Antonín Čermák: from Czech miner to Chicago mayor

You might not recognise the name straight away, but Antonín Josef Čermák - a miner’s son from Kladno, Central Bohemia - is one of the most famous Czech-Americans to have ever lived. Anton (or Tony) Cermak became mayor of Chicago at the height of prohibition, overhauled Democratic Party politics in the city, and was then assassinated in the most mysterious of surroundings. All quite dramatic for someone who started his career selling firewood…

Josef Opatrný
Josef Opatrný teaches American history at Prague’s Charles University. A specialist in the period, he says that Cermak belonged to one of the first big waves of Czech immigration to the states:

“Anton Cermak arrived in the United States in the 1870s. This time, following on shortly after the American Civil war, had a great significance for European emigration to the United States.”

During this period, thousands of Czechs emigrated to America, lured by the promise of land. Abraham Lincoln’s government was offering 160 acres of the Midwest’s finest turf to settlers from Europe as part of the government’s Homestead Act. But there were other reason’s for urban Czechs like Cermak’s father to emigrate, as Josef Opatrný explains:

“At the end of the 1860s, a wave of Czech intellectuals - such as the famous poet Václav Sládek - went to the United States. Václav Sládek came back after a short time, but with lots of information about the excellent conditions there, both in terms of the political freedom and the economic opportunities to be had. And these conditions weren’t just there for farmers, they were in place for anyone who was willing to work. Industrial labourers and miners etc. could benefit as well. And Anton Cermak’s father was a miner from Kladno, who said to himself, armed with just this information, that he would take his family with him and start a new life abroad.”

Cermak and his family moved to Braidwood, Illinois, where young Anton went to school for three years before joining his father down the mines. When he was old enough, Tony moved to Chicago to make his fortune in the big city. But what was the Chicago of the time like? Again, Josef Opatrný:

“Chicago was becoming an important industrial centre, and an important centre for the processing of agricultural products in particular. And at this time, the symbol of Chicago - one of the city’s biggest businesses - were its slaughterhouses. So Chicago was processing tonnes of meat, and requiring a massive labour force to do so. And this is what originally brought young Cermak to Chicago. He really took like a duck to water in the cosmopolitan city atmosphere. And he quickly realized that the differences between the numerous ethnic groups living there could prove to be politically important. He started to get involved in the Democratic Party.”

Cermak’s political star rose fast…

“In the 1900s he first became a member of the Illinois state legislature, and quickly advanced through its ranks. His political career peaked in 1931. It really was enormous, his achievement – he became one of the most important American Czechs ever – his career peaked when he was voted mayor of Chicago.

“And it is interesting to remember that all this was at a time when Chicago was being hailed as the second biggest Czech city in the world. Because, in the 1920s and 1930s, statistics tell us that more than 100,000 Czechs were living there.”

According to Doctor Opatrný, while Czechs and Germans, say, living beside each other in Europe would not necessarily get on with each other at the time, these national tensions vanished upon arrival in America:

“Cermak was, I think, a very able politician indeed, and he certainly used this to his advantage. And I’ll tell you another thing he really used in his favour in the run up to the mayoral elections of 1931 – he used the fact that in America at this time, Prohibition was still in place.”

Cermak is said to have overhauled Democratic Party politics in Chicago. He wooed some key black politicians away from the Republican Party and over to the Democrat side. As the only foreign-born mayor that Chicago has ever had, he won over and united the city’s different immigrant communities. Since Cermak’s predecessor, William Thompson, Chicago has never had another Republican mayor.

Cermak also waged a war on Prohibition - or more specifically on the gangsters such as Al Capone who were thriving on the black market that Prohibition brought about. Cermak battled to scrap Prohibition altogether, which made him some powerful enemies.

In 1933, Cermak was shot. But no one is completely sure whether this was an assassination attempt upon him, or President-elect Franklin D Roosevelt, who he was shaking hands with at the time. Cermak died from his wounds some weeks later, and his assassin, Guiseppe Zangara was executed. What is Doctor Opatrný’s take on it all?

“I think that it was most likely an attack on Mayor Cermak. But of course, American historians have been arguing about this for 70 years and still haven’t come to a conclusion. There are motives for both cases, but I think it was probably Cermak that Zangara was aiming for. But it’s also true that after the attack Cermak was quoted as saying to Roosevelt ‘I’m glad it was me and not you’. And this is taken as a proof that Cermak himself thought this was an attack on Roosevelt.”

Throughout his life, Cermak maintained contact with his motherland:

“Cermak left Czech soil when he was only one year old. But he spoke fluent Czech, and he kept in touch with the Czech community, not only in the United States, but here as well. He visited what was then Czechoslovakia in 1932. He had been in contact with Tomas Garrigue Masaryk during the First World War, when he was already a significant politician. And when he came here in 1932, it was in part to spend his holidays with President Masaryk in Topolčianky.”

In fact, we have Czech Radio archive footage of Anton Cermak during his Czechoslovak visit. Here he is greeting his ‘listeners and countrymen’ with the slightest of American accents.

In his speech, Cermak encourages Czechs to venture to Chicago to witness the World’s Fair being held there the following year. The legacy of both the fair, and indeed Cermak himself, live on in Chicago nearly a ‘century of progress’ later. Next time you take the red metro line to what is now ‘Cermak – Chinatown’, spare a thought for the miner’s son from Kladno who really made it good.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 18, 2008.