The Scouts BSA is a branch high in the canopy of a larger youth movement with roots running deep into European history.
British military hero, author and adventurer Lord Baden Powell and his sister, Agnes, began the scouting movement for boys (Scouts) and girls (Guides) around 1909. It caught on quickly, and, in 1920, the first World Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia, West Kensington.
For Jan Hlavac, an 18-year-old from Prague, being at the 2019 World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia was a treat that was paid for by generations of Czech Scouts before him. Wearing the uniform publicly, reciting the Scout oath in unison, recruiting young people into the movement — Hlavac takes none of these ordinary Scout activities for granted.
Scouting in the United States and the Czech Republic share foundational principles, but their histories are quite different.
The tenets of leadership, self-reliance, honor and service are still at the core of scouting today the world over. These principles are typically taught in the context of troop meetings, community service projects and outdoor activities.
Fun, fellowship and adventure are still scouting’s major draw for young people. The 45,000 campers from 150 nations who attended the 24th World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia represented scouting on its largest scale ever.
But the movement also has seen darker chapters, as in the 1940s, when Soviet-backed totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe drove scouting into the political underground, pushing its members’ survival skills to the extreme.
The Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1948 persecuted any group that encouraged independence and community engagement. Scouting was considered a threat to the state, and their meetings were declared illegal and banned.
Jan was a 14-year-old Scout in 2015 when he attended his first World Scout Jamboree, in Kirahama, Japan. The size of the event, nearly 35,000 Scouts that year, and the international fellowship made an impression on him. He decided that, one day, he’d go back to a World Scout Jamboree as a volunteer.
The United States hadn’t hosted a WSJ since the 1960s, and Jan had never been to the U.S. Four years after his visit to Japan, Jan found himself at the Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, in Glen Jean, West Virginia.
Jan’s temporary home was in a Summit subcamp specially designed for the 9,000 International Service Team volunteers who delivered the program activities. Jan relied on some of the universal laws of scouting — being helpful, courteous, cheerful and trustworthy — to guide him in his leadership role helping the Czech Scout contingency, nearly 500 Scouts strong, navigate the logistics of the largest World Scout Jamboree ever.
Scouting in Czechoslovakia operated illegally during World War I. Czech historians say that about 700 people connected to scouting died as part of the underground resistance. But when the war ended, scouting had earned its stripes among grateful Czechs, and its ranks grew to more than 10,000 members.
Prominent in the scouting lore of that era is the story of Dagmar Skalova, the 36-year-old leader of a Scout troop in Prague who was known in the resistance as “Raksa.”
Prague, a haven for artists, scientists and intellectuals, suffered under the totalitarian regime. Political corruption and economic incompetence were grinding the free-spirited city down. Resistance among the Czechs was gathering, but it needed organizational leadership.
Dagmar and her husband recruited their older Scouts into the occupation resistance, developing a secretive messaging system to share information among resistance leaders, and providing first-aid response after violent clashes with the Communists.
The Skalovas were ingenious in mobilizing their scouting network to disrupt and confound the day-to-day affairs of their Communist occupiers.
The reputation of Raksa rose, making her a target of the Communists. Eventually, she and her husband, along with 50 other Scouts, were arrested and imprisoned for crimes against the state.
While awaiting trial, Raksa and her Scouts communicated by tapping Morse code on the prison walls, coordinating their testimony. In front of the judge, the youth all had the same story — they hadn’t been holding Scout meetings at all but simply getting together regularly to play games. Raksa took the fall, and her Scouts were released. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and six of her adult co-conspirators were executed.
Underground political resistance became part of the DNA of Czech scouting.
After the Communists were driven out, the German Nazis abolished scouting again in Czechoslovakia, in 1940. Scouting was reestablished in 1945, and then abolished again in 1950, and Scouts were held with other insurrectionists in prison camps.
Czech scouting was allowed to bloom briefly during the Prague Spring of 1968, outlawed again two years later, and then re-emerged during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
At that time, Vaclav Havel, an essayist, poet, playwright and former Czech Scout, emerged as a leader in the movement that ousted Communism from leadership in the country. Havel became the first president of the new Czech Republic. Scouting was safe again in Central Europe.
“We are a mix of BSA and European scouting,” Jan said while in West Virginia. “We enjoy being outdoors in nature when we can. But Prague is a city so, like many European scouting groups, we meet and plan things together and are very involved in community service.”
Each country had designated space in the Global Development Village area of the Summit. The Czech Scouts used their space to tell the story of Czech resistance to totalitarianism, and scouting’s role in those battles for democracy.
The Czech Scout contingency’s theme for this World Jamboree was “Unbreakable.” It was on their shirts, their day packs, it’s a hashtag. For the Czechs, the goal of their #Unbreakable theme was more than the telling of scouting’s history of struggle in Central Europe. It was meant to be a cautionary tale of vigilance against creeping totalitarianism.
That vigilance for the protection of democracy and free will is ingrained the Czech people. And survival is in the DNA of Czech scouting, even today.
In 2017, a 16-year-old Czech Scout named Lucie Myslikova and her girlfriends got wind of an extreme-right political rally being held in Brno on May Day. Authoritarianism was rumbling again in the Czech Republic. Nine girls donned their Scout uniforms and headed to the site, hoping to drown out the message of hate and intolerance.
An image of Lucie standing firm in the face of an angry neo-Nazi who tried to shout her down went viral on social media. People around the world were inspired by the image, by the example of this young Scout’s bravery. The 10th of 12 “Scout laws.”
“This is an important year for scouting in the Czech Republic,” Jan said. “It’s the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. This is the longest period of history that scouting has existed in the open for the Czech people. We are celebrating that; it’s important to us.”
Today, the World Organization of the Scout Movement has spread to 216 countries and has more than 38 million Scouts and Guides worldwide. Yet, the governments of countries like Cuba, Laos and North Korea still officially resist the scouting movement as politically subversive.
Jan and the Czech scouting delegation traveled 4,000 miles through six time zones to enjoy zip lines, mountain biking, white water rafting and a hundred other activities. They made lifelong friends here, learned new words, tried new foods, sang new songs.
And their message was — and is — that they are here because scouting in the Czech Republic is #Unbreakable.