Current Affairs Benes's legacy still controversial 120 years after his birth

27-05-2004 | Coilin O'Connor

Perhaps no figure in modern Czech history is as controversial as Edvard Benes. He was the second president of Czechoslovakia: twice he had to give way to hostile forces while in power and he is also often criticised for signing the decrees that resulted in 2.5 million Germans being deported from the Czech lands after the Second World War. To mark the 120th anniversary of his birth a special seminar has been held in Prague to redefine his legacy.

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Edvard BenesEdvard Benes Edvard Benes is recognised as one of the architects of the modern Czechoslovak state and is remembered fondly by many Czechs for leading the Czechoslovak government from exile in London during the German occupation of World War II.

But he was also president when the 1938 Munich Agreement dismembered Czechoslovakia, and ten years later he reluctantly allowed the Communist Party to take power, heralding forty years of totalitarian rule.

Zuzana Travnickova from Prague's University of Economics says there was little Benes could have done to prevent what happened on both occasions:

"I think the situation in 1938 was very complicated. He had no other choice but to accept the Munich Agreement. As regards the second decision in 1948, I think it was very similar to the situation in 1938. The circumstances were so complicated that he had no other way to go. It was the only possible solution."

Edvard Benes signs the decreesEdvard Benes signs the decrees Professor Alexandr Ort from the International Relations Faculty of the University of Economics agrees that the communist takeover couldn't have been avoided. The threat posed by the Communist Party, which won nearly 40% of the vote in the 1946 general election, came from within Czechoslovakia itself:

"He had no option but to accept this solution in February 1948, because it wasn't like he could go into exile against an enemy. It was easy for him during the first and second world wars to be combating Austria-Hungary and Germany respectively. But what could he do against the Czechoslovak government?"

Professor Ort also praises Benes for the fact that he was able to re-establish the Czechoslovak state so quickly after the end of the Second World War.

But was the forcible expulsion of 2.5 million Sudeten Germans that followed necessary?

"Certainly!"

The expulsion of the Sudeten GermansThe expulsion of the Sudeten Germans Do you not think that some of the complaints of Sudeten Germans about what happened after World War II are at least partially justified?

"It's a great problem and the subject of a long discussion. I don't think we would have enough time to go into it..."

Criticism of Benes's policies has been so fierce in certain quarters that some Czech MPs have felt compelled to propose a special law, which acknowledges that Benes "contributed to the state"

Professor Ort thinks the law is unnecessary, but he can see why some Czech parliamentarians feel that it is needed:

"For me this law is not necessary, but I can understand some of our politicians trying to put a stop to these stupid attacks [on Benes] from Sudeten Germans and so on. I don't know if it's the best approach or not, but I have nothing against this law. For me it's not important."

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