By HAROLD NICOLSON
IT has been interesting this week to read the several obituary notices which have been devoted to the late President Benes. There would seem to be three main schools of thought. There are those who see in the tragedy of this Czech patriot a warning to all idealists. Had Benes, these people argue, not placed so gullible a faith in the League of Nat:ons, had he been less confident that the Little Entente and his French Allies would protect him against all dangers, then he wbuld have come to terms with the Sudeten Germans and with Hitler while there was still time. The second school of thought take an exactly opposite line and contend that if Benes had possessed the utter idealism of Thomas Masaryk he would have died sooner than surrender to Mr. Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938 or to Mr. Gottwald and Russia ten years later. Such people argue that it was not his idealism which brought him to destruction, but his lack of ultimate faith in his own idealism. The third school of thought assert that the misfortune of Benes was that he was obsessed by a passionate hatred of Austria and Germany and a passionate love for Ruisia. Had it not been for this hatred, he would have recreated the old Austro-Hungarian Empire on economic lines ; he would have fulfilled with greater loyalty the Minority Treaties accepted by him in Paris ; he could have dealt with the Nazis while they were still in a receptive mood ; and he would not have entered into his pact with Russia or shocked Western opinion by his somewhat cynical recognition of the Lublin Corn- miner. There is, I suppose, some truth in each of these interpreta- tions. Benes was certainly induced by his own success at Geneva to attribute to the League of Nations a greater efficacy than it in fact possessed. And it is true that his hatred of the old Austro-Hungarian system, his detestation of all Germans, his Slav sympathies did at times divert his attention from what were the more practical needs of his State. Yet, as always occurs with historical judgements, his critics are being wise after the event. They fail to attach sufficient importance to the chain or circumstance in which Benes became involved.
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He was, after all, a young man of little over thirty when he found himself suddenly responsible for his newly liberated country. His every attitude of mind, his every action, was dominated by his respect for his great leader, Dr. Masaryk. His hatred of all vestiges of the old Austro-Hungarian system did, it is true, tempt him to adopt a policy of economic nationalism and to avoid giving to the minorities within the new Czech borders the rights which had been guaranteed to them under the treaties. But it would be untrue to say that in the early days, at least, he was obsessed by any deep love for Russia : it was his colleague, Dr. Kramar-, who was the Russophil ; Benes himself always looked to the West, and especially to France. And was he really unwise, was he really so gullible, in seeking during the decade from 192o to 193o, to base the security of his country upon the Little Entente, the French Alliance and the League ? Given the balance of power in Europe at the time, these zones of security did certainly provide him with an assurance of self- defence. Nor was his confidence, as some critics assert, entirely imaginary ; after all, he buttressed these paper guarantees with an extremely efficient army and a most expensive Maginot Line. It is not a reflection upon Benes's intelligence that he failed to foresee the capitulation at Munich.
Was his optimism thus so very vapid ? There were few indeed who did not share it in 1918. There were some of course (and they were mainly found among the admirable members of the United States delegation) who had doubts about the viability of the new State. The loyalty of the Slovaks, even more the loyalty of the Slovenes, were regarded as unknown factors ; the absorption of so many minorities of non-Czech nationality was regarded with apprehension. The French argued with their accustomed logic that a conglomerate State of this nature must have sound historic and strategic frontiers. They rejected the American provosal that some at least of the former Austrian populations in the Sudeten area should be included within the German frontier. It was ridiculous, they argued, to destroy the natural and historic frontier of the Erz Gebirge and the Bohmer Wald ; it would be intolerable if Germany, after all her outrages, were allowed actually to annex territory which had not been hers before the war. We salved our consciences at the time by adding to the main treaty subsidiary treaties guaranteeing the rights of these minorities ; these treaties were not observed. These anxieties were forgotten in the years that followed. Czechoslovakia appeared as a united democratic State, prosperous, potentially powerful, and intent upon a policy of external peace and internal social welfare. I can recall paying a visit to Dr. Masaryk at Prague in the spring of 1919, a few weeks only after his arrival in his liberated capital. It seemed that one was at last face to face with the embodiment of the Philosopher King. Calmly, gently, he expounded to us—gazing out from his high palace room upon the spires and pinnacles of the city below him—the confidence which he felt in the future of his own country. At last the term "Social Democracy" was to be given practical application ; the Czechoslovak State was to become a model to the world of a free, united and prosperous community. Even General Smuts, who headed our mission, felt that here was an achievement which might counterbalance all the mistakes committed by the negotiators of the Treaty of Versailles. We returned to Paris almost in a mood of elation.
Dr. Benes in those days of 1918 was a young, tremendously eager, immensely resourceful man. Almost every day he would circulate to the several delegations little simplified (perhaps over-simplified) maps of the areas under-discussion. He did not at the time give the impression of being an idealist or even a statesman of inter- national calibre ; he gave the impression of an alert public relations officer. He was extremely voluble, arguing his points in rapid, inaccurate, ugly French. When summoned before the Council of Ten he would read his speech from a manuscript upon the table ; he sometimes tried the patience of that overworked conclave. " Votre Benes," I once heard Clemenceau rasp out to Berthelot, "a ite d'une longueur—mais d'une longueur! " Stocky and nervous he was, reminding one of an alert half-back or of a spaniel nosing delightedly through the bracken. By the time he went to Geneva this fussy, questing manner had been replaced by a more ministerial mode. He was as resourceful as ever, producing formulas as from a conjurer's
hat. He became the go-between of the Great Powers ; quick, adapt- able, conciliatory, ingenious, he served as a lubricant to many a heated machine. He acquired the position of an honest broker in many delicate negotiations ; he displayed that consistent usefulness which had given to Venizelos, might have given to Van Zeeland, and now gives to Spaak, a personal authority in international affairs. And all the time, in his own country, he was skilfully rebuilding the shattered economic unity of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire by negotiating preferential commercial treaties with the other successor States.
* * * If any man ought to have succeeded, it was Eduard Benes. There are those who contend that he should have refused the Munich settlement and have shamed his Allies and supporters by plunging his country into a hopeless war. There are those who contend that he should last February have let loose upon Gottwald and his Communists the Czech Army, the sokols and the legionaries. It may be that his will-power bad been weakened by the paralytic stroke which afflicted him in June, 1947. It is not for us to bring reproaches to so tragic a bier. I shall not remember Eduard Benes as the broken man of Sezimovo Usti: I shall remember him always as the ardent young man of 1918, who believed with burning con- viction in the future of his own country and of the democratic ideals for which he stood. Twice in his life Eduard Benes was forced by the chain of circumstance to surrender to evil things: it is not with these that we associate his memory.