Post-war Communist president secretly pardoned Nazi war criminals

Antonin Zapotocky

A secret pardon by Communist president Antonin Zapotocky back in the 1950s saved several Nazi war criminals from the death penalty. One of them was an SS officer who played a pivotal role in razing to the ground the Czech village of Lidice, in retaliation for the assassination of the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia - Reinhardt Heydrich - in June 1942. Alena Skodova has the details.

The spokesman for the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, Jan Srb, told me that the discovery was the result of close cooperation with the Central State Archive. The Archive recently received all the documents from the former Czechoslovak Communist party archive, documents which had been declassified and gradually made accessible for investigation. I asked Mr Srb whether it was clear why president Zapotocky freed the men.

Antonin Zapotocky
"As far as these particular documents are concerned, there's no clear reason why Zapotocky pardoned them. The four Nazi criminals, originally sentenced to death, were pardoned by the president on a recommendation by several high ranking Communist party officials, and the verdict was changed to life in prison. But the former Nazis didn't even serve those sentences. At the beginning of the 1960s they were released and expelled to Germany. So they only spent about 10 years in prison."

I asked Mr Srb if they were 'protected' by the Communist regime, whether some of them could have been working as German spies for Communist Czechoslovakia?

"No clear evidence to prove this exists, it would be mere speculation. But these people were not just rank-and-file Nazis: Max Rostock, for instance, played a key role in destroying the village of Lidice near Prague in 1942, and when he was released from prison in Czechoslovakia, he was only 48 years old. Another one, Richard Schmidt, took part in the Nazi suppression of the Slovak national uprising against the Nazis in 1944, and participated in the German onslaught on the Beniky village in Slovakia. So by no means were they small fry."

Mr Srb went on to say that no-one knows whether similar cases will see the light of day. The former Czechoslovak communist party archives are so rich and not yet fully investigated, that he considered it highly possible something of this nature could still be discovered.

The director of the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, Irenej Kratochvil, told the daily newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes that it was hard to comprehend that while dozens of innocent Czechs were executed during the 1950s show trials, Nazi war criminals - responsible for countless awful crimes, were granted pardons. At the same time, Mr Kratochvil noted that the discovery of President Zapotocky's pardons to war criminals completely destroys the myth that many people still believe in: that the Communists were heroic crusaders against fascism.