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28. 5. 2009 10:01

Speech of Jan Fischer on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Edvard Beneš's birth

I am pleased to have an opportunity to pay tribute to 125th anniversary of birth of a man who, together with T.G. Masaryk, Karel Kramář and Milan Ratislav Štefánik, took the greatest credit for our national independence.

Edvard Beneš ranks among founders of our modern statehood. We did not have many so great statesmen in our history like him; statesmen who made their marks not only in Czech but also in European and world history.

We often tend to consider our nation as small and insignificant, without many years standing tradition. Edvard Beneš ranks among those men who refuted such a cliché. He ranks among men, thanks to whom we can feel as an equal part of a big family of European nations.

Edvard Beneš headed our state in times of violent historical reversals in the first half of the twentieth century. He had to cope with a burden which was absolutely incomparable with relatively happy and peaceful period of the last twenty years.

I leave to more competent people to assess the Beneš's performance in those tragic events when he was, in the position of president in 1939 and 1948, confronted with fatal dilemmas. Anyway, we should not remember him only as a man who had to escape from Nazis to exile and who lost his last fight for democracy with the Communist totality.

Edvard Beneš was, in the first place, a politician who absolutely devotedly served his motherland, after all. He helped it to gain strong international position at the peace conference in Paris. He became one of the most reputable ministers of foreign affairs of his time. He also became a founder and the Chairman of the League of Nations. Also as the President of our republic he considered his office as a service and he continued the Masaryk's tradition of an impartial head of state.

Edvard Beneš was striving to ensure security and freedom throughout all his life. He was not on the blame that those guarantees, whether I mean the Little Entente or the League of Nations, proved weak and non-functional in crucial moments. He was not the only one man who did not notice that the alliance with the Soviet Union was functional on the one hand but that it was fatal for democracy and freedom.

Edvard Beneš became a witness of the fall of our democracy. Years 1945-1948 became years of a gradual restriction of civic freedom and logically ended up in the restriction of political freedom. Lots of decisions of his, which are nowadays considered as controversial, and which are subjects of criticism, date back to that period of time.

However, we should consider Beneš in the context of his time. We are lucky nowadays that we can be a part of strong and functional Euro-Atlantic organizations: NATO and the EU. Thanks to them we have such guarantees of freedom, security and prosperity that Beneš had been vainly striving for throughout all his life.

If some people reproach Beneš for his weakness towards Gottwald, it is necessary to ask how many democratic politicians of those times were really strong. They were not able to reach an agreement even on the refusal of cooperation with communists. Thus, Beneš was left to face the commencement of totality alone, in fact.

Beneš's steps of 1948 are more visible in this respect. They are more visible than failures of other politicians of those times. Beneš as a great statesman is an easier target.

It is not fair that his faults, and often forced faults, are more frequently mentioned in current debates than his merits. How many politicians carried out far less than he did and in spite of this they are considered unequivocally positively? It is just because they were lucky enough and they did not encounter any serious complications, let alone World War and totality.

We should acknowledge his grandness. It was just him, who bore the brunt of the fact that Czechoslovakia became a strong and reputable country, one of the most democratic countries of then-Europe. He was the first Czech politician who headed great international organization. This chance is now repeated after more than seventy years.

Edvard Beneš belongs to the Czech democratic tradition, anyway. He assisted when our democracy was arising, when its foundations were formed and he assisted when its basic content was constituted. When we assess his life today, after more than sixty years after his death, we compare it to a certain degree with him himself. We use such criteria that he himself help to constitute. Our assessments are not always positive. But if those criteria are rigid and our judgements sometime critical, it is only an evidence of the fact that our democracy has, also thanks to Beneš, deep roots.

Nevertheless, I would like to separate here clearly historical and critical assessment of Beneš's activities and steps from the person of Beneš as a statesman – statesman who deserves our appreciation a priori, who deserves to be said by us, after we finish our criticism, one simple sentence: Eduard Beneš rendered outstanding service to the state. Let us pay homage to him.

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