For three months, Czech newspapers have been regularly writing texts about a not too important detail while the deeper "story" underlying the detail has been almost entirely ignored.
In late January, president Zeman gave a speech (CZ) commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He said that people may agree that the Holocaust was terrible but most of the people love to oversimplify and flatten the actual reasons that have led to the Holocaust (and similar bad things). Zeman mentioned three respected people as his examples.
First, one of the three most respected journalists of pre-war Czechoslovakia, Ferdinand Peroutka, wrote an article "Hitler is a gentleman" in his "Present" (or "Presence"? The Czech name is a bit ambiguous) magazine. Peroutka also commented the Munich Treaty by saying that "If we can't sing with the angels, we have to howl with the wolves".
Zeman's favorite politician (and fellow ethanol consumer) Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Hitler in January 1939: "If Britain were hit by a catastrophe, I would wish it to be headed by a man with your [Hitler's] strong will." And, finally, Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun, from whom you may have read Hunger or Victoria, wrote an obituary of Adolf Hitler in May 1945.
Our president asked what leads the top intellectuals to be absolutely fascinated by such atrocious ideas, visions, people, and regimes. And he gives rather insightful answers to this question. Zeman was comparing the threat of Islamofascism to the threats of Nazism in the 1930s – with the implication of a possible Muslim-led "super-Holocaust" that may arrive in the future.
Zeman isn't quite a Klaus but he is still placed about 3 categories above the average journalists who love to write about topics that they're not intellectually equipped to sensibly discuss. So the superficial news in the media were all about the quote by Peroutka, "Hitler is a gentleman". Peroutka hasn't written it, Zeman has to apologize, it's so shocking that Zeman said such a thing, and all this stuff. Peroutka's granddaughter has sued Zeman, too. (I don't think that the dead people are protected by the "libel laws" but I am no lawyer.)
While I think that the "quote" Zeman has used isn't accurate, his message is morally true and important and the journalists' obsession with the single detail only shows that almost all of them are worthless piles of crap. Let me say a few more words about it.
Peroutka was a top "independent journalist" after Czechoslovakia was born (well, since 1924, when the journal was established), before it was destroyed by the Nazis (in 1938-1939). You know, I am proud about this piece of our history. It wasn't perfect – and its ideology wasn't "quite" my cup of tea – but it was a country much more rooted in freedom, democracy, and sanity than almost all countries around it. Most of the time, it was an island of democracy in the European ocean of totalitarianism. It was economically successful – most of the Austrian-Hungarian industry ended up in Czechoslovakia, after all. Due to the (deservedly) strong Czechoslovak crown, Prague used to be the most expensive city in all of Europe, I learned from a map in "The Present".
I have no strong negative emotions about the Austrian Empire – and Austria-Hungary. And I can even get sentimental about these aristocratic, traditional, and multinational things. But I still do think that the foundation of Czechoslovakia represented some positive progress, despite the fact that leftist ideologies were becoming more important at that time, too. (But they were getting more influential at almost every other moment in the recent 150 years, too.)
OK, Peroutka was independent in the sense that he wasn't directly affiliated with the major political parties etc. But was this independence "real"? On one hand, it's true that his separation from the political parties made him impartial on some "usual political issues". On the other hand, he was a favorite journalist of President Masaryk, the most important politician in the country who inherited a large part of the authority from the Czech kings and Austrian emperors. So isn't it sort of ludicrous to paint this guy protected by Czechoslovakia's most powerful political skirt as a brave, independent maverick? These days, lots of "totally dependent" journalists claim to be "independent", and I think that seeds of this slightly absurd image already existed during the First Czechoslovak Republic, and probably since the beginning of the civilization, too.
Peroutka was a great writer. The content was robust and it was colorfully and excitingly articulated. In most situations, he defended the basic values of humanism, democracy, and freedom that I could endorse. But you know, I didn't hesitate much before I subscribed to Zeman's claim that he was an intellectual who has dramatically failed in the time of the crisis, too.
Don't get me wrong. I think that he hasn't written any article with the title "Hitler is a gentleman". If such an article existed, someone would know about it – or find it in the archives – and the public would have already been told about it. In fact, something else is right: After the war, communists wanted to get rid of Peroutka's influence so they tried to cripple his credentials. If he had written an article called "Hitler is a gentleman", the communists would have made this article very famous already in the 1940s and we would still know about it today.
Other people have said that "Hitler was a gentleman", however. An article in "The World" ("Svět") which was much less pro-democracy than "The Present" was written by someone signed as J. Hr. who cited U.S. geologist Walter Bergmann's lecture in Los Angeles. Some businessmen said similar things. I don't want to enumerate all similar claims. Hitler controlled populations of hundreds of millions of people so it's obvious that you find some influential people who have said quite some nice things about Hitler. Not a big deal.
So Zeman's precise "quote of Peroutka's article" is wrong, it's mixed up with some other writers and speakers. Zeman's spokesman Mr Jiří Ovčáček [Yirzee Off-chah-czech] who has been "searching for this article by Peroutka" will never find it and he probably knows it. He is acting dishonestly because it's partly his job; and because the journalists' aggressive insistence on the quote prevents him from being honest and say that "My boss drank too much last night, got bills to pay, his head just feels in pain. He missed the bus and there'll be hell today, he's late for work again. And even if he's there, they'll all imply that he might not last the day." Thanks, Dido and Dajdou.
Zeman's inaccurate memory becomes even more comprehensible if you realize that the president effectively claims that he has "safely remembered" that he had seen such an article by Peroutka since the 1960s – when he read it in a library. That's half a century ago. You may calculate how much ethanol has been decomposed by Zeman's body since that decade. This may explain some perturbations in his memory.
But please. Don't get carried away by a detail. The core of the message of Zeman's speech was very different and much deeper. It was right – intellectuals do often fail and many of the top ones were fascinated by Hitler (and similar sick things that gradually get very sick) – and he was right even when it comes to Mr Peroutka, even though the precise quote wasn't right.
Czech readers may go to pritomnost.cz, the website of Peroutka's journal, and open the archive and the scanned archive since 1924. Every issue of this weekly that was written in 1924-1939, 1946-1948, and 1990-2011 (plus digital form of the archive since 2012) may be found there.
You may go to 1939 and open the April 26th issue. It was written on a negative anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. More sensibly, April 20th was Hitler's birthday (in 1889) so that was why the date was probably chosen.
Chosen for what? In the issue, you find the article titled "A Dynamical Life". What the author, Peroutka himself, meant was the "dynamical life of Adolf Hitler". When I read this article – posted about 6 weeks after the occupation of the Czech lands by the Third Reich – I was shocked. Hitler is pretty much a God who belongs at the top of Germans' Walhalla. He could easily do things that the loser Bismarck was only dreaming about, make all the dreams come true. He was the best representative of his nation and so on. Even if I try to imitate him, I am not able to reproduce the stunning degree of the sycophancy in the article.
The second part of the article is dedicated to the relationship between Germans and other nations – like Czechs – and it's perhaps even more shocking. We learn that nations cannot be allowed to mix. After all, it's one of the greatest insights from the God in Walhalla. So Hitler himself will only be the ultimate guru for the Germans but he won't become one for Czechs.
(Maybe the article was written purely due to fear, and it didn't help: Peroutka had to spend years in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. I think that his pre-war democratic credentials couldn't have been fixed by a few pro-Hitler articles. Some historians/pundits now suggest that this very article, "Dynamical Life", sent Peroutka to the concentration camp because censors could have interpreted it as an irony – but they don't seem to offer any evidence that it was irony. BTW Peroutka always considered himself Czech but he came from a Czech-German family. After the 1948 communist coup, he emigrated to the U.S. and became the director of the Czech section of Radio Free Europe in 1951. He also wrote some novels/dramas later.)
Those inkspillers who try to attack Zeman at every point try to spin this part of the article positively. They suggest that Peroutka meant that the Czech nation found Nazism unacceptable and we didn't share the excitement about Hitler. But if you actually read Peroutka's article in its entirety and with an open mind, you will see that this positive twist wasn't what he meant. He clearly meant that the Czechs were an inferior nation of losers, relatively to Hitler's glorious nation, and that's why we're not good enough to even kiss Hitler's rectum. After all, Peroutka points out, even the great Führer himself didn't give us the permission to translate his Holy Scripture into our language of losers, namely Czech. So we must only dream about such great men and be satisfied with the losers who are the appropriate gurus for small and pathetic nations like ours.
My wording has been slightly exaggerated in order to make it clear what Peroutka actually meant but I think that if you're fair, you will be totally certain that the beef of his message is exactly what I have described – and not the anti-fascist message that someone would like to see there.
Now, the content of similar articles may have been affected by fear, various interests, and powerful pressures of the newly created Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. But I think it's virtually impossible to imagine that the article with this content was not basically written just by Peroutka, and that he authorized the final version.
You may find several other shocking articles by Peroutka in the archive of "The Present", too. Some of them have a clear anti-Semitic flavor, for example. Take his Czechs, Germans, and Jews (February 22nd, 1939, 3 weeks before the full occupation) which says that German anti-Semites are more angry about the Jews than their Czech counterparts because Germany has been literally poisoned by the Jewry. For example, the Jewish German writers turned the German language into a stinky cesspool, Peroutka wrote, while Jews remained poorer in our homeland. Of course, I do think that he had some good points but the moral message seems sick to me, especially his comment that "we don't have any duty to defend the German Jews".
I still do think that this "Dynamical Life" is the most shocking example of Peroutka's moral failure. Of course, his failure wasn't exceptional. It's conceivable that most Czechs would endorse similar opinions in April 1939, at least publicly. It was safer and many people may have been genuinely impressed and overwhelmed by the Germans' nearly global power.
But Zeman is undoubtedly right that Peroutka has failed as a moral pundit and as a leader rooted in democracy and common sense. Similar intellectuals often fail in similar ways and their failures often have far-reaching consequences because the power of their tongue – their ability to articulately convey ideas and capture the readers' hearts – is often used to spread a truly pathological ideology, a truly dangerous vision.
Please, Czech journalistic hyenas. Stop bothering Zeman about the exact quote which isn't really the key thing here. Zeman's speech had a completely different essence and you're at risk of making much more pathological contributions to the public discourse than Peroutka did in April 1939.
P.S.: I mentioned that Peroutka himself probably wasn't the author of the "Hitler is a gentleman" quote. Concerning the other quote that Zeman attributed to Peroutka, one about the angels and wolves, this quote also exists but it was said by one of the generals and ministers who met on March 15th, 1939, on the day of the occupation of the (rest of the) Czech lands by the Nazis. The full quote was:
If we can't sing with the angels, we have to howl with the wolves. If the world is supposed to be controlled by the power, and not by the law, our place will be where there is greater resolve and strength. Let us seek – we don't have another choice – an agreement with Germany.Despite the widespread discussions, I seem to be the only one who has traced the origin of this quote. Now, this quote is articulate, catchy, and deeply disappointing. At the end, we also know that it was wrong because Germany ultimately lost the war, and because its ambitions got out of control at some point, it arguably had to. But without this knowledge we only have today, the quote also has some "logic". This "logic" was embraced by most Czechs, I think: they were always more "opportunist" than "suicidal".
Thankfully, it wasn't the only possible view at that difficult moment. The meeting of the generals and ministers took place without the knowledge of the president, Emil Hácha, who may have been less defeatist (even though this sensible lawyer – who also translated Three Men In a Boat to Czech, among other things – is sadly remembered as the ultimate symbol of the Czech sycophancy in the Nazi era, perhaps due to his short physique and bad heart condition. But he was often a bold politician – for example, he fought some Slovak fascists in early 1939 who tried to separate from Czechoslovakia and declared the martial law over there). Moreover, since 1940, we also had the Czechoslovak government in exile led by Edvard Beneš, the previous president, that would have certainly disagreed with the quote above. They enjoyed the safety of London to be able to disagree. (Beneš also gave a talk against the occupation in the U.S. in March 1939.)
The wolf-angel quote above may be explained by a pragmatic decision not to join conflicts that give you almost no chance to win. However, I do think that Peroutka's verbal support for the ideas of Hitler's and Germans' superiority went well beyond what could be justified by that pragmatism. I do think that there was some genuine excitement – fascination by the Nazis' power – in some of his texts.