Edvard Beneš, twice elected to the office of President of Czechoslovakia, governed the country during two very tumultuous eras. Each time, his presidency ended as major changes swept the country.
Beneš was born in Kožlany, near Plzeň. At the time of his birth (1884), the area was still under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It seemed that the family, though not illustrious, was destined for greatness. His brother, Vojta, also became a politician; his nephew, Bohuš, a diplomat.
Beneš studied at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University. From there, he went to Paris and attended the Sorbonne and the Independent School of Political and Social Studies. He received a doctorate of law in Dijon in 1908. He then returned to Prague, teaching at the Academy of Commerce and at the Charles University. Soon, however, war was looming.
Beneš went into exile in Paris in 1915, where he worked to gain recognition from the French and British governments for an independent Czechoslovak state. A provisional government was organized, of which Beneš became the Minister of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs. He would hold this position, and that of Secretary of the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris, from 1916 to 1918.
On October 28, 1918, Czechoslovakia was formed. Beneš became the first Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia. He remained at this post until 1935, making him the longest-serving Foreign Minister in the country’s history.
He worked in various other positions during his time as Foreign Minister. In 1919, he represented Czechoslovakia at the Paris Peace Conference. From 1923 to 1927, he belonged to the League of Nations Council. And, he was a member of the Czechoslovak National Social Party.
In 1935, Beneš became President of Czechoslovakia. It was, to put it mildly, a difficult time. Adolf Hitler claimed to want to annex Sudetenland – roughly, the border zone with Germany, Poland, and Austria – to govern the ethnic Germans in that region.
It was a lie, calculated to get the area under Nazi control and facilitate World War II. However, Britain and France coerced Beneš to sign the infamous Munich Agreement, ceding the Sudetenland – and then, the entire country – to Nazi Germany.
Beneš went into exile in England in October 1938. He acted as president of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile from 1940 to 1945. He was a key planner of the assassination of high-ranking Nazi figure Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.
In 1945, Beneš returned to his home country and to his role as President. The controversial Beneš Decrees were ratified retroactively in 1946, expelling around 3 million ethnic Germans and Hungarians from Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the Communists steadily gained power.
Finally, Beneš, faced with the threat of civil war, and amid rumors of the possibility of yet another invasion – this time by the Soviets – was forced once again to yield to political pressure. This time, he had to give official approval to a Communist government. Beneš resigned on June 7, 1948; his Communist successor, Klement Gottwald, was elected president a week later.
Beneš, worn out emotionally and in poor physical health, died on September 3, 1948.