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The Path Less Travelled
You’ll have read that the Velvet Revolution started on International Students Day i.e. November 17th 1989 but, it started well before that. Actually you have to go back 50 years to understand that the students were protesting on an anniversary and go back another 20 years to explain why they were protesting at all. So lets set the record straight.
The first thing that happened was the formation of Czechoslovakia when Independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire is declared on October 28th 1918. What does this mean? it means that students claimed that day, October 28th, as a day of protest and were marching in the streets for years to come.
What about November 17th?
Up until 1939 the students were having their protests on October 28th but in 1939 they were generally protesting about the invasion of the city by Nazi forces. Students clashed with the German army and several were shot. One of them, Jan Opletal, was mortally injured and died on November 11th. His funeral was held on November 15th and thousands of people attended with many of these people calling for revenge against Jan Opletal’s killers. The Reichsprotektor (top Nazi in the city) was Reinhard Heydrich. He ordered three things. 1) Closure of all colleges and universities in Prague, 2) Deportation of 1200 students away from Prague and 3) The execution of seven students and a professor. Post war Czechoslovakia will approach the League of Nations and request that the day of the executions, November 17th, be classified as International Students Day. This was granted.
So now you have found out why November 17th is International Students Day, you’ll understand that post World War 2 that students now switch their protest day from October 28th to November 17th and will continue to protest every year up to and including November 17th 1989.
This is a time of Gorbachev. Annual protests since the 1950s that have regularly been banned or harshly dealt with are still continuing but throughout 1989 have gone on without the usual level of oppression and brutality. It’s November 17th 1989 and as usual, a group of around 250 students are protesting but really the only intention is to finish their protest on Wenceslas Square. 300 metres from Wenceslas Square they are stopped at a line containing police and security services. The students realise that they will not be able to finish the protest on the square and begin to argue their case. This is shortly followed by street fighting at which point the trigger of the Velvet Revolution occurs. It was reported on the radio that a student had been beaten to death in this fighting.
Lets not get all political about it. Lets not even suggest that the events in Berlin of the previous ten days had anything to do with it. On November 17th 1989, the inhabitants of Prague understood one clear fact. That on the 50th Anniversary of the execution of the students at the hands of the Nazis in 1939, another student had apparently given his life for freedom. The first 20,000 people on the streets were young and full of energy. Their parents had been the same in 1968 but this time something was different. It was clear that the military was not going to get involved so the people needed only to deal with the police and the hated security services. The rank-and-file police switch sides immediately ignoring orders from their command. The security services isolated and without support simply melt away and the protest culminates a mere three days later on November 20th with half a million people on the streets. What happened to the student who had been beaten to death? Well that was the mystery as it seems that nobody involved in the fighting saw anybody killed and nobody could quite remember how the story started or who had allowed it to be broadcast on the radio.
What happened next?
The saviour of the Velvet Revolution was not a single person. An effective but loosely held together opposition called the Civic Forum had enough talent and tenacity to get through the worst of it. The Communist government fell, the Communist President stayed in office long enough to call a new Presidential election resulting in Vaclav Havel being sworn in on December 28th 1989.
The lead up to the Velvet Revolution and the exact point of the original security line that blocked the path of the students is shown during the Prague City Walking Tour at Livingpraguetours.