Happy Září 17, y’all! September 17 is special for a number of reasons, much like every other day of the year. Today is the Heroes’ Day in Angola and Teachers’ Day in Angola, Batman Day for fiction fans and Operation Market Garden Anniversary in the Netherlands. On this day, Des Lynam, Tomas Bata and Billy the Kid were born. Miroslav Tyrs was also born on this day, and it was he who founded the first Sokol, in the city in which I now reside. Let’s get into that story right now right away.
The first Sokol was indeed founded in Prague, way back in the glorious year of 1862, the same year in which the first railway in New Zealand opened. An all-ages gymnastics organisation, it was founded on the fairly sensible principle of ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, something that most males seem to begin to understand once they arrive at the end of their 32nd year. Initially open to men of all ages and classes, the organisation soon opened up to women too, whilst it spread all over the Slavic world, unifying the Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before spreading even further. Along the way, the Czechs were established as the second strongest Slavic nation after the Russians.
It is somewhat ironic therefore that the organisation came from the enthusiastic mind of a man born into a German family with a decidedly German name. Miroslav Tyrs was born Friedrich Emmanuel Tiersch in 1832, in the small northern Bohemian town of Děčin (then called Tetschen). Děčin is also the home town of Vladimir Šmicer and Austro-Hungarian flying ace Julius Arigi, if you were looking for multiple reasons to visit the town.
Tyrs’ parents and siblings all perished at the hands of tuberculosis when he was but a young pup, and the young Friedrich went to live with his uncle near Mlada Boleslav as a result. His likely-German upbringing was exchanged for a vehemently Czech one. At the age of 15 Tyrs fought in the streets of Prague during the uprising of 1848, proudly displaying his destroyed cap to all and sundry. He flat-out refused to take his final exams in German, setting a new trend by taking them (and passing) in Czech. The boy born Friedrich became legally known as Bědrich, before a second legal amendment saw him formally known as Miroslav Tyrs. Tyrs struggled to break into the writing world, but useful contacts allowed him to contribute a number of philosophical articles towards the first Czech encyclopaedia, after becoming a Doctor of the subject in 1860. Miroslav Tyrs went on to be known as one of the more acclaimed art historians in the city at the time, writing books on aesthetics but most notably on the life and work of Jaroslav Cermak, a Czech historical painter who was chained to a bed as a child and ended up fighting the Ottomans in Montenegro in 1862.
It was in 1862 that Tyrs set up the first Sokol in the city, inspired somewhat by his own shoddy physical condition. The idea of an all-ages gymnastics organisation wasn’t new – Tyrs took his major ideas from the German Turnvereins as well as Greek history and culture. The Sokol (Czech for ‘falcon’) was originally open to all ethnicities, but the Germans in and around Prague had no desire to be culturally or physically involved with those damn dirty Bohemians. Tyrs thus focused on bringing together the Czechs, developing new Czech terminologies for various training exercises and physical exertions. Karolina Svetla (who we met way back at Karlovo namesti) designed the flag, which was painted by Josef Manes, a 19th century Czech painter who became estranged from his family following an affair with the family maid, grew obsessed with wolves and went insane, doing laps of Prague’s Astronomical Clock with a candle in hand before dying of syphilis in Italy.
The Austro-Hungarian authorities were understandably curious about this nationalistic organisation sprouting up on empire land, but Sokol continued to grow nonetheless. It is somewhat surprising that it wasn’t squashed at an early stage, especially considering it quickly garnered the nickname of the ‘Czech national army’. It quickly grew beyond Prague too, spreading into Moravia and down south into Slovenia.
With expansion came problems, although the problems had been simmering from the early stages of Sokol’s developments. Tyrs was at the helm of the organisation from its beginnings until 1884, when he was found dead in an Austrian river 13 days after he’d gone missing, but once he was out the way the struggle at the top became more and more intense. It was a generational struggle, as older members argued in favour of distance from politics, whilst the younger, more idealistic believed that being directly involved in the national struggle was imperative. Sokol soon became militarised, as the membership evolved from predominantly students and professionals to more and more revolutionary members of the working class. The lines between a working class institution and one designed to educate that same class soon became blurred.
The internal problems didn’t slow down the growth of the organisation however. In 1882 the first slet was held (slety being the Czech word for ‘rallies’), an elaborate celebration full of gymnastics, demonstrations, speeches, events and competitions. Five years later the Habsburg authorities finally got involved, allowing a union of Sokol clubs to be formed throughout the empire, a decision which did little but aid the Slavic people in their shared struggle for autonomy. The 1890s proved even more progressive for the organisation, with more slets and a shift towards focusing on ideology as opposed to physical competition.
Sokol became intensely politicised in the 20th century, as the original struggled to maintain its identity in the face of rival societies springing up. It became more and more nationalist in mindset, leading to the progressive elements leaving, only to return in the second decade of the century as membership rules were relaxed. The first All-Slavic slet took place in 1912, but three years later saw the Austro-Hungarians say enough is enough, disbanding the organisation as World War One settled in. The members of the original Sokol turned their attention to other nationalist activities, helping to form the Czechoslovak legions that would be so influential in helping form the first Czechoslovakia in 1918. That state saw a return for Sokol, which swelled to an incredible 630,000 members by 1930. The Nazis inevitably put an end to it all however, and the organisation managed to squeeze one final slet in in 1948 before the communists commandeered the whole thing.
And that is where we find ourselves today. The mass performances that made slets such special things were appropriated by the communists, who took the national elements and coloured them head to toe in socialist red. The events became forced expressions of strength as opposed to proud expressions of self-identity, known as Spartakiads. They took place at Strahov Stadium, the largest on the planet, and despite a whopping 750,000 gymnasts taking part in 1960 they soon fizzled out along with enthusiasm for the ideology.
In the 150+ years since being established, the Sokols have been abolished four times by different political regimes and ideologies. Four decades of socialism may well have ended them as mass expressions of dignity, as mass gymnastics will now forever be linked to the repressive nature of totalitarian governments as opposed to a physically-deficient German boy turned Czech who gives his name to more streets in Czechia than anyone, with the exception of Jan Komensky and Hus.
‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at email@example.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here , although you can also buy the digital copy through us. That is unless you think Amazon deserves 30% of the work.