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Journalist Peroutka did, top intellectuals often do fail in crises

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.

Ferdinand Peroutka

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, 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.

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snail feedback (20) :

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks, Liam, I couldn't find it!

I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.

I totally agree that it's basically a standard Churchill if one reads it in its entirety and understands the issues. It's my feeling that Zeman's English isn't sufficiently solid to understand the tone. For example, "a Hitler" is always somewhat demeaning, isn't it? A respectful attitude to Hitler would only admit the existence of one and true Hitler, "the Hitler" ;-). Such details may have been partly hidden from readers who only know "basic English".

reader BobSykes said...

Until Operation Babarossa started, fascism, especially the Italian kind, was popular throughout Europe and among European intellectuals, eg G. B. Shaw. (Infamous YouTube clip). However, while it can also be described as a mass movement, I don't think it was a majority mass movement anywhere (35% in Weimar Germany).

Barbarossa forced leftists to choose, and there were more Communists in the West than fascists, so fascism was thereafter demonized.

The colonization of western and northern Europe by great masses of Africans and Muslims will undoubtedly reactivate fascist sentiments among native Europeans, and much fun will be had in the future.

Maby Russia can play the role of Charles Martel or El Cid and free the European masses from the invaders. The price for you, Lubos, will be conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church.

reader Luboš Motl said...

That's an amusing and likely idea that antifascism wouldn't exist without the leftists' dilemma - since the German-Soviet war.

I think that you overestimate the total control that the church has over Russia.

reader Uncle Al said...

Hitler single-handedly ended the global crashed economies and associated intractable unemployment crises of the mid-1930s. His program of political hegemony created the first EU by 1943. Hitler is directly responsible for the awesome rise of electronic technology, information theory, modern road transportation, modular assembly of ships, nuclear technologies, rocketry, drones...the death of Napoleonic infantry engagements, the creation of modern theories of warfare (ignored in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan).

OK, so there was some Hitlerian collateral damage. As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after being personally responsible for the sacking of the US Libyan Embassy in Benghazi and the brutal murder of US Ambassador Stevens, "What difference does it make?"

reader BMWA1 said...

Czechs get a special dispensation as the nation of origin of Old Church Slavonic. Its called the Greater Moravian Dispensation.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Hi BMW, is that true, or some joke? This list of dispensations doesn't contain the Greater Moravian one:

reader BMWA1 said...

I am afraid it is a joke, but there is a precedent for the CZ origin of the liturgy itself through Methodius and Cyril of Byzantium with reference to 'Velka Morava'. There is evidence from initial Poulik excavations, good evidence, that the Early medieval church complex and town at Mikulcice on South Moravia represents the site of their activities with the Early Slavs who at that time are not so strictly differentiated, thus Prague Culture is also found in Dniestr valley in what is now western Ukraine, (although since Mikucice is on SK border, maybe Slovaks can get it too).

reader Gene Day said...

Politicians are always frustrated by the limits on their ability to achieve their aims, which is inherent, thank God, in a democracy. They are bound to experience a degree of jealousy and even admiration for a “Hitler” who does not suffer such frustrations. However, any politician of good will (and Churchill surely was a man of good will) can see clearly the potential for unbridled evil inherent in unlimited power vested in a man who had written “Mein Kampf”, a book that Churchill knew very well.

There have been scores of”Hitlers” over the past century but very few have attained great power and there will surely be fewer in the future. Whoever is running ISIS, for instance, is surrounded by stronger enemies and these will limit his realm to a very limited area. It is a catastrophe for those who live in that realm but the cancer will not spread even if other Islamofascist groups feign allegiance to the ISIS evil.

reader Gene Day said...

“-some collateral damage-”, Uncle Al? Come now.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Good thoughts, Gene. You write about "jealousy and even admiration" in the same sentence but at the end, they're rather different feelings, aren't they?

The question where jealousy starts - and where it ends - is pretty interesting. I think that millions of Czechs are jealous when it comes to the few thousands of people who earned a few million dollars or so. But when they think about Babiš - our oligarch finance minister - who owns a few billion dollars or so, the jealousy must sort of evaporate. His wealth must be too big.

Well, I sometimes have negative feelings about some other people's wealth - although it isn't jealousy - but this bad feeling in no way ends when I think about Babiš. It gets bigger! :-)

The limitations of power are essential in democracy, and people respecting democracy and freedom appreciate these limitations. But there are indeed emotions that make people worship someone who can transcend these limitations - whether he's a really good man or not.

The limits of power - and the related unavoidable imperfections of the democratic government - were nicely described in a talk by Klaus in Moscow - well, he quoted Gaidar, an ex-PM of Russia.

10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hostile journalists were asking him about the imperfections in Russia etc. And he answered: "I have only been the prime minister, not the Russian czar!" - I agree with Klaus that this is both witty, winning rhetorical move - and wise. Much of the imperfections in similar evolution is really just the other side of the coin of democracy - they are inseparable to some extent.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear BMW, your knowledge here seems to be deep - do you have anything to do with these Slavic issues?

They must have spoken a similar old Slavonic language as the Yugoslavs and Ukrainians at that time. It's funny to see how the old Slavonic is differently transliterated in the different new Slavic nations.

It's not as long a time ago as the old Jews or Jesus Christ but it's a damn old history. So some religious events in Great Moravia are "something in between" the ordinary "recent events" and the "mythological events from the Biblical era".

I wonder whether those people were genetically close to Czechs. Czech is a Slavic language but our DNA isn't terribly Slavic. There are lots of the Germanic, Celtic, and other markers in it. Culture and biology aren't quite moving together.

Now I read that according to a - allegedly disproved - Hungarian legend, Great Moravia was bought by the Hungarians from Svatoplus I of Great Moravia for a white stallion. That seems an even better price than what the U.S. paid for Alaska. ;-)

reader lukelea said...

The Churchill quote in full [see below] says, in effect, (if I may paraphrase) that if ever Britain were reduced to the truly miserable state Germany had been reduced to in the aftermath of the first World War he hoped she (Britain) would find "a Hitler" [meaning a strong leader] to lead her back to her true status as a leading European nation.

True, Churchill made this statement after the Munich agreement but before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia . We should keep in mind that the Munich agreement was a limited one, permitting, according to Wikipedia, "Nazi Germany's annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country's borders mainly inhabited by German speakers."

As for Churchill's attitude towards the actual Hitler in Germany at the time, he had spent the better part of the decade warning the world of his evil intent.

Here is the quote: "I am surprised that the head of a great State should set himself to attack British members of Parliament who hold no official position and who are not even the leaders of parties. Such action on his part can only enhance any influence they may have, because their fellow-countrymen have long been able to form their own opinion about them and really do not need foreign guidance."

reader tybur said...

"Hitler was a gentleman" - let me ask you a question: what is so outrageous in this statement? A gentleman is a person who is an exemplar of courtesy and good manners in personal relations. I don't see any logical reason from which it would follow that if one's a dictator and a war criminal he necessarily cannot be a gentleman. Moreover, I find it ironic that such a sentence would stir up such hysterical reactions. It seems like Zeman brought up this example to show how superficial appearances and impressions drive not only masses, but intellectuals as well in their evaluation of politicians and how dangerous it may be for nations to fall prey to such deception. And look at the reaction: just mentioning of the word "Hitler" and "gentleman" in a single sentence is considered egregious. Do people really think that Hitler was a monstrous, otherworldly being that ate babies for breakfast? Well, he wasn't. He was an intelligent, eloquent man, extremely clever and deceptive, which are typical traits of psychopaths (though that title would certainly belong to Stalin; Hitler was most probably not a psycho, but a paranoid). To deny that is to become susceptible to deception.

reader Uncle Al said...

Absolutely collateral damage: the failure of the Allies to secure Berlin, and the whole of Eastern Europe, against USSR incursion. Patton was correct. We should have taken down the USSR when we had the chance.

reader HelianUnbound said...

Hitler didn't make it as far as he did by being ignorant about human nature. His take on intellectuals seems to agree pretty well with Lubos'. He discussed them in one of his speeches, noting that, "Sie sind nicht standhaft in Zeiten der Not." (They're not steadfast in times of crisis.) Peroutka seems to be a case in point.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Hi, unlike those many people including Zeman, I wouldn't find this particular sentence "egregious", and those other texts by Peroutka which he actually did write seem worse to me than the sentence "Hitler is a Gentleman" that Peroutka didn't write.

Well, I still largely disagree with you that Hitler - or, more generally, a similar dictator - could have been a Gentleman. Just check the definition:

It comes from some English and French classes, middle aristocracy, young sons of some aristocrats who have pretty much by definition 1) much less than absolute power, 2) good education, 3) good family origin and distinction, 4) some income derived from property. And then you have the connotations with the gentle behavior towards others.

I am confident it is right to say that Hitler didn't obey a single feature above. He was an uneducated guy from a largely broken family background without any good education, without the calm attitude, and so on.

More generally, I think that all dictators born in similar contexts must fail to be Gentlemen for a simple reason: the word "Gentlemen" is really synonymous with the kind of men who are inclined to continue with the kind of constitutional monarchy we know from the U.K. If someone does something totally different, it's very clear that he has different attitudes and motives, so he can't be a Gentleman.

Also, I disagree with your comments that Hitler was an unusually intelligent or eloquent or clever man. He was a genius of mediocrity, the ultimate uninteresting prototype of the average man, and that's what made him so attractive for other average men and especially women.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, right, except that Hitler apparently found this unreliability of intellectuals helpful, while Zeman (or me) don't.

reader BMWA1 said...

Well, I know the people at Mikulcice, and some in Brno who still do these sites, also I met Poulik a bit before he died on a road trip from Brno to Nitra, just before that city became another country, so I have some information on the subject, but the genetic links to Slavs are probably blended with earlier groupings, these would include quite a range from Celts (Iron Age) to Lombards (Migration period), as well as any number of deeper prehistoric (Bronze Age or earlier) gene pool influences without a name. '

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks for reminding me of that - now I remember our previous discussion about this history.

reader Richard Warren said...

It is apparent that human behavior is governed by "primitive" impulses that one might infer are closer to the hierarchical troop behavior of other primates than rationally determined. Why would anyone say anything nice about Hitler? Why would Boehner say the Clintons are nice people? High status evokes submission, deference, admiration, love, and obedience.

Why did Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Roosevelt evoke those emotions more strongly than say Coolidge and Eisenhower? Precisely because they fulfilled the role more fully by doing so without admitting to any restraint. Intellectuals go haywire when exposed to such autocratic leaders sort of like a sports car that has exceeded its lateral g force goes in the ditch.