CENTRAL EUROPE, with its great number of small sovereign states, has always seemed in some American eyes a strange mass of various and sometimes conflicting tendencies and hence a constant danger to peace. The outbreak of the First World War was linked with little Serbia, just as the beginning of the Second World War will be connected with the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938. And yet the causes of these two world conflicts are not to be found in those small states alone. During the 20 years of her free and independent existence Czechoslovakia endeavored sincerely to make herself a point of stabilization in Central Europe. Her whole foreign policy was based on coöperation and understanding between nations. She regarded this policy as the only real guarantee of security and peace.

By means of treaties Czechoslovakia reinforced old friendships and made new ones. She found a way to establish correct relations even with her former enemies. With republican Austria she was on good terms from the beginning. With Germany she concluded a commercial treaty as early as 1921, the first of the Allies to take such action after the war, and until Hitler came to power she never had the smallest sort of conflict with that nation. Through the Little Entente she helped neutralize the dangerous aspirations of irredentist Hungary. The conflict with Poland over Těšin and Javorina was solved by the peaceful method of arbitration by the Supreme Allied Council and the Hague Court. With Soviet Russia she entered into de facto relations in 1922, and concluded a treaty of mutual assistance with her in 1935. She accepted the system of collective security as the guiding principle of her foreign policy and never violated it. The League of Nations and intimate collaboration with democratic France and England formed the basis of her foreign policy. In the struggle to lay the foundations for lasting peace the Allied Great Powers are now returning, after most painful experiences, to the principles which Czechoslovakia strove for 20 years to put into practice.

Even in her internal policy Czechoslovakia tried to apply the principles of coöperation and equal rights among nations. Despite certain shortcomings and minor mistakes, mainly of an administrative character, she provided much more protection for her minorities than was enjoyed by minorities anywhere else in Europe. In fact, taking into consideration the German psychology and the manner in which the Weimar Republic developed, we gave our minorities more rights than were compatible with our security. Nazi Germany eventually utilized the Germans inside our territory as an instrument for the disruption of our state.

The sincerity of Czechoslovakia's efforts was not fully understood either in the international sphere or at home. This was not her fault. Essentially, the reason was that the whole political development of the world in the period between the two wars was along lines which discredited rather than fulfilled the principles which we had expected would rule the future.

The United States cut itself off from Europe before the old world had been consolidated in its new form. The Soviet Union was isolated from the beginning, and remained in isolation even after the revolutionary period was over and the stage of constructive work had begun. The Western Powers feared the chaos natural in times of transition and radical change after a great war and consequently did not adopt an energetic enough attitude toward the preparations to introduce a "new order" made by the dictators who appeared on the Central European scene.

While the western democracies were discussing disarmament, the Nazi and Fascist states were preparing themselves for military aggression. The economic crisis further weakened the democracies, while it furnished the dictatorships with a raison d'être for carrying out their aims. The dictators abolished unemployment by simply putting their workers into uniform and converting their factories into war industries. The balance of power altered steadily to the disadvantage of the democracies, which became so conscious of their weakness that they did not draw any conclusions from the provocative attempts at expansion undertaken by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

After the fall of independent Austria in 1938 all attempts to pacify the dictatorships -- Germany especially -- proved vain. Germany deliberately worked up a crisis in Czechoslovakia in the autumn of the same year, and inevitably won her demands. This was partly because the statesmen responsible for the policy of the western democracies at this time had insufficient knowledge of the real nature of the crisis and completely ignored Germany's true aims, partly because they no longer exerted sufficient influence on the development of European affairs. At Munich the last bastions of Central European democracy were surrendered and the way was opened to Hitler for a victorious advance on Europe as a whole. Horthy's Hungary and Beck's Poland facilitated Hitler's work. The annexation of Austria had provided sufficient reason for military intervention against Hitler; but it was the attack on Czechoslovakia which was the start of the new world crisis. The sacrifice of Czechoslovakia did not preserve peace; it only postponed the war by 11 months.

The experience of 20 years of peace and five years of war has defined our line of policy for the future. Political developments have proved us entirely right. The formation of a group of Allied Great Powers consisting of the United States, Great Britain, the U.S.S.R. and China, and the principles those Powers accepted at the Moscow and Teheran Conferences, only confirm, in our eyes, the accuracy of the Czechoslovak political attitude since 1919. In coöperating with the Soviet Union, the great western democracies have accepted a principle which guided Czechoslovakia for 20 years. When we signed our new treaty with Soviet Russia in December 1943 we merely followed the lines of our earlier policy. It did not mean that we were cutting ourselves off from the democracies of western Europe. We simply underlined what Great Britain and Russia had effected in May of the year previous. We have not changed any of our basic principles and will not need to change them in the future. We have simply adapted ourselves to the developments of the war and prepared ourselves for the probable course of events after it is won.

II

In this her second struggle for freedom Czechoslovakia naturally has not abandoned her political tradition. From the start she associated herself closely with the democratic west; and she never ceased to believe in the active intervention of the Soviet Union in the war. The activities which we undertook abroad immediately after March 15, 1939, were in complete harmony with the will of the Czechoslovak people. In the first months of the German occupation there were anti-German demonstrations in Bohemia and Moravia and the resistance movement was organized there. Nor were political refugees the only ones to flee; soldiers also left their country to fight for freedom. Our tasks abroad have been to organize a fighting military unit and to ensure the legal continuity of the Republic.

The declaration of war on Germany by Great Britain and France and their recognition of the status of Czechoslovakia as an ally meant that they no longer recognized what had preceded the occupation of Czechoslovakia and in particular that they repudiated Munich. But it was of essential importance to us that the repudiation of the Munich dictate should be formal.

Among the Great Powers, the United States had never recognized Munich and therefore did not need to take formal action. The same was true of the Soviet Union, which had not been invited to the Munich Conference. In addition, Moscow expressed itself quite clearly in favor of preserving the pre-Munich frontiers of the Republic. Great Britain repudiated the Munich agreement formally and completely in August 1942, and on the third anniversary of that agreement France did the same. Munich was thus formally declared to be null and void. Czechoslovakia received moral satisfaction and her international political status was confirmed. Today she once more has her President and her Government; and in the State Council she has an advisory and controlling body fulfilling abroad some of the tasks of Parliament.

One reason for my undertaking the two official journeys which, at the wish of my Government, I made as President of the Czechoslovak Republic to the United States and the Soviet Union, was to make clear to the Czechoslovak people at home that, contrary to the allegations of German propaganda, the United States fully recognized the Czechoslovak Government abroad as their authoritative mouthpiece and the representative of their efforts. The reception accorded me as the head of an Allied state by President Roosevelt and by the Senate and Congress of the United States entirely fulfilled the expectations of the Czechoslovak Government abroad as well as of the people at home. Moreover, the conversations which I had with official persons showed once more that the United States recognized nothing of what happened at the time of Munich and afterward, and that all frontier changes, whether they concern Slovakia, Hungary or the so-called Sudeten Germans, are invalid. It filled me with confidence, also, to know that on all other questions, both political and non-political, our views did not differ in principle from those of American statesmen and of the American public.

My journey to the Soviet Union had a similar object and was planned at the same time. I wished before the end of the war to discuss personally with the responsible statesmen of the Soviet Union all the fundamental questions regarding the future position of Czechoslovakia.

I have always realized that without the participation of the Soviet Union in the postwar settlement of the world there is no guarantee of lasting peace in Europe. After this war the Soviet Union will be the immediate neighbor of Czechoslovakia. Its vital interest to make itself secure against the German Drang nach Östen coincides with the vital interest of Czechoslovakia, placed by geography right in the pathway of this drive. Our alliance with the Soviet Union is therefore quite natural. It represents a great change from our position after the last war, and a great change also for the whole of Central Europe. It will, in particular, enable Czechoslovakia to find new markets for her industrial exports in a country traditionally friendly to her.

III

The lines of Czechoslovakia's future foreign policy, determined by her geographical position and her needs, follow clearly from the preceding statements. The pre-Munich frontiers of Czechoslovakia have been shown to be a primary condition for her existence as an independent state. Without her natural frontiers and without the territory which she lost at Munich she is a distorted body incapable of independent political and economic life. A cornerstone of our foreign policy will be the Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Assistance and Postwar Collaboration of December 1943, because it brings us security. The fact that Great Britain and the United States of America were fully informed about it, and that it is in accord with the British-Soviet Pact -- the main pillar of the whole postwar structure of Europe -- shows that it fits well into the general framework of European security. But our postwar collaboration with the Soviet Union must be completed by collaboration with the western democracies, including the United States of America. This corresponds to our national and economic interests, our traditions and to the fact that in the struggle for freedom our soldiers have been fighting both on the British-American front and the East European front.

In addition, we are deeply interested in removing the obstacles standing in the way of sincere and lasting collaboration between the Poles and the Soviet Union. If there is to be complete security against the Drang nach Östen, Poland must play an active part in coöperation with Czechoslovakia and Russia. In negotiating the Czechoslovak-Soviet Pact we kept in mind the need for collaboration with Poland. If Poland associated herself with the common anti-Drang nach Östen policy, then there would be an opportunity to carry into effect the principles laid down in the joint Polish-Czechoslovak declaration of November 11, 1940.

The military collapse of France in 1940 did not alter the fact that she belongs to the concert of European Powers and that we need her participation in European reconstruction. After she has been rehabilitated internally, she certainly will regain her former position and will play her equal part in determining the development of Europe. This is Czechoslovakia's belief, and she views sympathetically the efforts of France to gain recognition of the rights which belong to her as a member of the family of European nations. We have an equally positive attitude toward Jugoslavia. Like France, she fought on after defeat to win back her freedom and to establish internal unity by all the means at her disposal.

It goes without saying that Czechoslovakia accepts the principles of the postwar system of security envisaged at the Allied conferences in Moscow and Teheran. As a small state, she desires to carry out, in agreement with the other Allies, the obligations which arise from the decisions there reached.

After this war, as in the past, Czechoslovakia will strive to collaborate with all her neighbors to the extent that she encounters good will and the conditions that would make such collaboration possible and fruitful. This applies primarily to Austria and Rumania. Once these states have solved their main international problems I see no reason why Czechoslovakia should not be able to follow her prewar Good Neighbor Policy toward them.

Events have not yet developed to the point where it is possible to indicate exactly our future relations with Germany, Hungary and Italy -- that is, with the countries directly responsible for the present sufferings of the Czechoslovak people and of the other nations of Europe. They will depend mainly upon the thoroughness and sincerity with which those nations execute the necessary internal changes, upon the nature of their new régimes and upon the reality of their efforts to make good the devastation they have caused. They also will depend, of course, upon the conditions imposed on those states and on a host of other circumstances which cannot yet be foreseen.

IV

There are many ways of ensuring peace, none of them easy. After the last war the League of Nations was founded. The idea was right. No nation, small or great, can live by itself, without contact or collaboration with others. A realization of the interdependence of nations is a prerequisite to our living together in peace. At the same time the vital interests of the individual nations must be kept in view, for if these are not coordinated and made mutually complementary, then no single world organization can achieve lasting success.

Intimate collaboration for peace between two friendly and neighboring states with common vital interests is a very natural and practicable way of forming the larger groupings which must be always considered as an inevitable complement to any world organization of collective security. For in addition to being conscious of the community of their interests, the members of such an organization are guided also, and indeed first of all, by their own immediate interests. On the other hand, to forget this unifying principle of the interdependence of all, and of the need of coöperation of all, would be a perversion of the fundamental idea and would lead slowly to the formation of two or more opposing blocs with differing and mutually exclusive interests, and this, in turn, would sooner or later result inevitably in a clash.

Between the two extremes -- between the abstract idea of the unification of all nations and the need of two or more states to associate themselves to achieve the maximum satisfaction of their more direct material interests -- lies a middle way. This way is to harmonize the idea of human unity and the idea of vital interests by slowly developing from small units to larger ones. This is the way of mutual respect and mutual concessions and agreements, the natural process of mutual understanding.

No one will desire to restore the League of Nations in the form which proved ineffective. This fact led, soon after the beginning of the present war, to a discussion of the idea of federations as a possible solution of the question of postwar security. At this point the danger of blocs with opposing interests tended to create an atmosphere of new distrust. At the Moscow Conference the Soviet Union pointed out that the tendency to talk of federations sometimes created the impression that a new attempt was to be made to isolate the Soviet Union, or at least to create a single Central European zone which would act as a kind of cordon sanitaire between the western democracies and the Soviet Union.

It would be a new tragedy not merely for Europe but for the whole world if the Soviet Union were again driven into isolation and deprived of an influence on the course of European events. That is why what I have called the middle way has been chosen -- the natural way which does not abandon the principle of federation for the future and meanwhile permits friendly agreements for mutual assistance and postwar collaboration such as the Czechoslovak-Soviet Pact. This agreement is not merely defensive, merely regional, merely based on self-interest. It leaves room for collaboration with all the Allied nations and in essence serves world peace and helps lay the foundations of the new world which is to be free from the fear of want and the fear of war, free from the curse of Nazism and Fascism in all their forms, a world based on principles of individual and national liberty. It does not mean that we shall be an instrument of Soviet policy; but it certainly means that we shall not be an instrument of anti-Soviet policy. Internally we shall be completely free, with quite different cultural, economic and social conditions than exist in Soviet Russia. And in our external affairs we shall not abandon our efforts to reach the same relations with Poland as we have established with Russia and to maintain our traditional relations with western Europe. This path fully accords with Czechoslovakia's national tradition of humanitarian democracy.

V

There remains for me to explain the internal political development of Czechoslovakia, as I see it, when Germany collapses and we enter the period of transition to the new life of independence. There are two possible ways in which the country may be liberated: either Germany will collapse all at once and the whole of Czechoslovakia will be liberated from German and Hungarian domination without a long struggle at the frontiers; or different sections will be liberated gradually, with resistance on the part of the Czechoslovak people keeping pace in the rear of the enemy.

The Red Army's approach to the easternmost tip of the Republic has increased the resistance movement and produced new sabotage activity in that whole region. Guerrilla formations are increasing in numbers and strength in Ruthenia, Slovakia and in the mountainous region of northeastern Moravia.

Throughout the whole Czechoslovak territory national committees are being formed. When the time for change comes, these will take over the administration of the liberated territory in agreement with the Government and its representatives. This is the same form of administration as the one used by the Czechoslovak people in the transitional period of 1918. In practice, these national committees, formed from the representatives of the people in every village and town, will be the first democratic instruments to exercise legal and executive authority. They will be the exponents of our political system and symbols of our political rights. Regional committees will be formed, by free vote, from the local and district national committees; and from these, in turn, a kind of provisional National Assembly will be formed.

It will be the duty of the national committees to collaborate with the Government as soon as we have come back to our territory. This Government will be newly appointed. It will be composed of certain members of the Government now in London, but, above all, of leading members of the underground movement, thereby ensuring complete unity between the resistance at home and the resistance abroad as well as continuity in national political affairs, both internal and external.

I calculate that within six months after liberation we shall succeed in normalizing conditions to the extent of being able to hold fresh parliamentary elections and a fresh presidential election. For the time being, the original Constitution of 1930 will provide for the establishment of internal order. However, it will be revised as soon as possible and adapted to postwar needs so that Czechoslovakia in her new decentralized shape shall be the true home of Czechs, Slovaks and Carpathian Ruthenians.

Though for centuries they were divided and lived under different régimes, the Czechs and Slovaks were brought closely together in the 20 years of their peaceful life in the united and democratic Czechoslovak Republic. The division since forced upon them has not lessened their definite resolution to remain together in a common republican state. The Slovak people were misled by unworthy leaders into forming an alliance with the pagan and pan-German Nazis and into the war against the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The vast majority of them are now definitely opposed to the puppet government of Slovakia and determined to fight for the united Republic.

It is significant that from the very outset Slovak elements were linked with the underground movement organized in Bohemia and Moravia in the spring of 1939 and that they did invaluable service to the Czechoslovak soldiers and political emigres escaping from Bohemia and Moravia across Slovakia. The trend of Slovak public opinion was well expressed when a whole Slovak division, including its officers, went over to the Russian side at Melitopol in December 1943. When I was in Moscow its members asked me to make it possible for them to join the Czechoslovak Army fighting on the Eastern Front.

I have not the slightest fear, then, that any disagreement in principle will arise between the Czechs and Slovaks in the liberated Republic. The reproaches which really serious Slovak circles from time to time voiced against the Czechoslovak Government before Munich never involved the common life of the two peoples in one state. I feel sure that certain measures of decentralization, freely determined by the Czechoslovak people in a democratic spirit of agreement, will remove once and for all every possible source of misunderstanding between Czechs and Slovaks. None of the Czechoslovak emigres has a right to make final decisions in matters which are the sovereign right of the people at home. It is the people themselves, too, who will purge their own ranks and punish the collaborationists and those who deliberately and for personal profit betrayed the Republic. This does not apply only to the Slovaks and Carpathian Ruthenians, but also and in the same degree to Czechs and, of course, to the Germans and other citizens of the Republic.

The punishment of the Czechoslovak Germans is connected with the solution of our minority question. After the First World War, in accordance with the idealistic tendencies of the time, a clause in the Peace Treaty imposed upon the Czechoslovak Republic the protection of national minorities. It is generally recognized that, as was noted above, Czechoslovakia treated all her minorities, including her Germans, more generously than any other European state in her position. (The federal character and long historic tradition of Switzerland shaped that nation so differently that it cannot be compared in detail with Czechoslovakia.) The Germans in Czechoslovakia enjoyed all the rights proceeding from the Constitution on the one hand and from the treaty for the protection of minorities on the other. At the first opportunity, nevertheless, the great majority of them became Nazis. They abused their position in the state, they abused the democratic freedom of its institutions and they deliberately became the instrument of a foreign Power in working to break up the Republic which was their home. Under the enemy occupation they became a Prussian tool for the brutal and sanguinary oppression of the Czech nation, surpassing in their hate and hostility anything known in all the long centuries of German domination.

Experience has shown that the system established by the minorities treaties can be abused by an imperialistic state to promote its policies of expansion. Nazi Germany did just that. No nation -- and least of all a small one like Czechoslovakia -- can in future afford a policy which would lay itself open to this sort of disruption by an alliance of enemy forces without and traitorous elements within. Czechoslovakia wishes to avoid any recurrence of the situation which led to Munich. She is therefore considering the transfer of the greatest possible number of her German inhabitants, especially those who have publicly declared their solidarity with German National Socialism, who have worked for it and identified themselves with it, accepting Nazism as their faith and behaving accordingly. If this were not done a most serious civil war would sometime be inevitable.

Czechoslovakia will not deny the right of domicile to anyone who has remained faithful to the Republic, kept its laws and helped defend its independence. The protection of the democratic and human rights of every citizen are guaranteed in Czechoslovakia forever. This applies to those members of the minority races who may remain within the Republic. There is no doubt, however, that the Czechoslovak people do not believe that the internal conditions which prevailed before Munich can be reëstablished after the war.

Czechoslovakia wishes to carry out loyally the provisions of the peace treaties which are to be agreed upon in the international forum. She expects the Allies not to repeat the mistakes made at the Peace Conference in 1919. But whatever is decided at a new peace conference and imposed on all nations by a common agreement she will accept, sign and faithfully fulfill.

The tasks of the new government will be immense. Economic life in all its forms -- trade, handicrafts, agriculture and industrial production -- has been ruined in large measure by the Germans and will have to be set on its feet. Work will have to be found for all our workers, and we shall have to arrange for the return of those who have been forcibly snatched from their families and sent to work in Germany or in the Todt formations. We shall have to reorganize properties which have been thrown into disorder by German interference, whether through "Aryanization," Germanization or confiscation. The Czechoslovak Government abroad is fully cognizant of all these tasks and is preparing a far-reaching plan to meet them. It will have to intervene not only in the sphere of economics, but also of social policy, education and cultural policy in order to repair the damage done during Germany's five years of occupation and deliberate destruction of values.

It is not merely a question of restoring things as they were before. Ideas have not stood still. Our people participated in Europe's first religious and social revolution in the fifteenth century and always have been in the forefront of progressive European developments. They will not be content with the mere renewal of the democratic measures and political liberties they knew before 1938 but will demand a more effective fulfillment of democratic principles in economic and social spheres. President Roosevelt's slogan "freedom from want" will have to be applied not merely to nations as a whole but to the internal economic life of each individual state. It seems unlikely that this principle can be carried into practice by social legislation without some structural changes. But the principles of individual property, private enterprise and freedom of trade will not be violated, even though a certain degree of economic intervention and étatization, for instance in armament industries, proves desirable.

We remember how the last war speeded up the social and moral development of human society as well as its political progress. This second war will press it forward still further, especially in Europe. The Czechoslovak Government has kept its eyes open to all this and is preparing to take account of it at home. Adaptation to the new conditions will not be difficult. Czechoslovakia will maintain all her connections with the great industrial and commercial countries of Europe and America. Attention is being given to the question of what kind and extent of control over heavy industry and over the exploitation of mineral resources, in particular coal mining, will be demanded by the majority of the people. There is also the problem of whether land reform should not be revived and improved. But I say quite openly that the path which Soviet Russia took after the last war is not the one which will be followed in Czechoslovakia. Our conditions are completely different from every point of view, and we shall not abandon our old method of evolutionary adaptation and our old policy of balance between the east and the west. Our geographical position does not permit us to change this century-old policy violently.

I am convinced that Czechoslovakia will overcome her initial difficulties in short order, solve her internal problems without severe disturbance and take her place one more, strengthened and consolidated, in the van of European nations, a democratic and popular state in the truest sense of those all-important words. I am further convinced that Czechoslovakia will in any case be one of the first to renew her normal prewar life, just as she was after the last war, and that within a year after the armistice she will be one of the most prosperous states in Central Europe.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • EDUARD BENEŠ, President of the Czechoslovak Republic; Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1936; author of "My War Memoirs," "Democracy, Today and Tomorrow" and other works
  • More By Eduard Beneš