Hidden Belgrade (31): How Slets and Sokols Helped Work Out a Yugoslav Identity

It has been 30 years since the last ‘slet’ – a spectacular annual event much like the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games that included the presentation of a relay baton that had been carried across each Yugoslav state followed by mass games featuring coordinated gymnastic routines and dances.

The event was part of the former Yugoslavia’s Youth Day celebrations, one of the largest events of the year, and was held every 25 May to celebrate Tito’s official birthday. It was held at the Yugoslav National Army stadium that is now home to Partizan football club.

It was one of the largest events in the former Yugoslavia and became one of the defining expressions of the Yugoslav identity.

Beside the chock-full stadium and large crowds glued to their TVs, participation in the ceremony offered life-long distinction to those who participated, especially to the Yugoslav youth – chosen from a different republic and ethnicity each year – who had the honour of presenting the baton to Tito (or one of the presidents of the federal presidency after Tito’s death in 1980).

Lasting about an hour, the ceremony consisted of thousands of participants from all over the country dancing in unison in colourful garb to the songs of the most popular musicians in Yugoslavia or chanting hymns dedicated to Tito and Yugoslavia with titles along the lines of Tito is our Sun and Comrade Tito We Swear to You.

Watching old recordings of these slets on YouTube today, the event seems strange, probably even to the most devout of Yugo-nostalgics.

The parallels with the physically more impressive Arirang mass games in North Korea are inescapable, especially due to the cringe-worthy, almost religious, praise to the ‘dear leader’.

Even in the 1980s their authoritarian aesthetic did not escape a group of Slovenian avant-garde artists who are popularly blamed for the death of slets. In 1987, the group called Novi Kolektivizam (New Collectivism), which was linked to the (in)famous Slovenian band Laibach, submitted an altered Nazi propaganda poster design to a Youth Day poster competition and won, causing a major upset in an already fraught Yugoslavia. That year the last baton relay handover was held, while the slets were discontinued altogether a year later in 1988.

Ironically, almost exactly a century before in 1888, it was another group of Slovenes who introduced the whole practice of slets to what was to become Yugoslavia. Their embrace of coordinated movement was fuelled by a nobler, if strange, logic fully in line with the prevailing romantic ethos of the time.

This first slet in Ljubljana was organised by the Slovene Sokols, who followed the ideas of Miroslav Tyrs, a Czech art historian and amateur gymnast.

Tyrs was inspired by his studies of ancient Greece to believe that practicing sports such as weightlifting, marching and fencing, individually and in groups, was key to ensuring a healthy and strong nation.

He created a sports society in 1862, and named it after the Czech word for falcon – Sokol, which is similar across the Slavic languages. His goal was to strengthen Czech and Slavic cultures, as he considered them endangered by Germanic imperial rule and influence.

Thus Sokol society embraced romantic nationalist ideas of the era, best illustrated by their peculiar uniform which combined a red Garibaldi shirt (popularised during the Italian Unification movement), brown Russian trousers, and a Polish revolutionary jacket topped with a Montenegrin cap.


Tyrs’ idea spread like wildfire among Slavic nations who lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and craved greater political and cultural autonomy. It also benefited from the late 19th Century Pan-Slavic ideology that originated in Russia, which called for greater cooperation between Slavic nations.

In the Slavic areas of the Balkans, this idea was also combined with nascent proto-Yugoslav ideologies, which besides calling for autonomy also foresaw a future union of South Slavic nations, which were then culturally and demographically intermingled.

After the founding of Ljubljana’s first Sokol society in 1863, societies explicitly embracing Sokol ideology were set up in Zagreb (1874), Novi Sad (1874), Belgrade (1891) and later in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

These societies expanded throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century and attracted prominent young writers, poets and politicians from all Slavic nations.

They used exercising together at international slets that were held across Europe to share their ideas and unite against what they saw as negative foreign influence.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, as tensions over Austro-Hungarian occupation and the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina grew, Sokol societies across the former Yugoslavia were cooperating to the point of wanting to unite into a single Sokol society in 1914, something that was thwarted by the Austro-Hungarian authorities.

After World War I, the Sokol movement was embraced and supported by the newly-minted Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which later formed a united Sokol Movement in 1919.

The ideology of the Sokols was used as a way of forging a common identity among its diverse population, which grew up in different states and with different religions.  This intention was best captured by their most famous motto: “Brat je mio ma koje vere bio” (A brother is dear, no matter what his faith is).

This ecumenical attitude, however, was opposed by the Croatian Catholic Church, which not only forced the Croatian Sokols to leave the common organisation, but also formed its own competing society Orlovi [Eagles], fearing that Sokolism would lead the people away from the church.

The Sokol movement in Yugoslavia came to the fore again when the country was destabilised after Stjepan Radic, a prominent separatist Croatian politician, was shot dead by a Montenegrin MP in 1928.

The following year, to gain control of the situation, King Aleksandar I suspended the constitution and introduced a dictatorship.

Orlovi were banned and the Yugoslav Sokol was relied on to forge stronger links between the youth of Yugoslavia’s diverse ethnic groups. To that end, Belgrade in 1930 hosted a massive, 20,000 person slet, which was held at a huge purpose-built wooden stadium.

Sumptuous Sokol halls (Sokolane) containing gyms and auditoriums were built across the country to symbolise the importance of the movement and spread its message. Their architecture was meant to symbolise strength, tradition and modernity of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Stari DIF, aka Sokol Hall Matica

The largest Sokolana, which was to serve as the HQ of the movement one was built in 1929 in West Vracar, based on the designs of Momir Korunovic and Nikolay Krasnov. Korunovic, due to his monumental neo-Serbo-Byzantine style (also called “National Style”) was the architect of many Sokol halls across the Kingdom (like the ones Banja Luka or Jagodina, or the demolished one in Uzice) and also of the aforementioned stadium which was located at the location of the present day Mechanical engineering School.

Apart from Korunovic’s signiture style, Sokolanas came in many different styles: from slightly various ornate romantic styles (Tabor in Ljubljana from 1926, which predates this period, or Brasovan’s Sokolana in Zrenjanin) to clean modernism (like Radnicki in Belgrade’s Crveni Krst Neighbourhood and Subotica’s main Sokol Hall).

Unfortunately, the inter-ethnic slaughter during World War II showed that the achievements of the Yugoslav Sokol were, at best, limited. Despite this, the Communist approach to rebuilding Yugoslav identity and ensuring that all of its citizens got along after suffering great violence at each other’s hands took a lot of inspiration from the Sokols.

Hej Sloveni, the beloved anthem of socialist Yugoslavia, was originally written by Samo Tomasik, a Slovak Lutheran pastor, and had been sung by Sokols across Europe since the late 19th Century.

When representatives of anti-fascist movements from all over Yugoslavia met in the Bosnian town of Jajce on 29 November 1943 to create what would become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and select its leader, Tito, they met in a former Sokol Hall.

Most importantly, Communists continued the push to create a unified Yugoslav identity, this time under the banner of ‘Bratstvo Jedinstvo’ (Brotherhood and Unity) which the slets and baton relay on 25 May garishly celebrated.

In this officially endorsed culture there was a strong focus on proportionality and shared goals, most obviously in the organisation of relays.

The relay route had to snake through all of Yugoslavia’s republics and regions, and the people carrying were chosen to reflect the ethnic composition of all areas it passed.

Although the Sokol idea of uniting nations through shared exercise seems quaint now, there is increasing scientific evidence that Tyrs was right, at least to an extent. More and more studies suggest that chanting and rhythmically moving in unison do create a sense of community and increase cooperation among strangers.

Who knows, maybe Yugoslavia might have eventually worked out if only more Yugoslavs had worked out together?

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy. You can fins an abbreviated version on the Balkan Insight Portal.

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