Hitler no ‘gentleman’, but court rules Czech state need not apologize for president’s claim Ferdinand Peroutka said so

Miloš Zeman

In a speech at a Holocaust conference in 2015, President Miloš Zeman falsely claimed one of the nation’s most respected journalists had penned a pre-war article titled “Hitler is a gentleman”. Ferdinand Peroutka, he claimed, was an admirer of the Nazi dictator. On Monday, a Prague court ruled against his granddaughter, who had sued for an apology.

Ferdinand Peroutka,  photo: Czech Television
In a ruling on Monday, which is not final, Prague 1 District Court judge Iveta Nedozrálová said that the claimant had failed to prove what specific legal norm relating to the performance of his public office President Zeman may have violated, “and therefore one of the conditions for determining the state’s liability was not fulfilled.”

It is not possible (legally) to slander the dead. But Terezie Kaslová wants to hold the president accountable for his false claims about her grandfather, Ferdinand Peroutka. He spent the entirety of the war interned in the Buchenwald concentration camp for refusing to abandon his democratic ideals.

Kaslová told Radio Prague that she would continue the protracted legal battle to hold President Zeman accountable for his words.

“Today’s court ruling saddens me greatly. To find that 30 years after the so-called Velvet Revolution, the president of our country can spew nonsense and lie without consequences; that thanks to a legal loophole, he doesn’t have to apologise.”

The Nazis had offered to release her grandfather from Buchenwald if he would agree to head a magazine he founded that the regime had turned into a collaborationist outlet. He refused and spent five years in the concentration camp.

Terezie Kaslová,  photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml
After liberation came, he denounced vigilantism against ethnic Germans and alleged collaborators. Following the 1948 Communist coup, Peroutka fled the country and went on to lead Radio Free Europe’s Czech service and write a Democratic Manifesto. Today, annual awards to outstanding Czech journalists are given out in Peroutka’s name.

Many of Terezie Kaslová’s extended family died in the Holocaust, a fact that she says makes the president’s characterisation of her grandfather and refusal to apologise all the more painful.

“Of course this is another reason why it is so insulting to me personally, apart from being sad to have my grandfather’s name abused.”

Why President Zeman targeted Peroutka in the first place has been the subject of much speculation now for years. Is he stubbornly proud? Does he simply relish controversy? Or does he perhaps have some ulterior motive for tarnishing the famed journalist’s reputation?

Whatever the case, the historical facts are now clear. Not only did Peroutka not write the “Hitler is a gentleman” article, the piece – published by a Communist newspaper in February 1937 – was highly critical of the dictator. It was apparently written in reaction to a story in a right-wing daily that quoted Czech legionnaires describing Hitler as an “affable fellow” who the ex-soldiers doubted wanted war.

Three years ago, the court ruled in favour of Peroutka’s granddaughter, who sought a published apology from Zeman. At the time, the article had not yet been found, and he directed the Office of the President to file an appellate complaint.

The Supreme Court ruled that Zeman’s words were not the responsibility of the Office but of the Ministry of Finance, since even the Czech head of state is a ‘civil servant’. Zeman, at his request, then became a secondary party to the dispute, and Terezie Kaslová was obliged to sue the Czech state for maladministration.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio
Her lawyer, František Vyskočil, told Czech Radio the court failed to explain its decision.

“The court offered no reasoning for reversing the earlier ruling. Neither did it explain why it had not ruled as in a similar case [from this May], when requiring President Zeman to apologise for having lied about a former advisor having been sacked for incompetence. No explanation as to why the court ruled differently in our case were given.”

Vyskočil says that if the courts ultimately dismiss the suit, it would mean the president can insult whoever he likes with impunity.