Dear President Klaus,
Dear Members of Parliament
The Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Republic has, for the second time a row,
passed a proposed law in which the former president of the Czechoslovakia , Mr Edvard
Benes, was honoured with the words "He helped build the state".
After the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) passed the proposal a few weeks ago
the Senate of the Czech Republic (the Upper House) rejected the law, only for the
Chamber of Deputies to confirm their initial decision in a vote yesterday. Now President
Klaus needs to sign the proposal for it to become law. If he refuses the National
Council can override his decision and enact the law once and for all.
I am appealing to the President of the Czech Republic and the members of parliament to
reject this highly devisive and controversial law that can only be called a slap into
the face for the difficult reconciliation process that Europe is undergoing at
Edvard Benes is indeed a very controversial personality. While his position during
the Munich crisis was certainly difficult, I believe he could have prevented the
escalation by creating more federalist structures in Czechoslovakia beforehand.
- In 1919 at the St Germain peace conference, Bene' first appearance on the
international stage, he succeeded in pushing through the idea of including the German
speaking border areas as well as Hungarian speaking regions North of the Danube into the
new Czechoslovak state.
- Although the unity of the Bohemian lands (or as many would say today: Czech
lands) is not questioned by anyone today, it was a rather controversial idea after WW
I, at a time when other historic regions (Tyrol, Styria, Silesia, Hungary) were divided
according to lingustic (and sometimes other) criteria.
- The US and Britain were initially most sceptical about the wishes of the Czechoslovak
delegation to incorporate 3.5 million Germans, 800 000 Hungarians and 300 000 Poles
into the new state, but Benes convinced them with the promise to create a democratic state
modelled on Switzerland.
- However while there is no doubt Czechoslovakia remained a democracy in the inter war
period (in difference to many of its neighbours), the countrys leaders- Benes
playing the leading role- centralised rather than federalised its
political and administrational structure and therefore did not create anything like
- But to centralise a mulitlingual state is a recipe for conflict and often a death
sentence for any state. Centralisation is the worst that can happen to minorities as it
endangers their very existence. Hence the German, Hungarian and Polish minorities in
particular, and to a lesser degree also the Slovaks and Ruthenians/Rusyns, failed to
identify with the newly founded state.
- While the French speaking community in Geneva or the Italian speaking community of
Ticino have extensive regional autonomy in Switzerland, Germans in Cheb/Eger, Hungarians
in Komarno/Komaron or Poles in Tesin/Cieszyn had virtually no local self rule but were
governed by a parliament in Prague where Czechs always had the decision making majority.
- Under such circumstances Switzerland would have broken up a long time ago. The secret of
her success is the cantonal structure which allows local identity and extensive self rule
to be maintained.
- Benes was a politician that did not live up to the promise of the Swiss model, and by
doing so he carries an important part of the responsibility for the break up of the state
in 1938 which shall not lessen the responsibility of many Germans and Hungarians
that fell for Nazi propaganda.
- But if Benes had provided Germans, Hungarians and Poles with the same local autonomy
that many pre World War I politicians called for in regard to Czechs and other
linguistic groups in Austria, including the German Social Democrats under the Southern
Moravian Karl Renner, Hitler would have had it substantially more difficult to win
over a Sudeten German population that was mainly Catholic and therefore inherently Anti
- Benes is also responsible for the post war expulsions of German as well as Hungarian
speakers (indirectly also for the expulsion of Slovaks from Hungary after a so called
"population exchange" initiated by him). Although the "population
transfers" were officially decided by the victorious powers at Potsdam, it was indeed
Benes and only Benes who pushed through the idea.
- By doing so he refused to accept his own responsibility and put all the blame for the
tragic events of the 30s and 40s on the entire German and Hungarian speaking population
(an estimated 70% of those expelled were women and children).
- But the legacy of these expulsions, as well as his failure to be true to his word, have
followed and will follow the Czech Republic for many years to come.
- My appeal to the elected representatives of the Czech Republic: In a EU that has
developed out of a deep sense of respect, tolerance and a will to reconcile (eg:
France-Germany) the Czech Republic has a unique chance to finally find security in a
peaceful Europe. To slap millions of Europeans in the face, that associate the name Benes
with loss of their homeland, freedom and life, is not an act of reconciliation but an act
of aggression. It will not lead to more security for the Czech state. It will not stop or
weaken property restitution claims. It will not lessen the pain of many Czechs that have
suffered and died under Nazism. In fact it will do the opposite.
- The best you can do for Europe and the Czech Republic is to deal with those populist
politicians that continue to scare monger the population about Germanisation and loss of
- Rather than spending time honouring controversial politicians I suggest to put
more time into safeguarding the future of your linguistic minorities. The three
largest minorities, Slovaks, Poles and Germans, are facing extinction. One of the most
multilingual regions of Europe 100 years ago, has become one of the most monoligual places
on the continent. I also suggest to actively seek reconciliation with expelled Sudeten
Germans as well as your neighbours Germany, Austria and Poland.
Europe is at the crossroads. We can either make it a place for everyone, including
Czechs, Sudeten Germans, Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians, or we go back to the nationalist
games that have artificially divided us for much of modern history. It is up to all of us
to do our part.
Network of Bi- and Multilingual Municipalities of Europe
Florastraße/Rue de Flore
Telephone: +41 78 807 4333