Markéta Křížová: “Czechs and Slovaks were known as desperate to get to US during ‘20s”

Markéta Křížová, photo: Prokop Havel, Czech Radio

What were the roots behind Jan Antonín Baťa’s idea to settle Czechs in South America? And, how should colonialism be taught in Czech schools? These are some of the questions we ask Charles University historian Markéta Křížová, an expert on pre-Colombian civilisations and American colonial history, in part two of our interview. We began by asking her whether it is true that Togo was considered as a possible colony by Czechs after the First World War. 

“It is true, but it was probably not a very intensive effort. In the winter of 1918/19, when peace negotiations were going on in Paris, it was decided that Germany would lose her colonies. In the Czech press, several articles appeared discussing the possibility of acquiring the colonies. Togo was named in some of them. The others were just discussed in abstract, like discussing if it would be profitable for the new Czechoslovak nation to have colonies, if it would be capable of keeping and developing them and what it would mean for Czechoslovakia in the concert of nations.

“This probably never came up during the actual negotiations. I was not able to find anything, whether in the protocols or in other sources. However, the newspaper articles were very interesting to me, because they show the attitude of at least a part of the intellectual community with respect to the colonial question. This is precisely the subject of colonial complicity, or colonial phantasies.

“In the Czech press, several articles appeared discussing the possibility of acquiring the colonies. Togo was named in some of them.”

“What struck me in a huge way was the fact that a people that had just liberated itself from 300 years of Habsburg oppression could seriously discuss oppressing inhabitants of some none European regions. Interestingly enough, the question of native inhabitants was never mentioned in those discussions.

“It was all discussed from the economic point of view, how profitable it would be to have our own sources of colonial goods, how expensive it would be to keep a port in the Adriatic or in Hamburg, how important it would be part of the deciding body, that all the big powers have their colonies so we might have just this very small colony of our own and then there were some others who said: ‘Well, you know, these are very unrealistic phantasies so let’s just focus on developing our own country.’ However, the problem of oppressing another group of people never came up.”

If you had to walk us through the phases, let’s say we start from 1492 (the discovery of America by Cristopher Columbus), is it possible to say there were different phases in how the colonies were viewed from Bohemia, or did it just happen in the nineteenth century?

“It is a difficult question. First of all, I think that if we talk about Columbus’ voyage and what happened after, this brought about a tremendous intellectual transformation all over Europe.

“Basically, from being the centre of the world Europe just became one tiny part of an enormous mosaic of peoples, although the invention of the printing press also played a part. This was something that completely put those thousand-year-long ideas of how the world is established on its head.

“By the way, it also greatly inspired the reformist streams within the Catholic Church. I think it is no surprise that Luther comes within one generation of this. There were some proponents of reform before, but it was Luther who got the audience, because the whole society was shattered.

“During this early period I think what how this world was perceived in the Czech lands, as elsewhere in Europe, the colonies were seen as a source of enormous wealth and also they were seen through the religious lends, by that I mean potential for missions as we saw with the Jesuits and so on.

“This changes with the enlightenment. At one point it also transforms the way others are seen, from religious to biological, racist thought. The Christian way of seeing the pagans is basically egalitarian. They are all descendants of Adam. Jesus died for them as well, so once they are converted they will actually be equals. This changed with the enlightenment.

“Basically, from being the centre of the world Europe just became one tiny part of an enormous mosaic of peoples.”

“Precisely during the enlightenment the intellectuals in the Czech lands, we cannot speak for the general population, have feelings of being marginalised. So there is this change. But I think that from the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century you can see the effort to marginalise non-Europeans in discussions, so that we can be seen as educated Europeans.”

I wanted to venture away from the colonialism question to another phenomenon, which is of course Czech migration to these areas. We know quite a lot about the migration to North America, many Czechs settled there during the Habsburg Empire, but what about Latin America? I understand you wrote about that and there was a phenomenon of Czechs moving there during the first half of the twentieth century, am I right?

“Yes. There were not so many as in North America, but precisely during the first half of the twentieth century with the establishing of quotas for immigrants to the United States there were many Czechs who decided to move to South America.

Jan Antonín Bat’a, photo: Czech Television

“I did some research on permanent migration, but what struck me as much more interesting was short-term migration. It was some sort of continuation of journeyman travels in the earlier periods when there were young men and women too who spent several years working either in some European country or decided to move from there to North or South America, basically moving within the American continents, and sent home money. Some of them maybe decided to settle, calling their friends or families, or they just took their savings and returned home. In every region you have these migrants, but it is very difficult to trace them in the sources, because they had no possessions, no passports they had no passports, or if they did they used them to get to France or Italy and then moved to America.

“I do have some testimonies and it is interesting to see how they were bringing the New World to Central Europe. I think they were actually much more influential than the permanent migrants, who may perhaps have sent remittances, letters, or perhaps some Christmas presents, but got separated from the body of the community, or the nation.  However, these temporary migrants who were sometimes moving back and forth were bringing a piece of the big world back to their home country.

“This peaked during the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half there were also workers, who worked in Africa, India or Mongolia, but there were not so many of them and they were under much greater scrutiny from the state.”

You say it is very hard to trace, but do we have an idea about which were the most popular destinations in South America for these people?

[The discovery of America] also greatly inspired the reformist streams within the Catholic Church. I think it is no surprise that Luther comes within one generation of this.”

“Argentina and Brazil. These were two countries which offered work, good conditions and the weather was the most suitable for Europeans. Mexico was problematic politically. Central America was very unsuitable with bad local conditions, while Chile and Peru were quite far away.”

Since we are talking about Latin America, I know there was this proposal by Jan Antonín Baťa, when the Germans had occupied Bohemia and Moravia, that the Czech population would be moved to South America. Could you tell us about that and where was this hypothetical new settlement?

“It was in Brazil. Actually one of my students who is a Brazilian but lives here in the Czech Republic wrote a fantastic Master’s Thesis on this utopian vision of Bata. It was actually even before the war and Davy, my student, thought that it was a continuation of these utopian visions formulated during the colonial period also by the Jesuits of America as a land of new beginning. Furthermore, it was of course in line with many other utopian European projects formulated in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.”

Sorry to jump in, but you said it had started already before the war, so how did this utopian vision come about? You said it was because of this fascination which you were describing before, but how did Bata think that the Czechs would even agree to this? What did he think the Czechs would gain if you know what I mean?

“The issues of colonialism help us see the entanglement of social, political, cultural and economic relations in which the Czech lands were entrapped ever since the Middle Ages.”

“I think it was the same line of thought as that of the authors of articles about Czech colonies after World War One. Don’t forget that there were tens of thousands of Czechs leaving Czechoslovakia at this time. By the way, Czechs and Slovaks were known during the 1920s for being desperate to get to the United States. They may not have been able to get there legally, but they wanted to make their way there at any costs. They sold everything here, paid smugglers, got to Cuba and from there they got on boats and if they did not drown they got to the Mexican coast after which they moved on foot to the border with the United States which they tried to cross it to find a better living. You cannot imagine the conditions under which the poorer classes lived in marginal regions of Czechoslovakia. They would get work [in America], decent living conditions and of course there was also this big idealisation of American nature as virgin and unspoiled as well as the beneficial effects of the sun on populations troubled by tuberculosis and similar diseases. So, there were tens of thousands of people leaving Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Do we know which part of Brazil Bata’s utopia was in?

“I think it was in Southern Brazil, but I would have to check.”

Because it was similar to the homeland in terms of conditions?

“Yes.”

Do you think this aspect of Czech colonialism, or colonialism in general should be taught more in schools? It is being taught in terms of the which parts of the world were colonised by the empires and so on, but do you think the, let’s say, realities of it should be taught more in Czech schools?

“I hate this artificial separation between Czech history and world history. There is no such thing. It is always connected.”

“Well, of course the curricula are already pretty full, but what I think should be taught in general is Czech history in context. I hate this artificial separation between Czech history and world history. There is no such thing. It is always connected.

“The issues of colonialism help us see the entanglement of social, political, cultural and economic relations in which the Czech lands were entrapped ever since the Middle Ages. This, I think, is important. When children at school look at themselves and think where the clothes were produced, or the food they had for breakfast was produced, they realise that we are part of the wider world and this was the same 200 years ago.”

You said that the curriculum is already pretty packed. Colonial ventures are a massive topic. However, let’s say that they agree to devoting 60 minutes of school curriculum to this subject and you can choose. What would you choose from that giant chapter of history? In other words, what you think is most important for Czechs to learn from this area?

“I would use the keyword ‘relations’, or ‘networks’, as well as the keyword ‘otherness’, meeting the other. That is, I think, a crucial point of colonial history, and, let’s say meeting the other to your own milieus. Because, much of the stuff that we are using nowadays, starting with potatoes was introduced from the outside and introduced to our needs.”

So something like learning about how people adopted potatoes, since you are using that example?

“Yes.”