Fate of the Czech

A few weeks ago, I watched NBC’s Asia Squawk Box where Vancouver-born Bernie Lo sits in Hong Kong studio and discusses economy as it is seen from that corner. He spoke with a co-host in Singapore, reviewing a list of the ten most reliable cars by consumers reports. The list included the usual suspects, topped by Toyota / Lexus, through other Japanese and Korean and closed with the German. One car inclusion puzzled both: the Buick. The Singapore fellow sheepishly admitted he had never seen a Buick.

What has this to do with camera-centric website? A small Etareta camera.


Skip history, jump to camera

I bought a little camera shaped dirt ball that looked like it had spent its life in a dust bin. Nothing moved, glass covered with grime, and name could hardly be read. Brought it to the shop and forgot about it. A year later, digging for another camera it popped up, so I set it on the bench. At first cleaning the ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ showed up.

This got me thinking, what do I know about Czechoslovakia, and what do they make; or, to be accurate, made. First thing to come to mind was the Skoda, the country’s industrial flag bearer. Have heard about this brand, but oddly, have never seen a single car in real life; same as the Singapore guy with the Buick. Skoda is sill being made in the Czech Republic, but now owned by Volkswagen, so it’s nationality is open for debate.

I thought more about this country, realizing how I know little about it. So I dived into the deep core memory. First I remembered was Emile Zatopek, known as the Czech Locomotive. A three Olympic gold medalist, who won 5,000M, 10,000M and marathon at the same Olympic event.

svejkOther notable persons. Jaroslav Hasek brought us the Good Soldier Svejk, probably the best known Czech figure, real or fictional. The adventure of a dog thief conscripted to the
Kaiser’s army, who introduces himself with each new position- ‘I humbly report that I am an idiot’. He still waits to meet his mate at six after the war. Karel Capek, an ever nominee – seven times – for Nobel Prize in literature. A multi discipline writer, from science fiction to political essays, who gave us the word and concept of robot. Franz Kafka, a genius in thoughts and writings, brought the absurd into front view with Josef K. and Gregor Samsa. Max Brod, an accomplished writer, Kafka’s closest friend and curator. Milan Kundera wrote under the soviet radar ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, narrating life during the Spring of Prague. Milos Forman, Czech born, won the Oscar for Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Both masterpieces, dealing with the individual struggle with what is accepted as norm.

More. The Masaryks, father and son statesmen. Tomas Masaryk, a philosopher and the first president of Czechoslovakia allowed full civil rights to the county Jews, not a common thing at that time. At another uncommon act, he added his wife maiden to himself. His son, Jan Masaryk, served at the Czech exile government during WWII, and returned as a foreign minister to the newly formed government. Much to his support in arming Israel as a state in the making, Israel has survived the 1948 independence war. His right leaning views and openness towards the west drew the NKVD’s attention, which ended his life in in suicide under their investigation, which was later proven to be murder. How else.

The Bata family moved their base from Czechoslovakia to Canada before the war still makes shoes for the world. Tatra trucks are known to be resilient, durable and reliable, are used for army and civilian mission critical tasks. In the late 60’s I drove a six-wheeler Tatra truck that flew like a gazelle over the sand dunes, where other trucks got weak at the knee just for looking at it. I do remember that it could control its tire pressure on the fly, which I’d never seen or heard about before, and had a large round manhole opening above the passenger seat, not sure for what purpose. While the truck was powerful and agile, the designers, if there were any, did not consider driver comfort to be of any importance. Moreover, the truck looked as it was put together from sections not necessary ,made for each other.

A few more notables – Jaromir Jagr, hockey hall of famer; Czech beer, and Ivana Zelinckova, also known as Trump, just two wifes away from being a first lady.

The oldest active synagogue in Europe stands in Prague, built in 1270 and miraculously survived the holocaust. Legend has it that in the time where European favorite pastime was killing Jews, The Maharal, Rabbi of the synagogue, created the Golem; a clay-made creature that came to life through powers of Jewish mysticism – the Kabala. The Golem protected the ghetto, till his services were no longer needed and it came to rest in this synagogue’ attic.

Can not do without the bouncing Czechs. In ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ there is a Czech reporter nicknamed ‘The Bouncing Czech’. Also a reporter, more of a master journalist and biographer extraordinaire – Peter Newman,  WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia who made Canada his home, played in an aptly named rock band ‘The Bouncing Czechs’.

History of the modern Czech Republic in 1165 words

c6The duchies of Bohemia and Moravia peacefully co-existed under the Habsburgs and what had later become the Austro-Hungarian empire. When WWI broke, triggered by the assignation of the empire crown prince Archduke Ferdinand, the area was drawn into the war. After the war had ended and with the Austro-Hungarian empire’ demise, Europe’s borders were redrawn at the Versailles accord.
In the Sykes-Picot agreement of two years earlier, the Ottoman Empire assets were carved into portions that made little sense just to bring the middle east under English and French spheres of influence. Borders were drawn and states were created at a stroke of a pen. Ethnicity and cultural differences were ignored, where the results are seen today at the volatile middle east.

c10Same as in the Sykes-Picot agreement, at the Peace Conference in  Versailles, the old world was created anew. France tried to get controlling influence in Europe, England pooled to counter balance the French, and the rest were there just for land grab, in Europe and overseas.

Here was a shotgun marriage of two small nations. Hungarian controlled, laid back rural Slovakia married industrialized, German leaning Bohemia and Moravia, that had accounted for half of the empire’s industrial output. For a good measure part of Silesia was added. With disregard to ethnicity, economics, culture and language, Czechoslovakia was born. The Sudetenland, a resource-reach area inhabited by German speaking Bohemian was included, Part for punishing Germany, part as a natural border / barrier at Germany’s west and part as merrily redrawing borders.

The country had pulled through between the wars, with undercurrent tenses by the Slovaks, Germans, Ukrainian and Hungarian minorities against the dominant Czechs. As an unhappy nation, it kept changing its name, adding and removing a hyphen in pretence of recognizing the differences.

c4Hitler took power in 1933, and in his view of expansion room for Germany saw the Sudetenland as and integral part of Germany, and a gateway to the east. In 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria, which fell into their arm like a love-struck bride. Czechoslovakia faith was cast. To appease the tension, meeting in Munich was called in 1938, where the sides – France, England and fascist Italy have agreed not to object to Hitler’s demand to annex the Sudetenland. Formally, it was under the guise of caring to the ethnic German there, but was more for Hitler to test the water. Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were present as observers only.
c2France and the Soviets had a mutual defense accords with Czechoslovakia, but preferred to overlook it to let sleep the dogs of war. In return, Hitler committed to everlasting peace and no further aggression or demands. Russia should have learned from their own action. Germany, with whom they had a non-aggression agreement, invaded Russia short three years later.

Neville Chamberlain, England’s prime minister at the time who negotiated with Hitler, got a bad rap down history for his accepting Hitler’s promises. Chamberlain could not have perceive that a person would bluntly lie to him, let alone a fellow head of state. Being past mayor of Birmingham, he was the first British mayor to get his country into trouble, setting the way for Boris Johnson.


Per this agreement, the Germans moved in to the Sudetenland. Not a single shot was fired and WWII was declared open. The world protested within the accepted diplomatic channels. Shortly thereafter, the Slovaks seceded from Czechoslovakia and declared UDI, to become a puppet state under Nazi Germany. With Germany at the east and Slovakia at the west, with little military might, the Czechs promptly surrendered to the Nazis.
Between 1939 and 1945 the country’s fate was no better than the rest of Europe under the Nazi regime. 115,000 Jews were murdered and 14,000 others become refugees. It is to positively note that the Czechs didn’t actively engage in killing Jews but left it to the Nazis,
unlike other European countries who took great joy in doing so.


In 1945 the Red Army liberated Prague and the world was ready to rest. However, another multinational agreement that preceded the victory foresaw the creation of yet another new world order. In February 1945, three middle aged man met in Yalta, Crimea. Two were clean shaven and one with small eyes in pockmarked face and ‘The huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip’. The war end was at the horizon, and the continent was to be parted once more. Seven decades later, another small eyed but clean-shaven man will lead an invasion to the very same Crimea, and the world will protest within the accepted diplomatic channels.

c17The state of Czecho-Slovakia was recreated, less area that was bitten off by Ukraine. The ethnic German and the Germans who settled there by the Nazi expansion directive were summarily deported to both American and Soviet controlled Germany. Some two and a half million of them, joined the displaced masses that wondered the past battlegrounds.
Democracy did not last long. The Soviets forced themselves upon the states, as they did with the rest of Eastern Europe. In 1945 the Communist party won the election. As Communist parties are want to do, once voted in, only a revolution could rid them. Under the enlightened communism regime, personal freedom had gone economy reduced to taters.
In 1968 Alexander Dubcek had been nominated to be the first secretary of the Communist party. To remedy the ailing economy and to ease the controlling fist, he spearheaded ideas unsavoury to the rulers in the Kremlin. After a long and dark Soviet winter, the spring has come. Freedom of speech, religion and movement, talks about free elections and censorship removal were out of the Soviet dogma. When Dubcek was about to allow for private enterprises and free trade, the Kremlin was alarmed. A line was crossed once Dubcek referred to the powers in the Kremlin as Stalinists, so he got a personal call from Brezhnev. Unlike the swift action the Soviets took in Hungary twelve years earlier Dubcek was given a week to retreat and call the country back to order. He didn’t.

c11One week and one day later, armed forces of the Warsaw Pact invaded Prague yet again. It is not that the Russians alone could not deal with the Czechoslovakian army, with or without a hyphen. It was to show-off popular uprising by the comrades against the lawless Czechs. With the Soviets, there were Bulgarian, Hungarian and East-German forces. A Polish division was mobilized as well but lost its way and got there two day later. The spring of Prague was over, not before a hopeless civilian uprising where Jan Palach and others set themselves in fire as a protest. The world protested within the accepted diplomatic channels.

c1Communism prevailed until 1989, when the Soviet Empire lost its teeth. Under the Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia ousted the Communists reverted to democracy. There was no love lost between the Czechs and the Slovaks, so in 1993 the country peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

And here history part ends and camera story begins.

Before WWII, the Czech industry was advanced as any other in the industrialized nations. Notwithstanding the small domestic market, their automotive industry was the forth largest in Europe; and Skoda was the third largest automobile manufacturer in Europe. At the time, country industrial capability was judged by steel consumption per capita, where Czechs measured well. Under Nazi occupation, all industrial means was directed to feed the war machine. Steel industry, meaning armament industry, was extensive and advanced while other output came to a halt. Under Soviet control the Czech potential military customers, restricted to Soviet made equipment to support Mother Russia, so local industry was left to rot.

c9After the war, military industries everywhere were set to make consumer goods. The Landrover and BMW are legitimate decedents of aircraft building plants. The post-war Czech industry needed go that rout. While economies in Western Europe were gradually coming out of decline, much underwritten by the US under Marshal Plan, Eastern economy was going downhill. In the West, consumption happy middle class practiced spending habits, in the East they lined up for bread.

I have no specific knowledge about what prewar Czech industry excelled with. During the war, all hands were on making military equipment. Assume that with the demand for armament on the vain industries would turn back to what was made before the war. The markets were not there and the products were of aging technology. Being under planned economy, it was different to our concept or manufacturing. Before the war, Czechoslovakia made 14,000 motorcars a year. Come 1945, 300 only.

Let’s deviate.

In market economy, the order is simple. Marketing sees what the public wants, what the competition has, and where will the future be. Designers take it from there, shape the product and features, and hand it to the engineers to plan for the bolts and nuts. The package than goes to the production floor to follow design and engineering criteria. Once made the product goes back to marketing to do their wonder.

There are exception to that. General Electric lost their consumer product division in the 70’s, as engineers overruled marketing and design. Market was serviced with perfectly performing products that were unappealing both in looks and use. In Apple’s case, the market didn’t know what it needs until the product was offered.

In planned economy, the process is skewed. Production means are controlled from above, and so are the products sent to be made. A high up committee decides what the public needs and how to allocate resources, where consumer goods are at last priority. Further, such economies abide by over-ambitious, often unrealistic ‘five years plan’s, where reality plays no part. There is disconnect between the deciding body and real-life production ability and market needs, and is getting worse with every cycle. In the Soviet farm nationalization Moscow experts planed agriculture cycles years ahead. When the all-knowing planning committee in the Kremlin ordered sawing, the land in far away kolkhozes was still frozen. The local secretaries who obeyed instruction lost all seeds, and those who failed to obey lost their head as saboteurs. Same with industrial production, plants had to deliver without having material on timely basis or means to maintain machinery.

As result, the chief industrial and agricultural products are lies and false reporting. False production reports go up the pyramid, and a stream of new orders and quotas flows down. This can only go so far, hence the unavoidable collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under planned economy consumers can only buy what is available. Marketing does not exist, designers are made redundant, engineers go for the basics and the burden is on manufacturing, having to make something just to stay within the quota. Imagine going into the Apple store, finding only last years’ iPods, one colour, and no charging cable or headsets.

Sometimes even engineering is overlooked. Looking at the Etareta it seems that it was designed by the production floor, using what material and local knowledge was available. I could be wrong, but it certainly looks this way.

This is where the Czech industry was after WWII. Domestic market could not sustain large scale manufacturing. Next door markets – the west was protective over its own manufacturing and the east was too poor. The once mighty Czech industry was left to make trinkets fort the third world, to generate foreign exchange for mere survival. The East Germans where in a similar situation; communist, foreign-currency poor and short of materials and advanced machinery. In Czechoslovakia, all industry was nationalised and no private enterprise had been allowed. The east German allowed for state and private partnerships that motivated the manufacturers, hence the huge advance of the East German optical industry compared to the Czech.

The Etareta camera

The camera is small but heavy. It is about the same as 465 gr – just over a pound. Other cameras of the same era, of similar size weigh about the same but are made of stamped steel. The Etareta seem to be made of cast aluminum and thereafter milled to shape. The makers did not save on material used, body is thick and solid. Other 40’s cameras are rounded and bear soft touches, this looks stern and military.
Saying military, it shares all the characteristics required for a weapon:

  • Sturdy: you could drive a nail with it, am sure it will still operate.
  • Looks: practical to the extreme. No frills or refining attempts.
  • Durability: after years of neglect, it came to life after cleaning the internal parts.
  • Basic: it has few moving parts.
  • Simplicity: easy to take apart and assemble.
  • Intuitive: takes little time look to figure it out.

As previously mentioned, I assume that this camera was designed on the production floor. Only a tool and die maker could design a product this way. It is milled and polished to perfection, which isn’t really needed and is not found in that or any other cameras of that time. Similar body cameras, such as the Bencinis were made at a similar process but outside finishing is inferior. It looks very similar to the Monte 35 that was made six years later, so assume the Monte 35 copied the Etareta.



Monte 35

Monte 35

Etareta and Monte 35

Etareta next to Monte 35

The camera lent itself well for cleaning. The polished body let the dirt off with an easy wipe of alcohol pad. Save for a sharp corner around the top there are no cavities to keep grime. Inside it was all clean and intact. All moving parts were stuck, so I had to take it apart.
Inside the camera there is a hodgepodge of parts and materials. Camera designers tend to use consistent materials for the mechanism. Here it looks as they used whatever they could get. There is brass and steel, cast and stamped parts. No plastic parts as found in later cameras.

Etareta mechanism

Etareta under the hood

With traditional camera design, hair springs rest or held in place via notches or arresters. Here the springs just rest against anything about, be it the barrel or other fixed parts. I found it odd and spent time looking for ways to hook the springs, but there are none. I don’t have another camera to compare, so will revisit this issue when possible. On the plus side, the Etareta was calm when I opened it, did not punish me with avalanche of parts popping out. Only two bushings popped out, and it was clear where they belong. Already mentioned that it was easy and simple to take apart, and save for two oddities – it has three different sized screws for the nameplate, and an internal barrier plate could be installed in two ways, which I obviously chose the wrong way just to fully disassemble it. A note of interest – there is a trigger button on top of the camera where you expect it to be. It does not release the shutter, but controls the film advance. The shutter spring needs to be drawn by pulling what looks like a timer leaver. I this camera this lever was broken off so it confused me at first.Camera hair spring

Hair spring placement

There is precious little information online about the Etareta. There are some old sales offers and some basic mentions. The exemplar I hold says “Made in Czechoslovakia” so I assume that while is was intended for export markets, it saw little success. Other cameras by this brand are sporadically mentioned.

The Czech Republic no longer makes cameras. Neither do the other powerhouses, Russia, The US, France or England. A camera today is a lens with a lot of electronics nicely packed together in a designer box. In a time where few manufacturers produce the core components to be branded for distributors world wide, it seems we are back into a centralised manufacturing. Now manufacturers are motivated by electronics one-upmanship, so progress is measured by all perimeters but pure optics. A cheap smartphone take better pictures than the advanced camera of yesteryear.

Etareta broken lever

Broken shutter cocking lever


Further reads

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Franz Kafka – The Trial
Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis
Peter C. Newman – Here Be Dragons
Carel Capek – War with the Salamanders
John le Carre – The Honourable Schoolboy
Anthony Beevor –  The Second World War
Simon Sebag Montefiore –  Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
Margaret MacMillan – Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
George Orwell – Animal Farm


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