Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Benes, Eduard (1884–1948)

Czech statesman who helped establish the independent state of Czechoslovakia. Born on 28 May 1884 at Kozlany, Bohemia, Eduard Benes studied at Charles University in Prague, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the University of Dijon, where he earned a doctorate in law in 1908. In 1909, Benes was appointed professor of economics at the Prague Academy of Commerce, and in 1912, he became a professor of sociology at the University of Prague. There, he met Tomás G. Masaryk and came to embrace his social and political philosophies. As one of the leaders of the Czech nationalist movement against Austria, Benes went abroad during World War I, first to Paris, where he worked as a journalist to promote the cause of Czech independence. That same year, he joined the Czechoslovakian National Council, recognized by the Allies in 1918 as the provisional government of Czechoslovakia.

On his return to Prague at the end of the war, Benes became the first foreign minister of the new state. From 1918 to 1935, he worked to strengthen the security of Czechoslovakia, the cornerstone of which was a 1924 alliance with France. In addition, he worked to cooperate with Romania and Yugoslavia, with the three states signing collective security arrangements that led to the so-called Little Entente. Benes was also a tireless advocate of the League of Nations, serving as League Council chairman five times. He secured a mutual security pact with the Soviet Union in 1935.

In December 1935, Benes succeeded Masaryk on the latter's resignation as president of Czechoslovakia. The one intractable problem he could not solve was that of the minorities in his nation. The Czechs were not even a majority of the population of the state, and there were serious problems with the Ukrainians, the Slovaks, and especially the Germans. Adolf Hitler pushed the demands of the latter from relief of grievances into annexation by the Reich of those areas in which Germans were a majority. Benes and his government went as far as they could without actually ceding territory, but at the September 1938 Munich Conference, the British and French agreed to Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. A week later, Benes resigned and went into exile in France.

Benes became president of the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in London in July 1940. He hoped to make his country a bridge between the East and the West, and he signed a 20-year treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union in 1943. He returned to Prague on 16 May 1945, stopping first in Moscow to confer with Josef Stalin.

Benes was reelected president in 1946, but his hopes of nonalignment ran afoul of the Cold War. The Soviets staged a coup d'état in Prague in February 1948, and Benes was forced to accept Communist control. Rather than agree to a new constitution that would legalize the Communist seizure of power, he resigned on 7 June 1948. He died in Sezimovo Üsti, Bohemia, on 3 September 1948.

Annette Richardson


Further Reading
Benes, Edvard. Democracy Today and Tomorrow. London: Macmillan, 1939.; Benes, Edvard. Edvard Benes in His Own Words: Threescore Years of a Statesman, Builder and Philosopher. New York: Czech-American National Alliance, Eastern Division, 1944.; Benes, Edvard. My War Memoirs. Trans. Paul Selver. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.; Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.; Taborsky, Edward. President Edvard Benes: Between East and West, 1938–1948. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1981.
 

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