Prague is a stunningly beautiful city. When you wander around the city centre you will hear a myriad of languages. Perhaps not Esperanto, yet it is there if you look for it. If you walk across the Old Town Square towards the Powder Tower you will see the Charles University Bookshop on the right-hand side. It is a gem of a bookshop. Whenever I visit, my first stop is the history section, then over to the language section. And there it is: a well-stocked selection of Esperanto dictionaries and learning materials. When I first spotted the Esperanto section in 2019, I was surprised.
Three years down the road and many archives later – thanks to continued support by ESF – the moment of surprise in 2019 has waned and the reason why we find a solid collection of Esperanto works is simple: there is a rich history of Esperanto in Prague and Bohemia. In fact, the Prague Esperanto club celebrated its 120th anniversary from 11 to 13 November 2022. So, 1902 then: the first Esperanto club in Prague and it is still going strong. Yet in the period up to the 1920s it was by no means the only club. In Prague alone, more than ten Esperanto clubs existed.
Unscathed by the Second World War, Prague’s cityscape looks a lot like the Prague of 1900. Around the turn of the century, it was more of a regional Habsburg city with a strong German cultural and linguistic influence (if not dominance), but this fin-de-siècle Prague was changing. Behind the facades of stunning Renaissance buildings there were tensions between German and Czech speakers. The Czech national movement was emerging in the latter half of the nineteenth century leading, for instance, to the split of the university into a Czech and a German faculty in the early 1880s.
Some of the guiding questions that drive my interest around Esperanto are: What happened to Esperanto once the language was out there following the Unua Libro by Zamenhof in the late 1880s? Who went for it? What did people do with it? Why was there such a strong Esperanto presence in Prague and across Bohemia? Were the many Esperanto clubs a community that countered the nationalist tendencies? Or did the latter spur the movement with German-speaking Esperantists in one club and Czech-speakers in another?
My interest in local and regional patterns, including Bohemia, stems from my first attempts to create a bird’s-eye overview of the early Esperanto movement up to 1914. Rather than deciding up front to study Esperanto at a national level, say in Germany or France, I wanted to get a grasp of spatial and geographical patterns first. I decided to take the annual congress lists starting with Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905 and feed all available congress data – including names, places, country, gender and profession (where available) – into a database. This data of over 8,500 congress participants was then visualised using the software QGIS. I have written about the idea and practice of visualising the congress movement in more detail on another site.
Mapping the Esperantists who visited one or several of the annual congresses between 1905 and 1914 does not represent the Esperanto movement as a whole. After all, not everyone had the time, financial means or the interest to travel to an international congress. Yet it is a starting point that allows us to identify and zoom into some regional clusters.
Map: Representing the geographical distribution of the international congresses in Geneva 1906, Cambridge 1907, Dresden 1908 and Krakow 1912. © Bernhard Struck
The map here shows the locations from where Esperantists came to visit the four congresses indicated. From this and other mapping exercises that serve primarily heuristic purposes guiding my local and regional archival work, two phenomena stand out.
First, the early Esperanto movement (at a congress level – but most likely also beyond and below it) was a pan-European movement that stretched from east-central Europe across the German Reich, via France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, to England, and up north to Scotland. This is not a novelty as such. When reading Esperanto magazines from the time we do know that Esperanto emerged in many places. Yet seeing it on the maps was inspiration to study Esperanto as what it was: a transnational, transregional and translocal movement and language community.
Second, some regional clusters emerged. Among them are Scotland, Catalonia, the region along the Rhine, the English Midlands, as well as Bohemia. Why these regions? From the database one can filter out specific localities, for instance Bohemia. And this is the pattern and numbers we see on the map.
Map: Representing the geographical distribution of Bohemian congress participants, 1905–1914 (total 580 / 7.3% of all congress participants). © Bernhard Struck
The dots on the map represent the locations across Bohemia from where Esperantists came to attend the international congresses between 1905 and 1914. Some 580 or 7.3% is a rather striking number overall even if we take into account that Bohemia was quite a convenient location from which to travel to congresses in Dresden or Krakow. And yet it remains fascinating to me (and part of my continued research) to ask what Esperantists in particular from more rural or peripheral places like Pardubice, Holice or Svitavy were trying to achieve with the language and what they did with it.
A Bohemian who may have slipped through your net is Rosa Junck, nee Bilek, who lived in Bordighera, Italy, and was a friend of the Esperanto poet Clarence Bicknell, an Englishman living in Bordighera. She was a particularly visible participant in early congresses, striking in appearance and an amateur actor. She arrived in Bordighera in 1890. More information in Daphne Lister, Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell (2018). Her bio is in Enciklopedio de Esperanto (1933).