Zlín and the legacy of Tomáš Bata


There is a city in Moravia built by immigrants. Until the 1920s Zlín was a small settlement in the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. Then two brothers Tomáš and Antonín Baťa founded a shoe-making company, based it there and changed history.

Zlín does not look like any other Czech or Moravian town or city. Its 77-meter brick high-rise right in the city center looks rather like something that belongs in an American city. Before WW II it was one of the tallest buildings in Europe. It was one of the symbols of the economic and cultural power of the Baťa shoe-making company. I start my visit in the Museum of Southeastern Moravia. Pavel Hrubec is its director:

Zlín | Photo: Daniel Kortschak,  Radio Prague International

„Zlín will be celebrating 700 years of its existence but in fact, its history is no more than 100 years old. Right until the 1920s it was a small and insignificant village and the real development started with the arrival of Tomáš Baťa and started building his business here. He provided work first for hundreds but soon for thousands of people who started coming from all over the place.“

So, under the Carpathian foothills, Zlín grew from a small village into a prosperous city. The new buildings were designed in the then prevailing functionalist architectural style. Zlín does not look like most other European cities:

„In a way, it is a small America both architecturally and socially. The modern United States was built by immigrants from many countries. Zlín was also built by immigrants but mainly from other regions of the country. Baťa attracted young brains not only from Czechoslovakia but also from Europe. He followed the example of companies in countries where production and societies worked well.“

Marie Woodhamsová is a former colleague of mine. She was born in Zlín and used to work for a local station of Czech Public Radio. Later, she spent many years as a correspondent in Vienna. Now retired, she returned to the city of her youth. She could have stayed in Vienna, where she raised a family. But she prefers living in Zlín in a nice comfortable apartment close to the center and former shoe factories:

Zlín | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

„This is one of the apartment blocks built by Baťa. It has been reconstructed several times, but I was very careful to keep the original layout. You know what it’s like: the subcontractors and builders often suggest changes, moving a wall here or there and opening a new door. I would have none of it. I was always behind their backs to make sure, that they keep the apartment the way it was designed and that is how it is to this day.“

You may wonder how Marie came to her very English surname “Woodhams” or “Woodhamsová”, as we Czechs say. Well, she married an English businessman who was based in Vienna, and this is how they met in the 1970s:

„I interviewed him. He came to Zlín for a business conference and the radio sent me to speak to him. One thing led to another, we started dating and then married. I refused to go to England because I wanted to stay closer to Zlín and my parents. And I also wanted my children to be closer to their home. The funny thing was it took me longer to get used to Vienna than my kids, they felt right at home there immediately.“

I am still curious: Marie spent many years in Vienna, one of the truly world-class cities with global connections, extremely rich architecture, history, and culture. Isn’t Zlín with its 75 000 inhabitants a bit of a boring provincial backwater?

„I think my home is definitely here in Zlín. That is for sure. Nevertheless, if I were in company with other people, some of whom would speak Czech and others German, I think I would switch sides every minute, depending on who would be speaking to me.“