Vol 0, No 38
14 June 1999
B E T W E E N T H E L I N E S:
Czech Shoe on the Wrong Foot
Economic nationalism should get
the boot in the Czech Republic
From the lowliest tabloid to the most highbrow of intellectual reviews, there is one perennial topic in the Czech media that comes up in one form or another again, and again, and again: the Czech national character. So, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Czech television runs a monthly investigative programme called - what else - 'Our Czech Character', (Ta nase povaha ceska). Recently, the viewer was treated to a bit of shoe fantasy.
The programme reports public attitudes, political scandals, human interest stories and general 'slices of life' in the Czech Republic - all seen to be deeply revealing about the national psyche. Occasionally, however, it accidentally reveals more about the Czechs than its creators had intended.
A case in point was a recent episode devoted to a quite unexpected aspect of the national condition: The Decline of the Czech Shoe. The subject comes as a surprise to many readers. The Czech Republic is best known abroad for making beer and Skoda cars, rather than stylish footwear.
Such readers have, however, obviously not heard of Tomas Bata, the Shoe King of the 1920s and 30s, the nearest thing to a Czech Rockefeller. Bata and his son Jan imported US-style mass production techniques and pioneering 'team work' practices into the Czech lands and transformed a smallish footwear enterprise in Zlin, in the East of today's Czech Republic, into an embryonic multinational conglomerate. No wonder then that the Czech Shoe evokes a glow of nostalgic national pride.
Bata's ruthless but paternalistic brand of capitalism, however, went distinctly out of fashion in Czechoslovakia after the war. In 1945, the Bata factories were taken over by the state and later nationalised, although the company itself continued to exist abroad.
However, as the Ta nase povaha ceska programme revealed, Czech shoe manufacturers today are not a happy band, and they aired their grievances in no uncertain terms. Foreign competition is putting the squeeze on the Czech footwear industry. Nobody these days wants Czech-made shoes any more, not even the Czechs. There was no money to invest and modernise. The government should intervene with subsidies to 'revitalise' the industry.
A flood of cheap shoes made in the Far East was turning consumers away from the domestic product. However, as one Czech shoe manufacturer interviewed on the programme explained, there was more at stake than just some sectional interest or economic problem. Oh no. National identity was at stake. Cheap East Asian-made shoes, he explained, '...do not correspond to our customs; they are unsuitable for our Slavonic feet'.
Appropriately for a programme dealing in national stereotypes, the main culprits in this case were allegedly Vietnamese market stall-holders selling cheap footwear manufactured in Asia at rock-bottom prices. These fiendish Orientals, it seems, have been luring the Czech public away from their patriotic duty of forking out for the more expensive, domestically produced article.
And, as many Czechs will unhesitatingly tell you, the Vietnamese are obviously dodgy. They speak an incomprehensible language, eat strange food and systematically fiddle their taxes when doing business (strangely enough, precisely the view many West Europeans expatriates take of the Czechs).
Just in case anyone missed the point, the programme's producers decided to ram it home themselves. In a montage Dr Goebbels would have been proud of, oblique angle, slow-motion shots depicted a pair of non-Slavonic size nines changing hands. Sinister Oriental sounding music, emphasised the point: behind that pair of fake Nikes, there lurked the Yellow Peril...
I imagined viewers across the nation, gripping their armchairs, looking down at their tootsies and exchanging worried glances of patriotic concern. Doubtless, the Defence of the Slavonic Foot is exactly the kind of thing former Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus has in mind when he now speaks of delaying EU entry and reasserting patriotism and the 'Czech national interest'.
I decided to a little more research. The obvious starting point was Zlin, a convenient bus ride away from my in-laws' holiday home in the Moravian countryside. With its bustling traffic and many modernist brick and glass office and factory buildings, Zlin still retains something of the company town of the 20s and 30s.
In those days, Bata 's firm ran the place as a kind of state-within-a-state. It built the roads, provided public housing, ran the hospitals and schools and also controlled the local council through its own electoral list of 'Bata-ites', installing Bata as mayor. In 1990, the foreign-based Bata company bought back some of its former factories in Zlin, but it does not wield the power it once did. It has, however, maintained the Footwear Museum established by Bata, and it was here that my research took me.
Located in the basement of the company's administrative building - the 17-storey 'skyscraper' Jan Bata had built in 1938 was then the tallest building in Europe - the Museum offers a small, well-organised and refreshingly cosmopolitan display of footwear down the ages: pointy-toed Mediaeval courtier's slippers, 19th-century Czech and Dutch clogs, bast Russian peasant lapt'ya, African elephant hide sandals, embroidered Turkish slippers, not to mention the custom-made size 57 sport shoes of a Soviet basketball player, and, of course, lots of Bata shoes. Very interesting and enlightening.
But what about the cultural significance of the Czech Shoe? Or indeed the Slavonic Foot?
Suddenly, I heard the magic words: slovanska noha, 'Slavonic Foot'. I turned round quickly sidled up to a group of Czech pensioners on a guided tour to catch what their guide had to say on the subject. I must have misheard. She was explaining 19th century shoe-making techniques, and there was no very obvious Slavonic angle. Disappointed, I was preparing to leave, when two small items in the History of Shoe-Making section caught my eye.
The first was a notice produced by some patriotic society or nationally-minded craftsmen's guild displayed in the replica 19th century shoemaker's workshop. It was a list of over a hundred 'incorrect' German-derived vernacular terms for various parts a shoe along with their 'correct' Czech equivalent - correct that is, as defined by the dictionary written by the 19th century Czech nationalist lexicographer, Josef Jungmann who quite literally invented hundreds of such terms when nothing of suitably pure Slavonic origin was available. Somehow I had the feeling that the less ardently nationalist shoe-makers who couldn't be bothered with Jungmann's neologisms probably did better business with both Czech- and German-speaking customers.
The second item was a leather press. It was, in fact, the first machine in a Bata factory and was installed in 1910. Visitors were informed that, 'It served for another 80 years', that is until 1990, when the factory was sold back to its former owners. And here, staring me in the face were the reasons for the Decline of the Czech Shoe, and indeed many other parts of the Czech manufacturing industry: concerns of national identity overriding commercial contact with a wider world, and appalling technological backwardness rooted in the Communist period.
The Czech Shoe was mythic. In the modern age a shoe is a shoe is a shoe, and not usually part of anyone's cultural heritage. The Batas understood that fifty years ago. And these days you don't have to be a naive enthusiast for globalisation to realise that attempts to enlist the country's failing industries as part of a 'national character' won't wash. There is probably still space in today's world for national economic strategies, albeit perhaps smaller ones than once existed. But they need to be a damn sight more sophisticated than the idea of promoting 'national capital' that underlies many of the failures of the Czech coupon privatisation programme of the 90s or the current political vogue for state-sponsored 'revitalisation' of uncompetitive firms coupled with protectionism and squeezing Vietnamese traders and other foreigners off the labour market.
In the 1990s, many would-be Czech industrialists invoked Bata's social paternalism and the pride in the home-grown character of his empire as an excuse for running their newly privatised companies with high levels of overemployment backed by credit from stated-owned banks rather than foreign investment. However, they missed some more obvious lessons.
While not above negotiating a few tax breaks in his time, the Shoemaker to the World got his firm out of economic difficulties in the slumps of interwar Europe through a mixture of investment, innovation and occasionally drastic belt-tightening (he once cut his workers' wages by 40%, softening the blow with discounts in his company stores).
However, the world-beating Bata shoes of the 1930s and the xenophobically-tinged economic nationalism so comically illustrated by the Ta nase povaha ceska programme do have at least one thing in common. Both now belong in a museum.
One can only hope that Czech voters and politicians finally realise this and stop treading on the toes of the European Union, before it decides to give them the boot.
Sean Hanley, 14 June 1999
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