Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s

By Igor Lukes | Go to book overview
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because of Edvard Beneš's geopolitical arguments. At the same time, the minister's overstatements fueled hostility and suspicion toward the Prague government abroad.

Edvard Beneš convinced himself that his Ostpolitik was safe because he would conduct it in the footprints of his French allies. The French were to be the umbrella that would protect him from charges of being a Soviet sympathizer. This strategy never worked properly. First, Laval, as opposed to Beneš, distanced himself from the Kremlin master, and it was Czechoslovakia that stood out in 1935 among the Western European countries for being the least anti-Stalinist. Second, France had a committed, powerful ally across the English Channel, and, for all its dealings with Moscow, it was firmly embedded in the fabric of Western Europe. Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, was a Central European country, sitting astride the mythical fence between East and West. Moreover, it was surrounded with neighbors, of whom several had a claim on its territory. 107 Some took joy in adding to the flames of anti- Czechoslovak propaganda by portraying Prague as an outpost of the Communist International. Thus, from about 1936 onward, Beneš would have to live with the public image of an ally of Stalin's Russia, and Czechoslovakia's neighbors would exploit this perception without mercy. It would hang like a millstone around Edvard Beneš's neck until the Munich Conference.

By 1936 Beneš was no longer a mere foreign minister. Thomas G. Masaryk resigned as Czechoslovak president on 14 December 1935, and four days later, after a sharp, intensive campaign, the National Assembly elected Edvard Beneš as his successor. After some political posturing the Communist party representatives voted for Beneš. Henceforth, all his actions would reflect even more directly on Czechoslovakia than had been the case so far. Significantly, TASS in Moscow was the first among foreign press agencies to report on the changes at the top of the political scene in Prague. Gone were the cartoons of Masaryk and Beneš as lackeys of capitalist powerbrokers, images served to Soviet readers for more than a decade. Instead, the two founders of Czechoslovakia were portrayed as senior European statesmen. 108

It is said that whenever Beneš's political opponents or friendly critics approached President Masaryk to complain about his foreign minister's latest faux pas, the old man always listened carefully before posing the same question: "Gentlemen, and if not Beneš, who?" On occasion, attacks on Beneš would be carried out in public and gain in intensity. Masaryk would then abandon caution and defend his partner to the hilt. "Without Beneš--and I say it quite seriously--there would have been no Republic," wrote Masaryk to a vocal critic, and he went on to defend Beneš and to endorse his foreign policy decisions without reservation. 109 With such support it was not surprising that Beneš's career continued to flourish. But would he be able as president and without Masaryk's counsel to steer the Czechoslovak state through the stormy seas that lay ahead?


Notes
1.
Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Diplomatic Revolution in Europe, 1933-36 ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 107. See also the work by Karl Bosl (ed.), Die deutsch-tschechoslowakischen Beziehungen von ihren Anfängen bis zum Ausgang der Ära Stresemann, 1918-1929 ( Munich: Oldenbourg, 1975).

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