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Czechoslovakian president Benes resigns

Edvard Benes resigns as president of Czechoslovakia rather than sign a new constitution that would make his nation into a communist state. His resignation removed the last remnant of democratic government in Czechoslovakia and cleared the way for a communist-controlled regime.

Benes, a popular national figure in Czechoslovakia, had been elected “president for life” in 1946. Almost immediately, however, he faced a challenge from the Communist Party, which pushed for him to adopt a pro-Soviet foreign policy and communist economic practices. Throughout 1946 and 1947, the Communist Party grew in strength, helped by the economic and political turmoil left over from the recently ended war and also by ham-handed U.S. policies that threatened the Benes regime with economic sanctions if it did not purge the communist elements from Czechoslovakia. In February 1948, the communists staged a political coup, and pushed opposition parties from the government. The communists allowed Benes to remain in power, however, perhaps with the belief that his stature and popularity would be of use to them in their consolidation of power. In May 1948, the communist-controlled Parliament produced a new constitution patently designed to serve the interests of the Communist Party. For Benes, this was apparently the last straw. On June 7, 1948, he issued a letter of resignation. In it, he cited poor health as the primary reason for his decision, but the conclusion of the letter strongly suggested his disgust with the proposed constitution. He expressed his “wish that the Republic be spared all disaster and that they can live and work together in tolerance, love and forgiveness. Let them grant freedom to others and enjoy freedom themselves.” Shortly after Benes’ resignation, the communist premier, Klement Gottwald, took over as president.

In the West, Benes’ resignation was accepted as the regrettable but inevitable climax of communist machinations in Czechoslovakia. Both the United States and Great Britain expressed their remorse at the passing of the Benes regime and strongly condemned the tactics of the Communist Party. Beyond military intervention, which was never even considered, there was nothing either nation could do to change the situation. The Communist Party dominated Czechoslovakia until the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 brought about a restoration of democratic government.

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