The revolution begins

Národní třída, November 17 1989

November 17 1989 did not begin dramatically. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of nine Prague students who had led protests in 1939 against the German occupation. Various officially sanctioned commemorations were taking place and the centre of Prague was filled with students.

Národní třída,  November 17 1989
Czechoslovak Radio reported from the official ceremony in the morning at Charles University, where, as always on these occasions, it was the Socialist Youth Union that took centre stage. But this was just a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and change was in the air.

In the afternoon thousands of students carrying flowers and candles, joined a march along the route taken by the funeral procession of Jan Opletal, who had been shot and killed during the protests back in 1939. Again, Czechoslovak Radio’s report gave the impression that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

But then the newsreader added one further sentence:

“Reports are coming in that certain people are attempting to abuse this solemn occasion for anti-socialist provocations.”

Národní třída,  November 17 1989
The “certain people” were in fact many thousands of students, who had continued their peaceful march into the centre of Prague. Calling for democratic reform, they ended up in the street Národní třída, which links the National Theatre to Wenceslas Square.

There they were stopped and riot police broke up the demonstration with unprecedented force. The next day, Czechoslovak Radio, at the time still firmly in the hands of the regime, reported that 17 protestors and 7 policemen had been injured. Its report continued:

“In the course of the event there were attempts to turn it into a demonstration against the socialist system, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the government. This was confirmed as the situation developed, and in the evening the crowd on the instigation of various people headed towards the city centre. Peace and public order were breached. After repeated appeals, some of the people went away, but around 2,000 continued to demonstrate, and behaved increasingly aggressively. In order to reinstate peace and order, police riot units were employed.”

Wenceslas Square,  November 19 1989
As that extract shows only too clearly, Czechoslovak Radio was not at the vanguard of the Velvet Revolution, and in the first dramatic days was broadcasting only the official version of events. But by November 19, with demonstrations in the streets continuing, a distinct shift in the radio’s reporting of events could be detected:

“At five in the afternoon Wenceslas Square was still filled with people. It’s hard to say, but I probably wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that there were around 100,000 people here – mostly young people and children, but all generations were here… The participants were shouting slogans, discussing in groups. Their shouts and banners displayed their dissatisfaction – they were calling for political pluralism, free elections, real dialogue and radical reforms.”

Suddenly the radio was using very different language. It was clear that dramatic change was under way, even in Czechoslovak Radio.