Prague court overturns 1947 verdict against "shoe king" Jan Antonin Bata

Jan Antonin Bata, photo: CTK

Prague's Municipal Court reopened a controversial post-war court case on Monday when it overturned a 60-year-old verdict against one of the founders of the Bata shoe empire. In 1947, a judge sentenced Jan Antonin Bata - half-brother of the company's original founder Tomas Bata - to fifteen years' imprisonment for failing to support the anti-Nazi resistance, a charge his family has always vehemently denied.

Jan Antonin Bata,  photo: CTK
Jan Antonin Bata took over the Bata shoe empire in 1932, after the death of his half-brother Tomas Bata in a plane crash. At the time of his death the Bata Shoe Organisation was one of Czechoslovakia's most successful industrial enterprises - Bata employed more than 16,000 people and operated factories and outlets in countries as diverse as India and the United States. The company was also known for its strong social conscience, providing new housing for its employees and building a number of model towns.

Bata shoe factory,  photo:
Under Jan Antonin, however, the business became a truly global concern. Within ten years, Bata employed more than 100,000 people, and the company was the world's biggest shoemaker. The Bata family maintains Jan Antonin Bata - nicknamed the shoe king - was always a loyal and patriotic citizen of Czechoslovakia. Here he is in 1938 making a radio address to the United States.

"Ladies and gentlemen. For you, citizens of the proud and great America, which, overflowing with abundance, used to be a land of promise to hundreds of thousands of Europeans year after year, during the long decades before the Great War. For you, citizens of the boundless area of the States, a small country, my country, the Czechoslovak Republic, situated now in the middle of the noisy and belching cauldron of European unrest, is almost of little interest. I have been requested to tell you a few things about the national character of Czechoslovakia, of its people..."

Munich Agreement | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-R69173/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
Within six months of that broadcast, the great powers signed the Munich Agreement, and Czechoslovakia fell under the control of the Nazis. Jan Antonin Bata fled his country, settling first in the United States. However he was blacklisted by the U.S. authorities for doing business with the Axis powers, and in 1941 he emigrated to Brazil.

After the war ended, the Czechoslovak authorities tried Bata as a traitor, saying he had failed to support the anti-Nazi resistance. In 1947 he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. The company's Czechoslovak assets were also seized by the state - several months before the Communists came to power.

For the last decade his descendants, led by the sprightly 92-year-old Tomas Bata junior, son of the company's founder, have fought to clear his name. They say far from being a collaborator, Jan Antonin Bata financed the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to the tune of a quarter of million dollars in anonymous gifts.

Tomas Bata junior attending the court hearing,  photo: CTK
A former Jewish employee also testified that he helped her and up to 80 Jewish families escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. All of these facts, say his family, were ignored by the court in 1947. They say the post-war Czechoslovak state, buckling under Communist pressure, was primarily interested in seizing the Bata empire and its assets.

Tomas Bata junior travelled from Canada to attend Monday's court hearing. He repeated that his uncle was innocent, and that the whole episode had been a Communist plot to blacken the family's name. The Czech authorities must now decide whether to reopen the case so Jan Antonin Bata's name can be cleared for good.