Ferdinand Peroutka: Journalist of Czech Democracy
Twenty-five years ago, on Sunday April 20, Czech journalist and creative writer Ferdinand Peroutka, affectionately called "Mr. Czechoslovakia" in America, died in exile in New York. A fierce fighter for democratic values in Czechoslovak society, Peroutka didn't let the Nazis or Communists tell him what to think or what to write, and he did pay dearly for not succumbing to political pressures. I spoke with journalist and political commentator Vaclav Zak, who believes that journalists today have something to learn from Peroutka.
"Ferdinand Peroutka was a liberal writer who really didn't serve any political party or group of people but rather the interests of the state, and he considered democracy and the rule of law to be the basic values that a decent journalist should support in his work."
Can you describe the current state of journalism in the Czech Republic?
"I think it's slowly improving. In 1989 the newspapers were full of people who were writing propaganda for the regime, so it can be hardly said that these people were journalists. After the 'Revolution' many young people got involved in journalism, and these young people were very convinced about how to build capitalism. So, they had a tendency to suppress alternative views, and therefore they were indirectly writing propaganda as well, just a different type of propaganda than was written by the Communists before them. Now it is slowly improving. People have studied in Western universities, and they have visited Western newspaper editorial offices. The state of journalism is improving."
Peroutka was a renowned journalist as well as a writer of other genres, such as novels and plays. What do you consider some of his greatest accomplishments, those which made him a sort of legend in Czech writing?
"I wouldn't say that his novels or plays were very well-known in Czech public opinion, and Peroutka was disappointed about that. He really valued his artistic work more than his journalism. I think that he was most important because of his articles. During the First Republic he was defending democracy, and he was against both right and left-wing authoritarian attempts by Communists and by Czech fascists, so he was the voice of reason in Czech society. I would say that this was his main accomplishment. Of course, after the war he was the director of the Radio Free Europe station, and he wrote regular commentaries. I remember that my father listened to them very carefully every week. Peroutka was important even then."
Can you explain what exactly made his articles so special?
"His articles were special because they were written calmly from a distance, and it was clear that he wasn't serving any particular interests, that he was really presenting his own opinions. He was explicitly against Communists and fascists, and because he was a man who was able to make jokes about other people, both the Communists and the Nazis really hated him. It was really a great accomplishment. Peroutka was one of the first of the Czech intellectuals to be put in a Nazi concentration camp in 1939, and then two years later they brought him back to Prague and made him an offer to become editor-in-chief of his own newspapers. If he served German interests, he would be set free from the concentration camp. Peroutka refused! He went back to the concentration camp! I don't think there was another person in Europe who would have done the same thing."
How did Peroutka influence Czechoslovak history while living in exile?
"Well, it's a different story. Peroutka was, I think, disappointed with the behavior of the Czechs in exile because there everybody quarreled with each other. Peroutka was even disappointed with the behavior of Americans because they wanted him to make propaganda. So, I think that Peroutka died a disappointed man."