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Rereading Mr. Czechoslovakia

Nearly four decades after the death of Ferdinand Peroutka, the founding director of Radio Free Europe’s (later RFE/RL’s) Czechoslovak Service and one of the most highly esteemed Czech journalists of the 20th century, his legacy has been exhumed and volleyed around in a controversy playing out in Czech media, much to the dismay of the…

Nearly four decades after the death of Ferdinand Peroutka, the founding director of Radio Free Europe’s (later RFE/RL’s) Czechoslovak Service and one of the most highly esteemed Czech journalists of the 20th century, his legacy has been exhumed and volleyed around in a controversy playing out in Czech media, much to the dismay of the fans who remember him as a voice of hope from behind the Iron Curtain.

It started in January this year when Czech President Milos Zeman, speaking in Prague at a memorial for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, warned against the tendency of some intellectuals to become fascinated by the perverse teachings of Nazism. By way of example, he claimed that Peroutka, who was arrested just days after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and spent the entirety of the war in a concentration camp, had written an essay titled “Hitler is a Gentleman.”

Czech historians and academics were outraged. They insisted that though in hindsight some of Peroutka’s writing is certainly controversial, they have no knowledge of the essay the president cited, and Peroutka was never a fascist. Zeman responded by offering a 100,000 crown (4,100 dollar) reward from his own pocket to whomever can produce the essay first, should his spokesperson Jiri Ovcacek fail to find it by the end of June.

After several months of fruitless searching by Ovcacek, in May the needling denizens of Czech social media couldn’t resist any longer and began taunting him on the Internet with a hoax essay with this title, a spoof Twitter account, and several satirical articles about the affair. Peroutka’s granddaughter has filed a lawsuit against the Czech state over the president’s comments. Zeman has since apologized, but only that he was not able to find the article.

“This is a completely stupid discussion,” said historian Prokop Tomek flatly.

Tomek, a researcher with the Military History Institute in Prague and specialist on the history of RFE/RL who has published several books about the company, says that even in the unlikely event such an essay is found, it wouldn’t justify the accusation that Peroutka was a fascist sympathizer. Describing Peroutka’s extensive body of work advocating a democratic Czechoslovakia, Tomek said, “You can’t take something out of the past, drop it in the present, and try to explain it completely out of context.”

The Writer in Context

Born in Prague in 1895, Peroutka was one of the founders of Pritomnost, the preeminent Czech cultural and political journal of the first democratic Czechoslovak Republic. It was financially backed by President T.G. Masaryk, who was accustomed to intellectual sparring with Peroutka, but also saw his work as a model for journalism in Czechoslovakia. In addition to publishing Peroutka’s commentaries on democracy, Pritomnost was also a platform for the work of other renowned writers of the First Republic such as Karl Capek and Milena Jesenska.After publishing an essay in 1939 titled Dynamic Life, which urged Czechs to eschew the growing rhetoric of fascism, Peroutka was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp and then to Buchenwald. He refused an offer to gain his freedom in exchange for agreeing to publish a Nazi collaborationist journal.

After the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, Peroutka again came under pressure and had to flee the country on foot across the border to Bavaria.

He was recognized in the West as a highly respected public figure in his home country, and after struggling briefly to find work in the UK, he went to the United States and accepted a job with Radio Free Europe (RFE), which was established in 1950. As the founding director of the Czechoslovak Service, he was tasked with developing a programing concept and hiring the service’s first employees. He also continued to write and air his commentaries, though Tomek says he was not naturally suited to radio broadcasting.

“Nevertheless, he was respected not only for his skills, but also as a persecuted person,” said Tomek. “And he touched listeners in Czechoslovakia.”

One of those listeners was future Czechoslovak Service broadcaster Olga Kopecka. She left Czechoslovakia with her mother in the 1960s, but says the broadcasts of Peroutka and his colleagues had sustained her during the isolation of her youth.

“We were cut off from the world. I wasn’t allowed to go to university because of my family’s political views and because my mother had committed the crime of wanting to marry a foreigner, so that was held against me,” said Kopecka. “But I was able to get an education through RFE, and Peroutka’s commentaries were particularly important because he not only explained the events of the day, but he also gave us a picture of the past, of what life was like in a democracy during the First Republic.”

During his tenure as Czechoslovak Service Director from 1951-1961 and after as a freelance contributor, Peroutka dedicated many of his commentaries to explaining the ideas of T.G. Masaryk, Edvard Benes, and other democratic leaders of the First Republic. He also defended victims of political persecution like Milada Horakova, who was executed by the communist regime in 1950. He was optimistic about the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement that was ultimately crushed by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops.

Denunciation at home and tangled politics abroad

Were he alive today, Peroutka himself might well be unfazed by the current polemics surrounding his name since, like other prominent exiles, he was constantly subject to false claims during his lifetime.

In a 1953 commentary broadcast by RFE titled Who is Ferdinand Peroutka?, he implored Czechoslovak youth to ask older people about life during the First Republic in order to refute official accusations that he was a traitor.

Referring to the suppression of documentation about the First Republic under Communism, he told listeners, “If Rude Pravo [Czechoslovak communist newspaper] claims today that at one time I wrote this or that sentence, how do you know it’s true? …All of the books about our history have been taken from you, so how then can you know if this or that really happened?”

On the other hand, some American colleagues at RFE at the time derided him as being too leftist.

“Peroutka was a Social Democrat. That was enough for his American critics,” wrote former RFE Director J.F. Brown in his 2013 book Radio Free Europe: An Insider’s View. “But most RFE Czechs held him in great respect.”

To his American supporters he was known as “Mr. Czechoslovakia.”

But though he remained a revered intellect for Czechoslovak dissidents, the consequences of Peroutka’s many years of separation from his home country became apparent in the later part of his career. The suppression of the Prague Spring brought a new wave of Czechoslovak exiles to Munich to work with RFE and, with it, a significant ideological and generational divide between the 1948 and 1968 émigrés.

“The older generation seemed completely out of touch,” said Tomek. “The new wave of people were skilled in journalism and broadcasting and they had fresh experience from the country, so it was great to have them, but the older generation who left in 1948 didn’t understand them. They were younger and more leftist.”

Peroutka managed to remain mostly above the fray of exile politics after 1968 and, according to Brown, was respected as the “elder statesman” of the radio. He continued to write commentaries for the radio almost until the end of his life in 1978.

Reflecting as a historian on the current discussions of Peroutka’s work, Tomek hopes greater balance and accuracy will prevail.

“Maybe he wasn’t an angel who never made mistakes, but he was a responsible man,” said Tomek. “He was an excellent writer and journalist, a legend.”