Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
THIS year marks the tenth anniversary of the political fall and subsequent death of the co-founder of Czechoslovakia, Dr. Eduard Benes, champion of democracy and international coöperation. Twice he had regained freedom for his beloved country, each time against fantastically superior forces. He lived just long enough to see his life's work reduced to rubble and his cherished hopes of honest and peaceful East-West coexistence smashed. Fortunately, his timely death relieved him of his agonizing doubts as to the correctness of the course which he had followed. These doubts had never ceased to torture him in that desolate six-month interval between his final departure from Hradcany Castle in Prague on February 27, 1948, and the fatal stroke which he suffered on September 3 of the same year.
The controversy concerning the character and policy of Dr. Benes is far from resolved. Judgments of his behavior and appraisals of his political acumen range from scathing condemnation to unconditional exoneration. Some see in him little more than an opportunistic fellow-travelling "quartermaster of Communism in Central Europe."[i] Others portray him as a sort of Micawberish optimist obsessed with a naïve belief in Stalin's promises and unrealistic dreams of lasting Soviet-Western collaboration. Still others claim he was the unfortunate victim of an exceptionally adverse confluence of circumstances and blame his fall mainly on the absence of proper Western support when it was most needed.
Where is the truth? As one who was closely associated with Dr. Benes during the last ten years of his life, I should like to offer my own analysis of his actions and their motivations.
What kind of a man was Benes as he stood on the threshold of the last decade of his life, unaware of the crushing burden which would be placed upon him in his remaining years?
If I were to describe his political personality in a single phrase, I would call him the Grand Master of Compromise. Compromise is, of course, an essential of democratic politics, but to Benes it was his daily fare. When, in his early thirties, he was charged with the responsibility for Czechoslovak foreign policy, all the weighty international problems confronting a renascent state in the chaotic postwar era were thrown into his lap. In the circumstances, he had to practise compromise to such an extent that it became an integral part of his personality. He would negotiate with the patience of an angel, for hours, weeks or months, never tiring in the rich flow of his rhetoric. Using his notorious enumerative method of "firstly-secondly-thirdly," requiring often the fingers of both hands to list all the points, he would endeavor to wear down and overwhelm his opponent by a steady avalanche of logical argument. He would have in readiness, however, elaborate plans for various alternatives. He would never close the door to further discussion and was always willing to settle eventually for far less than he had asked for if the better bargain proved to be unattainable. He thus combined in a unique fashion the methodical Cartesian rationalism, by which he had been trained in his adolescent years, with the practical approach of a hard-bargaining, down-to-earth Czech peasant, a method which he had inherited from his parents.
His long Geneva apprenticeship in the League's peculiar atmosphere of wordy legalism, in which disagreeable problems were disposed of by well-polished but ineffective resolutions, also left an indelible mark on his ways of doing things. He acquired quite a knack, and indeed renown, for producing suitable formulas for resolving diplomatic deadlocks. He was proud of this ability, and the warm caressing expression of his eyes and face whenever he reminisced about his Geneva days showed unmistakably that those had been among his happiest moments.
These years of negotiating compromises and devising political formulas dulled his power of moral indignation and especially the capacity to use it against those who deserved excoriation. Benes himself was a man of impeccable moral purity. But he was much too forbearing toward evil and wickedness in others. In that respect he definitely lacked the moral intransigence which had been so characteristic of his great teacher and predecessor, Thomas Masaryk, and he was well aware of it. "When Masaryk came to the conclusion that a man was a scoundrel, he refused to deal with him and even to talk to him," Benes used to tell me. "But if the scoundrel was politically important, someone had to deal with him, and so it was left for me to do it." And he did, unwittingly giving them undeserved respectability. These methods lessened his troubles only temporarily. Just as any successful blackmailer invariably returns for more, many of Benes's antagonists believed that they could "shake him down" again and again. Thus his gentleness of heart and his known addiction to compromise became serious weaknesses. There are occasions when righteous anger and brutal frankness serve one's cause better than tolerance. Once in a while the need may even arise to burn all one's bridges and make a last win-or-die stand. Such behavior was utterly alien to Benes; he would have considered it foolhardy, an unwarranted gamble which no responsible statesman could afford.
Such was the man who was about to be subjected, at the seasoned age of 54, to an ordeal which few other men in modern history have had to endure.
The sad story of Munich need not be retold here. Benes's surrender without firing a shot ran contrary to the strong emotional call of the Czech people for an armed stand against Hitler's demands, with or without Anglo-French support. This decision has since been challenged from various quarters. Many Czechs, some of them guided by the hindsight acquired after 1948, still believe that the nation should have put up a fight in 1938, no matter what. The Communists assail the capitulation, distorting the picture, as usual, to fit their line of propaganda. But the weightiest criticism, though polite and sympathetic, comes from one of Benes's closest foreign friends, Winston Churchill, who restates in his war memoirs his conviction that Benes should not have yielded in 1938: "Once fighting had begun, in my opinion at that time, France would have moved to his aid in a surge of national passion, and Britain would have rallied to France almost immediately."[ii] Just what Churchill hoped for at that time is more clearly discernible from a message received on October 1, 1938, from Jan Masaryk, who then served as Czechoslovak envoy to Britain: "After consultation with many others Churchill is conjuring us not to surrender our vital fortifications for another 48 hours. He is convinced that a great reaction is growing here against the betrayal committed upon us."
However, there is not a shred of evidence suggesting the possibility, let alone probability, of a decisive change in France or Britain in 1938. What Churchill calls the betrayal of Czechoslovakia was approved subsequently by a crushing majority in both the French and the British parliaments. Chamberlain was acclaimed as a hero upon his return from Munich and such was his popularity that the Conservative Central Office urged him to go to the country in a general election on the Munich issue.[iii] Even after Britain and France had again ignored their treaty commitments by letting Hitler seize the remainder of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, Chamberlain and Daladier not only managed quite comfortably to stay in office, but continued to appease Hitler until the very outbreak of the war. It would thus seem that Churchill's assumption of an impending change in Britain and France in 1938 was a result of his wishful thought, inspired by his ardent and highly commendable desire to see the West wake up from its impotent slumber, much more than a sober estimate of realities during the fall of 1938.
To expose a whole nation to slaughter because of a vague and desperate hope could not be expected from a man of Benes's overcautious character. It must not be forgotten that he was confronted not only with an imminent attack by Hitler's Wehrmacht but with the possibility of simultaneous invasions by Poland and Hungary.
But what about the promised aid of the Soviet Union? Much confusion has been caused concerning this important issue by the fact that Benes, and those around him who knew the whole truth, consistently shrank from talking or writing about it in the early postwar years for fear of making Czechoslovakia's relations with Russia even more difficult. That was also why Benes refrained from releasing the extensive Munich report, the rough draft of which he had prepared before returning to Czechoslovakia in 1945. He intended originally to publish it as the first part of his "War Memoirs," for he was anxious to present the people with an authoritative account in order to forestall the expected Communist efforts to distort the truth. But when he came home he felt that the situation was not "ripe" for a disclosure.
The whole truth about the Soviet Union's readiness to help Benes against Hitler in 1938 is that the Soviet promise was riddled with such "ifs" that it was practically worthless. Upon learning the unbelievable news that France was reneging on her solemn treaty obligations, Benes sent an urgent message to the Soviet Government asking what kind of assistance he could expect. Moscow's reply, delivered on September 21 by the Soviet envoy in Prague, was a masterpiece of equivocation. "The Soviet Union is ready to fulfill its obligations arising from the Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty of alliance to the last letter," the message read. "It would help, immediately and effectively, if France too remained faithful to her obligations." Also, "the Soviet Union was prepared to fulfill all its obligations as stipulated in Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant of the League of Nations."[iv]
Never was emptiness dressed in a nobler garb. The Soviet-Czechoslovak Alliance Treaty made the assistance conditional upon French help, and Stalin knew this was not to be forthcoming. By August 1938, the Soviet Government had already reached the conclusion that France would not honor her obligation toward Czechoslovakia.[v] As for the League, Soviet Russia was well aware of the fact that by this time the Geneva institution lay in a deep coma. And so the Soviet da equaled in fact a double nyet. Although Benes was grateful even for this gesture in the light of Czechoslovakia's treatment at the hands of Chamberlain and Daladier, it was not a basis on which he could issue a call to war.
Yet, even if Benes could have counted on the timely and substantial military aid of the Soviet Union, I doubt that he would have decided for war. When he talked about these matters to me in the years of his London exile he always argued that, as the situation was in 1938, to go to war with the support of no one other than Soviet Russia would have been to play into the hands of Nazi propaganda which described Czechoslovakia as an outpost of Bolshevism. It might have converted the Nazi war into an anti-Bolshevist crusade, a crusade in which Czechoslovakia would have been the greatest loser. He also feared that Czechoslovakia might become another Spain, ravaged and bled white by foreign intervention and a foreign-instigated civil war. Some of Dr. Benes's sterner critics would perhaps suggest that this was an ex post facto self-justification and that it does not square with his subsequent advocacy of East-West coöperation. But in 1938 and the first war years, Benes was far from putting the kind of trust in Stalin's reasonableness that he developed after his visit to Moscow in 1943.
However, the basic key for understanding Benes's behavior in 1938 was his awe before the specter of war and its consequences for his country. The supreme aim of his foreign policy was to prevent war from ever involving his country. He felt that with France, Britain, Poland and the countries of the Little Entente directly or indirectly committed to a united front against aggression, the real danger for Czechoslovakia had been successfully checked. Would not even such a rabid fanatic as Hitler shrink from going to war against such overwhelming odds? Although he did receive occasional disconcerting reports of French and British hesitancy, it never entered his mind that the French and the British would be so oblivious to their own security as to give up an important bastion like Czechoslovakia, when all that they needed to do to stop Hitler was to display their unity and readiness to fight.
Then in the small hours of the morning of September 21, 1938, the envoys of France and Britain served their ultimatum on Benes--surrender or fight alone. This was an alternative he had never thought he would have to face. It was not that he feared war as such. He was no pacifist and, like Masaryk, was definitely opposed to the Tolstoyan teaching that goodness alone can conquer evil. But he dreaded a life-or-death war against such terrific odds. Subjection to Nazi rule following the inevitable Czech defeat might have paved the way for the national extinction of his people. Even before the plans were confirmed by captured Nazis, Benes suspected the German design for the eventual liquidation of the Czechs as a nation, and he felt that a desperate last-ditch battle would only play into Hitler's hands.
It was this concern for the preservation of the physical substance of the Czech nation that played by far the chief rôle in his decision to allow the Republic to be mutilated rather than fight. More than once in discussing this matter he told me: "A statesman must consider such matters sub specie œternitatis [from the standpoint of eternity], as Masaryk used to say. We are a small nation. One cannot be concerned with the happiness of just one generation. One must think of the generations of the future, and of how to assure them the chance to be born and to be able to live in the land of their forefathers."
In submitting to the Munich Diktat Benes did not anticipate that within six months Hitler's "Reich's Protektor" would sit in Hradcany Castle. Since Hitler had gained such a tremendous victory on the pretense that he wanted only to unify the Germans in one Reich and did not care to acquire any Czechs, why would he want to explode the myth which could still serve him well in the case of Poland? Why would he throw a monkey wrench into his own smoothly operating scheme of conquest through deceit by prematurely insulting and alerting the British statesman who had declared that his deal at Munich had assured "peace in our time"? With the strict Cartesian logic which dominated Benes's way of thinking, he assumed that Hitler would leave the crippled and helpless torso of Czechoslovakia alone and turn to his next victim. He hoped that his hapless country would thus be able to cling to its imposed neutrality until war at last broke out between Germany and the West and gave Czechoslovakia a new chance.
Hitler's destruction of what was left of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 came therefore as a terrible shock. Literally overnight, the basic assumption upon which Benes had founded his surrender in the previous year was destroyed. The physical existence of his people, which he had paid such a high price to preserve, was now in mortal danger. "What will happen if Hitler delays his next blow against Poland, and we have to wait several more years for a war against Germany?" he asked himself. "Will our people survive that hell? Will they remain firm in their resistance and morally untouched?"[vi] By a strange stroke of fate the man who had dedicated the best 20 years of his life to the preservation of peace began to pray for war, anxiously scanning the political horizon every morning for the promising signs of gathering war clouds. After March 1939, all his boundless energy was concentrated on the destruction of Hitler's Reich and the undoing of Munich and its consequences.
In his estimates of future developments, Dr. Benes counted on the eventual participation of both the United States and Soviet Russia in the coming war against Nazi Germany; indeed he expressed a strong conviction to this effect to President Roosevelt as early as May 1939. His belief in the inevitability of an armed conflict between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia was not mere wishful thinking, but was based on a cool analysis of the aggressive nature of the Nazi and Communist ideologies, the diametrically opposed power interests of the two countries, and the mentality and insatiable ambitions of Hitler.
Benes felt certain that the Führer's main objective in Europe was the conquest of the Ukraine; and such an expansion of the German Lebensraum could, of course, be attained only through a military defeat of Russia. Nor was he shaken in this belief by the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon initiated by the Non-Aggression Pact of August 24, 1939. "Poland will succumb quickly, and the Nazis will achieve their objective of avoiding war on two fronts," he told me on the following morning. "But this will be only temporary. Hitler and Stalin can never trust each other, and any deal between them is dictated solely by opportunistic reasons of a transitional character. Russia cannot afford to stand aside. She is bound to become involved sooner or later, and so Germany will end by fighting on two fronts after all." He spoke in the same vein to his British friends as well as in his frequent messages to the Czechoslovak underground. At first, he was inclined to think that Russia, rather than Germany, would be the first to break the non-aggression pact. "The Soviets wanted the war to break out first between the West and Germany so that they could stand aside for a while and could then intervene at a moment most suitable for their own purposes," he wrote to the Czechoslovak underground on the very day of the German invasion of Poland. It was only after the French collapse that he changed his opinion; a few months later, intelligence reports told of Hitler's orders to prepare for an invasion of Russia.
Since the Western nations in the end reaped such a poor harvest from their war partnership with the Soviet Union one understands why Benes is criticized for having contributed to their rapprochement. Did he not argue and write that Communism and Western democracy could live peacefully side by side? Did he not, by seeking to persuade Churchill and Roosevelt of the necessity of East-West collaboration, foster a shortsighted scheme which was bound to backfire and spell catastrophe for the cause of freedom? These criticisms are not made solely with the benefit of hindsight. There were those who warned him against such a policy from the outset. I recall, for instance, a most dramatic interview which Benes had with General Sikorski in January of 1941. As Benes unfolded his thoughts on the expected Soviet participation in the war, the Polish Premier began to pace nervously across the study, then took a stiff military posture in front of Benes and declared earnestly: "What you say would mean a catastrophe for all of us."[vii]
Though Benes opposed Sikorski's skepticism, it would be utterly wrong to believe that he was blind to the grave risks involved in collaboration with the Soviets. Repeatedly he warned his collaborators in Czechoslovakia against the dangers of Communist subversion. "It is evident that the Soviets are expecting a social revolution to take place, in accordance with the spirit of their policy," he wrote on September 1, 1939. "Therefore we shall have to be careful concerning this."[viii] "Russia will want to join in against Germany at a given moment with the thought of preparing revolutions and insurrections," said another message, sent October 4, 1939. "It is necessary to resist the exaggerated Sovietophile feelings and Communist propaganda," he cautioned again on August 2, 1940, in an attempt to counter the Soviet efforts to exploit the wave of depression which swept Czechoslovakia following the French collapse. "The Soviets will adopt a brutally egoistic policy and will change it whenever it suits their purposes. The aim of their policy will always be dual: primarily, the defense of their own territory and their own interests by using other states and nations, including Czechoslovakia; secondly, their ultimate revolutionary social aims . . . . Our coöperation with them . . . remains and must continue. But always remember these facts and be careful."
I could cite many more such warnings culled from other messages dated both before and after the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. They all prove beyond doubt that, while pleading for East-West collaboration against the Nazis, Benes harbored no naïve illusions concerning Communist aims and strategy. Like Sikorski, he would have preferred that the war against Germany be won without Soviet Russia. But assuming that this was hardly possible under the circumstances, he chose to gain the best possible advantage from a difficult situation. It was dire necessity, not starry-eyed reliance on Communist good faith, that made him the zealous sponsor of East-West rapprochement that he was.
If ever Benes went overboard in his confidence in Stalin, it was after his visit to Moscow in December 1943. Those three short weeks played a fateful rôle in Benes's subsequent attitudes toward things Russian and definitely tinted his glasses with rose.
The timing was perfect for creating a favorable impression. Our arrival coincided with the conclusion of the Tehran Conference which seemed then to have laid a promising foundation for harmonious East-West coöperation. While we were in Moscow, the Soviet Government announced that a new patriotic anthem would replace the Internationale, as it no longer expressed the fundamental changes which the Soviet lands had undergone."[ix] A few months previously the Comintern had been disbanded. We entered the country through Baku, the bustling capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan, poised impressively beside the blue waters of the Caspian Sea and studded with thousands of derricks in hectic operation. For four days and nights we travelled by train through towns and villages which had only recently been the scenes of terrific battles. We passed by veritable mountains of German armor half buried in snow, truly impressive monuments in commemoration of the Russian victories over the Nazi hordes. We paid a dramatic moonlight visit to Stalingrad. We were taken to factories in all of which we saw a feverish effort and a high degree of efficiency. Benes kept comparing what he saw then with what he had encountered during his previous visit in 1935, and he was amazed at the tremendous progress which he found. Wherever he went, and no matter with whom he talked, he found what he believed to be warm sympathy, an avid curiosity about the outside world, a genuine desire for friendship with the West, a profound respect and admiration for Roosevelt and Churchill. Ideological orthodoxy seemed to have melted under the warmth of surging patriotism; the petulant dogmatism of earlier days seemed to be fighting a losing battle with the sobering necessity of practical realism. But his deepest satisfaction was that he believed he found these same attitudes in Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
The gala performance--or, as we ought to call it now, Operation Grand Deceit--started the very moment we landed on the R.A.F. base at Habbanyiah near Baghdad, on the first leg of the fateful journey. Meeting us there as Stalin's emissary was the suave and versatile Ukrainian writer, Alexander Korneychuk, then Soviet Deputy Foreign Commissar. No man could have been better suited for the job. Unlike most Soviet diplomats of the Stalinist era, Korneychuk had a pleasant personality and most affable manners. As our constant companion for the rest of our journey to Moscow, this bright, well-educated debater with an ingratiating smile amazed Benes by his fresh and extremely undogmatic attitudes. He spoke with contempt for the "old ideology of leftist trends and deviations which were often abstractly international and had nothing in common with the traditions of the Russian and Ukrainian people." He pleaded with enthusiasm for brotherly coöperation among the Slav nations, in which each would have full equality and independence. He admitted that among the Russian Communists there were still some specimens of "the old extremist type," but he assured us that the present leaders, including Stalin himself, evinced the attitudes he was describing. He confided that he was an ardent admirer of Dostoevsky, then officially on the Soviet index, and in a private talk with me he even opined that some day there might be more than one party in the Soviet Union.
But the most decisive impression was made on Benes by Joseph Stalin himself. He trotted with an old man's short steps across the reception hall to greet us after our arrival in the Kremlin on December 11, 1943. A jovial smile lighted his wrinkled face, a humorous twinkle lighted his kindly eyes. There was indeed nothing about him to suggest to Benes that he stood face to face with a ruthless oriental despot. With that roguish grin above the greyish moustache he looked rather like a good-natured Dutch uncle. This first favorable impression was further enhanced by subsequent talks which Benes had with Stalin during our sojourn in Moscow. Seemingly unencumbered by any doctrinal inhibitions, the Generalissimo displayed a straightforward, matter-of-course approach; devoid as it was of diplomatic "finesse" and tinged with a certain crudeness, it could not but impress one with its apparent sincerity.
Whenever Benes began to talk about what he planned to do in Czechoslovakia after the war, Stalin virtually refused to listen; such internal affairs, he stressed, were absolutely no concern of his. With regard to Benes's several requests he acted as a most generous Santa Claus. Whatever Benes asked for, Stalin promptly granted with no reservations. He complied readily with a request for military equipment for the Czechoslovak Army which was to be set up after the first regions of Czechoslovakia had been liberated. He promised to place any freed portion of the country under the administration of Czechoslovak civil authorities without delay. He pledged full support to Benes's plan to transfer the majority of the Sudeten Germans to Germany. He solemnly reaffirmed the Soviet recognition of the pre-Munich boundaries of Czechoslovakia, including Ruthenia (the province which Stalin grabbed in 1945). He even invited Benes to state what part of Germany he would like to have and shook his head in disbelief when Benes said that he did not want anything except possibly a straightening of boundaries at a few points. As they were standing in front of a huge map in Stalin's study, Benes pointed to the Glatz region as an example of an area needing boundary rectification. With a red pencil which he held ready in his hand, Stalin promptly marked off the region for Czechoslovakia (he gave it to Poland in 1945).
Only a saint or an inveterate skeptic would have remained unimpressed by such a treatment, and Benes was neither. "We came to a complete agreement, absolutely complete!" Dr. Benes exclaimed jubilantly after his final talk with Stalin. That was indeed what he then sincerely believed.[x] He expressed his convictions in that sense in a highly optimistic speech broadcast from Moscow to Czechoslovakia, as well as in his subsequent messages to the Czechoslovak underground. He reported in the same vein to Winston Churchill, who had asked Benes to see him at Marrakesh, the Moroccan capital, where the British Prime Minister was convalescing after an attack of pneumonia. From then until the late summer of 1944, when his faith in Stalin's word began to wither under the chilling exposure to the realities of Soviet duplicity, Benes became unwittingly one of Stalin's most effective propagandists. This was also the only time that I discovered in him, ordinarily a very modest and unassuming man, a slight touch of conceit. The Munich humiliation was wiped out; the Nazi Empire was about to collapse; Benes's consistent policy of East-West collaboration seemed to have been vindicated. "Gouverner--c'est prévoir," he used to say. And, in fact, every one of his earlier warnings and major predictions appeared to have come true. Small wonder that he felt overconfident.
Although the highly favorable impression which Stalin made upon Benes during his Moscow visit in 1943 contributed substantially to his faith in Soviet good behavior it was by no means decisive. To be so unscientific as to rely on anything as subjective and ambiguous as a mere personal impression, no matter how profound, would have been quite out of character for a man so dispassionate, scholarly and coolly rational. While he did not underestimate the usefulness of personal contacts, he never believed that they could bring about substantial change in the policies of any nation. That was why he scoffed at assertions made by some of his political opponents after Munich that he might have obtained a better deal had he established personal contacts with Hitler. And he always maintained that Neville Chamberlain's confidence in his ability to influence Hitler by pleading with him personally was extremely naïve.
No, Benes's hopes were based on something deeper than personal appeal. Having been a sociologist originally, he held that politics was the main element of sociology and that the primary work of a good politician was to discover the nature of social reality, to determine what was constant in society, to analyze and to define it.[xi] "As a science," he wrote, "democratic politics must look at society and the world objectively, must search for truly objective reality, must analyze society thoroughly and widely, and must, so to speak, dissect it alive."[xii] Having "dissected" and analyzed the Soviet system, as he saw it in 1943, he concluded that its revolutionary era was ended and that it was now passing through a stage of gradual transformation into what would eventually become socialist democracy. More and more the Soviet Union would move toward the Right, permitting progressively more and more political, cultural and personal freedoms. Simultaneously, Western democracies would move toward the Left, toward socialism, or at least toward social welfare, economic planning and economic regulation. As both systems were thus drawn toward the Center, the sharp edges of their ideological and political antagonisms would be dulled and genuine peaceful coexistence would ensue.[xiii]
The doctrinal thaw which Benes had observed in Russia, the wartime appeals to patriotism rather than to Communism, cultural relaxation and other hopeful signs of change--as he saw it, these were concessions which, once given the Russian people, could not be easily taken away. The war partnership with the United States and Britain appeared to have helped Russia to break out of her isolationist shell and converted the one-time international outcast into a highly respected Great Power. She would not wish to compromise this position by reverting to her lawless behavior of earlier days. Riding the crest of prestige resulting from Soviet military victories, International Communism would stand to lose much more than it could gain through Soviet misconduct. Last but not the least, the colossal task of reconstructing the huge areas devastated by war would necessitate major aid from abroad, especially from America, and this consideration in itself would induce Stalin to refrain from doing anything that would gravely antagonize the Western world. "Soviet Russia will be interested in retaining, even after the war, the coöperation with the Anglo-Saxon democracies which is developing so promisingly," he wrote to his collaborators in Czechoslovakia as late as July 16, 1944. "She will need their aid in many respects. The suffering of Russia and her devastation defy imagination and the Soviet Union is guided by the effort to rebuild the country as soon as possible. That is also the guarantee which makes our treaty of alliance with the U.S.S.R. so real and so vitally important for us. That is why the Soviets will not interfere with our internal affairs more than in the case of other states. We shall decide by ourselves how we will want to arrange our new life and order."
Thus, the cornerstone of Dr. Benes's hope in Soviet good conduct was his belief that even after the defeat of Germany the Soviet Union would need the West so desperately that it would resist its natural Bolshevist urge to throw all its wartime promises to the winds and to install Communist rule in Central Europe by means of force. However, since the Soviet leaders in fact respect only force, the crucial question really was whether the United States and Great Britain would possess and present enough strength to prevent the Soviets from filling the power vacuum left in Central-Eastern Europe.
Although the less charitable of Benes's critics seek to portray him as a man who devoted most of his energy to building bridges for the Russians, the fact is that his primary purpose throughout World War II was to make the British and the Americans realize that their full involvement in East European affairs was a sine qua non of European and world peace. My diary and files from those days are replete with memoranda, accounts of Benes's talks with scores upon scores of Western statesmen and diplomats, and other documents bearing witness to Benes's incessant endeavors to persuade the Anglo-Saxon Powers that they could cut themselves off from the fate of Central Europe only at their own gravest peril. But although he obtained repeated assurances of interest and concern, no practical steps were in fact taken to undertake strong permanent commitments in Central Europe.
I might cite just a few samples of Benes's tireless efforts towards that end and of the negative Western responses. When he began in February 1944 to negotiate with the Soviets for an agreement on the rights and duties of the Red Army on Czechoslovak territory, Dr. Benes asked the British to conclude a similar agreement. Although they already had such agreements with Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway, the British Government declined these overtures on the ground that the British Army was unlikely to advance as far as Czechoslovakia. Benes's persistent endeavors to secure weapons from the British for the Czechoslovak underground were equally fruitless. Preparations were made in 1944 for the reception of these weapons; appropriate places where they could be landed and stored were carefully selected. Yet, at the end of protracted negotiations which had been in progress since the summer of 1943, the British finally rejected the request on the ground that Czechoslovakia was within the sphere of Soviet military operations, and suggested that we ask the Russians.
Nor did Benes have any better luck with the Americans. In August of 1944 we received reports from our collaborators in Slovakia that they were ready for an armed revolt. Dr. Benes approved the project, and by the end of August the revolt had broken out in the mountainous region of central Slovakia. To crush the uprising in this strategic area behind the German Carpathian defenses the Germans sent planes and armor; soon the ill-equipped Slovak troops were in dire need of outside help. When the promised Soviet aid was not forthcoming, Benes turned to the United States, with the result that American planes briefly supported the Slovak patriots from bases in southern Italy. After a few sorties, however, the operations were suddenly stopped "on higher orders," as Benes was told, presumably because Czechoslovakia was within the Soviet zone of operations.
But the bitterest disappointment came in the spring of 1945 when General Patton's armies were ordered to halt their potent eastward drive before they could free Prague. By then Benes, who had already established provisional headquarters on Czechoslovak territory, had shed all illusions concerning Soviet good intentions. The Soviet rape of Ruthenia, in flagrant disregard of Stalin's lofty assurances during the Moscow visit of 1943, and the ignoble techniques by which it was accomplished, demonstrated for Benes what might be in store for his unfortunate country should the Russians gain control over the whole of Czechoslovakia. So did the tragic stories of pillage and rape, of deportations of anti-Communists, of the forcible communization of local administrations, and of innumerable other lawless acts daily committed by the Red Army and N.K.V.D. agents against the helpless Slovak population in areas overrun by the advancing Soviet armies.
I shall never forget the deep emotion with which Benes, who always hated to bare his feelings, received the news of Patton's armies crossing the border into Czechoslovakia. "Thank God, thank God," he said when I rushed in to tell him that Patton was at long last on Czechoslovak soil. Unable to control his excitement he began to pace his study, and to judge by the expression in his eyes he was already visualizing the beneficial political consequences of this event. Then he rushed into the adjoining room to share the good news with his beloved wife. "Hanicko, Hanicko, the Americans have entered Czechoslovakia," I heard him say to Madame Benes in a voice still quivering with emotion, "Patton is across the border!" In a few minutes he was back, instructing me to send Patton a telegram of congratulations and welcome.
Had Patton continued to advance he could have liberated not only Prague but the whole of Bohemia and a substantial portion of Moravia. The Communists would have been denied the advantage conferred by the presence and active support of the Red Army and the N.K.V.D. in entrenching themselves in the most populous and most strategic areas of Czechoslovakia. It was from these positions of strength, in the police, army, central and local administration, workers militias, and the communications system, that they were able so successfully to sabotage Benes's efforts to restore democracy in Czechoslovakia. It is not mere accident that the present line separating the Communist from non-Communist countries in Europe coincides closely with the wartime apportionment of operational zones between the U.S.S.R. and the Western Powers.
The reluctance of the Anglo-Saxon Powers to assume adequate responsibility and to assert their proper influence in Central and Eastern Europe undermined the main foundation on which Benes built his belief in Soviet good behavior. By their refusal to supply weapons and to lend support to the Czechoslovak underground, America and Britain destroyed whatever chance Benes may have had of gaining control of the major part of his country prior to the arrival of the Red Army. By deliberately halting their drive to the east they allowed all but the narrow western slice of Czechoslovakia to fall under exclusive Soviet control and left Benes to battle it out alone against overwhelming odds.
Although his bitter experiences of late 1944 and 1945 dashed Dr. Benes's characteristic optimism, they did not destroy his hope that all would be well in the end. This hope he based on two beliefs which he adhered to with the typical stubbornness of a Czech peasant: trust in the sound judgment of his own people and the expectation that mounting evidence of Soviet duplicity would finally bring resolute Western action. Unfortunately, neither was fulfilled. A rising awareness of the true nature of the Communist menace did appear in the West in the early postwar years, as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan testify. But the Truman Doctrine, limited as it was to Greece and Turkey, showed all the more clearly the lack of American interest in Central-Eastern Europe. As for the generous Marshall offer, Czechoslovakia's original acceptance of an invitation to negotiate in Paris was revoked under Soviet duress.[xiv] Thus by the time Benes was confronted with the Gottwald ultimatum in February 1948, he knew that, for a second time within one decade, he and his country stood alone.
Benes's faith in his people was also in vain. The disasters that have befallen the Czechs during recent centuries have injected into their national character a strong overdose of wariness and a reluctance to assume personal risk. The average Czech, confronted with what he believes to be superior power, prefers to bend and preserve his strength for a better opportunity, rather than to break in a gesture of bold defiance. The Munich betrayal, the twilight existence leading up to Hitler's coup de grace of March 1939, and the long ordeal of Nazi oppression had shattered the Czechoslovak people's morale more than Benes realized. Even under the most propitious circumstances it would have taken some time for them to reëstablish their confidence and spirit. When, instead of finding the freedom from fear which they had longed for, they were subjected to the Communist variety of intimidation and lawlessness, the shock was too much for them, and their civic courage slipped to an all-time low. As a consequence, the Communist Party ranks were grossly inflated by those who joined out of sheer opportunism. These "radishes," i.e. people only outwardly red, and the huge number of fence-sitters, made Benes's struggle against Communism all the more difficult. When Gottwald and Co. ordered their cohorts into the streets during the crucial days of the February crisis, the anti-Communist majority sat still, struck with fear and clinging desperately to the thin thread of hope that Benes, sick and exhausted, would somehow produce a miracle.
The total failure of the West and of the Czechoslovak anti-Communists to give Benes effective help when the struggle came to a head in February 1948 were the decisive factors which caused his defeat. That does not mean that Benes was without blame. His main mistake was that, upon his return to Czechoslovakia, he failed to give his people the kind of leadership that the situation demanded. All of us who stood close to him at that time held the view that he should have been much more forceful in the immediate postwar era than in prewar days. I personally felt that for a while he should act in an almost authoritarian fashion, capitalizing on his tremendous prestige with the Czechoslovak people and the absolute, almost mystical trust they had in him. "What will be needed in those chaotic days, Mr. President," I mentioned to him in one of the many discussions which we had on this topic, "is not a Head of State who will stay above the parties, a sort of umpire over the political game, but a strong man who will nip Communist trickery in the bud." "Yes, you are right," he answered. "This time I shall have to use all my authority and start stepping on Communist toes. People will be demoralized, their courage will be impaired, and I am afraid that there will be no strong democratic leaders. I shall have to take a much more active part in government than in normal times."
But he did not. Although the tremendous ovations with which he was received on his triumphant return across Czechoslovakia to Prague showed that the bulk of the people revered him more than ever, Benes quickly reverted to his old habit of negotiating, arguing and compromising, techniques that may be suited to a functioning democracy, but are not at all adequate to cope with the modern Machiavellis of Marxism-Leninism. Instead of taking drastic action at least against the worst abuses of power by the Communist leaders, he preferred patiently to plead, warn, admonish--biding his time and hoping that somehow the slow pressure of public opinion would induce the Communists to mend their ways.
There were at least two instances prior to 1948 in which Benes could have taken resolute action to avert Communism. The first such opportunity came after the parliamentary elections of April 1946. Despite the substantial Communist vote of 38 percent, those elections gave a clear majority to the democratic parties. By this time it was already crystal-clear that the Communist Minister of the Interior had grossly misused his powers in order to communize the police force. It was vitally important for the future of democracy to stop this malfeasance before it was too late. Consequently, Benes should have refused to appoint anyone but a staunch non-Party man to such a key position in the new cabinet. I believed then, and I still believe today, that it would have been a brilliant stroke to have chosen Jan Masaryk. To be sure, Masaryk was not well qualified for the office, for he was a poor administrator. But his tremendous popularity and strict non-partisanship would have made it difficult even for the Communists to oppose his appointment. Had Benes put his whole authority behind the idea, I do not see how he could have lost. As Masaryk was devoted to Benes and always followed his instructions, Benes would have become his own Minister of the Interior.
Another good opportunity to stand up to the Communists arose when Gottwald, fresh from his interview with Stalin, telephoned from Moscow to say that the Czechoslovak Government should rescind its previous decision to participate in the Marshall Plan talks in Paris. If Benes had refused to back down, the Czech Communist leaders would have been put in a most unpopular position, because all the people, even the Communist rank and file, were wholeheartedly in favor of accepting American aid. The Communist members of the cabinet would have had to offer their resignations and Benes would have thus had a chance to strengthen the Government at a very critical moment.
With the wisdom of hindsight it is, of course, easy to say that Benes should not have missed either of these opportunities. He would doubtless have taken advantage of them had he known, as we do now, what was to happen in 1948. But in 1946 and 1947 he had some powerful reasons why he did not want to create a crisis which would have been pregnant with so many grave risks for the Republic. He knew that the Communists, who were in full control of industry and transportation, would have struck back with a paralyzing strike which would have had most disastrous economic results and would have led to major riots and bloodshed. From what we have said about his mentality it is clear that Benes could not have been expected to take such drastic steps.
Furthermore, developments in the first half of 1947 actually strengthened Benes's confidence that all would be well in the end. Having failed by a solid 12 percent to gain the coveted majority in the 1946 elections, the Communists began to suffer their first setbacks. Their strength in local government began to recede. They had to give up at least one ministry which was of key importance for the realization of their aims, the Ministry of Education. To the chagrin of the Party and the pleasure of the non-Communists, the Ministry of Justice, headed by one of Benes's closest associates, Prokop Drtina, moved resolutely to prosecute the Communist-dominated police for various illegal practices. Non-Communist newspapers were more and more outspoken in their criticism of Communist abuses. The Social Democrats began at long last to shake off the hold of Fierlinger's fellow-travelling left wing and asserted themselves more strongly against Communist attacks on political freedoms. The people's morale was rising and civic courage began slowly to gather momentum. Benes's "elastic defense" seemed to be working.
"I am struggling for time," he told me in a long conversation in June of 1947. "We cannot be saved unless the Russian advance is checked by a tremendous show of power on the part of the West. Once the Russians see that any further step would mean a general war, they will stop, but not one moment earlier. The Russians will do everything possible to enlarge and strengthen their grip on Germany and the whole of Central and Eastern Europe in the coming months, before they are definitely checked. If we manage to hold out until next summer or fall, the highest danger point will by then have been passed."
In this same conversation of June 1947 he told me that, should the Communists attempt to seize power by violence, he was determined to fight them to the bitter end, and that he would call on the Sokols (a patriotic gymnastic organization), the Legionnaires, and even the Army if necessary. "The Communists think that I would try to avoid an open clash with them at any cost," the President continued with a smile. "I know that they are saying: 'If you succeed in pushing Benes into a tight corner and if you keep on pressing him hard enough, he will yield in the end.' But they are wrong. I wish to avoid trouble, that's right, but my patience and my willingness to make deals with them have their limits. I shall make no compromise which would destroy democracy in this country. The Communists could seize power in this country only over my dead body." Yet, seven months later, when the Communists managed to push him into that "tight corner," Benes did yield. In spite of his repeated assurances that the Communists could win only over his "dead body," he capitulated to their demands after five days of desperate opposition and appended his signature to the death warrant of Czechoslovak democracy.
Once Benes had come to the conclusion that the only alternative to surrender was a bloody civil war, with the strong likelihood of direct or indirect Soviet intervention, he was incapable of acting otherwise. Benes was persuaded by Gottwald's threats and actions that the Premier would order his Communist cohorts to fight and would use the Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty of Alliance and Friendship to call upon the Russians to "restore order." The arrival in Prague of the Soviet emissary, Valerian Zorin, and his open intervention in favor of Gottwald, led Benes to believe that Stalin was firmly committed to a Communist victory. As at the time of Munich, the West was clearly unwilling to give any effective aid. The mass of Czechoslovak Democrats, including the famed Sokols and the legendary Legionnaires on whom Benes had pinned great hopes, seemed stricken with paralysis. He could, however, have ordered the Army to move against Gottwald's mob. Indeed, several generals came to see Benes at the peak of the crisis, promised support and asked for the President's order. "I understand and I am grateful for your words," Benes responded. "But this would mean that you would have to disarm the police. Logically, then, you would also have to arrest Gottwald. And this the Russians would not tolerate."
Once again, Benes considered the situation "sub specie œternitatis," as Masaryk had taught him. He thought of the future rather than the present, and chose to sacrifice the happiness of the present generation to preserve intact the physical substance of his nation for the better days he was sure would come again. It was a decision made carefully and in full realization of its tragic significance. Some of Benes's apologists blame his surrender on his sickness. He was indeed seriously ill and his circulatory disease made him highly excitable and subject to sudden collapses. But it did not impair his mental capacities, his power of reasoning and of making responsible judgments. I am certain that his decision in February 1948 would have been exactly the same had he been in the prime of health.
Having made the most painful decision of his whole life, Benes left the Hradcany Castle never to return. He resigned the Presidency in June and a merciful death took him the following September. His fall virtually ended the hope of East-West rapprochement and coöperation. Yet Benes's basic assumption has not yet been proved wholly wrong. The Western world has been moving toward the Left, as he anticipated, while within the Communist system pressures for greater freedom have forced the Soviet rulers to make several notable departures from the harsh Stalinist pattern. When history has written the final chapter on the Czechoslovak President, it may prove that Benes's conception was more wishful in timing than in substance.
[i] Jan Ciechanowski, "Defeat in Victory" (Garden City: Doubleday, 1947); Vaclav E. Mares, "Could the Czechs Have Remained Free?" Current History, September 1950, pp. 150 ff.
[ii] "The Gathering Storm" (Boston: Houghton, 1948), p. 302.
[iii] John W. Wheeler-Bennett, "Munich: Prologue to Tragedy" (New York: Duell, 1948), p. 181.
[iv]Cf. Edward Taborsky, "Benes and the Soviets," Foreign Affairs, January 1949, pp. 302 ff.
[v] The Czechoslovak envoy in Moscow, Zdenek Fierlinger, reported to Prague as early as the end of August 1938 that the Soviets did not believe that France would fulfill her treaty obligations.
[vi] "Pameti" (Prague: Orbis, 1947), p. 97.
[vii]Ibid., p. 226.
[viii] Italics are Benes's.
[ix]Izvestia, December 21, 1943.
[x] For his own account of the Moscow visit, cf. "Pameti," op. cit., pp. 379 ff. Also Sir Compton MacKenzie, "Dr. Benes" (London: Harrap, 1946), pp. 307 ff.
[xi] "Democracy Today and Tomorrow" (New York: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 203-204.
[xii]Ibid., p. 203.
[xiii] "Demokracie Dnes a Zítra" (London, 1944), pp. 184 ff.
[xiv]Cf. Hubert Ripka, "Le Coup de Prague" (Paris, 1949), pp. 49 ff.