The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/What the Sokols Stand For
The Bohemian Review
Jaroslav F. Smetanka, Editor, 2324 S. Central Park Ave., Chicago.
|Vol. I, No. 5.||JUNE 1917|
10 cents a Copy
As soon as the United States broke off relations with Germany, Sokols in America realized that the time had come to prove that the ideals of their great organization were realities and that they demanded sacrifice from every member. Although opposition to militarism has ever been one of the cardinal principles of the great Slav movement which calls itself the Falcons, yet the noble call of President Wilson to arms in defense of democracy and rights of small nations found an echo in the Bohemian Sokol societies in the United States. Hundreds of them in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Omaha and other Bohemian centers joined the American army, and for the first time almost the great newspapers of this country had occasion to refer frequently, and in terms very complimentary, to the Bohemian gymnasts rushing to do their bit.
Among the many powerful fraternal organizations that flourish in this country, none occupies such a pre-eminent place in the affections of the American people as do the Sokols among the Bohemians. Over in Bohemia the Sokols have been the favorite child and the pride of the nation, comprising the flower of the Czech youth—the peaceful army of a people that had no army of its own. To understand them, their principles and their success, it is necessary to speak of their founder, Dr. Miroslav Tyrš, and, in fact, to go back of him to the days of Bohemian revival.
The enlightened absolutism of the latter part of the eighteenth century stirred up the Czech people, who had been lying in a death-like torpor ever since the Hapsburgs crushed out their unsuccessful rebellion in 1620. Joseph II., by his toleration edict and by abolishing the worst evils of serfdom, put a new life into the peasants who, at that period, composed all that was left of the nation. But at the same time Joseph tried to make of his hereditary possessions a unified empire that would be German in language and sentiment. He threatened to take away from the Czechs their only remaining national possession, and the one dearest to them, their mother’s tongue. The result was that the vitality of the Bohemian people, a race looked upon by their German masters as a race of aborigines doomed to speedy disappearance, asserted itself once more. Men arose who lovingly took up the neglected and despised Slav language, resurrected its priceless literary treasures, defined the laws governing it and laid a foundation for its intensive cultivation in the field of modern literature. Joseph Dobrovsky is the greatest name among the linguists and authors of this period.
The literary revival was accompanied by the rediscovery of Bohemian history. For five generations the story of Bohemia’s glorious fight for civil and religious liberty had been suppressed. But now Palacky gave his people a stirring narrative of the days of Czech independence and of the Hussite victories and taught the educated classes and the residents of the cities to be proud of being born of Bohemian blood. And so after the literary and historical revival came finally the new political life inaugurated by the martyred Karel Havlíček.
At this time, when the Bohemian nation was once more fully alive, but after its first ardent hopes had been disappointed by the return of absolutism under Bach, comes Miroslav Tyrš, a sober philosopher, who submits to a critical examination the essence of national organism, weighs its right to existence and defines its tasks and duties. “All history and all nature is an eternal struggle where everything succumbs that does not establish its right to live.” From this starting point Tyrš takes up the solution of the Bohemian problem.
All that lives is subject to this inexorable law of nature either increase and flourish, or disappear and make room for other forms of life. Individuals and nations that cannot keep step with others are doomed to defeat. How does that apply to the Bohemian nation? Here is a small people, recently awakened from death-like sleep, a nation that had claimed from its rulers the right to govern itself, but was silenced by force, a race that could point to a splendid past and not much else. Tyrš believed that a nation manifesting so much vitality after centuries of oppression had a right to live; but their right must be defended and enforced, and for that more was needed than pride of the past. “Not the most glorious history,” says Tyrš, “but active and energetic present is a guarantee of the nation’s future.”
In order to maintain the individuality of the Bohemian nation, situated as it is in the heart of Europe, almost surrounded by the German flood storming successfully the frontier mountains in Bohemia, it was necessary that every individual member of the Czech people should labor intensively for the upbuilding of national wealth and culture. “The smaller the nation, the greater
But the distinguishing characteristic of Tyrš and the Sokol organization founded by him is the emphasis put on the physical development of man as the primary postulate for the survival both of the individual and the nation. His inspiration Tyrš found in ancient Greece. He saw vividly the classical Hellas in its greatest days, its gymnasia for the boys and its national games for the athletes, through which the Greek man gained physical wellbeing and beauty of form and which had close connection with his unequalled appreciation of beauty in nature and its reproduction in art and literature. Tyrš was convinced, too, that it was this strenuous training of body which enabled Greek soldiers to conquer barbarian hosts and maintain the freedom of Hellas against overwhelming odds.
These were the views that Dr. Miroslav Tyrš embodied in the Sokol organization. In an incredibly short time the Sokols became the favorites of the Bohemian nation. Their society was by universal consent made the principal institution of the nation; their red shirts and brown uniforms graced every popular fete and ceremonial function; their halls became the centers of social life in the cities and towns of Bohemia, and their picked teams brought home prizes from athletic meets in all parts of Europe. Too much prosperity is dangerous; and Tyrš, who for many years guided the course of the Sokols, took steps to prevent the degeneration of the national army into a uniformed corps good only for ornamental purposes. Due to his wisdom and energy the Sokol movement was identified definitely and irrevocably with the well-equipped gymnasium, and the physical well-being and the discipline acquired there made of Sokols leaders in the great fight which Bohemia has had to wage without ceasing for freedom and self-preservation.
Originally the Sokol membership consisted principally of young men who were best qualified to take part in the strenuous discipline of body required by the organization. But since the Sokols stood from the very beginning for unselfish labor in behalf of the nation, they soon broadened out the scope of their activities. Boys, particularly at the age when they were leaving school, trade apprentices and factory youths, who had heretofore been left entirely without proper recreation and attractive meeting places, were adopted by the first organization of the nation. Today every Sokol Union, in America as well as in Bohemia, considers it a part of its duty to conduct classes in physical training for boys and youths and instill in them during their most plastic period the ideals of manliness, self-reliance, discipline and patriotism.Women, too, have been taken into the ranks of the Sokols. If a sound body is necessary to the man, so that he might enjoy a wholesome life and be of value to his
Twelve Thousand Sokols Engaged in Calisthenic Drill, Prague, 1912.
It would not do to leave the impression that the entire activity of the great Sokol organization is exhausted by enumeration of its physical training classes or description of its wonderful public exhibitions, such as those which took place in Prague at the Sixth All Sokol Meet in 1912. Sokols are active workers in the cause of popular education, they combat vicious literature and coarse entertainments, they oppose everywhere reactionary tendencies, fight for equal rights and freedom of all men; they are champions of democracy, ardent patriots in the cause of free Bohemia, and their institution is the principal tie that binds together the various branches of the Slav race. For today the Sokol idea has outgrown the narrow confines of the Bohemian lands, and there are Sokols among the Slovaks, Poles, Russians, Croatians, Serbians and even Bulgarians. Is there any wonder that when Austria, recklessly declared war upon Serbia and Russia, Bohemian Sokols would not fight against brother Slavs and brother Sokols? Today to be a Sokol in Bohemia is to be a suspect.
Tens of thousands of Czechs who could not breathe freely under the despotism practiced by Vienna found new homes in the greatest republic of the world. They brought with them the heritage of Tyrš, the Sokol idea, and on the free soil of America it grew into an imposing organization. The Sokol Union of America comprises nearly twelve thousand members, both immigrants and children of immigrants. For it is fact that the ideals for which the famous Bohemian organization stands harmonize wonderfully with the ideals and institutions of the United States. And it is of interest to note here that the national president of the Sokol Union, Joseph Čermák, is the author of the first Bohemian history of the United States.
Bohemian Sokols will fight joyfully and manfully under the stars and stripes. They see the war, just as President Wilson defined it—a struggle of democracy against autocracy, of civilization against militarism, of government by the people against government by crowned despots. American victory means the sweeping away not merely of Hohenzollerns, but of Hapsburgs also; and when the accursed race of the Hapsburgs is swept away, Bohemia will again come into its own.