In 1989, the situation had reached a boiling point in the surrounding countries. Poland's Communists were first to capitulate in June, their Hungarian comrades followed in September and on 9 November, the Berlin Wall fell. However, Czechoslovakia seemed to remain an impenetrable Communist fortress.
The prevailing deathly quiet was the result of the so-called normalization, which had come with the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
Socialism has won by Jaromir CejkaMemory of Nations
In 1968, Soviet tanks put an end to the Prague Spring, the short-lived breath of freedom with uncensored media and travel to destinations beyond the Iron Curtain.
Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968 and simply stayed. Anyone who disagreed with the occupation lost their job or ended up in prison. Only a small group of people dared to resist.
Student Revolts: Prague Spring by Post BellumMemory of Nations
However, 1989 was different. Young people in particular ceased being afraid. They had had enough of life in a cage. They wanted to listen to the music they wanted, read books without the permission of the censors, travel and get together in associations not subject to the Communist Party.
They founded their own organizations and arranged happenings and demonstrations, which the Communist police strongly suppressed. State Security subsequently harassed the participants, also – threatening students with expulsion from schools.
On 15 January 1989, the Ceske deti movement organized a commemorative event on the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in protest against the Soviet occupation and subsequent normalization. Its suppression started an unprecedented series of protests, called “Palach Week”.
A group of university students founded the independent students’ union Stuha, which organized a gathering on International Students' Day, 17 November 1989, to commemorate Jan Opletal, a medical student shot during anti-Nazi protests in 1939.
Student Revolts: Palach week by Post BellumMemory of Nations
On 17 November 1939, the sounds of machine gunfire and screams woke students from their sleep at university dormitories in Prague, Brno and Pribram. After midnight, German soldiers stormed the dormitories (e.g. Masaryk dormitory in Prague-Dejvice, Hlavka dormitory in the Old Town, Svehla dormitory in Prague-Zizkov) to arrest Czech students.
It was punishment for once again having protested the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during Jan Opletal’s funeral on 15 November 1939.
Medical student Jan Opletal had died as a result of shots fired at students demonstrating on 28 October 1939, the 21st anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.
Around 1,200 students were transferred to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, located about 30 kilometers north of Berlin.
In the morning of the 17 of November, we heard bang bang bang on the door. And behind there were the German soldiers, I don't know if Schutzpolizei or SS, armed with guns. They drove us all into the dining hall. They pushed us into trucks and drove us to Ruzyne [barracks on the outskirts of Prague]. And there they shot nine representatives of the student association.
Student Revolts: Arrest of Czech students by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Simultaneously with the arrest of students, then-Nazi governor, Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath ordered the closure of all Czech institutions of higher educational for three years. Ultimately, they remained closed until the end of the war. As of 17 November 1939, some 15,172 students lost the right to study.
Two years later in London, 17 November was declared the International Students’ Day. To this day, it is the only international day with Czech origins.
International Students' Day by CTKMemory of Nations
The Communist regime could not risk neglecting such an anniversary, particularly since the SSM, their Socialist Youth Association, co-organized the event. The authorities granted permission for the gathering.
Monika MacDonagh Pajerova, then an English major at Charles University in Prague and a representative of STIS, the Students’ News and Information Agency, joined in the publishing of one of the student newspapers under the auspices of the SSM and helped organize the legal demonstration on 17 November along with the independent student movement Stuha.
They organized the gathering at the flat of Vaclav Benda, a signatory of the dissident Charta 77 Declaration and father of Marek Benda, a student at the Mathematics and Physics Department of Charles University and co-founder of Stuha. Vaclav Benda advised them to use a rose on the invitation leaflet as a symbol of non-violence.
“So, I, on behalf of STIS and Marek Benda on behalf of Stuha ran around to all of those Communist offices so they’d grant us permission. They were not very far-sighted and we looked innocent and good-natured, so they did not vet us but granted us permission. At Albertov instead of on Wenceslas Square, but we got it nonetheless.”
Student Revolts (Collage, demonstration on 17 November) by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The organizers expected a few thousand people, but ultimately at least 15,000 turned up carrying banners: “Free Speech”, “We’ve Had Enough”, “For Christmas – Freedom”, “Students of All Departments Unite”, “For a Free Republic in a Free Europe”, “Dinosaurs Step Down” etc.
The gathering started with the unofficial student anthem “Gaudeamus igitur” and Josef Sarka, who had participated in the funeral of Jan Opletal in 1939, gave a speech: “Students, don’t give up. I am glad that you are fighting for the same thing as we were back then.”
Student demonstration on Albertov, Prague by Jiri VseteckaMemory of Nations
Boisterous applause followed as did chants of “Freedom! Freedom!” The crowd chanted “Dialogue! Dialogue!” Monika MacDonagh Pajerova’s speech was also about dialogue.
The gathering was supposed to end with the laying of flowers at the grave of the Romantic-era poet and rebel Karel Hynek Macha at Vysehrad Cemetery. However, people left Vyšehrad and headed for the center of town. A crowd a few thousand strong poured over the quay of the Vltava River, stopped cars and trams, passers-by joined them. People chanted “Free elections!”, “We don’t want single-party rule!”, “Dissolve the State Security Service!”, “Dissolve the Communist People’s Militia!”, “We want a new government!”, “There’s strength in unity!” etc.
Student Revolts: Albertov, Narodni street by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The state powers did not want to let the demonstrators reach Wenceslas Square. So, a cordon of the Police’s rapid-reaction squad took up positions across the major thoroughfare of Narodni Street at the intersection of Spalena Street between 7:30 and 7:55 pm, stopping some 3,000 demonstrators. They, faced with police shields, sat on the ground, lit candles and sang the national anthem.
Student Revolts: Albertov, Narodni street by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The Police cordon also closed off the other end of Narodni Street and started violently pressing against the demonstrators. Painfully, people crushed against each other, against glass shop windows and parked cars trying not to fall down so as not to get trampled.
Intervention by security units on Narodni Street by Jan JindraMemory of Nations
From this overfilled cauldron, the Police only opened one exit – through a narrow street in which they brutally beat everyone. According to the official report, this operation to secure public order started at 8:45 pm and lasted for half an hour.
Palach Week by Karel BuchacekMemory of Nations
After the security forces’ operation, an unconscious body was left lying on Narodni Street. News of a dead student quickly spread among the population. Fortunately, it later turned out to be untrue. Nevertheless, the operation proved to be the last straw for many people, who came out onto the streets precisely because the regime had “beaten the kids”.
Narodni Street by Archive of the Capital City of PragueMemory of Nations
An independent commission counted 568 people (434 men and 134 women) injured in direct connection with the demonstration on Narodni Street. Not even Western journalists escaped injury. They were the only ones to foresee that things might “explode” in Prague on 17 November.
Injuries on Narodni Street by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Journalism student Milan Podobsky suffered injuries to his head and cornea.
Together with other students, he started publishing the satirical periodical “Famyzdat” at irregular intervals. Its pages were filled with jokes that had appeared on the walls of Prague’s streets and in the metro during the days of the revolution.
Satirical periodical “Famyzdat” by Post BellumMemory of Nations
University students reacted to the attack on Narodni Street by going on strike. It was intended to last until the fulfillment of their demands, which included an orderly investigation of the operation and punishment of the perpetrators.
On Monday, November 20th, they occupied the buildings of all university departments Instead of attending lectures, they made posters and organized trips outside of Prague to inform the rest of the country about the incident on Narodni Street. The official media remained silent about the violent suppression of the demonstration.
Student Revolts: Student strike by Post BellumMemory of Nations
On Monday, 20 November 1989, Vaclav Bartuska took over the chairmanship of the Department of Journalism’s strike committee. He did not expect the strike to last long and remembers the amazing feeling when the students of Prague realized that the universities in other towns had joined the strike.
In the town of Liberec it was Tomas Sponar, student of the University of Mechanical Engineering and Textiles in Liberec, who called on his classmates to join the strike. On Sunday, November 19, he copied the first demand by Prague university students for an investigation into the police operation on Narodni Street.
The decisive moment for him was when a student from Prague described how the police beat the students on Narodni street. „At that moment, I thought that something had to happen. I stood up, and I said that we would hold a strike.” The establishment of a strike committee followed, of which he became a member.
Monika Brazdova participated in the dissemination of information about the police operation through leaflets and spoke at rallies on the main square of Humpolec. Together with other students, she visited companies and factories, where they informed people about the planned general strike planned on November 27.
Monika spoke that day at a demonstration in Humpolec for students. Then she joined the campaign for the election of Vaclav Havel as president.
Student Revolts: Strikes in Czechoslovakia by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The first to support the students’ strike were actors and directors who declared a strike of their own at a meeting at Prague’s Realisticke divadlo theater on 18 November. Instead of performances, they informed the public in theaters about the brutal operation against the demonstrators and traveled with the students to report the news throughout the country.
Strike of actors in Vinohradske Theater by CTKMemory of Nations
On Sunday, 19 November, dissidents led by Vaclav Havel founded the Civic Forum, a civic platform that supported the students’ demands.
Vaclav Havel, Civic Forum, Cinoherni klub, theatre by CTK/Fotobanka CTK/Mazanec PetrMemory of Nations
Pavel Stastny, a student at the School of Arts and Crafts, designed the smiling logo of the Civic Forum on 25 November. He drew it hastily as a joke and, to his surprise, won the informal tender.
Flyers and posters printed at Vaclav Hollar Art School during the Velvet Revolution by Post BellumMemory of Nations
Starting on Monday, 20 November, people started demonstrating against the regime. Then for each following day more and more people had courage to protest in the squares of all towns.
Every afternoon keys were rattled to draw attention symbolically to the fact that the final bell had rung for the government.
Wenceslas Square became too small for the protests. They had to be moved to the Letná to hold the roughly 800,000 demonstrators who turned up.
Student Revolts: Demonstrations in Czechoslovakia by Post BellumMemory of Nations
The decisive moment came with the general strike on Monday, 27 November. At noon, 75 percent of citizens throughout the entire country stopped their work under the motto: “End the rule of one party”. People walked away from their machines and desks to support the Civic Forum and the students, who had called for the strike.
The Communists realized that they could no longer intervene by force and sat down at the negotiating table with representatives of the Civic Forum.
The Civic Forum celebrated its first important success on 29 November when Communist MP’s annulled the Constitutional clause on the leading role of the Communist Party in society.
The appointment of the first government in forty years without a majority of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia followed.
Student Revolts: General strike by Post BellumMemory of Nations
It was again students who took part in the election campaign and toured the whole country with a biography and photograph of Vaclav Havel.
Vaclav Havel, supporters, president, presidential election, students by CTK/Khol PavelMemory of Nations
Communist MP’s unanimously voted his successor, Vaclav Havel, into office on 29 November. Half a year later, the first free elections took place in Czechoslovakia. The students called off the strike, the revolution ended. For it's peaceful course the revolution got name Velvet Revolution.
We are all grateful to the students for giving this revolution its beautifully peaceful, dignified, quiet, and I would say directly loving face, which the whole world admires today. It was a revolution of truth against lies, a rebellion of purity against dirt, a revolt of the human heart against violence.
Vaclav Havel's speech on December 16, 1989
Vaclav Havel and Olga Havlova, president election, Prague Castle by CTK/Vlcek KarelMemory of Nations
Photo: Memory of Nations Archive, Karel Buchacek, Jiri Vsetecka, Jaromir Cejka, Jan Jindra, Archive of the Capital City of Prague, Czech News Agency/CTK (Petr Mazanec, Pavel Khol, Petr Josek, Karel Vlcek)
English translation: Rick Pinard