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Vol 2, No 39
13 November 2000
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The Bell of Betrayal Announces Victory
Historian Jan Tesař's book Mnichovský komplex provides an excellent analysis of the end of the First Republic[1]
Petr Zídek

According to momentary needs, we can identify evil with the West (which allegedly betrayed us), with President Beneš (who did not allow us to fight) or with the bourgeoisie (who made a pact with Hitler), while good is represented simply by ourselves, the Czechoslovak people, led by Communists or once again by democrats, according to need.

There are many other versions and variants of this story, which are by no means exhausted by this list. Jan Tesař devotes close attention to this in his book Mnichovský komplex (The Munich Complex, 2000), subtitled Jeho příčiny a důsledky (Its causes and consequences).[2] Although Tesař's study was written in the spring of 1989, it remains interesting even ten years later, as it now appears in print for the first time.

The author deserves a couple of slaps

Jan Tesař has what the majority of Czech historians have always lacked: the courage to go against the grain, to aim the spotlight at things that others don't want to see at all and to formulate provocative conclusions. His book, or information about it, elicited one noteworthy reaction: the weekly newspaper Respekt published an embittered letter after a short commentary on Mnichovský komplex was made public. According to the author of the letter, Tesař happily fouls his own nest and deserves a couple of slaps for stating that Masaryk was senile. Tesař must be pleased. He could not have hoped for a more apt confirmation of his conclusions.

The Czech discussion goes basically like this: if you set the truth against a beautiful myth, a truth that is moreover universally known and hardly doubtful, such as Masaryk's senility during his last years in office, you get one across the face!

Already by the fall of 1938, various poets had begun to formulate the myth of the Munich betrayal and they were followed, after the war, by several Communist publishers and historians of the regime, by Pavel Tigrid, Jan Patočka and others. According to Tesař, this myth had one purpose: to divert attention from the failure of Czech society before and after Munich.

Let us begin with the pre-Munich failure. Tesař does not mince words—he calls the former system a "special democracy" or a flat-out "idiocracy." He claims that this "idiocracy" grossly neglected the defense of the state; began to fortify it too late and, still worse, without a clear plan; sold arms and ammunition to foreign countries rather than to its own army; completely ignored the necessity of an infrastructure (strategic roads and railways in the West-East direction, airports); did not manage to confront Henlein's propaganda abroad, etc.

These well-known facts lead Tesař to doubt whether the possibility of an outbreak of war was ever considered. Tesař asks, "Where were the people supposedly eager to fight?" and shows that in the most optimistic case 40 percent of voters supported "pro-war parties."

Arms for the Germans

The pre-Munich doubts of Czech (Czechoslovak) society can be explained by lack of forethought, blindness and the contemptible interests of the elite. The post-Munich doubts represent a string of fatal failures: anti-Semitism, the most primitive nationalism, efforts toward totalitarianism and a shameful attitude toward German anti-Fascists. For Tesař, the most terrible failure is, of course, the handing over of military material to the Germans. Weapons that should and could have been destroyed helped the Germans achieve sweeping victories over the Czechoslovak allies in the ensuing years.

On the Czechoslovak side, the main role in the events of 1938 was played by President Beneš, the author of the first version of the Munich myth, as well as the victim of its subsequent variant. While the Communist "historians" emphasized Beneš's "class connection with Western politics" (Robert Kvaček, Aleš Chalupa, 1988), which did not allow him to accept alleged Soviet aid, the ideologues of the "democratic" Munich myth claim that Beneš "broke the moral spine of society" with his actions (Jan Patočka). So how does the author of Mnichovský komplex view President Beneš?

The interpretation of Beneš's actions is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Up until now, historiography has described Beneš as a passive functionary surrounded by tumultuous events. To this day, not only the authors of the Munich myth, but even serious historians claim that Beneš "committed one mistake after another during the entire September crisis" (Zbyněk Zeman). Contrary to this, Tesař shows Beneš as an excellent strategist, who purposefully lost one battle (Munich) in order to achieve the position necessary to win the war.

Beneš, according to Tesař, clearly understood the catastrophic international and internal political situation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. He based his entire strategy upon an unwavering conviction that there would be a world war in which Germany and its allies would suffer a crushing defeat.

But September 1938 was not the right time for war: public opinion in allied countries rejected the idea of war, since the Czechoslovak reasons were not sufficiently understood as justified. If, in this situation, Czechoslovakia had brought about war through its unwillingness to concede to Germany, it would undoubtedly have been destroyed militarily and likely fallen victim to some sort of "Westphalian peace." Therefore, Beneš tried to buy time by conceding to Germany, which is how Tesař deciphers this fifth "plan for any eventuality."

Beneš's myth

According to Tesař, the "betrayal" in Munich was for Beneš something different than what is presented in the myth that was subsequently created: The West, instead of "forcing" Beneš to compromise with Hitler before the eyes of the world and the domestic public, betrayed him by forcing him into virtual capitulation...

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Even this virtual capitulation, however, later showed itself to be a brilliant victory, which, to a significant extent, the instrumentation of Munich helped Beneš and his exile government to achieve. This "first" Munich myth (we wanted to fight, but we couldn't) skillfully blurs the fact that the majority did not want to fight and cements this majority to the minority that truly wanted to fight. Moreover, it could later be used as an excellent trump card in the propaganda war (we sacrificed ourselves for peace), further reinforced by Hitler's mistake in March 1939, when he became the first to break the Munich Agreement.

The only problem lay in the fact that the little resistant and ill-informed Czech society had its own understanding of the myth created by Beneš to strengthen the interests of the state, and that which should have become a symbol of unforeseen political success became a synonym for betrayal and debacle. The responsibility for this development obviously falls, above all, on Beneš's previous autocratic government, which in "directing the press" suppressed all information about the real international position of Czechoslovakia and intentionally exaggerated the French possibilities.

Understandably, much of Tesař's book is not as revealing today as it was when it was written. But its most valuable interpretation—reflections on the events of 1938 with a rational concept that reveals the causes and consequences of the commonly related mythical conception of Munich—does not lose its meaning even today. We have not yet freed ourselves from the clutches of the Munich myth.

Petr Zídek, 13 November 2000

Reprinted with permission from Lidové Noviny
Translated by Caroline Kovtun

Moving on:


1. This review originally appeared in Lidové Noviny as "Zrady zvon ohlašuje vítězství: Kniha historika Jana Tesaře "Mnichovský komplex" přináší vynikající analýzu zániku 1. republiky," 30 September 2000 ("Orientace" p 20).

2. Jan Tesař, Mnichovský komplex, Jeho příčiny a důsledky. Praha: Prostor, 2000.


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