Zlin - the town that Bata built

Zlin, photo: www.zlin.cz

In this edition of Spotlight,we visit the south-east Moravian town of Zlin, a city famous for its footwear and film industries as well as for its rich heritage of folk culture and traditional music.

Although the first historical reference to Zlin dates back to 1322, it was never really more than a provincial backwater until the advent of Tomas Bata changed the town forever.

This visionary businessman set up his shoemaking business in the town of Zlin in the 1890s and revolutionised the footwear industry with the introduction of mass production techniques inspired by Henry Ford.

The success of his business meant that the town grew rapidly in the early 20th century as people flocked from neighbouring regions to staff Bata's expanding shoe factory.

Jana Macalova works at the Zlin Shoe Museum, which displays much of the footwear produced in the town at that time:

"Before Tomas Bata, the town had something like just 3000 people living here. If he hadn't arrived on the scene, I think Zlin would be have stayed a provincial town with no real history at all."

Tomas Bata's profound influence on Zlin stemmed from that fact that he sought to create a "total environment" for his workers. As a result, he built houses, sports centres, and entertainment complexes for his employees. These functionalist buildings are what have shaped the town's current appearance, making it a veritable treasure trove of 20th century architecture.

Most of the buildings were designed by renowned Czech architects Frantisek Gahura and Vladimir Karfik with the latter designing Zlin's famous 16-storey skyscraper, which at the time was the tallest building in Central Europe.

Besides its 20-century architecture and footwear industry, Zlin is also famous for its filmmaking tradition. More than 2000 film have been made here over the last seven decades, including many children's films and Czech animation classics. The town also hosts one of the world's largest film festivals dedicated to children's movies.

Jana Macalova says that the filmmaking industry in Zlin also owes much to the legacy of Tomas Bata:

"The studio started in the 1930s. It first made advertisements for the Bata company - for shoes, tires and things like that. Then it also started making some ordinary films and some series for children. I think that it's most famous for children's films now. The most famous people connected with these studios are Hermina Tylova and Karel Zeman. Karel Zeman made a film called Cesta do praveku, which is about a group of boys who go back to prehistoric times and meet all the funny creatures there like dinosaurs and so on. I think it's kind of like a precursor to Jurassic Park."

Bata shoe factory,  photo: www.czech-tv.cz
Although films are still made in Zlin, the shoemaking industry which Bata established in the town has all but disappeared. The shoe factory, which once employed thousands of people, found itself unable to cope with international competition once the market here was relaxed after 1989 and it closed in the 1990s.

The city endured a few tough years thereafter, as it struggled to come to terms with mass unemployment caused by the factory's closure. Thankfully, a number of new businesses in various fields such as rubber and leather processing have been cropping up to fill the void. Local businessman Boris Kovanda says this has helped the city recover some of the entrepreneurial spirit inspired by the example of Tomas Bata:

"I think industry in Zlin is now very diversified. There are many small and medium-sized companies in various styles of industry. People are trying to continue this [entrepreneurial tradition] here and they are managing to do it."

The main reason why the Zlin shoe factory failed to be competitive after the fall of communism was because it had become inefficient and unproductive after being nationalised following the communist coup in 1948. The communists also did their best to expunge the town's capitalist past by renaming the town Gottwaldov after the then party leader Klement Gottwald in 1949.

Although Zlin got its name back shortly after the Velvet Revolution, Boris Kovanda says that the communist renaming is something that still rankles with the town's inhabitants to this day:

"I don't know why they renamed the town Gottwaldov, but probably it was because they wanted to finish with the aura of capitalism surrounding Zlin. I think people in Zlin are now very sensitive about the name Gottwaldov. It's considered a little bit insulting. You can hear it at ice-hockey or football matches when Zlin are playing. Rival fans sing 'Gottwaldov, Gottwaldov' instead of 'Zlin are shit' or something like that."

These rival ice hockey fans Boris mentions are probably jealous of the fact that Zlin currently has one of the best teams in the Czech Republic, which regularly finishes in the top places in the country's national hockey league and actually won the competition outright two years ago.

Besides its ice hockey team, Zlin has produced a number of other well known sports stars including the legendary long-distance runner and four times Olympic gold medallist Emil Zatopek. Former world decathlon champion Tomas Dvorak also hails from the town.

Emil Zatopek | Photo: Roger Rössing,  Deutsche Fotothek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
One other local luminary worth mentioning is the documentary-maker and travel writer Miroslav Zikmund, whose travel films kept Czechs and Slovaks in touch with the outside world during the communist era.

Besides traditionally being a hub of industry, Zlin is also known as a centre of Moravian culture. Many age-old folk customs and musical traditions are thriving in the area and kept alive by the town's enthusiastic folk clubs.

Boris Kovanda says the vibrant folk culture in Zlin has a lot to do with its unique geographical position as well as the impact of the ubiquitous Tomas Bata:

"Zlin lies in the epicentre of three cultural areas - Wallachia, Slovacko and Hana. That's why people have many folk traditions here. Also when Tomas Bata was building up his company, he brought many people from outlying villages to work here and they brought many folk traditions with them. All these traditions still survive here in Zlin. Many small children keep them going in small folk groups and we all hope that this will sustain them for future generations."

Interestingly, this mix of people from different regions, which occurred in Zlin during the Bata years, not only enriched the town's cultural heritage it also had an impact on the type of Czech spoken here: Marcus Milton is an American translator of Czech who lives in the area:

"The Czech that is spoken here is probably the cleanest dialect of Czech, It's probably closer to textbook Czech than any other dialect in the Czech Republic. A lot of this has to do with Tomas Bata. He brought all these workers to the town from the different regions and in order for them all to communicate with each other better they used the standard Czech dialect."

Finally, we should warn you that if you plan on visiting Zlin, you will almost certainly be invited by some locals to join them in a shot of Slivovitz, a potent spirit which is synonymous with this part of Moravia. You can buy Slivovitz in any shop in the Czech Republic, but - as Jana Macalova says - most people in Zlin prefer to make their own version of this liquor, which many credit with having magical powers:

"I think it's very typical. I think it's sometimes called plum brandy in English. In the surrounding villages, in particular, people plant plum trees and then make Slivovitz out of these plums. Even my father does it. It's a very popular drink because some people claim that it's a cure - that you can heal anything with Slivovitz..."

Do you think that's true?

"Well, I had a friend once who had a toothache and he took a "sip" of Slivovitz and was OK..."