Oldest Czech legionnaire was never able to clear tarnished reputation

Vocasek Alois, photo: CTK

The oldest Czech soldier to fight in World War I, Alois Vocasek, died at the age of 107 on Saturday, the last survivor of the battle of Zborov in Ukraine. He was one of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks who broke with the Austrio-Hungarian monarchy to fight for the dream of a future Czechoslovak state. But, later the soldier tarnished his hero's reputation when he joined a Czech fascist organisation in the 1930s. Jan Velinger reports now on the controversial life and times of Alois Vocasek - the man - and the legionnaire.

Alois Vocasek,  photo: CTK
History has come full circle with the death of Alois Vocasek, the Czech Republic's last survivor of the battle of Zborov, where Czechs and Slovaks first fought successfully together in 1917. In a later battle Vocasek would suffer a serious leg injury during a grenade attack. But within three months he was back on his feet, fighting in Siberia. That kind of courage and sacrifice for a state that had not yet even come to exist, should have ensured him a lifetime of respect. But, in 1938 Vocasek opted to join the Czech fascist organisation Vlajka -'The Flag'. After the war he would be tried and found guilty of collaboration with the Nazis.

Barely eluding a death sentence by a People's Court, Alois Vocasek got life. And, although he was later amnestied and served only nine years in jail, his reputation was thoroughly tarnished, something that would dog him for the rest of his days. Historian Jiri Pernes on Alois Vocasek's actions:

"It is certainly very likely that he really was a collaborator who really was guilty of hurting his nation and hurting people. On the other hand after 1945 the situation was such in Czechoslovakia that a lot of people took revenge into their own hands, sometimes charging innocent people with collaboration, who were never able to clear their names. Vocasek certainly joined Vlajka, that is clear, but as for the other charges, who knows? The Communist presence was already being felt at that time. There was no strong legal system, nor were there balanced legal mechanisms in place to protect the accused. Vocasek got life but was later amnestied, which could be an indication of something: if he was really guilty of full collaboration, would they have really let him free, at least so early on?"

Vocasek always maintained his support for Vlajka was short-lived, though other legionnaires say they have provided documentation showing his crime of collaboration ran deep. As late as last week, Alois Vocasek was still fighting to clear his name - and have his case heard - at the European Court of Human Rights. As it stands at the moment, it remains something of a paradox: while the organisation for Czech legionnaires struck him from their ranks long ago, Vocasek's funeral will be attended by a representative of the Army Command on Friday. One group of soldiers clearly recognising earlier deeds of sacrifice and bravery, another reviling the oldest solider for the actions he took.