Hidden Belgrade (57): Friends in need… or how Czechs and Slovaks shaped Belgrade

In the past few years much is made about Serbia’s alliances, whether old (albeit tumultuous) ones like those with Russia and France and or relatively recent ones with China and the UAE. Despite many memorial events in the past few years related to 80th anniversary of the start and 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, it is remarkable that no one decided to mark the first anti-Nazi protest that took place in Belgrade, in the days leading up to the infamous Munich agreement negotiations of September 1938, in support of another traditional ally of Serbia: Czechoslovakia.

The friendly relationship between these Slavic nations goes all the way to the beginnings of modern Serbia and Czech and Slovak national revival in mid-19th century, although some theories would have it that ancestors of Serbs, Czechs and Slovaks were even neighbours before the former moved from what is now Saxony to settle the Balkans.

The brand new Serbian Principality was in dire need of educated civil servants and industrialists to help it catch-up somewhat with Western Europe, and many of those who decided to their luck in the fledgling new country were from what are now Czechia and Slovakia.

The most famous early Czech emigre was Ignjat (Ignaz) Bajloni from Litomyšl, who was persuaded by his sister and brother in law Antonín Němec to move to Serbia rather than the US. Although since Ignaz moved to Točider in 1855 the Bajloni family tried their luck in several trades, from leathercrafting to operating a mill, but they struck gold when they bought and upgraded an old brewery at the end of Skadarlija, which led them to become one of the most influential families in Serbia, with one of the oldest green markets in Belgrade carrying the name of their patriarch.

The influence was even greater in the arts and education. Janko Šafarík, the elder brother of one of the pioneers of Slavic linguistics Pavel Jozef Šafárik, was an important educator in late 19th century Serbia who was in key in founding of the main cultural institutions in Belgrade, from the National Museum to the National Library, while Kiril Kutlik, of Křížlice, opened the first art school in Belgrade in 1895.

The long line of Czech and Slovak architects working in Serbia started with Jan Nevole, who between 1858 and 1863 designed the then tallest building in Serbia, Kapetan Miša’s mansion (currently used at the main building of Belgrade University) and František Nekvasil who in 1888 designed and named hotel Slavija (after its more famous and still exiting Prague counterpart), which, although long gone, still gives the name to Belgrade’s most hated roundabout.

Jan Nevole’s Kapetan Miša Mansion

The general spirit of Pan-Slavism in the Habsburg Empire, most directly embodied in the Sokol movement, also gave rise to a lot of cooperation between Czech, Slovaks and all Southern Slavs in the Empire. In 1900 Alphonse Mucha designed the Bosnian pavilion for the Paris Universal Exposition and the great Slovene architect and designer Jože Plečnik, lived in Prague between 1911 and 1921, and was appointed by Tomáš Masaryk, to be the chief architect for the 1920 renovation of the Prague Castle.

The end of WWI, and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and Czechoslovakia, made both countries important lynchpins of the post-Versailles order without solving many of their internal contradictions. Both states had large German and Hungarian minorities which were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the post-Versailles arrangements, and their complex nature proved to be a fertile ground for feuding between their constituent nations.

These shared challenges brought the two nations together in the inter-war period and their cooperation was never greater, as can be seen on the impact the architects from the two countries had on one another. While Plečnik was rebuilding the Prague castle, Czechoslovak architects were responsible for modernising Belgrade. Jan Dubovy created his Art Deco masterpiece with the Belgrade Observatory at Zvezdara, while Matija Bleh and Franjo Urban also left many striking buildings in the city. The formal ties of the two countries were crowned with imposing buildings of the Czechoslovak embassy (in Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 22 built in 1928 by Alois Mezer) and Czechoslovak society HQ (in Svetozara Markovića 79) in Belgrade, the building of the College of King Aleksandar in Prague (built in 1933 by Nikola Dobrović which servexsas halls of residence for Yugoslav students in Prague), as well the construction of the largest Serbian military cemetery in Jindřichovice, close to the location of WWI PoW camp.

The ties were also maintained through the Sokol movement. A particularly poignant description of the close relationship was given by those attending the last pre-WWII Sokol meeting in Prague, in June 1938. Niko Bratulović described that Yugoslav flags and pins were  

Coveted by the Czechs and Slovak like “magical amulets” while any train brining Yugoslav athletes was covered with flowers. Hrvoje Macanović, who was producing radio dispatches from the slet told his hosts, who were sliding towards the Sudeten crsis, that they should “rest assured that there are thousands of friends in the Slavic south willing to prove that the (Sokol) motto “Fidelity for fidelity” is real, not only with pens, but also with blood”.  

Belgrade Sokols organised a meeting in June 1938, attended by over 3500 people,  in support of Czechoslovakia, where one of the main speakers was Ivo (Lola) Ribar, who assured the audience that Yugoslav students are willing not only to defend their country, but very presciently that “the defence of Czechoslovak independence is defence of Yugoslav independence.”

This view of the paramount importance of not giving in to Hitler’s demands was not shared by the UK and France, which eventually led to the negotiations to end the Sudeten crisis in September 1938, as Germany was already clamouring to go to war, while Poland signalled indifference to Czechoslovakia’s problems.

On the same day the British PM Chamberlain travelled to meet with Hitler, September 22, Belgrade’s Sokols and Students sent a letter in support of Czechoslovakia which was read over the radio in Prague. On September 25, the day after Hitler issued Godesberg Memorandum, which demanded that Czechoslovakia gives over the Sudetenland to Germany, Belgarde’s Sokols decided to meet in front of their HQ in Deligradska. This really was banned by the Belgrade police on behest of the Yugoslav Government, which desperate not to ruffle feathers, however a crowd of about 4000 Sokols nevertheless gathered in Terazija to protest the Nazi ultimatum. As the crowed moved towards the Czechoslovak embassy they were attacked by the police and many were beaten, including the head of Belgrade’s Sokol chapter Petar Čolović.

While the riots were raging in Belgrade, the main body of the Yugoslav Sokol movement issued a statement in which it asked for “solidarity of all Slavic peoples in these fateful days” and expressed “warm sympathy and solidarity with the brotherly Czechoslovak Sokol movement and unwavering faith in the victory of justice and truth”. While the Sokol leaders met with the Yugoslav PM Milan Stojadinović on September 26, Yugoslav government remained hesitant to support Czechoslovakia. The Munich agreement was reached on 30 September which paved way to the dismembering of Czechoslovakia by Germany, Hungary and Poland.

Although the ties with post WWII Czechoslovakia continued, and Yugoslavia adopted the anthem of the Sokol movement as its national anthem, they did not reach the strength of the inter-war years in part due to the awkward relationship between Yugoslavia and USSR. Still, in 1968, twenty years after the Sudeten crisis, Czechoslovakia once again looked towards Yugoslavia for support in its pushback against the Soviet domination. On his visit to Moscow, Tito was vocally supportive of the Prague spring and even visited Prague in August 1968, just a few weeks before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to depose Dubček. Nevertheless Prague remained a popular destination of Yugoslav artists, esepcially filmmakers. Emir Kusturica, Lordan Zafranović, Goran Marković and Goran Paskaljević all completed Prague’s prestigious film school, where they were influenced by the work of Miloš FormanJiří Menzel and other Czechoslovak auteurs.


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