Czechoslovakia's tribute to the memory of Woodrow Wilson/Address by Dr. Eduard Beneš, Czechoslovak Foreign Minister

Address by
Dr. EDUARD BENEŠ,
Czechoslovak Foreign Minister.

aldus leaf

A great man has died, a man whose name, when it began to penetrate into the various parts of the world, was pronounced by millions of people with great hope and by millions of others with fear and horror. A man has died who, during the difficult days of the world struggle and the slaughter of the battlefields, became the bearer of the ideals of humanity, the symbol of the moral conscience of mankind, and the incorporation of the ideals and longings regarding eternal peace. A man has died who helped our nation in the difficult days of its history to endure physical sufferings and surmount moral hesitation; in this way he contributed very considerably to its final deliverance.

The Czechoslovak nation bows itself today before the grave of President Wilson.

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Wilson’s life-career was a simple one. Born in a presbyterian and poor Scottish family which had settled in Ireland and had then emigrated to America, he studied at Princeton University, was called to the Bar and then became professor of American history and law at the same university. In 1892 he was elected President of Princeton University which office he retained until 1910. Entering practical politics the same year he was chosen Governor of New Jersey by the Democratic party and two years later (1912) he became President of the Republic. In 1916, in the middle of the War, he was re-elected President and on April 4, 1917 he declared war on Germany, thus taking part in all the great world-events of the War. In January 1919 he arrived in Europe in order to attend the Peace Conference; on his return to America in the same year he started a great political struggle for the acceptance the Treaty of Versailles, but in the course of the struggle he suffered politically and physically; his health broke up and by the end of his period of office he had not recovered. In the Presidential elections of 1920 he was succeeded by the Republican candidate Harding. On February 3, 1924 he died at Washington in consequence of his illness.

Wilson began to interest himself in political problems as a theoretician in his twenties. Practical daily observation led him to reflect on the problem of the American State. After studying the question for a full decade he spent three years preparing his scientific work which formed the basis of his scientific reputation and which he published under the title: “The State. Elements of Historical and Practical Politics”. In this book we already see the later Wilson: his special attempt to reconcile in himself the idealist and the practical man, an attempt in which, I think, he succeeded rather well. He laid stress on the idea that the characteristic feature of the State consists in its being the directing organ of society, an organ which must govern society with decision and certainty: the basic sign of a Government is authority. He strongly emphasizes the principle of authority and yet on the other hand he stresses the democratic nature of modern society: the Government must possess authority, but that authority must have its roots in the true will of the people. Despotisms of all kinds are disappearing and will disappear more and more from society. The power of the majority and the principle of the majority in general is the characteristic sign of modern society; the art of the statesman today consists in calling forth, supporting, and at the same time guiding this new force.

These are two great, and yet simple, principles of Wilson’s political philosophy and we meet with them all through his practical political work.

As a University professor engaged in politics he necessarily had to deal with problems of pedagogy. Entering the struggle of views concerning the right principles for the education of the young he formulated his philosophy in a modern, clear and simple fashion as follows: the essential in the education of the individual must be that which brings about social utility and not that which helps forward merely the personal advantage of the individual. Wilson was entirely opposed to the XIX century Anglo-Saxon individualistic theories of social education. Thus he was absolutely in opposition to what is usually called in Europe “Americanism”; he set himself against superficiality and scamped or hurried work, and wished everyone to receive a thorough education in history and social science.

As a professor and a University President he arranged a public debate and discussion on this subject, thus coming before the wider public as the exponent of these ideas which were so important in his subsequent political career.

Wilson wrote a fine book on President Washington and showed therein his own direction of thought. He examined and appreciated what England gave to America, but he desired to be above all an American; he turned his eyes more to the Far West than to the eastern States which seemed to him to be too close to Europe. Wilson appreciated Washington’s sympathy for the common people which was combined with an unshakable resistance to demagogy. Wilson was deeply impressed by the fact that Washington had the moral courage to face unpopularity and that when he saw his work was finished he retired from political life like another Cincinnatus.

Wilson paid a great deal of attention to the life and work of President Lincoln, and wrote a fine essay on him; he regarded him as the model American and the fine flower of the American people. Lincoln’s conceptions of American democracy attracted him throughout the whole of his political career Wilson put into operation the democratic ideas of this great predecessor. The above gives in concise form the ideological basis of Wilson’s personality.

Were these ideas and studies of Wilson of a chance nature or do they show his conscious direction of thought? Did he thus seek out his models and soul affinities with the intention of preparing himself for a great work? It is difficult to say, but history already shows us that these three men had much in common, and this owing to three events of world importance: George Washington waged war for the freeing of America from old World, from England; Abraham Lincoln waged war for the unity United States and their future greatness when he accepted the struggle of the North against the South; Thomas Woodrow Wilson brought America back to Europe and waged war for the leading role of the United States in world politics and for world peace. Those are the three chief stages of the history of the United States of North America. That is what history will say.

Wilson provides us with a full picture of his personality in his writings: he had great intellectual power and a highly-gifted logical and deductive mind. According to the majority of critics he lacked the intuitive power which characterizes men of the highest genius, but on the other hand by his intellectual capacity he ranks amongst the greatest Americans who have ever lived. He was deeply humanitarian and possessed real religious feeling: humanity was a reality which he consistently lived out in his own life.

Owing to the stress which he consistently laid on the power of reason, he called forth opposition in many quarters: he was lacking in sentimental qualities. His belief in the predominating value of reason together with his ideas regarding the principle of the State and governmental authority and regarding the task of the President who in accordance with the American Constitution holds enormous powers in his hands—all this caused him to be reproached with having political faults: his deciding to go in person to the Peace Conference in order to defend his ideas there and his method of fighting for the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, matters which brought about his truly tragical political fall.

As a thinker he was simple, direct and consistent, and having once recognised anything as true he would obstinately stick to his belief, looking neither to the right nor to the left; that is how he showed himself in his struggle at the University, that is how he showed himself in practical politics as Governor of New Jersey and finally in his Presidential election campaign and in his first two pre-War years as President. As Governor and as President up to 1914 be proved to be a firm, resolute and consistent statesman, an idealist waging war for his new ideas and yet possessing a great sense of the practical needs of daily politics. He was a strong Governor and a strong President.

That is roughly how he would have passed into history if there had been no war.

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With the War the figure of President Wilson acquired the shape which the world knows today.

When the War broke out, he announced to all the belligerents that America would remain neutral. When King Albert asked him to protest against the violation of Belgian neutrality, when Poincaré requested him to condemn the German barbaric methods of waging war and when Wilhelm of Hohenzollern complained to him that the French used illegal acts of war, Wilson refused to accede to their requests on the ground that by so doing he would be intervening in the War and that after the conclusion of the War he would ascertain who were the guilty parties by undertaking a strict documentary investigation. When in America movements started for and against the War he remained true to his neutral policy right up to the Presidential elections of 1916; he obviously did not desire war and everything which he did up to that time was a testimony to this. But it seems that he soon calculated on the possibility at least of America’s entering the War.

When in February 1917 Germany declared her submarine war, America was for the first time really ruffled: the freedom of the sea was challenged, American lives and property were systematically destroyed. President Wilson began to write his Notes which became the terrible moral weapon of the whole world against the Central Powers. It was evident that he tried to be neutral and did not desire to enter the War. Apparently he had no prejudices against either side, he made no judgments as to who was guilty and responsible for the War. In case he were obliged to take up a definite standpoint and decide sfor one of the two sides, he desired the whole world to understand clearly, as regards the moral aspect of the matter, why and how he formed his decision. His desire was to wage a justifiable war.

Thus events themselves gradually drove Wilson into the War. The sinking of the Lusitania, the destruction of the Sussex and numerous other ships called forth at first diplomatic Notes, in which the tone of warning proved that the situation was daily becoming more dangerous. America finally reached the tone which was equivalent to an ultimatum. But Germany in her blindness went further by commencing acts of terrorism on American soil itself. Germans destroyed ships, ammunition stores, bridges, locomotives and stirred up fighting on the Mexican frontier in order to cause trouble to the United States. And thus at last Wilson declared War. From a defender of neutrality he became a war fanatic, released all the moral and material forces of the United States which achieved miracles in production, transport, and organization. Finally the Allies won through with them and decided the fate of the whole War.

Wilson’s action was a model of its kind and was characteristic from the material, moral and tactical points of view, he sent diplomatic Notes, submitted his messages to Congress and only gradually did he create in them his doctrine of war. It is obvious that right up to the time when America was driven step by step into the War he formed his conception concerning the basis of the War, the Central Powers, their doctrines and opinions, the absolutism and aristocratism of these States and nations, their methods of fighting, and, in general, the ideological foundation of the entire world-conflict. It is a witness to the great moral strength of this great man that he managed to develop himself, instruct others, change his views, gain new knowledge of Europe, its oppressed peoples and their aims and advance from merely American to world interests. Wilson gradually grasped the fact that the War was a fight on behalf of the new world-democracy, a fight against European monarchical and aristocratic survivals. And thus he became the herald of the new Europe, the new world, the new life. An American Democrat, Lincoln’s successor and the spokesman of the American ideals of humanity, he became in this way the protector of European democracy and likewise the conscience of the world in the most fateful and tragical moment of the history of the modern age.

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The United States and Wilson necessarily became in the World War a great moral force owing to various reasons:

America entered the War at a time when the Russian revolution was weakening the Allies, when the Central Powers were apparently victorious, when the physical exhaustion of the Allies was more than dangerous, and when Bolshevism was beginning to weaken the moral force of both sides.

For two years previously America had on several occasions intervened as an arbitrator in the dispute of the two sides. Several times both sides expressly invited America’s opinion and intervention. That procured for her an exceptional position and gave Wilson a moral prestige which was absolutely unequalled.

The world knew that Wilson did not wish to enter the War. At the moment when he was obliged to act against Germany, the whole world comprehended the moral significance of that action and to every one of his words great weight was ascribed.

In his messages Wilson expressed more clearly than anyone else the fundamental ideas of the whole War. Thus he became the consolation and hope of all the oppressed.

In the course of time Wilson incorporated the peace aims of the Allies in a concrete programme: he drew up his 14 Points for the terms of peace which, being the expression of the ideals of modern freedom and democracy, became the gospel of all those who expected to obtain their national independence from the War.

Wilson at last understood the psychology of tortured humanity: he taw that mankind wanted a lasting peace. And so in his Notes he soon spoke of securing a definitive peace and in the spirit of his ideals of American democracy he formulated the ideas of the League of Nations.

Finally: Wilson’s place in the War is also determined by the fact that he represented a State which with its material strength has stood and stands in the foremost place in the world so that at last it decided the War owing to the physical exhaustion of the other States. When history comes to judge Wilson’s work, it will ask whether and why Wilson was really a great man. The present time values the great President very highly. And I think that history will rightly rank him amongst the great personalities of history.

It seems to be true that Wilson concentrates within himself all the signs of a great man:

high mental qualities which were shown in his studies, theoretical works and practical political activity; in his personal character and in his power of intuition and imagination enabling him to see into the future;

his systematical and laborious lifework by which he had to work his way up in order to be recognized by his fellow-citizens;

a highly-developed social conscience which represses personal egoism and gives a man a correct view of the object of life: to forget himself and devote his whole life to the service of the people and of society;

a highly-developed moral sense which turns a man into a great moral authority, a moral personality without which there never has been and never will be true greatness amongst men. By his work, life and opinions Wilson was this moral personality.

But if one is to become a great man in the history of humanity, all these personal qualities, whilst essential, are insufficient in themselves. History must give him the possibility of applying these qualities. Wilson had this good fortune in that the events of the War enabled him to put his personality into them.

He is and will be a great man also because in the most fateful moment of present-day Europe he was the worthy representative of the great democracy of the world, a democracy which decided the World War. His name will remain for ever linked with this fact.

He has an added greatness because being the representative of this democracy, he was able to formulate more clearly than anyone else the ideas which were the expression of the philosophy of this War and meant the programme for the reorganization of Europe for long centuries to come. His name is not only linked with the great war effort of the American people but also with something which is much more difficult than waging war: the creation of peace. In spite of the fact that Wilson had no detailed knowledge of European affairs he was unquestionably the greatest personality at the Peace Conference: he was one of the few who possessed a practical programme and strove for the realization of the wider ideas of mankind and not merely for the satisfaction of the demands of their own particular States. He had his own philosophy of peace, attempted to incorporate it in the Peace Treaty and was at least partly successful in this, in spite of the opposition of most of the other members.

He will be a great man because his name will always be linked with the conception of the League of Nations and the ideal of eternal peace, the hopes and the longing of all nations and of all ages.

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For us, for Czechoslovakia, President Wilson is inseparably joined to the struggle for our freedom. In spite of the fact that it has an American colouring, the whole of his philosophy, his democratic ideals and his moral principles are and will remain near to us, for this philosophy was the ideological basis for our fight for freedom and it must be our foundation on which alone the whole of our State can stand in the future.

During the difficult days of our struggle abroad President Wilson became our helper, our supporter and finally also our good friend. Gradually he was won over by President Masaryk to support us in our national aims; he understood what was the meaning of our fight against Prussianism and why Austro-Hungary had to disappear as a State. His Notes, his manifests, his recognition of the Czechoslovak National Council, all this unquestionably formed the decisive factor in the history of the fight for our deliverance.

In the most painful days of the War when our people was most bent under the pressure of the central Powers, at a time when all parties at home used to prove to it that there were no hopes of the fulfilment of its bold dreams, when it suffered terribly from hunger and physical and moral exhaustion, it pronounced the name of Wilson, its greatest hope and consolation, and thus obtained the last stimulus to persevere in the fight.

At the Peace Conference President Wilson remained our helper and friend. On several occasions I had the opportunity to speak to him and negotiate on our own and other affairs. He was always equally genial and human, always equally approachable and ready to assist, always equally prepared, not only to have his own say, but also to hear and accept our case. I mention the following examples:

His first intervention in our affairs was in connection with the Těšín frontier district. I desired that we should conclude the War begun with the Poles in this district. He summoned me to him, requested that we should bring our campaign to an end, promised to use his influence in moderating the disputes and obtaining help and desired that I should sign the protocol agreed upon in regard to the matter. He explained concisely his views and emphasized the absurdity of the fact that two liberated nations should squabble with each other. In accordance with his express desire which he repeated once more I agreed to sign the protocol.

From time to time he called me to him when he wished to know any special questions of Central Europe.

When the text of the well-known minority treaties had been prepared he summoned me to him and opened a conversation on the nationality relations in Central Europe generally. The discussion was a long one; he wished to be informed as to the general questions and as to what these treaties were to include. He was particularly interested in the psychology of the national minorities and asked to what extent it would be possible in future minority problem by realising democracy.

On another occasion he summoned me to negotiate on disarmament. I wished, in opposition to the rest, to propose a plan for the gradual disarmament of the European nations. Before the matter was officially discussed Wilson wished to be informed as to the state of affairs in Central Europe and to what extent the idea could be realized here. These points show what interested him most of all.

The negotiations with Wilson belong to my best memories of the Peace Conference. He was always well-disposed towards us and was pleased that he had been able to help Czechoslovakia.

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Our people understood and appreciated President Wilson and his native land. He was for long their strengthening consolation and hope, their helper and friend, and today he will be their model of a citizen and a democrat.

A great American and a great man is dead, a man to whose work we owe a great dea in our fight for freedom. He will long live in the memory of us all!

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.