Monday, July 09, 2007

Industry Past And Present

Apart from the slight differences in language there are other disparities between Czech and Slovakia. The former was always more sceptical when it came to questions of faith experiencing the Hussite wars and being the scene of the infamous defenestration of Prague (when some disgruntled Protestant nobles threw a couple of Catholic governors out of the a window in Prague castle) which started the Thirty Years' war. In fact the Czechs are the most irreligious people in Europe with 59% of the population claiming to be atheist or agnostic in the last census. Not so their eastern neighbours where churches are full, queues to confessional are long (so long, in fact, that at one church I saw a sign requesting the faithful to forgo with the usual opening formalities and to quickly recite their sins so that the overworked priest could see to everybody) and many people have discreet pictures of the pope - ex-pope - in their cars. So, whilst on my way to the picturesque medieval town of Levoča, I saw many people walking along the side of the road, either singly or in groups, old and young, some carrying crosses in front of them like standards, all converging on the little town and its church on a hill dedicated to the Virgin. Apparently it's one of the largest pilgrimages in central Europe with hundreds of thousands of people coming from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Austria as well as from all corners of Slovakia. Such an event would never occur in Czech where the only site of pilgrimage is the local pub and the only prayer "just one more for the road."

The Czechs were also always more industrially developed and richer than the Slovaks and so following the Velvet Divorce of 1993 when the two countries separated (instigated, incidentally, by Slovak politicians) the Slovak economy fared considerably worse. Lately, however, they have been catching up and over the past two years the Slovak economy has been the fastest growing in Europe. The main motor for this success has been the recent influx of car manufacturers eager to take advantage of the cheap, skilled workforce and close proximity to European markets. Slovakia now produces more cars per capita than any other country in the world.

Just across the border from Slovakia is the once-industrial town of Zlín. Here it wasn't cars that were produced but shoes, and Zlín will forever be intimately linked with the name Baťa. Just over a century ago Tomáš Baťa founded his shoe company. Things started relatively slowly, but after visiting America the Tomáš came back inspired by Henry Ford with new ideas about mass production and factory techniques, and things started moving along faster, getting a boost with WWI when the Austrian army placed a big order and the company never looked back. At its peak, before the outbreak of WWII the Baťa empire was the biggest manufacturer of shoes in the world with factories in four continents with a workforce numbering over 100,000, diversifying into the whole shoe-making process with farms in Argentina (for the leather) and rubber plantations in Brazil amongst others, and at the centre of it all was Zlín. The Tomáš wasn't content just to make money but there was a social vision as well, and with the wealth and power he wielded in Zlín (he became elected major in 1923 and ran the place like his own little fief) he had the wherewithall to see it through. The town became a blank slate for Tomáš's ideas of social harmony and welfare. For his workers he built affordable family houses each with its own little garden, social amenities and clubs, as well as a number of schools colleges for subjects as diverse as filmography, management, architecture and even aviation. Zlín became a planned town, the plan being Baťa's. He brought in architects from all over the world to design the town along the constructivist lines popular at the time and elevated this once-insignificant town into a major industrial centre. And since it all sprang up in such a short period the entire town is like an open-air museum of 20's and 30's architecture, and at dominating it all is the mrakodrap (skyscraper), the building that was once the HQ of Baťa and the tallest building in Czechoslovakia (though that's not saying much as it only has a rather underwhelming 16 floors). Many of Tomáš's ideas and innovations were ahead of his time, especially with regards to worker welfare, though some of them were a little more strange, such as having his office in a special, enlarged elevator so that he could get in touch with the various departments more quickly.

Unfortunately WWII put paid to all those grand plans. First the company (or at least the parts of it that were in occupied territory) were sequestered by the Nazis for their war effort and then immediately afterwards the Communists nationalised it accusing Jan Antonin Baťa (who took over from his brother Tomáš who died in an air crash) of collaborating with the Germans (despite the fact that he managed to save a large number of Jews and ordinary Czechs from prison and concentration camps). Because the company was truly international the Baťa family was able to escape to Canada and regroup the eviscerated firm which exists to this day and is moderately successful around the world. Zlín was not so fortunate, not only did it suffer the ultimate humiliation of having its name changed to Gottwaldov (after the Czech Communist leader), but as the bolshevik ideology was to rest on the laurels of those who had gone before. The factories at Zlín were left to run in the same way and with the same machines as in the pre-war years. Such stagnation didn't matter in the quota-world of the planned economy but as soon as the system collapsed and the market became exposed to competition they just couldn't cope and were shut down within a matter of years.

Nowadays Zlín is going through somewhat of a renaissance (or is at least trying to) with emphasis being put on education, through the extensive university that grew out of Baťa's colleges, and the abandoned factory buildings refurbished, spruced up and converted for different uses. Sadly, as many Czechs lament, this story is not unique and many companies that were once world class in their respective fields have fallen by the wayside or are pale imitations of their former selves: Skoda (cars), Tatra and Liaz (both truck manufacturers), Skoda (heavy industry) and Jawa (motorbikes). But when feeling nostalgic the Czechs soon remind themselves that they still have the best (and cheapest!) beer in the world, and decide to make sure that it's still the case and head off to the local pub.

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