Claire E. Nolte. The Sokol in the Czech Lands to 1914: Training for the Nation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 258 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-333-68298-2.
Reviewed by Cynthia Paces (Department of History, The College of New Jersey)
Published on HABSBURG (June, 2004)
"Every Czech a Sokol!"
The back cover of Claire Nolte's study of the Czech Sokol gymnastics organization is a stunning photograph from 1876. A group of middle-aged shirtless men pose together for a photograph of the Trainer's Group of the Prague Sokol. The men have been carefully arranged. Two drape their arms around one another; another lies on the floor; one puts his hand on his hip; and another leans his elbow on someone's shoulder. Two hold swords. In the center sits Sokol founder Miroslav Tyrs, legs crossed with his arm resting gently on his knee. He looks the intellectual that he was, except that he, too, appears in trousers but no shirt.
What makes the picture even more curious are the various gazes of the subjects. No one looks at the camera, and each man stares off in different directions into unknown distances. We do not know what they are thinking about or what uncertain future they look toward. Yet Claire Nolte's careful study of these men's influential patriotic organization will tell us that their divergent gazes demonstrate that the Sokol would have a variety of futures.
Nolte is primarily interested in describing how a group of idealistic, intellectual patriots--as pictured on the cover--became a mass movement. Nolte cites numerous scholars who agree upon the Sokol's immense popularity and influence. Yet, she laments, there have been "no scholarly studies of an organization that played such a key role in the modern history of the Czech nation" (p. 2). She has now filled in this scholarly gap with a detailed study of the Sokol's early history.
The Sokol was not, of course, the only nineteenth-century patriotic gymnastics organization. These clubs were prevalent in Europe, in particular in Germany, where Friedrich Ludwig Jahn's Turnverein had tremendous influence. France, too, had popular gymnastics clubs, and indeed modern gymnastics stemmed from the Enlightenment campaign to perfect the body as well as the mind of the new bourgeoisie.
Yet, Nolte's thesis states that the Czech version of patriotic gymnastics "was not, as elsewhere in Europe, a response to a military defeat, rather an effort to harness the rising national consciousness of the Czech masses to a political purpose" (p. 3). Her argument owes much to Miroslav Hroch, the Czech historian, who posited a model for the emergence of nationalism in the small nations of Europe. He broke down the phases of nationalism into three distinct phases: (A) when isolated scholars first formulate the ideas of national identity; (B) when local elites begin to embrace these values; and (C) the period of mass politics. As Nolte points out, Hroch has primarily written about stage B, as have numerous other historians of Bohemia. Nolte wants to understand better the mechanisms of phase C when nationalism becomes more "iconocentric" rather than "linguacentric," and is accessible to the masses and not merely an educated elite (p. 2).
Nolte's book details the Sokol's evolution from its founding in 1862 to the eve of war in 1914 and examines multiple facets of the Sokol, including class, gender, religious and nationalist ideas. She argues that the organization served as a testing ground for various ideas about the nation. In its slogan "Every Czech a Sokol!" the society hoped to represent the inclusiveness of the small nation. Indeed, even Tyrs, the founder of the Sokol, adopted his Czech identity, having been born as Friedrich Emanuel Tirsch in a German-speaking family and community. Czech women, students and workers could also find public roles in this inclusive, progressive movement. Yet the society was susceptible to more dangerous--Nolte calls them "mature"--nationalisms that developed in the twentieth century. The Sokol had periods of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and became increasingly militaristic as the Habsburg monarchy headed toward ruin. And ultimately the Sokol was a highly masculinized movement, which revered the developed, strong, and coordinated male body.
The Sokol in the Czech Lands is an extremely useful book for scholars of the Habsburg monarchy and the Bohemian lands, who will enjoy Nolte's careful attention to detail and her excellent bibliography and notes. Scholars of nationalism will be interested in seeing how an intellectual concept of nation became fused with the physical aspects of social belonging. The book is an institutional and political history, describing the relationship between a voluntary organization and a developing national movement.
Throughout the book, we learn more about the bourgeois leadership of the organization than the vast membership that is brought into the movement. Nolte does cite George Mosse, but there is potential to incorporate even further his methods of studying the rise of German nationalisms. His now-classic Nationalization of the Masses taught us how to "read" Central European festivities, monuments and national insignia. Nolte describes Sokol slets (festivals) and some of the symbols of the Sokol, but there is room to develop her analysis of the "iconocentric stage of the movement" even further.
Although gymnastics is at the heart of the study, and Nolte describes Sokol sports and exercises, her primary concern is not the construction of the body through a nationalist ideology. Again, George Mosse could serve as a model to inspire more analysis on how Sokol members conceived the national body. In Nationalism and Sexuality he posits the centrality of male homosexual and homosocial belonging in the construction of national identity. Nolte does show us that the movement became more masculine and militaristic (and less friendly to its female members) as the First World War approached. The Sokol's virile fraternity could be analyzed throughout the study, though. One need only to look at the 1876 cover photograph to see that male friendship was a central feature of the movement from the outset. Bourgeois men--lawyers, politicians, and professors--are partially nude, brandish swords, and affectionately touch one another. One of the most exciting developments in postcolonial and gender history is the study of masculinity as an organizing principle of political and cultural movements. Indeed, we scholars of the Habsburg lands could raise interesting parallels from recent theoretical contributions to the study of nationalism by numerous postcolonial scholars who are grappling with the intersection of the idea of the nation and the physical bodies that actually make up the nation.
Sports itself has been a fruitful area of study in this burgeoning field. The recently published "May the Best Man Win", by Patrick F. McDevitt, explores the intersections among sport, gender, and class. As working classes, women, and colonial subjects questioned the power structures in Britain, the male bourgeoisie turned to sport to assert and confirm its strength. Imperial Game, edited by Keith A. Sandiford and Brian Stoddart, shows how male colonial subjects embraced Britain's national game as a way to challenge imperial authority. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire is not parallel to the vast British Empire, particularly because race was less of a factor, scholars in our field would do well to ask how the Czechs and other minorities reshaped the masculine body to "speak" to their empire.
Nolte provides us with a microcosm of Bohemian politics from 1862-1914, and I hope future scholars will use her painstaking and organized research to launch other projects on the national body. With Nolte's work as inspiration, Habsburg specialists can look to the physical body as another site where the nation is constructed and reconstructed.
. George L. Mosse, Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany, from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991; reprint, New York: H. Fertig, 2001).
. George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York: H. Fertig, 1985; reprint, New York: H. Fertig, 1997).
. Patrick F. McDevitt, "May the Best Man Win": Sport, Masculinity, and Nationalism in Great Britain and the Empire, 1880-1935 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
. Keith A. Sandiford and Brian Stoddart, eds., Imperial Game: Cricket, Culture and Society (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998).
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Cynthia Paces. Review of Nolte, Claire E., The Sokol in the Czech Lands to 1914: Training for the Nation.
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