November 17 is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, Freedom & Democracy Day. On this day in 1989, thousands of people took to the streets demanding a change in government. Following the lead of their Eastern European neighbours, citizens peacefully protested against the Communist regime, and successfully removed them from power. Today and tomorrow we’ll review the history, and Wednesday introduce you to some important places in Prague that played a role in the events.
What’s come to be known as the Velvet Revolution occurred over a six week period from November 17 to December 29, 1989. November 17 was already an important date in Czechoslovak history. Fifty years ago, students held a demonstration protesting the Nazi regime. Students again took to the streets, this time in protest of a different oppressive government. The protest began as a legal rally, but soon turned into a demonstration demanding democratic reforms. Students marching from the Czech National Cemetery in Vyšehrad to Václavské náměstí were stopped by riot police at Národní třída. In the ensuing stand-off, students offered flowers instead of resistance to the officers, but the police responded with beatings. Nearly 170 students were injured that day. At the time, one student was reportedly beaten to death, a rumor which proved to be false. That “death” however served to mobilize support for the students and their demands amongst the general public. In another blow to the government’s control, a number of worker’s unions also took up the students’ cause.
Mass demonstrations were held in Prague, Bratislava and others cities around the country from November 18 – 27, when a general strike was called. In theatres, instead of performances, people gathered for public discussions. It was one of these discussions on November 19, at Prague’s Činoherní Klub that the Civic Forum was founded. It was established as the “official spokesgroup for the segment of the Czechoslovak public which is ever more critical of the policy of the present Czechoslovak leadership.” The Civic Forum was led by Václav Havel, later to become the country’s first democratically elected president.
The group’s first demands were the resignation of the Communist government, release of prisoners of conscience and an investigation into the police action that had occurred on November 17. In the Slovak part of the country a similar action was taking place – the founding of the Public Against Violence group. Both groups immediately saw citizens joining en masse; and not just students. Factory workers, university staff and employees of a variety of other institutions were getting involved in the cause. It took about two weeks for the country’s media to begin broadcasting reports of what was really going on in Prague, but in the meantime, students began travelling to smaller cities and towns to rally support.
How did the government respond? Tune in tomorrow!
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia