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An aerial view of the town.
An aerial view of the town.

Zlín, Czech Republic | Where there’s no biz like shoe biz

In this hometown of a welfare corporation that would spread its wings across the world, a museum is the only remnant of a shoemaking empire

At the eastern edge of the Czech Republic, there is a small town called Zlín. Once upon a time, less than a century ago, this town hosted a revolution in manufacturing and retail that would go on to dramatically affect Czech and Czechoslovak nationalism, art and architecture, and make its way to the Netherlands, England, Canada, India, even the pages of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. The man who sparked off this revolution was a shoemaker from Zlín. His name was Tomáš Bata.

As is depressingly common in anything to do with Central Europe, the journey of the Bata Shoe Co. from a small village workshop to a multinational retail chain involved a path of empires, war and nationalism (though not all at the same time). When Tomáš, his brother Jan Antonín and sister Anna started the company in 1894, what we know today as the Czech Republic was a patchwork of provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which at the time consisted of German-speaking aristocrats ruling over peasants who spoke Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Magyar, Polish or Croatian.

These aristocrats were also looking nervously at the outbreak of nationalism across Europe, as little duchies and principalities began to merge themselves into larger Italian or German nations. What would happen, wondered the Austro-Hungarian emperors, if their subjects decided that they also wanted a nation on the basis of their own language?

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Three generations of the Bata family . Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When World War I broke out, the Bata Shoe Co. was contracted to supply shoes to the Austro-Hungarian army and scaled up production. Its revenue followed suit. Success for Tomáš was not success for his customers, who were slaughtered on the front lines. Four grim years later, in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire also died because of independence movements in various countries, and within three days of the signing of the 11 November Armistice, the shoemakers of Zlín found themselves living in an independent Czechoslovakia.

I hesitate to say that this is the point when Bata became successful, because that ignores the years of hard work the Batas and their employees put in before 1918. But it is certainly the point at which the Bata story became fascinatingly, wondrously interesting; interesting enough for me to travel from New Delhi to the Czech Republic to learn more

Unfortunately, Zlín is not easily accessible. It is two train changes off the Czech trunk line, which meant that doing a day trip from Prague would be impossible if I wanted to spend any reasonable amount of time there. With no hotels in Zlín, I decided to stay in Olomouc, about 70km away, and travel to Zlín from there.

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The Bata museum in Zlin. Photo: Aadisht Khanna

The museum itself is one of the more fascinating ones I have visited. Across the various floors of the former factory, it displays artwork collected and funded by Bata, chronicles the history of the company and of the Zlín region after Czechoslovakian independence, and exhibits over 600 different styles of shoes from across the world, and across time.

According to the museum, the years after Czechoslovakian independence were when Bata truly flourished, and went from merely making shoes to expanding into businesses like river-shipping lines and airlines to transport its shoes and its executives; and film studios to create advertisements. It created modern retail stores and funded explorers to go around the world. It set up gymnasiums and hospitals for its employees, and hired architects to design workers’ houses.

Thomas Bata (centre) with his brother Antonin and sister Anna. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Thomas Bata (centre) with his brother Antonin and sister Anna. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Much before Western nations created the welfare state, Bata was attempting to create a welfare corporation that managed healthcare, education, housing and financial security, in Zlín. In the previous century, similarly idealistic English industrialists had created company towns like Cadbury’s Bournville outside Birmingham, and Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight near Liverpool. Bata, though, did this worldwide, creating replicas of Zlín in the Netherlands, England and India.

The welfare corporation didn’t last though.

In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, having already taken over the border regions the previous year in the Sudetenland crisis. Antonín, Tomáš’ half-brother and leader of the company at the time, was arrested. He managed to flee to Canada. Control of the factory passed to the Nazi regime, which used it to supply its own soldiers.

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Set up by a single company to make shoes, and only to make shoes, Zlín was unable to withstand the traumas of World War II, a communist economy, and sudden globalization. Other cities, whether in Europe or Asia, bombed even more ferociously than Zlín, cleansed of their populations or crammed in with new refugees, were nevertheless able to recover, adapt and prosper, since they were not too dependent on any one company or product.

The tragedy of Tomáš Bata’s life is that while he tried to create a city, all that’s left is a museum.

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