Magdaléna Platzová: I was fainting with fear on Národní

Magdaléna Platzová, photo: Ian Willoughby

Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was sparked by a student demonstration on November 17, 1989 that was brutally quelled by riot police. Among those on the front line of those clashes was writer Magdaléna Platzová. The daughter of dissident Eda Kriseová, at 17 years old she had already taken part in a number of demonstrations. But, she says, nothing prepared her for the violence that surrounded her on Prague’s Národní St. on that now famous day.

Magdaléna Platzová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Platzová, who recently published a diary account of that time entitled Máme holý ruce (Our Hands Are Bare/We Are Unarmed), shared her experiences when we spoke at Café Slavia. But I first asked how she and her family thought things would play out in the period just before Communist rule collapsed.

“Nobody guessed, or even felt, that things would change so radically so soon.

“I was just today reading to students one part from my book about how my sister and myself went for a trip to France and Italy in summer of 1989.

“The trip ended in Vienna and we were seriously considering emigration – in August of ’89.

“I know people who actually did emigrate that summer, which from our point of view now looks totally stupid – that we couldn’t predict what will go on.

“But we really couldn’t and we didn’t.

“And even with what was going on in Poland, the Soviet Union, East Germany, we still couldn’t predict that.

“I think we were kind of enjoying the fact that things were changing a little bit, that there were more concerts and exhibitions that had not been possible, that we could travel in fact. That was amazing.

“But my mother, because she remembered how they shut the borders in ’69, so she was very quick in arranging this trip for us.

“We knew that the police were there and were going to block us. But nobody really thought that they would be violent.”

“She thought it was like a little window through which we could peep out into the normal world – she knew how important it was.

“I think the general feeling was that at some point the Communists will kind of react to all these expansions of liberties and that they will become really aggressive, how they were during Palach Week [in January 1989].

“For example on August 21, 1989, it was believed that there would be shooting on Wenceslas Square.

“People were warned. Even dissidents like Havel… he actually released a statement which was broadcast by Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, both probably, saying, Don’t come to Wenceslas Square because the Communists said they would shoot and we don’t need loss of life, we don’t need deaths at the moment, sacrifices of life.

“So people were still scared, I think. They were waiting for some reaction.”

We’re here at Café Slavia at the end of Národní třída. Tell us what the scene was like on November 17, 1989, when you and thousands of other people entered the street just by here? How big had the crowd grown by then?

“I think the crowd was probably several thousand people. It was pretty big.

“We were going from Vyšehrad along the river. There were all these groups of people who were trying to find their way to the city centre and were joining the big group.

“So the crowd was quite big when we got to Národní třída, I think.

“At the National Theatre, I don’t know if it was intermission or they just stopped the show, but the actors and audience came out on the balcony and they were greeting us.

“We were shouting, Freedom for artists and Národ sobě, the slogan from the National Theatre.

“And there were people in the windows. It was a very festive mood.

“I think nobody really knew… well we did know, because we were stopped in Vyšehradská, so we knew that the police were there and were going to block us.

“But nobody really thought that they would be violent.”

Magdaléna Platzová, in the red coat, can be seen here (0:04) chanting “our hands are empty” on Národní during the protest that sparked the revolution.

When did you start a get sense of, Wait a second, this looks like it could get bad?

“It was when we got blocked. We got basically trapped at Národní třída.

“It wasn’t a single line – there were several rows of policemen.

“There were normal policemen with white helmets, which we were used to already, and behind them there was some kind of special force which we saw for the first time.

“They were guys dressed like soldiers with red berets.

“What later came out was that they were a special commando of the Ministry of the Interior who were directly under [Miroslav] Štěpán, who was the head of the Communists in Prague.

“It later came out they were a special commando who were directly under [Miroslav] Štěpán, who was the head of the Communists in Prague.”

“They were like his personal commando, trained to fight terrorism. So they were real killers, basically.

“You could see that they were not normal police. They were really violent – jumping on people when they were laying on the ground and pulling them away by their arms.

“What also happened for the first time was that they were chasing us, even the people who escaped.

“They were running into the houses.

“For example, people who lived in Mikulandská were letting people in.

“They would open the door and shut it behind them and switch off the lights and people were sitting there quietly.

“And these guys were chasing after the students, banging on doors and shouting at people to come out.

“So it was very aggressive.”

Is it the case that there was a period when there was a kind of standoff, when the police were standing and the crowd was standing and nothing was happening? If so, how long did it last and what was the mood among the protesters?

“Yes. I think it was quite a long time – at least it seemed very long, because it was freezing cold.

“They were saying, Go away, disperse, disperse, but we couldn’t, because they were blocking us.

“So even people who wanted to go away couldn’t.

“But most people didn’t want to go away, I think.

“We sat on the ground and we had some candles and were singing – the usual demonstration stuff.

“My impression is it lasted really a long time, this kind of tension, not knowing what would happen.

“Then at some point, without warning, they started to press at us from both sides.

“We were basically crawling over each other [laughs] and they were pressing on us, while beating us.

“What they did normally was that they would chase us away. These guys with batons would press us out and at some point they would start running and beating us and we would disperse and then come back.

“That was a normal, standard thing.

“But this, when they actually blocked us and we didn’t know what they were going to do… though it was clear they were going to beat us at some point [laughs].”

“People would fall on the ground and they would still beat them on the ground. What was also not normal was they were beating us on the head.”

When that actually began happening, how severe was the violence?

“I think it was really severe, actually. I describe this in the book.

“We were deadly afraid, because there was no escape.

“And it seemed totally senseless. People would fall on the ground and they would still beat them on the ground.

“What was also not standard, not normal, was they were beating us on the head.

“Normally they would beat on the body, not on the head.”

You were 17 years old at this time. How scared were you?

“I was terribly scared. I was fainting.

“Yes, I think it was the worst fear of my life.

“I think all of us who were there got traumatised in a way.

“For example, for a long time I didn’t think about it – I was kind of blocking the whole thing.

“I had a red coat on me, which is in the footage from Národní, and I would never put it back on. Not only because there was wax on it, from the candles, I just couldn’t see it – I got sick when I saw the coat.

“I think we were traumatised.

Národní Street,  November 17,  1989 | Photo: archive of Charles University
“It doesn’t matter that there were no deaths – there could have been.

“And you didn’t know… the police looked out of control.

“The father of my friend was there, who happened to be next to me in the crowd, and he at some point he took me and my friend and he pulled us out through this row of policemen who were beating.

“I could never go there of my own will – I would collapse.

“But he pulled us out by force, so we got out of there.”

Some moments from that day were filmed and there’s famously film of you shouting, Máme holý ruce, Our hands are bare. And you look terrified in it. How does it feel for you today to look back at that film?

“I have seen it many times.

‘They don’t have so much footage so they run this on TV every anniversary of the revolution [laughs].

“So by now I’m pretty much used to seeing it.

“But it did give me shivers for some time, yes.”

A few days after this happened you and your friends were referring to what had happened on that Friday as “Bloody Friday”. There’s a perception that the Velvet Revolution was peaceful. Would you argue with that? Would you say it’s a misconception?

“I think the revolution itself was peaceful.

“I had a red coat on, which is in the footage from Národní, and I would never put it back on. I got sick when I saw the coat.”

“But definitely the first impulse was violence, totally out of place.

“Of course it’s a question. You have all these hypotheses that it was actually done on purpose, that it was planned to shake the old structures in the party and then probably got out of hand.

“But I think if somebody planned this, to make people really pissed, they didn’t predict, as much as we didn’t predict, that it would collapse so quickly and so irreversibly, in a way.

“So I think it got a bit out of hand.”

I saw a video interview with your mother in which she was talking about, even as a dissident, being really scared because you and your sister were out at the demonstration. It must have been a great relief for her when you guys finally came home?

“I think it was, yes.

“I wrote in the book that she wasn’t at the demonstration but she says that she came with us to Národní and then she left.

“So before it got blocked she went home.”

Wenceslas Square,  November 1989,  photo: archive of Mr. Růžička
But for a few hours she didn’t know what was happening with you?

“Right. But nobody knew anything.

“I think they were announcing something on Voice of America, there was some scattered news, but nobody really knew.

“And even the day after nobody really knew.

“There were these rumours that somebody had died, which really helped [laughs] to set off the revolution – if you call it a revolution, I’m not sure, but the events.”

You were there on December 21, on the Tuesday, when Havel first spoke on Wenceslas Square and Marta Kubišová sang [MK actually appeared the following day - IW]. For me, as a foreigner who had never been to this country at that time, if I watch that even now I’m really moved by it. It must have been amazing to experience that moment?

“It was absolutely amazing.

“I remember on the Monday we were also on Wenceslas Square, but still nobody knew what was going on.

“There were rumours there were tanks, that there was like an army coming to Prague.

“We wanted to go across Mánesův most to Hradčany but it was blocked by the police, so we stayed in the Old Town.

“When we filled Letná there was no fear any more. There was an amazing feeling of being together.”

“And there was still fear – because we thought that we would be beaten again, like in January, during Palach Week, when actually every day we came to demonstrate and every day we got beaten.

“So we expected the same.

“But there was no beating. There were police blocks, but no beating.

“And on Tuesday Havel was speaking on Wenceslas Square, and some actors, and Kubišová, who hadn’t sung in public for 20 years, sang the national anthem and Modlitba pro Martu, which was like a cult song for us.

“So it was an extremely powerful moment.

“Of course the funny thing is you realise how quickly these powerful moments wear off.

“Because let’s say on the Thursday it wasn’t that powerful any more [laughs].

“And when more and more people were coming and we filled Letná there was no fear any more. There was an amazing feeling of being together.

“I remember that. It struck me that it was the first time in my life I was together with my co-citizens [laughs].”

Marta Kubišová sings A Prayer for Marta on Wenceslas Square on November 22, 1989.