Czechoslovak Exile Scouting – The movement that binds many émigrés beyond the Cold War

Velen Fanderlik in 1934, photo: Skautský archiv

Once a sizeable organisation that stretched across many Western European countries, Czechoslovak Exile Scouting is a relatively little known phenomenon today. However, for many Czech émigrés it remains the source of some of their most beautiful memories. It was a way of bringing Czechs who had escaped the Communist regime together and maintaining the country’s unique Scout identity. Even today, offshoots of the organisation remain valuable tools for keeping the knowledge of Czech language and culture among the second and third generation of émigré children.

Founded by Antonín Benjamin Svojsík in 1911, Czech Scouting faced two major challenges to its existence in the twentieth century. The first came with the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, during which scouting was banned in the country. The second was in the form of another totalitarian regime – Communism – during which the Czech Scouts were gradually snuffed out through forced integration into their politicised communist equivalent – the Pioneers.

Today’s Scouts organisation in the Czech Republic often stresses that its members managed to continue to stay true to their ideals through underground activities, but little is generally said of another branch of Czech Scouting that formed in response to the realities of the Cold War – Czechoslovak Exile Scouting.

Velen Fanderlík

Velen Fanderlik,  photo: Skautský archiv

The man who seems to have been most responsible for this organisation was Velen Fanderlik, a Czech Scouts leader from a family of Dutch origin, who was forced to escape Czechoslovakia twice during his life, first when it was controlled by the Nazis and later when the Communists seized power.

During World War Two, Fanderlík first helped Czechoslovaks fleeing Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia get into France and, after studying law in England, was part of the team that prosecuted Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials.

He returned to Czechoslovakia after the war and set up his own law firm, but was forced to escape into exile again in 1947 after he found out he was on the list of persons to be arrested by the Communist infiltrated secret service. Scouting had experienced a brief boom in Czechoslovakia before the Communist takeover, reaching some 250,000 registered members between 1945 and 1948. However, it became the target of repression again after the February coup of 1948.

In the subsequent years, two show trials were led against the Scout leadership after several of its members were found to be taking part in resistance activities against the regime. Those who stayed in the country were often caught and forced to take part in propaganda show trials. Even those who did escape were sentenced in absence, among them Fanderlík himself.

An archival recording from one of these trials, dated to October 15, 1952, shows how the Scouts were viewed by the Czechoslovak Communists through the words of prosecutor Vladimír Bureš.

Velen Fanderlik at Jamboree in Canada,  photo: archive of Martin Thiel

“One of the instruments of the bourgeoisie, aimed at furthering its ideology and negating the class battle, especially among young people, is the Scout movement. It was founded by British General Baden-Powell in England at the end of the nineteenth century. It started as a militarist organisation aimed at preparing the youth for service in the British colonial army and police. At these Scout camps, young British boys were trained in special disciplines that were needed by military or police reconnaissance units in colonial possessions such as South Africa.”

Fanderlík escaped first to Germany and eventually settled in Canada where he got an education degree and became a teacher. The Communist intelligence services continued to hunt him for 15 years, but never found his location. Despite being a marked man, Fanderlík never ceased in his activity to keep the Czechoslovak Scout’s alive.

Already while in Germany, Fanderlík and his colleagues founded an exile Czechoslovak scouting Magazine called Skautská stopa (Scouts’ trail). Later in Canada he wrote several scout handbooks and sought to re-establish the organisation in some form under the uneasy conditions of the Cold War.

Several times, Fanderlík spoke on Radio Free Europe, recounting the Scout movement during the First Republic era. In one of the speeches that survive, he stressed the cultural strength of the Czechoslovak Scout organisation.

“Our camps were full of singing, music, and the reciting of tales. Our campfires were in the true sense of the word a theatre performance that you would not find anywhere else in the world. Our boys lived culture and both our boys and girls also had great creative talent. Just look at our chronicles and unit books.

“When I led the head of the World Bureau of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, Mr. Wilson, through Prague and Czechoslovakia, he was very impressed by the beautiful books of our units, which he, a man who had traveled across the world, had never seen before.”


Scout symbol,  photo: Martin Thiel

In 1969, together with Josef Kratochvíl, Fanderlík founded the Preparatory Headquarters for Czechoslovak Exile Scouting. The timing of the decision had not come out of the blue but was closely connected to the events of the previous year. In 1968 armies the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and there was now a sufficient source of people from which to establish the movement, says one of the organisation's later members, Václav Pavlovec, who has been researching the history of the Exile Scouts through sources such as its unfinished chronicle.

“There was a very strong connection there because a few hundred thousand people fled after 1968 and many of them were active Scout leaders. They wanted to continue in our own tradition, so they connected and that is why it happened in 1969.”

Scouting had been partly rehabilitated during the Prague Spring and many of the émigrés were also active Scouts who had begun forming their own organisations in the countries where they now had a refuge. However, these were small and isolated groups. Fanderlík and his colleagues were seeking to unite them under one big organisation, a goal that was eventually achieved in 1975, says Pavlovec.

“The headquarters of the federation was in Switzerland, where we also had two or three units. Most of the units were active in Germany, where there were around five or six. Then we had a unit in the Netherlands and there were also units in Austria. That was the main group. We also had connections to isolated Scouts who sometimes joined during the summer too, but mainly it was in those three countries.”

The isolated groups of Scouts seem to have existed also in Sweden, according to oral accounts of other Exile Scouts.

The Golden Years

Velen Fanderlik at Bobří hráz,  photo: archive of Martin Thiel

What followed were the golden years of Czechoslovak Exile Scouting. Despite all the obstacles of distance, groups of Czech Scouts were now meeting and organising camps.

One of its members was Martin Gelnar, a child at the time whose parents were among the 20,000  or so Czechoslovaks that decided to emigrate to Switzerland after 1968.

“For us young kids it was really something unique. I remember attending the World Jamboree in Norway in 1975. We were able to take part in that. There were about 20 of us from Switzerland and the same number from Germany. We traded badges, visited other camps, and made friends with people from countries that you probably have never even heard of. I was about 13 years old. I think that was about the high point of my experience within the organised Boy Scouts movement.”

One of his compatriots was Martin Thiel, who was part of a Czechoslovak Scout unit in Bavaria, Germany.

“My father was a Scout in Czechoslovakia between 1946 to 1948. Czechoslovak exile scouting was founded in 1975. There were two camps that took place before – in 1974 and 1973 – which my brother took part in. I was in the first ‘exile’ camp in Bavaria, called Velen 1.”

Thiel’s entire Scouting experience took place in the exile organisation and he eventually became one of the leaders in his local Bavarian unit. He recalls his experiences with great fondness but says that functioning as a Czech scouting branch in a different country was not always easy.

“There was a big problem in our organisation, because we are not like normal Scouts. We in Bavaria were a part of the German Scouts, but we could not operate like normal Scouts, because we had no long-term base. Our members lived across the whole of Bavaria, so we just saw each other at meetings and at the ‘big camp’, which was three weeks long.”

It was these annual “big camps” that would become the central component of Czechoslovak Exile Scouting. They were a place where the unique Czechoslovak form of Scouting could exist, recounts Martin Gelnar.

Velen 6 exile scout camp,  photo: archive of Martin Thiel

“The Czech Boy and Girl Scouts movement had a special feel to it. It had a tradition of its own. I think Czechoslovakia was the second or third country in the world that adopted the Scout movement, so the inspirations came from all kinds of people. There was Ernest Thompson Seaton who wrote adventure stories, which I think even left a mark on global literature. That certainly gave some inspiration. Another author who left an imprint was definitely [Czech writer and Boy Scout leader] Jaroslav Foglar.

“We would always sit together around a campfire in a Tepee and, on some occasions, take turns in reading the stories that Foglar wrote, because they all followed in the same vein. It was about clubs of young men, at that time almost exclusively, who do things together. They would go out camping, live through all sorts of adventures, and have competitions.“

Alongside these authors, the Czechoslovak Exile Scouts could also enjoy reading specifically tailored literature for their consumption thanks to the publishing house Skautská edice (Skauted), founded by the organisation's leaders in 1975. Václav Pavlovec says that in its high times, Skauted was a very active publisher.

"It was run mainly by Dr. Grantner, who was a senior leader of Slovak origin that lived in the Netherlands. There were many publications that looked very professional. We even had active writers who wrote adventure books for Boy Scouts. Besides Velen Fanderlík, who mainly focused on handbooks and manuals, we had a guy called Dr. Ctirad Kučera who also lived in the Netherlands and was quite a good writer. I recall that Skauted was very active for about 10 years, during which it published a lot of valuable material."

Aside from books and tales, there were of course also the real adventures. In the paranoid nature of the Cold War, these could sometimes lead to quite unexpected but humorous encounters. One such story happened to Martin Thiel’s Scout group.

Velen Fanderlik,  photo: archive of Martin Thiel

“We had been at a meeting in the Bavarian forest and our leader created a game. He made some notes that were ‘dropped by a Czech parachutist’ and we would have to find him and help him. To guide us, our leader left us some notes written in Morse code.

“We played the game, found him in the end and won, it was great. However, we forgot to clean up one of the messages that were in the field.

“A farmer found it. He looked at it and saw the Morse code, which seemed strange to him and brought it to the police, which then passed it on to the German intelligence service. They translated the code and believed that there really was a Czech parachutist in the Bavarian forest and started searching who was behind the message. They found our leader and asked him where the spy is. He had to explain to them that it was just a Scout game.”

Despite being strung out across wide areas and unable to operate as home-based Scouts do, the Czechoslovak Exile Scouts were sometimes able to join international Scout events and cooperations. In Bavaria, this took place especially with the local American Scouts, made up of children whose parents were usually posted in the country as part of the US military, says Martin Thiel.

“We were small and we did not officially exist, because Czechoslovakia abolished scouting, so we did not really get invited to many scouting events. However, the boy Scouts from America would invite us to springtime events and normally we would win. We were better than the Americans because we were trained in special Scout techniques, whether it was the Morse code, making knots, and fires in the rain.“

Since their country did not officially have its own Scout movement, Czechoslovak Exile Scouts could also run into unique complications solved in boyish fashion, as Thiel remembers.

“We were at the Eurocamp. There were about five exile scouting organisations there, so around 50 Czechoslovak Exile Scouts. We approached the main organisers and said: ‘Ok, we see you have the French flag and the German flag here. We want to have a Czech flag too.’ Then the German came and said: ‘No! You are a part of German Scouting. You are not allowed to have your flag here.’ So the American guys came and said: ‘Sorry, but the Germans will not allow that you wave your flag.’

“So we built a small flag in our camp and in the night the German boys, who were aged about 16 or 17, came and tried to steal our Czech flag. There was a big fight. All our smaller children were fighting these big German guys. Then the Americans saw that we are a small group opposing a lot of Germans so they came and helped us out. And we won! We threw the Germans out of our camp.“

Czechoslovak Scouts would also meet each other at regular bi-annual events called Exilorees, which were started in 1985. These international meetings helped further connect the émigré Czechs, says Martin Thiel.

"I would meet all of the Czech Scouts in the Netherlands, or Germany and I have friends in these countries now. I can go through the whole of Europe and I know someone in almost every country because they were an Exile Scout. You have a nickname and if you go abroad and say it, they will recognize you, because they met you at the Exiloree."

Another specific feature of the summer camps was the regular presence of Velen Fanderlík himself. In his seventies and living in Canada, the aging Scout leader now functioned more as a nominal presidential figure, rather than an active organiser. However, he made sure to visit the camps almost every year and pass on his knowledge and experiences to the young children.

“Yes of course. Velen Fanderlík.” recounts Martin Thiel, “Every year he came to all the camps and showed us how to make knots and tell us stories about scouting.

“He would come in brown trousers and the uniform and tell many stories about his scouting experiences. He was like a father to us. He sat and sang with us and he loved to make lassos.

“He was also politically active. I did not understand that much as I was a child, but he was very important. We had many organisations all around Europe and he would visit them all.”

His compatriot Václav Pavlovec remembers that Fanderlík would recount the early years of the Czechoslovak Scouts during the First Republic.

All of the Scouts who talked to Radio Prague International agreed that these were some of the best times of their childhood. Nevertheless, as the years went by, the inevitable reality of distance and small numbers again began to make a mark on the Exile Scouts' organisation, says Mr Pavlovec.

“We continued after 1985, but you saw a gradual decline as the children of the 1968 emigrants grew up and left the organisation. The Scouts are an organisation mainly for children after all and this was a natural decline.

“This process was partially slowed down mainly by the fact that after 1977 there was another emigration wave from Czechoslovakia after the publishing of the Charter 77. The state police there set up an operation called 'Asanace', through which they really tried to get rid of the political adversaries of the regime.

“That was a source of reinforcement for the Exile Scouts organisation.  However, these children eventually grew up too, so in the 1980s there was a gradual decline although we were still active.”

The real decisive blow came after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, says Martin Thiel.

“After 1989 there was a big problem because there was no emigration. There were not enough children. A lot of the organisations had to close. In Bavaria, because it was close to the Czech Republic, we had enough children until about 1995 to 1996, but then we also had to close.“

No longer exiles in a world of free movement, the Exile Scouts organisation changed its name after the revolution to Czech and Slovak Scouting Abroad. Gradually, with the rehabilitation of Scouting in the Czech Republic and ever fewer children aboard, the camps began closing one by one. The last to do so seems to have been the Vienna based unit under the leadership of Ing. Radko Pavlovec - nicknamed Blesk (lightning).

Keeping the flame alive

Nevertheless, something had been created in the hearts and minds of those who had grown up on Exile Scouting that could not be so easily erased. The idea of Scouting themed camps remained. At the very least, because it helped keep second- and third-generation émigré children in touch with their Czech roots.

Martin Gelnar led a Czech and Slovak Scouts Abroad camp in Switzerland during the 2000s.  It was much smaller and less formal than those he had grown up in but kept the emphasis on learning the skills of Scouts, as well as important parts of Czech culture, language, and literature, such as the aforementioned works of Jaroslav Foglar.

Children of multiple generations take part in the camps,  photo: Martin Thiel

“We were of course steeped in that sort of literature when we were kids, so we would try to give that same rite of passage to our own children. One or two books would go around the campfire and each kid would read a paragraph, which sometimes could be a bit of a challenge because some of these kids could not read Czech properly. That was a very distinct Czech aspect of our activities.”

Did it succeed in providing second-generation Czechs with a connection to their parents' homeland?

“Yes, I think it did help. In small ways perhaps. That book used to go around the campfire. For some kids, it was the first time they ever read anything in Czech. They had to touch those Czech books and try to understand them. A lot of times it did work. They got hooked because those stories really are very well written and very adventurous, something you can become fascinated by. It worked with our kids who are now young adults, 22 and 19, and experienced probably some of the best moments of their lives at these camps. I am sure others did as well.“

The signature Podsady of a Czech scout camp,  photo: Martin Thiel

Another tradition that marked out Czech Scouts which Gelnar was keen on maintaining was the old tradition of spending the summer camps in “Podsady” tents.

“Czechoslovak Scouts had their own tradition of building their tents, or huts (Podsady) which would consist of four wooden walls and a special tarpaulin hung over it. Sometimes that took three or even five days to construct. It was always an adventure, with lots of bloody fingers and those kinds of stories around it. It was also something everyone really remembered.

"The less fun part was that they always had to be disassembled at the end of the camp. That was a logistics nightmare, because we had to get all of the planks from the sawmill and the right kind of tarpaulin, because not all would fit.”

Morning assembly,  photo: Martin Thiel

The camp, located in a Swiss national park near the river Rhine, had to be canceled a few years ago, but Gelnar says there is a chance it could be revived soon.

"I recently received an email from someone in the Czech Republic who said that he knew through one of our acquaintances that we used to organise these summer camps called 'Válenda', which have become a sort of signature camp in Switzerland.

“Apparently there are people, mostly from the Czech Republic, that live here are in their 30s and have little kids, who say they would be interested in taking the camp over. Just a couple of days ago we agreed to meet at a common friend’s place to discuss it. So it might not be over just yet. I do not know if it will be a scout specific summer camp, or more of a family affair again, but the spirit will definitely be scout-like, because the nice part about the Scout movement is being in nature and learning skills.”

Scout Promise,  photo: Martin Thiel

Martin Thiel and his compatriots also organised their own camps. However, as interests and fads of the time changed, they had to incorporate themes from outside the original Scouts to keep the fading number of available children interested. This meant that the organisation could not be officially recognized as Scout camping.

Nevertheless, the Exiloree meetups of old Czech Scouts strewn across Europe continue to take place, albeit less frequently. In fact another Exiloree is planned for 2021, says Thiel, who visited Radio Prague International with his son Kristian. The latter is active in European Scouting, an organisation inspired by the Exile Scouts.

Kristian Thiel: “We do not have Exile Scouts anymore. But one of our founders was an Exile Scout and he built the organisation European Scouting in the year 2000. We are built on the principles of Exile Scouting. Also, today around half of our child members are connected to the Exile Scouts in some way.”

Camping,  photo: Martin Thiel

Martin Thiel: “The old Scouts, who had great experiences in the years before 1989 when they camped in Germany or Austria, they remember it fondly and I think they wanted their children to have these experiences too. That is why the European Scouting organisation was built I believe.”

The current organisation has similar benefits to the old Exile Scouts and Martin Gelnar's camp, keeping at least the basic knowledge of the Czech language and culture among the children and grandchildren of Czech émigrés. However, it also works both ways, says Martin Thiel, with children from families that have returned to the Czech Republic and therefore do not speak German, able to learn from their compatriots.

Another legacy of Exile Scouting are the still ongoing Exiloree international camps, he says.

Martin Thiel: “We did a camp called Exiloree Reloaded – Pod křídly jestřába a few years ago. There were around 50 to 60 old Scouts there who had children. Now we have about 5 or 6 children of these old scouts in our camp.”

Kristian Thiel: “More than that I would say.”

Martin Thiel: “At the next Exiloree, which should take place next year, we expect more old Scouts will send their children, because it is Scouting in the old fashion, with nothing prepared beforehand and everything built from scratch. We build everything. It is in the old fashion. Those who visit say they want to send their children there because it is a lot of fun."

Kristian do you want to add anything?

Modern scouts abroad - Kristian Thiel first from right,  photo: Martin Thiel

Kristian Thiel: “I would say it is not just about the old Exile Scouts. There are also second-generation Czechs who have their own children, or grandchildren, who are coming to the camp. I think it will work and grow bigger and bigger.”

MartinThiel: “He is the new generation. The old scouts are leaving the organisation and now is the time for the new generation to come. They have new ideas, they have to change it and that is really important. That happened in the exile scouts too. There was old generation who founded it in 1975. Then there was a change of generations in 1985 or 1986. Now there is the next change of generations. So us old scouts are just looking on and happy that we can build some of the camp houses.”

Whether scouting among Czech émigrés and expats does see a proper revival in the coming years or not, the role of its exile predecessor in keeping Czech culture and scouting alive is hard to dispute.  It remains an important memory and form of identity among those who formed the original group, with its core features still exciting their descendants today. Velen Fanderlik would surely rejoice over the rehabilitation of Scouting in the Czech Republic, but it may also have given him pleasure to see that the seeds he planted abroad are still sprouting branches.