Bonvenon al Hluk! Bohemian and Moravian hinterland or hotbed of Czech (inter)nationalism?

by Bernhard Struck

History is not only played out over time but across space. This is true for many aspects of the past, yet in particular for Esperantujo. “Ujo” in Esperanto indicates “place” or “community”. And both place and space matter in Esperantoland, that is the places and geographies where Esperanto was (or is) spoken and practiced. And in 1913 it seemed it was spoken everywhere.

In a rather excited tone, Harold B. Mudie (1880-1916)  reported from his recent 1,900 mile trip across Europe from England via France, Germany, into the Tatra Mountains to Bucharest and Sofia as well as through parts of Transylvania. This was quite a journey for the time and one, Mudie added, he could not have imagined without the help of Esperanto. Hiking through the Tatra Mountains he was greeted three times that day in Esperanto. About his stay in Bucharest, he wrote, “it seemed impossible to walk for a quarter of an hour without meeting someone or other to whom to say ‘Bonan Tagon’”. And from Transylvania he wrote:

Then again, in the little walled city of Segesvar, in Transylvania, we had a quaint experience. We discovered an Esperantist who knew nothing whatever about the movement, and hardly knew the name of the founder, but had learnt Esperanto merely as a useful interesting language; and there we had a glimpse into the future, when our language will have been officially adopted, and to a certain extent the glamour pioneer days will be a matter of history. (The Esperanto Monthly: A Magazine for Teachers and Students of the International Help Language, London: 1913, p. 4)

Mudie was not just any traveller. He was an ardent Esperantist and Esperanto pioneer. He served both as president and vice-president of the BEA (British Esperanto Association) from 1912 to 1916. He was one of the figure heads behind the early British Esperanto magazines such as The Esperantist (later The British Esperantist), he visited congresses nationally and internationally and served as president the UEA (World Esperanto Association). So, his excitement is only natural and perhaps one ought to take it with a pinch of salt given that he published his brief travel reminiscence in The Esperanto Monthly. His report was from within and, ultimately, for the wider Esperanto community, surely seeking to convince fellow and future Esperantist that the present and the future of the language looked bright. Although, perhaps he was right. Esperanto was seemingly everywhere around 1912/13.

In an earlier blog post I have written about the idea, logic and practicality of mapping and visualising the Esperanto movement as a heuristic tool first and foremost. From the maps based on the attendance list of the annual universal congresses between 1905 and 1914 two geographical patterns emerged. First, the “connectivity belt” that runs from east central Europe including Poland, Warsaw, Bohemia, Prague, Krakow through central Europe, the German Reich, in particular along the Rhine area, via France and Belgium to England. While each congress had a strong local to regional attendance, the east-west connectivity belt is always present and a key marker of congress participation prior to 1914.

Map: Geographical distribution of attendants of the 1912 Krakow International Esperanto Congress. Bernhard Struck

Second, when mapping the congress attendants over a longer period and multiple congresses prior to 1914, a number of regional clusters or hotbeds of the early Esperanto movement stand out. These include first and foremost the English Midlands around Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and the Rhine area along the Franco-German-Belgium stretching south towards Switzerland. This roughly corresponds with the so-called Blue Banana – the region of high urbanisation that stretches from northwest England across Greater London via the Dutch Randstad through the Rhine area and south towards Lombardy.

Yet another region stands out: The Czech Lands, that is Bohemia and (parts of) Moravia. In my database of international congress attendees Bohemia stands out. Prague is surrounded by a dotted east-west stretch of locations from where Esperantists headed to international congresses. A total of 580 or 7.3% of all congress participants came from Prague, Bohemia and parts of Moravia – from places like Brno, Pardubice, Holice, Hradec Králové, Kutná Hora, Kukleny, Prelouc, Milovice, Jaroměřice, Prostějově, Plzeň, or České Budějovice.

Map: Representing the geographical distribution of Bohemian congress participants, 1905-1914 (total 580 / 7.3% of all congress participants). Bernhard Struck

If the visualisation of the geographical distribution of Esperantists serves primarily heuristic functions, the question is: why is it that some regions such as Bohemia stand out? Why is it that in some regions Esperanto fell on more fertile ground than in others? What were early Esperantists in particular from more “peripheral” places doing with the language?

There is overall little research that zooms into local and regional scales. Yet taking inspiration from the visualisations of congress participation, the question of scale and Spatial History, the local and regional scale seems to be an important (missing) lens to understand the early Esperanto movement.

As my research on Bohemia and the early Esperanto movement more broadly is still work in progress, I can only follow some first ideas, hypothesis, and comparisons – the latter stemming from some of the other projects involved in our “Esperanto & Internationalism” project at St. Andrews University.

First, the database of all international congress participants allows for some socio-professional profiling of Esperantists in comparative perspective. In some regions physicians such as Jerzy Loth stand out as a core professional group of the early Esperanto movement. This was the case in Warsaw and Poland as the work by Marcel Koschek highlights. In the case of Bohemia, we find a number of professions yet the one that stands out is teaching. A high number of Bohemian Esperantists were high school teachers and actively engaged in promoting the language locally, in their school curricula, as well as in their club activities and writings. The professional profile is an interesting, if not a striking parallel between Bohemia and the English Midlands (but time will tell if this becomes a comparative angle).

Among these pedagogues was, for instance, Theodor Čejka (1878-1957) one of the pioneers of the movement general and certainly in Bohemia. He started studying Esperanto as early as 1900 and soon began publishing learning materials and Czech-Esperanto dictionaries. He translated a number of Czech works into Esperanto, including some of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), president of Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1935. Čejka was also actively involved in the Esperanto journal and propaganda work by editing or co-editing a number of magazines including Český Esperantista. Bohema Esperantisto, Der Deutsche Esperantist or the Internacia Pedagogia Revuo.

Other names among the highly active high school teachers include Josef Grna (1880-1918) or František Omelka (1904-1960) to name just two. While Theodor Čejka may be better-known as a leading figure in the Czech Esperanto movement, lesser-known figures like Grna and Omelka are equally fascinating. Going back to the mapping exercise above and the many Esperanto dots across Bohemia and Moravia, these two acted from rather “peripheral” locations like Jevičko  and Hluk respectively. Both small provincial towns in Bohemia (Grna) and Moravia south-east of Brno (Omelka). More on these two soon under our “Esperantist of the Month”. Omelka founded a local Esperanto group in Hluk in 1933 and what he did there I leave for another day. Just an image for now – cliff hanger.   

Image: František Omelka in Hluk, c. 1936

The Esperanto Monthly: A Magazine for Teachers and Students of the International Help-Language. London: Published by the British Esperanto Association, London, England, 1913.

Ginz, Ota and Stanislav Kamarýt (eds), Ĉeĥoslovaka Antologio. Budapest: Eldonis Literatura 1935.

Kamarýt, Stanislav. Historio de La Esperanto-Movado En Cehoslovakio: Iom Da Historio Kaj Iom Da Rememoroj. 1. eldono. Praha: Ĉeĥa Esperanto-Asocio, 1983.

Lawson, Konrad, Riccardo Bavaj, and Bernhard Struck. A Guide to Spatial History: Areas, Aspects, and Avenues of Research. Edinburgh: Olsokhagen Publishing, 2022.

Lins, Ulrich. Dangerous Language — Esperanto and the Decline of Stalinism. Springer, 2017.

Velitchkova, Ana. ‘Rationalization of Belonging: Transnational Community Endurance’. International Sociology 36, no. 3 (1 May 2021): 419–38.