1989: the Velvet Revolution in context (or how ‘November’ began in ‘January’)

17 novembre, 1989, photo: La Faculté des Sciences de l'Université Charles

The date is November 17, 1989, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A cordon of Czechoslovak riot police blocks the path of thousands of university students staging a march through Prague, calling for democracy – and freedom. As police truncheons begin to rain down on their heads, they chant “We have bare hands” – we are unarmed. Hundreds are bruised and bloodied; one student reportedly dead. The Velvet Revolution, as it came to be known, had begun.

Palach week | Photo: Czech Television
November 17 – now celebrated worldwide as International Students’ Day – originally commemorated the closing of Czech universities in 1939 by the Nazi governor of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, the subsequent execution of alleged anti-fascist ring leaders, and internment of 1,200 students in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

That tragic chain of events was sparked by mass protests following the death of Jan Opletal, a medical student who died a fortnight after having been shot at an anti-Nazi demonstration on October 28, the anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

Throughout 1989 in Czechoslovakia, and indeed in years prior to the Velvet Revolution, numerous demonstrations have been staged on these and other anniversaries tied to seminal moments in the nation’s history.

In a sense, ‘November’ began in ‘January’. That month, a large anti-regime demonstration held on the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach – another student martyr – who in 1969 set himself on fire in a desperate attempt to rouse the demoralised Czechoslovak nation in the face of Soviet occupation.

Some 3,500 members of the state security forces and People’s Militia encircled the protesters – men and women of all ages – at the top of Wenceslas Square, where Palach had self-immolated.

“People, for god’s sake, someone help us!” a man cries out, as he is manhandled, and his wife in a stranglehold. “Help us, please! Don’t let them beat us!” Scores were brutally beaten and 117 arrested, prompting smaller, spontaneous actions throughout the week.

November 17 as a ‘prelude’ to Palach Week

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová,  photo: Eva Turečková
In the tumultuous year of 1989, numerous other demonstrations were held in Czechoslovakia: advocating for democracy, religious freedom, human rights, protecting the environment – even to protest the introduction of a hundred-crown banknote featuring Klement Gottwald, the nation’s first Communist president and a die-hard Stalinist.

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová, a long-time activist and one of the student leaders who organised the November 17, 1989 demonstration that sparked the Velvet Revoultion, says she had thought it would be a dress rehearsal for the main event –the new ‘Palach Week’, as it had come to be known.

“When Václav Havel was jailed during Palach Week in January 1989 that was also a strong impulse because we saw how merciless the regime was; that just for putting a flower on the spot where Jan Palach burned himself in 1969, some of our friends went to prison. I think that in part led to the radicalisation of the student movement.

“We were going not only for Jan Palach week, but also on 21st of August, the anniversary of the Russian invasion in 1968; on the 28th of October, the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic; and we thought the 17th of November would be something like a prelude to the next Jan Palach week, like practising for something that would come in two months’ time.”

Několik vět: ‘Several sentences’, tens of thousands of signatories

Několik vět,  photo: Czech Television
After four months in Prague’s Pankrác prison following his arrest during Palach Week, Havel was released on May 17, and began working on “Několik vět” or Several Sentences – a petition addressed to Czechoslovakia’s communist authorities asking them to end political oppression and media control.

More than 40,000 people would sign the appeal – first published on June 22 in the then illegal newspaper Lidové noviny; their names were read out by Radio Free Europe on a daily basis, as the list grew.

By summer, Communist governments in Poland and Hungary had already effectively crumbled. By autumn, mass demonstrations in Leipzig and elsewhere in the GDR and easing of travel restrictions there led to a mass exodus of East Germans – an estimated 42,000 fled to the West by way of Czechoslovakia.

ABC News report, 22.8.1989:

“Eastern Europe, once a solid bloc controlled by Moscow. Today, it's more like a jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces come from three different boxes.

“There are Hungary and Poland, on the verge of forming multiparty systems. Czechoslovakia and East Germany, where dissent surfaces despite government attempts to keep it down.

“Only in Romania and Bulgaria, still living in the twilight of Stalinism, is there no significant dissent at all. The question is how far will it go? Will the ever increasing flow of refugees from East Germany prompt that government to release its grip?

“And what about Czechoslovakia? Will the roots of Prague Spring, 1968, send up new shoots? Or will they be stomped down, as they have been this week…”

It was against that wider backdrop that on October 28, the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s founding, some 20,000 protesters took to the streets of Prague, calling for “democracy”, “free elections”, the release of all political prisoners – and above all “freedom”. Havel, again, was among those detained.

Foreign television footage shows riot police using dogs, clubs and water cannons to disperse that loud – but peaceful – protest at the top of Wenceslas Square. Records show security forces detained more than 350 participants, holding some 150 in cells overnight or longer.

That night, Czechoslovak state television reported “some 3,000 people, including foreign provocateurs” had staged an aggressive action, called by the dissident movement “Charter 77 and other illegal groups” hell bent on undermining the Socialist nation.

Berlin, Gorbachev, and St. Agnes of Bohemia

The fall of the Berlin Wall,  photo: Superikonoskop,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 had signalled to other Soviet satellite states that independence from Moscow was perhaps truly a possibility, as the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev had promised. Perhaps in Czechoslovakia, a new Socialist leadership would arise who embraced political and economic reform, freedom of expression – another “Prague Spring”, minus another Warsaw Pact invasion.

Two days later, a significant demonstration was staged in Teplice, north Bohemia, where hundreds wearing gas masks chanted “We want clean air” and “We want healthy children”. The demonstration continued for a further three days, during which clashes ensued. Czechoslovaks seemed emboldened.

Meanwhile, on November 12, nearly 10,000 pilgrims from Czechoslovakia, led by Cardinal František Tomášek, travelled to the Vatican to attend the canonization by Pope John Paul II of St. Agnes of Bohemia, daughter of King Přemysl Otakar I. For some believers, it was a confirmation of a 15th century prophecy that Bohemia would prosper upon her sainthood.

NBC news report, 14.9.1989:

“There is a clear sign tonight that hard-line Czechoslovakia now is beginning to give; that it is feeling the dramatic changes taking place in East Germany next door. Today, Czechoslovakia decided to loosen the reins on its people, making it easier for them to travel…”

Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, too, admitted the need for “political reform”. A few days before the November 17 student protest, he took the first of many half-measures aimed at mollifying the public and clinging to power. In a televised speech to the legislature, he announced citizens would no longer need exit visas from the Interior Ministry to visit Western countries.

The announcement triggered no rush to travel agencies let alone signs of a mass exodus like in the GDR. The writing was literally on the wall: Czechoslovaks had seen what massive, peaceful civil disobedience could achieve. Poland’s Solidarity movement candidates in June had won a landslide victory. Hungary and East Germany, too, were clearly firmly set on the road to democracy.

The Národní třída ‘massacre’

Národní třída,  November 17,  1989,  photo: archive of Memory of Nation
The officially sanctioned November 17 demonstration began that morning with a ceremony at Charles University, led by the Socialist Youth Union. The Communists had granted permission for a procession along the same route as Opletal’s funeral procession, which would end at the national cemetery at Vyšehrad.

But the students’ march did not break up there. At the end of the official part of the event at the Slavín memorial tomb at Vyšehrad, some 15,000 students formed a procession heading for the Prague city centre, defying police instructions, their numbers swelling as they went.

At first, Czechoslovak Radio reports gave the impression nothing extraordinary was afoot, though a newsreader added: “Reports are coming in that certain people are attempting to abuse this solemn occasion for anti-socialist provocations.”

By the afternoon, students and others carrying flowers, candles and banners were stopped short at Národní třída, linking the National Theatre to Wenceslas Square, cut off by a cordon of state security units and riot police. Former student leader Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová again:

“I was a bit caught by surprise that so many people came to our – originally student --demonstration. And I was badly surprised by how the Communist regime reacted. It was really a massacre.

“I lived for some hours, maybe days, believing that me and Marek Benda, as the official organisers who got all the stamps, papers, and invited others, were responsible for the death – or deaths – of our student colleagues. And that was an absolutely horrible feeling.”

The ‘killing’ of Milan Šmíd

Národní Street,  November 17,  1989 | Photo: archive of Charles University
The riot police had attacked the demonstrators at Národní třída with a brutality unprecedented even in a country that had known repression for decades. Drahomíra Dražská, a student dormitory porter, spread the story that a student named Milan Šmíd had been killed.

The dissident Petr Uhl believed it, and passed the story on to Radio Free Europe and the BBC, which broadcast it. Later, a conspiracy theory spread that the StB had staged the death in hopes of creating a groundswell of anger that would oust the Communist hardliners, who would be replaced by Gorbachev-type reformers. If that were the case, it backfired.

Outraged by the police brutality and “killing” of a student, people staged spontaneous demonstrations in Prague and in other cities across Czechoslovakia over the next week – every day, Wenceslas Square filled with tens of thousands.

Two days after the November 17 “massacre”, Václav Havel and fellow opposition activists, intellectuals and artists had founded the Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum), a group that Havel called “an association open to all who wanted democracy in Czechoslovakia”. Until then, they Chartists and student leaders had kept a strategic distance, says Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová:

“I think it was a good strategy Charter 77 people – the leading figures being very wise men and women, like Václav Havel, Jiří Dienstbier, Dana Němcová and others, knew well that if they supported the student movement practically, financially or with advice, we would go down very quickly. So, they let us be, for two or three years.

“Until November 17, 1989, it was rather us students, in small numbers, but we did participate in every demonstration that took place organised by Charter 77 or the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) – political prisoners.

“The Opletal anniversary march was the first time we alone organised such a big event of that type, and the Chartists really let us be. The only one we communicated with was [Roman Catholic activist] Václav Benda, because he was the father of two of my friends at university, Marek and Martin. It was his idea to use the flower as a symbol of non-violence, which we put on our leaflets.”

“Long live Havel! Long live Havel!”

Václav Havel in 1990,  photo: Czech Television
The turnout at subsequent rallies organised by the Civic Forum grew steadily in size – to hundreds of thousands. Ever more confident, people began covering Communist slogans and red stars with the national flag. They rattled their keys, and otherwise loudly let the authorities know for whom the bell tolled.

On November 24, Havel addressed a crowd of 300,000 from the balcony of the Melantrich building overlooking Wenceslas Square; on November 26, some 800,000 people assembled to hear him at Letná plain – for decades the site of Communist May Day celebrations. On November 28, the day after a general strike, one-party rule effectively came to an end. Gustáv Husák, the face of the “normalisation” era, resigned as president, and on December 29, parliament elected the country’s first post-Communist president, Václav Havel.