The Czech gymnastic organization Sokol (“Falcon”) played a major role in the transformation of Czech nationalism into a mass movement. The first club was founded in Prague in 1862 and by the time of its 50th anniversary, the movement it had spawned counted over 150,000 adherents in more than 1,000 clubs. The foundations for this success were laid by the club’s first Gymnastic Director, Miroslav Tyrš, whose articles and speeches on Sokol gymnastics and nationalism became required reading throughout the movement.
The new club’s leaders sought to differentiate it from the German Turnverein, which had pioneered nationalist gymnastics in Central Europe. Tyrš had worked as a trainer in private gymnastic institutes in Prague that followed the German system and brought his knowledge of its principles into his work in the Sokol. In addition to gymnastic training, the new club adopted Turnverein practices such as using the familiar “you” among members and addressing other members as “brother”. The new club sought to separate itself from its German predecessor in its public appearance and rituals, and the creation of a club uniform was central to this effort. In contrast to the Turnverein uniform – a simple costume without hat or gloves – the Sokol uniform combined elements regarded as Slavic at the time. It was made of brown “Russian” linen with the jacket modelled on the czamara worn by Polish revolutionaries. The čamara frock became a popular symbol of Czech identity in the 1860s, featuring embroidered “frog and loop” button closures instead of buttonholes (scorned as Austrian). A hat with a falcon feather, modelled on South-Slavic styles, topped off the ensemble. In a bold political statement, the uniform included a red shirt like those worn by Garibaldi’s legions; that addition was made at the insistence of the club’s co-founder and first president, Jindřich (originally Heinrich Anton) Fügner (1822–1865), a wealthy Prague businessman and friend of Tyrš, who had become an admirer of Garibaldi during an apprenticeship in Trieste. Decked out in their new uniforms, club members undertook outings to the Czech-speaking countryside, where they were welcomed as the “Czech national army” with speeches and triumphal arches.
The official trooping of the colours, where a club’s flag is first unfurled, was a major milestone for voluntary associations at this time, and it took place in the Prague Sokol a few months after its founding. The flag was made of red and white silk, the colours of Bohemia, and featured a falcon with out-stretched wings under the club slogan Tužme se (“Let us strengthen ourselves”) on one side, and the name “Sokol” on the other. The ceremony included the first public display of the new club exercising to the new Czech commands that Tyrš had created. In 1865, Fügner inaugurated a formal Sokol ball as an annual event during the carnival season. Organized as a masked ball (a popular way to disguise class differences), the elegant affair provided an opportunity for lower-class Sokol members to mingle with their betters in a socially uplifting environment. The Prague Sokol’s carnival ball took place in its new training-hall, an elaborate structure that had been built with Fügner’s financial backing. Intended to rival any Turnverein building, it featured a training area decorated with paintings, chandeliers, and statuary; in this “sacred space” gymnastics became a national ritual and references to a glorious past were on display. Central to that past was the Hussite period, the proto-Protestant era following the 1415 martyrdom of the reformer Jan Hus – a touchstone for Czech identity at this time. By identifying with the Hussites, Sokol leaders could unite the club’s moral, national, and gymnastic programmes while presenting a challenge to the Habsburg regime that, like the red shirt in its uniform, stopped just short of direct provocation.
As the movement spread to other Slavic-speaking communities in the empire and beyond, Tyrš introduced a new element to its ritual culture, a mass gymnastic festival held to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its founding. From its origins, the Turnverein had held festivals on important occasions, and by the 1860s, the drive for German unification had inspired massive Turnfeste that drew participants from all corners of German-speaking Central Europe. Gymnastics was especially well suited to the intersection of nationalism and festival culture. Not only did the discipline and muscular bonding of the exercise programme convey the idea of community, the marches and mass synchronized movement of the festivals also projected an idealized image of the national body. The anniversary celebration rally of the Sokol (called a Slet based on the Czech word for a flocking of birds) took place in Prague in 1882 and inaugurated several practices that became Slet traditions. Among these was the ceremonial greeting of guests at the train stations in Prague, the march through Prague of clubs in full regalia carrying their club flags and led by leaders on horseback, a mass calisthenic display of hundreds of gymnasts performing in unison, and an evening of uplifting entertainment in full formal dress (which also included declamations of patriotic poems and a theatrical presentation) as well as smaller dinners and more casual social events. Although the 1882 Slet only lasted one day and was a relatively modest affair in light of those that followed, it became a landmark in the history of Czech gymnastics, and the birthplace of the great gymnastic festivals that made the organization famous.
Despite the success of the first Slet, almost twenty years passed before the organization attempted a similar undertaking. The occasion was the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition in Prague, organized to showcase the achievements of the province and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a much smaller display that had accompanied the coronation of Leopold II. Originally intended as a joint project of the Czech and German communities, it became a solely Czech venture after the Germans opted to boycott it. At a time when World Fairs and economic exhibitions were popular ways to advance a nation’s political and economic agenda on the world stage, it was the first time that the Czech community had undertaken a venture of this sort, and the second Slet was part of it. With an expanded programme that took place over a long weekend, the Slet drew participants from other Slavic lands where the Sokol had taken root. A new Slet practice was inaugurated, a solemn wreath-laying ceremony on the common grave of Tyrš and Fügner, symbolizing loyalty to the club’s original ideals beyond the deaths of its creators. The high point of the Slet was a mass calisthenic display of 2300 gymnasts (almost four times the number of the 1882 Slet), which drew 20,000 spectators. Although critics pointed out that these performances had little value in furthering gymnastic skills, they captivated the onlookers and grew in size in each subsequent Slet, reaching 11,000 participants in the last pre-war Slet in 1912.
The next Slet occurred only a few years later, on the occasion of the 1895 Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition in Prague. Fuelled by the growing popularity of the new field of ethnographic studies, that had given rise to similar exhibitions elsewhere in Central Europe, the 1895 exhibition was also a reaction to the emphasis on modernity and internationalism of the Jubilee Exhibition of 1891. In view of the Czech national spirit animating this event, it was the perfect forum for the third Sokol Slet. Demonstrating the increasing confidence of the growing movement, the fourth Slet in 1901 was the first since Tyrš’s day to be held independently of a larger exhibition. It marked the first appearance of women, who exercised with Indian clubs and on apparatus.
The fifth Slet in 1907 is considered the first “great Slet” because of the breadth of its activities. Like the recently reinvented Olympic Games, it was a mega-genre of cultural performance, combining spectacle, festival, ritual, and games, engaging the work of artists and architects, directors and musicians, and turning entire cities into staging platforms. One of its striking innovations was a “Slet theatrical event,” a mixture of tableux vivants and mass theatre portraying a 15th-century Hussite victory in the form of a gigantic chess game. Carried out on the exercise field, it featured over 420 performers in period costumes, who sang Hussite hymns, performed folk dances and undertook exhibitions of physical skill. Part of the broader celebrations of the upcoming 500th anniversary of Hus’s martyrdom, the Slet presentation was an expression of the contemporary drive for grand theatre as well as an embodiment of the historicism of Czech nationalism.
The last pre-war Slet, held on the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding, was also the first gymnastic festival of the Federation of Slavic Sokols, a union of Slavic Sokol organizations founded in 1908. Rather than choosing a Slavic theme, Slet organizers invoked fifth-century BC Greece as the origin of modern gymnastics so as to ennoble the enterprise with classical references. The Slet grounds were decorated with triumphal arches and statues of Greek athletes, and set off from the outside world with barriers and gates to create a sacred space for the national ritual. In a huge dramatic presentation on the exercise field, 1292 men, women, and children reenacted events from the Battle of Marathon, a metaphor for Slavic solidarity in the face of the German threat as war loomed in Europe.
After the war, and in the changed circumstances of the new Czechoslovak state, the Sokol was transformed from heroic defenders of an embattled minority to a favoured governmental institution, whose ideology had helped define the founding myths of the new country.