Eric Hobsbawm, one of the finest historians of the twentieth century, put it best in his lectures on nationalism when he said that sport was so effective a vehicle for nationalism because ‘what has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in his life has wanted, to be good at’.
There are countless examples of sport in the service of the nation throughout modern history – you need only think of the use to which football and rugby were put as a recruiting grounds for soldiers in the United Kingdom during the First World War; the way in which fascist states like Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy used the Olympics or World Cup victory to their own political ends to gain some idea of just what Hobsbawm meant.
Here in what is now the Czech Republic, was previously the Czechoslovak Republic and before that what we might term loosely as the Czech Lands, sport was put to similar use to promote nationalism, and to create national consciousness among Czechs. Like the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884, in Ireland, the Czech gymnastics movement called Sokol (meaning ‘falcon’) was about encouraging national consciousness through physical improvement of the population. The Sokol movement, taking its lead from German turnverein, was founded in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrs. Tyrs exemplified, and was a leading figure through Sokol, in the Czech national revival. Born Friedrich Emanuel Tirsch in 1834, he took the Czech form of his name in 1860, and “along with other nationalists, he signified his Czech identity by wearing camara, or embroidered ‘Slavic’ button closures, on his coats in place of the ‘Austrian’ style buttonholes” according to Claire E Nolte.
The Sokol movement encouraged a particular style of national dress for its members when doing demonstrations, as you can see below. The uniforms consisted of a red shirt, introduced by co-founder Jindrich Fugner and ‘the Sokol uniform that began with Fugner’s red shirt and insignia was completed in a Slavic style, similar in purpose to to the Old Germanic garb of Jahn’s Turner.” According to Nolte, “the new uniform lent the club an esprit de corps that further increased its popularity” with members, and even nonmembers in the early days taking to wearing it even when official functions were not taking place.
The similarities between Sokol and the GAA, founded in 1884, are somewhat apparent. The adoption of traditional uniforms for Sokol, and the invention of county colours in the GAA, being a part of the same process of inventing traditions. They were both watched by the police forces of their respective governments for many years for signs of their potentially disruptive espousal of nationalism. And they both encouraged the development of unique national sporting cultures. But there aren’t just parallels between both organisations. It may surprise some people to learn, but Sokol gymnastics were actually adopted in Ireland for a time in both schools and the Irish Army, following independence.
A Czech consulate was set-up in Dublin in the 1920s, headed up by former Legionary Major Pavel Ruzicka. As Daniel Samek’s chapter in Ireland and the Czech Lands notes that through Ruzicka’s close ties with many in the Irish Army, Sokol was adopted as the favoured form of gymnastic training in the Army, ahead of so-called Swedish drill.
It’s adoption was widespread but drew the ire of some who considered its aesthetic element too foreign entirely for Irish purposes. Little or no mention is made of Sokol after the 1940s in Ireland. This may in part be down to the fact that, following the February Coup of 1948, Irish ties with Czechoslovakia, now a communist country, were rather altered. In the National Archives, there are many communications between the Sokol organisation and Department of Education, External Affairs and Defence, asking that an Irish delegate be sent to the XI Sokol Slet (festival) in 1949. The Sokol organisers even suggested that a group of Irish dancers be sent to represent Ireland, to ‘exhibit the art of Gaelic dancing’ as part of the Slet. No Ministry wished to outright rebuke the offers being extended, but instead each in turn politely declined as the invites passed from one department to the next.
So, there are some intriguing similarities to be explored between this Czech organisation that hoped, in language common not just to Ireland, but throughout Europe in this period, to reinvigorate and train the youth, while also reviving national customs and the GAA. But the similarities are made starkest perhaps in how the organisations differ.
For one thing, Sokol was much more explicitly political as an organisation. It’s nationalism was worn very much on its sleeve. While their cry was ‘Every Czech a sokol’ not all Czechs were in that sense, Czech. In the 1890s, the Sokol experienced a split. Generally, Sokols were supportive of the Young Czechs in parliament, but the wide-reach of the Sokol organisation meant that many of its working-class members were supporters of the Social Democrats. That party’s fostering of class-based politics did not sit well with the bourgeois nationalism of the Young Czechs, or indeed of many Sokol congress delegates. And so, in 1897, at the Workers Academy in Prague, a new organisation, less nationalistic than Sokol was established, the Delnicka telocvicna jednota (DTJ), or Workers’ Gymnastic Club. Limited at first to Prague, a DTJ Union – like the Sokol Union, Ceska Obec Sokolská – to organise the DTJs nationally was founded in 1903. By 1913 there were 513 DTJ clubs with around 17,000 members. A handful survive today.
With the removal of the Social Democratic-aligned membership from many Sokols, these clubs were now often strongly aligned with members of the strongly-nationlist Czech National Socialists. This meant that overt Anti-Semitism became stronger in the Sokol movement. An organisation which had for many years represented progressivism in Czech political and cultural life was increasingly virulently nationalistic.
The Sokol survived the upheavals of the First and Second World Wars, and was, along with the DTJ, ripe for the picking when Czechoslovakia became a fully communist state in February of 1948. The famous Slets of previous years were remade into socialist Spartakiads, most of the Sokol clubs no longer existed to develop the national body of the Czech people, but to build socialist man and woman.
While this association with the communist regime might lead one to expect that the Sokol movement has disappeared, you’d be wrong. Many areas of Prague still have Sokol organisations, which serve as community sports halls with gymnastics, aerobics, tennis, swimming pools, saunas and evening classes. Most Sokols also have a bar and restaurant attached. I sometimes swim up at the Sokol in Kralovske Vinohrady, located in a large Communist-era Sokol building in Riegrovy Sady. I occasionally eat in the bar attached to the Dejvice Sokol hall. This is another aspect of Sokol that marks it out as European. The built heritage of the organisation is apparent all over Prague, and elsewhere in the Czech Republic.
Sokol Still Standing
Near to me, there are two Sokols. One, the Vrsovice Sokol is much larger, and is directly next door to the home of my local team, Bohemians 1905. Sokol in Vrsovice (a small satellite town of Prague unti it was formally adopted in 1922) was established in 1870, and they moved into their first building in 1877. Their current home is a modern building, likely from the Communist era.
Both Bohemians 1905 and the Vrsovice Sokol run along Sportovní, which intersects with Vrsovická, a main thoroughfare. On the other side of Vrsovická, the street Sportovní continues and there we can find TJ Sokol Lokomotiva Vrsovice. This Sokol had its origins in 1923, when a club by the name of SK Železničářů Prague was founded in the area. By the mid-1930s, this club was a Delnicka telocvicna jednota (DTJ) club, as the map below shows. Today it is mostly an handball and table tennis club, but it still has two football pitches.
Away from my area, plenty of other parts of Prague still have much older Sokol buildings dating from the nineteenth century. In Nusle, not far from Vrsovice, there is the magnificent Sokol building which stands over the whole of the neighbourhood of Nusle, even above its magnificent town hall. Nusle’s Sokol building is among the most interesting, because as well as being a beautiful building, a still operating sokol club, it is also an unusual site of historical memory. Here is a view of the building itself:
As you approach, you notice that the water feature is of particular importance. Here’s a close up. It shows the years 1914-1918, 1938-1945, and 1948-1989 engraved in the stone. The first two are references to the world wars, the third to the period when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule.
There is also, on the approach to the main Sokol building, a small tombstone marking the death of three people during the Prague Uprising in 1945:
This Sokol then is much more than just a sports club or even a social club, it is a site of historical memory. Such is its imposition here in fact that the street below it is Pod Sokolská, Under the Sokol.
Another excellent example of the beautiful architecture of Sokols is the Sokol in Malá Strana, built in 1897 (pictured below).
It was nearly impossible to get a good photo of this particular building, as it is well gated and in an awkward spot at the very bottom of Petrin Hill, but I would recommend people keep and eye out for it, it’s an almost-hidden gem. Not far from here, on Karmelitská (best known for the church which houses the Child of Prague), there is the main building of the modern Sokol movement – Tyrsov Dum – Tyrs House, named for one of the two co-founders.
A common feature of the older Sokol buildings is the inclusion of a Falcon with its wings spread. Not far along from Tyrsuv Dum, while still walking Karmelitská, on the side opposite the church, there is a plaque at head height, which marks a house in which Miroslav Tyrs lived from 1841-1852.
Beyond Malá Strana, two of the other great Sokol buildings in Prague are those of Zizkov and Karlín. The Zizkov Sokol is unusual in that it is a combination of a nineteenth century Sokol building with a similar architectural style to those in Nusle and Malá Strana, but has been expanded with a newer, modernist part. Here is the original building with close-ups of some features, including busts of Tyrs and the other co-founder of Sokol Fugner.
The newer part of the building includes depictions of falcons in a variety of panels with symbols including the crown of Bohemia and with the Sokol flag. Also on the newer part of the building is a large panel depicting a woman and child, two men together with a sword and a man and woman dancing, the woman holding a victory laurel.
Here is the old and new building together:
Before turning our attention to the Karlín Sokol, it’s worth looking at the Sokol building with which many people are most likely familiar, that of the Kralovské Vinohrady Sokol, which is the imposing building in Riegrovy Sady in the heart of Vinohrady.
According to website, The Prague Vitrvius “it was in 1938 that František Marek, Václav Vejrych and Zbyněk Jirsák came up with the design for this extensive building in the functionalist style – its tall rectilinear columns giving a modernist twist to the ideal of a classical colonnade.In 1941, the building was commandeered by the SS as a sports centre, and after the Second World War it became a military hospital and repatriation centre for returning Czech soldiers.”
Just in front of the entrance to this imposing building there is a small monument celebrating the 150th anniversary of Sokol:
On this monument we see the Sokol slogan Tuzme Se! which can sometimes be seen on Sokol buildings, including the Karlín building. Today, the Karlín Sokol is, on approach, obscured by a railway bridge, just peaking its head above the train line.
But, if you go under and around the bridge you are treated to what might be the most beuatiful Sokol building in the city:
So, those are just some of the wonderful Sokol buildings of Prague.
That they are all still in operation says something about the durability of the organisation after one hundred and fifty years. They also provide an extraordinary built heritage for a sporting organisation. The legacy of Sokol can also be seen in the names of streets and squares like Tyrsova, Sokolska and Fugnerova Namesti.
The history of Sokol is complex – it had its international dimension in the US among the Czech diaspora there, celebrated in their massive meets, the Sokol Slet (not unlike the Irish Aonach Tailteann in its own way), but like so many sporting organisations of the nineteenth century its strongest history was national. To know the twisting and turning history of the Sokol is in some ways to know better the history of the Czech lands.