November 17, 1989 reconstructed through testimonies of 300 participants in new book

Národní třída, November 17 1989, photo: Petr Čepek / Charles University / Czech Television

In a remarkable work of oral history, four students with the help of former dissident and award winning author Aleš Palán have produced a 270 page history of the events that took place in Prague on November 17, 1989. One of them is Alžběta Ambrožová, a 26 year old graduate of English and American Studies. She says that around 300 testimonies were collected through a mix of interviews and online questionnaires. I began by asking her about how people felt going into that watershed event in Czech history.

Alžběta Ambrožová,  photo: Tom McEnchroe
“I would say the answer would be mixed. At the beginning of the day no one could know what a great and important day it was going to be. However, at the same time, in the Eastern bloc many changes were happening during those days. Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany already had made steps to dismantle their communist regimes.

“As many of the interviewees told us, there was something in the air and the people could feel it. But this did not mean that the specific demonstration of 17 November would be the breakthrough. It was quite ambivalent. Many people did not know what to expect from that gathering.”

So is it possible to say that the most common reason for why people participated in those protests was this momentum resulting from what had happened in surrounding states or was it literally the anniversary itself that brought them onto the streets?

“Although the great masses of people who came may give the impression that their reasons were homogenous, the fact is their reasons for being there were very much varied. Some were seasoned protesters who came to every such event.

“They thought they would go, but did not have any big expectations. In part, because the gathering on November 17 was special in the sense that it was co-organised by the Socialist Youth Union, an organisation managed by the Communist Party. Therefore you could say this was an official demonstration an oxymoron for many people. It was really hard to say what to expect from it.

“As many of the interviewees told us, there was something in the air and the people could feel it. But this did not mean that that specific demonstration of 17 November would be the one that would be a breakthrough.”

“Then there were also people who were perhaps a bit afraid to express their disapproval at the unauthorised demonstrations. This one, on the other hand, was permitted by the authorities, so they felt that they can go and express their opinion in public.”

A large part of the book is divided into two chapters dedicated to the events that took place that day on Národní třída, as well as Albertov and Vyšehrad. For those who know that major protests happened in Prague that day, but not exactly how they took place, could you explain the importance of these two locations?

“The significance of these locations was great. As I said before, this was first a gathering which then turned into a demonstration. It began in Prague's Albertov.

“Officially, it was presented as a commemoration of the tragic events of 1939, when the Nazi occupiers imprisoned a lot of Czech students in concentration camps and killed Jan Opletal, a student of medicine, who was shot at a Czechoslovak Independence Day rally on 28 October. Subsequently, his body was taken to Prague Main Train Station accompanied by a funeral procession.

Photo: Kalich publishing
“Originally, this route to the train station was to be followed in 1989 as well, but then it was changed. That may be due to the fact that the station is so close to Wenceslas Square. A location of symbolic value, which the regime probably did not want ‘endangered’ during that protest.

"The route was therefore changed and newly led to the Vyšehrad cemetery. It is true that this location is also connected to the German occupation, because it is here that the remains of the famous Czech poet Karel Hynek Mácha were transferred shortly after the Munich Agreement of 1938.

“When it comes to Národní třída, that is the spot which protesters wanted to pass through in order to get to Wenceslas Square, the biggest square in Prague. One phrase was used by many of our interviewees: ‘Wenceslas Square is the battlefield’.

“The square has of course been the site of many historical events in Czech history. It was where the declaration of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 was announced. It was an area connected to the Prague Uprising in 1945, and it was also the location of other key events in the state's history.

“Many of the individuals we interviewed felt that if the regime let the protesters reach Wenceslas Square it would mean the end. It would lose. That is why it was so important for the Communist leadership to stop the protesters at Národní třída. It was the last place where they could stop the protesters.”

You last chapter is called “Večer” - Evening. How did people feel that night about what had happened? Was it clear to many that this was the end of the regime?

“Many of our interviewees used the same phase. They said: ‘Wenceslas Square is the battlefield’. The square has of course been the scene of many historical events in Czech history.”

“I think that the evening after the clash at Národní třída is a fascinating part of the book when it comes to how it is recalled by respondents. They felt absolutely devastated that evening. They felt that that the regime had won.

“This protest, which they describe as an euphoric experience, a communal sense of freedom, was suddenly thought to be lost. That everything had been in vain and now an even stronger wave of repression was to come. Most of these people were students, so they of course felt that they would be expelled.

“Those who were not students felt they would lose their jobs. They had no idea about how the events would unravel. That evening, the event was seen as a complete defeat.”

So what happened? How did that seeming defeat turn into victory eventually?

“There were people who took the situation into their own hands. Of course, they felt defeated. However, some felt that something had to be done, despite the situation seemingly being lost.

Page sharing information on how to handle an interrogation spread during the revolution,  photo: archive of Alžběta Ambrožová
“Already during that evening on 17 November, some students came up with the idea of a student strike. They were telling this to people on the river embankment who were fleeing the site of the clash at Národní třída. That strike was successful. It spread through the whole country, even to Slovak schools and in the end it turned into a general strike.”

Your book includes memories from foreigners who witnessed the event. I was wondering, how did they view it?

“There are two Americans who we interviewed. It is quite an interesting story. They came to Prague as tourists and were hosted by their Czech friend. They happened to be very close to the important locations where the events of that day took place. For me, their story is a great example of how the human memory works.

“These two Americans were brothers and their account of what happened differs quite a lot. They did not come into contact with the protesters. They merely heard the crowd roaring somewhere in the distance. That was also confirmed to me by their Czech host, whom I interviewed as well.

“Nevertheless, one of the brothers, perhaps because he had seen so much on the news and read so much about it, must have somehow mixed the news coverage into his memories. He agreed with his brother in his recolections that there was a lot of noise. But then he told me that he remembers going to a big square, where there were many police officers with white helmets, batons and transparent shields.

“This protest, which they describe as a euphoric experience, a communal sense of freedom, was thought to be lost. That everything had been in vain and that now an even stronger wave of repression was to come.”

“That just could not have happened. After all, the protests did not even take place in any square. So it is an interesting example of how the memory can mix things up.”

The book is notable for its retro-looking design, which features testimonies, with images, letters, diary entries and drawings and archival materials, including police reports and maps. These are all laced together into a sort of narrative. When it comes to these secondary materials, was there any that particularly left a mark on you?

“I think it would be one of those police maps that you mentioned. There are two maps that show the surveillance process of one of our interviewees, who at that time was working as a boiler operator – a punishment resulting from his partaking in printing and distributing an underground newspaper. At the time of the events, he was a boiler operator he was therefore a boiler operator under surveillance.

“During our interview, he gave me two maps which he had been able to obtain after the revolution. They show exactly how he was being watched by the secret police. There is one showing a map of his workplace and another depicting the area where he lived. It is quite amateurishly drawn. Just by colour pencils. It shows the most convenient spots from which the officers could watch him while he was walking out of his flat, or working his job.

Národní třída,  November 17 1989 | Photo: Petr Čepek,  Charles University / Czech Television
“Of course I was aware that these things were happening on a daily basis, but seeing it with my own eyes was quite disquieting.”

Does your book include the perspective of the other side? Whether police, secret service, or wider communist members?

“It does. We were lucky enough to come across a police commander of the emergency regiments, who directly took part in the suppressions at Národní třída. He describes the operation from the police’s perspective. I think this quite a precious point of view, even though the reader can of course make his own judgement whether he fully trusts him.

“Having so many perspectives is valuable, because, of course when it comes to 17 November, the situation is quite clearly cut in two halves - the 'goodies' and the 'baddies'. But of course, nothing is ever black and white. In any kind of storytelling where you bother with the truth it is important to have as many perspectives as possible and that is what we were intending to do.”

“Personally, I think through working on the book and listening to the fascinating stories from those days, it brought me closer to my parents in terms of understanding the way they lived back then as well as the way they felt during those years when I was a little child and could not understand their complex political feelings.”

Your book was edited by Aleš Palán, a Charter 77 signatory, but the four of its authors, including you are all people born after the Velvet Revolution. What was it like listening to the stories of people who took part in it, as someone who did not experience communism?

“For me it was fascinating. Personally, I think working on the book and listening to the fascinating stories from those days brought me closer to my parents in terms of understanding the way they lived back then. How they felt during those years when I was a little child and could not understand their complex political feelings.”

Are there any plans for publishing an English version?

“We haven’t made any plans for such a translation thus far, although we are of course open to suggestions. I think we will first have to see how successful it is in the Czech market.

The Czech edition can also be purchased from abroad via:

“However, I do think it could be interesting for foreign audiences too. The event is narrated dynamically. It’s not just a series of people’s memories in quotation marks. Rather, these are wound into the general narrative of that day, so I

feel that anyone with an interest in European, especially Central European history could find this book useful.”