May Day celebrations in Zlín and Gottwaldov

  • Marcelo J. Borges, Susana B. Toress (edd.), Company Towns : Labor, Space, and Power Relations across Time and Continents, New York 2012
  • Pavel Horák, Dagmar Hájková, Pavel Horák, Vojtěch Kessler, Miroslav Michela (edd.), První máj, Sláva republice! Oficiální svátky a oslavy v meziválečném Československu, Praha 2018, s. 219-266
  • Reinhard Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time, Cambridge 1985
  • Vladimír Macura, Šťastný věk. Symboly, emblémy a mýty 1948–89, Praha 1992
  • O. Ševeček, M. Jemelka, Company Towns of the Baťa Concern. History – Cases – Architecture, Stuttgart 2013
  • Martin Marek, Středoevropské aktivity Baťova koncernu za druhé světové války, Brno 2017
  • Petr Mareš, Od práce emancipující k práci mizející, Sociologický časopis – Czech Sociological Review 40, 2004, s. 37-48
  • Petr Mareš, Sonda do kultury města - Zlín, modelové město modernity, Sociologický časopis/Czech Sociological Review, s. 681-701
  • Petr Roubal, Československé spartakiády, Praha 2016
  • Petr Szczepanik, Mediální výstavba Ideálního průmyslového města. Síť médií v Baťově Zlíně 30. let, Kinematografie a město. Studie z dějin lokální filmové kultury. Sborník prací filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity, Brno 2005, s. 18-60
  • František Vojta, K odborovému hnutí obuvnického dělnictva v Gottwaldově-Zlíně (1903–1923), Gottwaldovsko od minulosti k současnosti 3, 1981, s. 43-59
  • Jaroslav Wicherek, K počátkům dělnického a komunistického hnutí v Gottwaldově-Zlíně, Gottwaldovsko od minulosti k současnosti 3, 1981, s. 61-85

 May Day celebrations in Zlín and Gottwaldov

Labour Day, associated in many countries with May Day, is an international workers' day celebrated on May 1 since 1890. The trigger for commemoration was the strike of American workers in Chicago on May 1, 1886, when several demonstrators were killed in a clash with the police. Three years later, the congress of the Second International declared it an international workers' day. In the Czech lands, the holiday was celebrated for the first time in the jubilee year of 1890 in Prague on Shooters’ Island (Střelecký ostrov).

The speed with which the celebration of this holiday resonated internationally was related to the transformation of traditional communities into the modern industrial society of the 19th century. The 1st of May celebrations became an appropriate occasion for the collective promotion of the political visions of various social democratic movements. Their popularity had another reason: these rituals were not only about ideology, but also about breaking away from everyday life. Collective entertainment in all forms was key to people's everyday life in the observed period and was an integral part of their lives. The date of the celebration coincided with the traditional welcome of spring. The connection of the end of winter with the departure from the old social order resonated with the participants.

May Day celebrations in pre-Baťa Zlín

Only a few reports have survived about the nature of the first May Day celebrations in Zlín during the existence of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The event of 1904 is credibly documented. The course of later May 1st celebrations and the places where their central part took place show how much the organisers were aware of the power structure in the city. Celebrations organised by the local social democratic movement took place regularly on Hlavní náměstí (today's náměstí Míru). In the hierarchically organised space of the city, the workers, usually living in the peripheral parts of the city, had the opportunity to legally demonstrate their claims for the improvement of the social situation in front of the houses of the wealthiest families. This process of making them visible was important for gaining social respect among other social classes, therefore the decency and discipline of the participants was insisted upon.

Appearing at the square would be a prestigious speaker from among the deputies of the Imperial Council in Vienna and prominent social democratic partisans: such as the deputy Vlastimil Tusar, later the second Czechoslovak Prime Minister, in 1912. In his speech, he listed the reasons for the demonstration and, on behalf of the workers present, described their requirements relating to the improvement of living conditions. After the speech, the participants took part in a parade through the city. The political demonstration changed in the afternoon to a more relaxed programme usually filled with watching a theatre performance and dancing.

Baťa productions

The initiation of the tradition of Baťa May celebrations in the city space follows on from the company's direct involvement and interference in municipal politics in 1923. The effort to neutralise local factory competitors and political opponents led by the communists certainly also played a role. The Baťa workers' day celebrations organised by the company since 1924 may seem puzzling in the context of the May Day tradition as a manifestation of socialist movements. Especially when Tomáš Baťa had personal experience with the social democratic trade union organisation that led the factory strike in 1906. However, the main motivation of the celebrations was much more fundamental; Tomáš Baťa believed that the economic and social model he was building, later known as Batism, presented harmony between the interests of the capitalist and the employee in the form of a kind of "class compromise."

Compared to the older Zlín tradition, when workers manifested their demands on the historic square, the Baťa May Day had a different course and climax. For several years, the Baťa procession passed through Zahradní Street (today it is part of třída Tomáše Bati), Masarykovo náměstí (today's náměstí Míru), Rašínova and Dlouhá streets, at the end of which it crossed the Dřevnice River on the bridge called “cigánovský.” From here, the participants continued along Tyršovo nábřeží and returned to the left bank via the bridge in Čepkov. Then they continued along Bartošova, Soudní and Zahradní streets to the temporary assembly place in the factory, where they listened to the speeches of the authorised leaders and their boss.

In his speech, Baťa would summarise the economic results of the previous year, evaluate the successes achieved in the plant and the factory town, and criticise business shortcomings. In conclusion, he usually encouraged efforts to further compete. Due to the growing number of participants, the assembly place was moved to undeveloped areas above the factory in the late 1920s, for which the resulting parade route was adapted and in some years even reversed its direction.

After eliminating local political competition, which began with the victory in the municipal elections in 1923 and culminated in the control of practically the entire council by Baťa candidates in 1931, the spatial arrangement of the city gradually changed. In the next fifteen years, next to the traditional political centre of the city, represented by the town hall and the adjacent square, a new public arena would grow in the places of náměstí Práce and náměstí Průkopníků.

  The real manifestation of the new arrangement was the transfer of the city's main power headquarters from the town hall building to the Baťa director's office in the immediate vicinity of the new squares in the factory part of Zlín. The order of power was emphasised by the construction of representative high-rise buildings: the six-story department store, the ten-story Společenský dům hotel (today's Moskva Hotel), the seventeen-story administrative building No. 21, with a view toward the iconic "spiritual centre" of the factory town - the Tomáš Baťa Memorial. The new construction eliminated the railway siding to the nearby brickyard, which stood, from today's perspective, in a completely illogical position crossing the space between the market and the department store. The freed space beyond the brickyard was used to build a stadium connected to the emerging school district. The former manor farm Panský dvůr, located in today's Komenského Park, was also removed, and a temporary bus stop moved to a new location.

Between 1927 and 1938, all the Baťa May Day festivities were held on the new squares, before this tradition ceased with the Nazi occupation. The selection of a new representative gathering place for the May Day was a response to the growing number of company employees; the Baťa May Day demonstrations were the largest workers' festivities in the whole of interwar Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. According to data from the Baťa press, they reportedly reached a hundred thousand participants.

The festivities of 1937, celebrating the return of the head of the concern Jan Antonín Baťa from a successful business trip around the world, became exceptional. According to Baťa press reports, up to 90,000 participants were present at the demonstration on the square, and another 50,000 spectators were on the route of the parade. The mass effect was accentuated by the uninterrupted, one-way arrival of tens of thousands of employees of all departments and workshops on náměstí Práce.

The Baťa May celebrations were preceded by diligent preparations. A few months before the celebration, the leadership began to discuss their character at their regular Saturday meetings, a precise programme was gradually drawn up and individual leaders entrusted with its organisation. In the most hectic last week, demanding construction works were carried out, grandstands were built, and decorations were provided. Preparations for the celebrations occupied most of the management's time, practically none of its members were left aside. The successful course of the celebration was at the same time a verification of the well-functioning Baťa's media industry, whether it was the involvement of all its employees in preparations, regular informing of readers, instructing listeners, or subsequent marketing evaluation of the celebration. In parallel with the preparations, the May competitions took place in the workshops for several weeks, the winners of which were then decorated with the Victory of Labour badge at the celebration.

The actual celebration aimed for a perfect public performance creating an image of the corporate organism of the factory town, in which each member had a firmly determined position. A characteristic feature of the celebrations was the appearance of "young men" and "young women," who were distinguished from the surroundings by wearing holiday uniforms. There was a parade of masses of employees with banners in front of the main stand. The centrepiece of the celebration was the speech of the boss in front of the present "colleagues."

In the speech, while reviewing the main principles of Batism, he emphasised his apolitical position, which he equated with rational pragmatism standing outside the party system. The incorporation of Baťa workers in building the society of the factory town was accompanied by strict supervision and control of the workforce – at the May Day celebrations, this control was represented by the manifestation of discipline. Banners expressed the ever-present struggle for more efficient management, for position on the markets (commercial struggle), for a new person. Allegorical chariots often expressed a similar "combative" character. Whether it was the depiction of the development of individual industries, the depiction of the speed of business cooperation, or the depiction of fundamental social changes, the aim of the emphasised differences between the motionless past of "crafts" and the dynamic "industrial" present was not intended only to achieve a sense of success from the results achieved, but implicitly to remind the “necessity” of the daily struggle of modern society.

The banners already present at the entrances to náměstí Práce, together with the allegorical cars, could only be fully stretched in the course of parades, which in the second half of the 1930s usually passed through třída Tomáše Bati, Dlouhá and Rašínova streets, the lower part of náměstí Míru and continued through Bartošova and Soudní streets after the speeches. Their participants then returned through třída Tomáše Bati for a tour of the plant operations in the factory area of the Baťa company.

The first years of post-war reconstruction

The eight-year wartime pause – the last celebration took place on May 1, 1938, the first after the war was only in 1946 – did not mean just a temporary break, a mere interruption of tradition. The year 1945 became a landmark in modern European history in the truest sense of the word. Experiences with the bloody Nazi regime and frustration with the poor social conditions prevailing during the pre-war economic crises led to a departure from the "inadequate" past in Czech society as well.

In 1945, there was practically a social consensus not to restore pre-war conditions. Society was clinging to a vaguely-defined future. However, there was no unified opinion on its form; different experiences and expectations of individual social and generational strata were reflected in the ideas.

The openness of possible paths of development was also clearly visible in the nature of the first post-war celebrations in Zlín, organised in 1946-1947 separately by individual political parties. After many years of dominance of strictly controlled and carefully organized Baťa celebrations, the simultaneous organisation of four different May parades meant a complete novelty. The most radical fulfilment of promises of a vaguely defined, promising future was associated with the Communist Party. The Czechoslovak National Socialist Party also clung to the future, but sought it in the eternity of national togetherness. The third of the left-wing parties of the National Front – the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party – sought its position with its centrist views in the left-wing spectrum with difficulty. Unfortunately, we do not know much about the ideas of the last party – the Zlín People's Party: authentic records of its parades have not been preserved, and the Zlín newspapers did not reflect its views.

Significant changes occurred not only in the ideological content of the celebrations. After World War II, the May Day parade in Zlín changed its format. By representing the diverse claims and interests of a larger number of actors (political parties, businesses, city administration) of the entire district, the spaces used for May celebrations were expanded. In turn, the civic (non-Baťa) part of the city gained in importance. The four political parties divided the places designated for the parade and speeches among themselves. The greatest interest was especially in the exclusive space in front of the town hall, whose role in the power structure of the city was symbolically renewed. In 1946, the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party ended its parade on Masarykovo náměstí, followed a year later by the Communist Party.

Only one party could give a speech from the balcony of the town hall, so other spaces were also sought. In 1946, the manifesting communists gathered at the end of the parade in the lower part of náměstí Rudé armády (today's náměstí T.G. Masaryka), and in 1947 the Czechoslovak socialists took refuge in the area in front of Sokolovna (the Sokol organisation building). In both years, the Social Democrats' parade had its climax in the park in front of the People's House (the castle building), and the People's Party in front of Orlovna (the Orel organisation building) at the Kudlovská Dam. The parties used Zlín's main traffic arteries for their parades: Stalinova třída (today's třída Tomáše Bati), Štefániková třída, třída Majora Murzina (today's Dlouhá Street), Osvoboditelů Street and, in the case of the National Socialists, Tyršovo nábřeží, along which the parade went to Sokolovna.

It is characteristic of the post-war period that political parties were not very interested in the space beyond the factory (náměstí Práce), which seemed as if it had been created for the purpose of the May Day festivities. It was too burdened by the Baťa past. In some cases, the procession went to the factory, but only to honour the anti-fascist resistance in the unveiled Red Army monument (today's Komenského Park). This fast-growing tradition illustrated the transformation of the legitimacy of the post-war political order, from which the new urban, party and corporate elites derived their origins, including the leadership of the nationalised Baťa enterprise.

The period of Stalinism

The effort to satisfy all actors dropped with the communist coup; the organisation of separate celebrations by individual political parties ceased after February 1948. The ideological theme of the May Day celebrations in the Stalinist period became the manifestation of the international comradeship of the working class and the working people of the whole world in the struggle for peace. Collective symbols were placed in the foreground, and symbols of the socialist society being built in numerous representations. Ubiquitous symbols of struggle became part of all appeals for Peace, which the communists tried to secure as their own. Images of fighting, and therefore violence, were present mainly as an external threat. The "others" were depicted as violent: the allegorical cars depicted the war waged by the Anglo-American bloc, portrayed its "imperialist" supporters, etc. However, the main theme was slogans devoted to non-violence and world peace ("for peace", "we don't want war", "weapons belong in the sea"). These were not necessarily just empty taglines. It is quite possible that it was a means that provided the communists, as the presented peacemakers, with an important part of their legitimacy in the immediate post-war phase and later.

With thoughts of a radical restructuring of society in the early 1950s, there was a fixation on the arrival of a perfect future. In the spatial form of the May Day celebrations, it manifested itself as a turning away from the imperfect physical landscape of the city. Urban space became a "technical tool" for the movement of a selected mass of people. When choosing the streets for the demonstration, the organisational point of view prevailed, the streets represented a stage due to the number of demonstrators and spectators.

Compared to the Baťa period, the march consisted of approximately "only" ten thousand carefully selected representatives of the new socialist society (children, youth, union workers, industrial workers, members of the public "people's" administration, and the National Front). Its passage was watched from the pavements by much larger groups of spectators, who gradually lined up in the march behind the last demonstrators. Despite the promoted egalitarian principles, the order of production, cultural and party organisations in the parade and the numerical representation of their members reflected the power arrangement in the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1950s. In the case of the Gottwaldov arrangements, it was symbolised by the prestigious position of the Precision Engineering Works, which arose from Czechoslovak military doctrine and the plants' affiliation with heavy industry as manufacturers of engineering technologies.

On its way through the city, the march passed along Stalinova třída (today's třída Tomáše Bati), while the main local boulevard was used to enhance the impression of a mass event. Although the parade started from the eastern part of the city (from the hospital, or even just from the Myslivna restaurant), the organisers did not particularly try to work with the new post-war architecture represented by the Morýs and tower houses. Similarly, the procession passed náměstí Míru unnoticed. On its way along Stalinova třída, it reached the Social Institute (demolished in 1965, today the University Park), where after turning it returned to the department store along the original route toward Březnice. It then continued in two streams past the boys' and girls' dormitories to the open-air auditorium (at the site of today's ski slope above the Study Institute), which was the terminus of the demonstration. It was a place that was not bound by the limits of earlier development. The speech of the political elites took place here.

Post-Stalinist period (liberalisation and normalisation)

After the exhaustion of revolutionary dynamism with the end of Stalinism, consolidation, "normalisation" of most social processes took place. Since the 1960s, and visibly since the 1970s, the Stalinist discourse of violence, respectively peace, changed. The ubiquitous portrayal of the struggle receded and the topic of population safety came to the fore, including the well-known "peace at work." Its expression was emphasising the provision of family and housing.

However, this does not mean that these long-term social changes were immune to current events and immediate political interventions. During the liberalisation process at the end of the 1960s, political claims ceased to be formulated exclusively in the language of party politics. The content of the May Day celebrations organised with the cooperation of businesses and with the participation of Zlín students came closer to the more attractive form of majáles and student happenings.

On the other hand, after the violent suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, some icons of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir I. Lenin) temporarily resumed their places again in the next decade. Among them, the figure of the first communist president, Klement Gottwald, lasted the longest. After the Prague Spring public media coverage of the crimes of Czechoslovak Stalinism, these later public presentations of the first "workers' president" were supposed to normalise the interpretation of Czechoslovak history. In Gottwaldov, this rebranding was particularly relevant in view of the unsuccessful efforts to return to the original name of the town in 1968.

Compared to the 1950s, the spatial perception of the city also changed significantly, and the Stalinist manifestation of power did not last long in the urban space. The defining point of the May Day celebration was the political manifestation of power on the historical náměstí Míru from the end of the 1950s. It is not possible to determine from the sources whether the rehabilitation of the city centre was a continuation of an older socialist (civic) tradition, an act of reconciliation in accordance with the shift in post-Stalinist thinking, or even just a pragmatic decision given the accessibility of the place and its easy serviceability. During the May Day demonstrations, the city space was divided into two parts. Initially, a "triangle" of streets was usually designated for the parade: from Náměstí Míru, the parade left to Osvoboditelů Street, then marched along Leninova Street (today's Štefánikova) to the main shoe store (Tržnice), which it bypassed and returned to the centre along Revoluční třída (třída Tomáš Bati). If the parade of participants only took place after the speech, the march did not return to náměstí Míru, but continued from Revoluční třída past the park to Soudní and Bartošova streets, where it continued behind the Morava Cafe (no. 40/3, today Madal Bal).

The natural auditorium, the destination of May Day celebrations under Stalinism, was temporarily used for an afternoon cultural programme in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. But even this practice was abandoned. Afterwards, the leisure programme was transferred to náměstí Práce near the main gate of the Svit plant, under the winter stadium and in the park in front of the castle. This was also the case in 1968, when the morning programme was reduced to only a speech from the town hall balcony, for the first time in post-war history without a parade. The political manifesto, which was poorly attended at the time, was compensated by an afternoon cultural programme attended by tens of thousands of guests.

The management of public space during the May Day celebrations changed with the inclusion of the Družba complex in the body of the city. Družba, completed in 1967, became a social and cultural meeting place for the city's residents in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s. As in previous decades, the May celebration began with speeches on Náměstí Míru, but since 1978 the eastern half of Revoluční třída (today's třída Tomáše Bati) was chosen for the actual parade. The parade disbanded precisely at the Družba complex, which ensured continuous screening of children's films. The tradition of ending the parade in the eastern half of the city was maintained despite the fact that most of the subsequent activities were concentrated in the ROH club of the Svit factory (building no. 2) and in Svit's actual factory area, in the square in front of the factory gate and in the Komenského Park, which meant an organisationally difficult transfer of the participants back to a part of the city two kilometres away.


After the Velvet Revolution, the holding of May Day celebrations paled into insignificance in most Czech cities. The holiday was kept alive by the successor Communist Party, while at the same making manifest marginalised groups on the political fringes. Its slow and gradual revival was related to social changes. After the retreat of political regimes characterised by large numbers of easily organised workers, the organisation of uniformly controlled celebrations expressing political control over society lost its meaning. Apparently, the symbolic burden this holiday carries with it by being tied to the previous socialist dictatorship also contributed to the drop in interest. In the current economic system, such a holiday cannot even represent a tool that could mobilise society for greater public expression.

Also, in Zlín, which returned to its original historical name after the Velvet Revolution, attempts to restore the May Day celebrations come up against the social changes that occurred, despite all the efforts of organisations connected with the Baťa legacy, which were trying to revive the Baťa tradition in the renewal of the May Day parades. More than a Baťa manifestation of the discipline of the inhabitants of the factory town, the May Day celebrations organised by them with the cooperation and participation of Zlín students turned into May Day carnival and student happenings, not unlike those of the late 60s.

In addition to the changes in ideological images, our brief interpretation can simultaneously infer how power manifested itself in the urban space through the May Day celebrations, how it influenced this space and how it was itself influenced by the physical landscape of the city. The course of the May Day celebrations very vividly illustrates what ideas prevailed in the past about the character and location of the city centre and its periphery and how these changed over time.

Of course, this development has not stopped even today. The public use of the "unfinished" squares, náměstí Práce and Průkopníků (today's náměstí T.G. Masaryka), was suppressed during the decades of socialism, their function was adapted to the new standards of an individualised society (public parking) and traffic requirements (redirecting of thoroughfares).


Martin Marek