover, which had actually been crafted under his leadership in London. In 1945, Jan Stránský wrote: “the communists have achieved full control to at least if not ensure, then to set the groundwork for a new government, in which of course they would have a big role.” Beneš’s unwillingness to rebel against Moscow’s order for Czechoslovakia not to enter into the Marshall plan in 1947 and his tacit acceptance of the resignation of his democratic ministers protesting the communist putch in progress in 1948 sealed the fate of the Czech nation. Furthermore, his unwillingness to resign from office after the communists took power legitimized the putch, in that the communists were able to point to Beneš still in office and thus gain more support.

“If we are judged by our feelings, then there is no doubt that Eduard Beneš is innocent. But if we are judged by our deeds, then there is no doubt that Eduard Beneš confirmed the communist takeover in 1948. He was the blotting paper on which dried the manifestos of the new communist dictatorship.” Thus wrote Czechoslovakia’s most famous political commentator Ferdinand Peroutka in 1949. Two weeks before his death, Beneš himself confirmed his own tragic dualism, when he wrote: “my greatest mistake was, that I refused to believe, until the last moment, that Stalin deceived me in a clod-blooded and cynical manner,” but then didn’t hesitate in blaming his democratic ministers for resigning and “disappointing me in the deciding moment.”
Today, just as then, the Beneš Decrees remain a symbol of a false victory and serve only as catalysts for further trouble. The curious “state opinion” issued by our parliament (which has the support of less than one in five Czech citizens) that the decrees are “untouchable” doesn’t have the least bit of practical application. Apart from chest-thumping, the parliamentary resolution carries absolutely no weight, since national decrees can only be “confirmed” or “denied” in international court, not in a political sandlot. Why then, did our parliamentarians do so, and why did president Václav Havel join in?

Regarding Václav Havel, I believe that the president capitulated for the same reason that he refused to set the communist party outside of the law immediately after 1989. In drawn-out struggles, the enemy often appears stronger than is actually the case, particularly when a lot is at stake. Therefore, there is a tendency to give in on certain key points in order not to lose the larger battle. The president’s unwillingness to condemn parliament’s resolution as a demagogic and nationalist gesture can be explained by his unfortunate inability to resist being pulled into the mire of Czech politics in crucial moments.

Our parliamentarians justified their decision by stating that “our national interests are at stake.” I must then ask, what are our national interests? Who or what is threating us? What is our responsibility? Our interest is only one – to ensure a safe and prosperous future for our children. That which threatens us most is our parliamentarians, in that they again usurped the voter mandate in their own interest. Our responsibility is to respect our location in the middle of Europe via encouraging dialogue not monologue, as our chest-beating boys in parliament did. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the parliamentarian’s approach “an expresssion of nationalistic spirit filled with unwillingness to erase the symbols of the darkest periods of Czech history.” Every smaller country surrounded by stronger neighbors can best defend its interests (and security!) by integrating into regional and pan-European structures which are not only strategic and economic, but which are also social and moral, structures in which each and every citizen and participant has the same rights and guarantees.

But in the immediate pre-election period, Czech politicians decided that it is considerably easier – and for them more important – to create a false enemy, instead of engaging in dialogue and instead of turning to fight our real enemies, such as corruption, the crisis in education, and the economic deficit. Instead of talking about what they did and didn’t do over the past four years, they debated about old decrees and about “our national interest.” By creating a false sense of urgency, they created a false victory over an imaginary enemy. And with false victories come false standards and norms. Their declaration, coming out of the background of the Opposition Agreement [where four years ago, the conservative opposition joined forces with the second-place social democrats so that the latter could rule with the consent of the former -ed] is not to be considered a detour on the path to democracy, but rather a confirmation of the presence of a single national parliamentarian political front. Simply stated, whenever they choose, our parliamentarians can simply pass anything they wish.

Today, the new “guardians” of our freedom are not just the conservative ODS party, but right next to them, the Communists as well. The vote of 169 to 0, a vote spanning the spectrum from the above-mentioned ODS to the Communists, a vote performed by 169 individuals who enjoy the support of less than one in five Czechs, is the clearest proof possible that in the Czech Republic, two months before elections, parliament has usurped the people’s mandate in their own interest. The question remains – what, if anything, will change after the elections?


The New Presencesummer 2002

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