Student's struggle for freedom and democracy commemorated

Vaclav Havel in 1989

November 17th was a state holiday in the Czech Republic, a day commemorating the struggle of students for freedom and democracy. Twelve years have passed since the students' demonstration in Prague triggered off what has been called the Velvet Revolution, the end of communist domination of Czechoslovakia. Political representatives and numerous citizens laid wreaths and flowers at the place where the police stopped and brutally ended the peaceful students' march on that day in 1989. And on the eve of the anniversary President Havel received representatives of the students who took part in the events those twelve years ago, but also those who participated in other, previous students' rebellions against oppression. Olga Szantova was present.

Vaclav Havel in 1989
President Havel stressed that he had invited representatives of three generations of students, because their efforts had had much in common.

"I think that each of those students' movements for freedom, democracy and independence did, of course, take on a different form, depending on the concrete historical conditions, but basically they were the same and closely linked together in their ideals, their love for freedom and will to improve conditions ."

The November 17th tradition started in 1939, after the German Nazi occupation of the Czech lands at the beginning of World War II. Students had staged a demonstration on October 28th, which, before the occupation, had been the Czechoslovak state holiday. The Germans shot at them and the funeral of one of the victims turned into a mass demonstration. As a result of that demonstration, Czech universities were closed down, 9 student leaders were shot and most of the rest sent to concentration camps. Vaclav Straka was one of those who managed to flee the country.

"I was a member of different students' organizations and for me it was quite natural that I joined the army in 1940 and we organized, we who were student functionaries and in the war, we organized a new student organization and began to explain to the public abroad what happened in Czechoslovakia."

Former Czech students, most of them volunteers in the British Army, were instrumental in having November 17th declared World Students' Day, an internationally recognized holiday, which was commemorated in Socialist Czechoslovakia, too - as a communist holiday. But throughout the years, sometimes more strongly, in other years less so, some students used the opportunity to stress their beliefs in democracy and freedom. These efforts culminated in the Prague Spring in 1968, and then again in 1969, when students held a mass demonstration against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Ladislav Mravec, a student of nuclear physics was one of the organizers of the event.

"We were very unhappy with what was going on and besides our involvement in our profession, that means studying physics and mathematics, we tried to be involved in a political way, expressing our opinion that something should be done."

The 1969 students' demonstration was the last mass event of its kind for many years and Ladislav Mravec was one of those who bore the consequences.

"I was imprisoned for two years and my career was turned bottoms up . I was allowed to do only menial jobs for some years. Later on I tried to penetrate to the IT market and I had the opportunity to work for some Prague software houses. That means I did not finish nuclear physics, but I finished a kind of IT branch for the application of computers."

Velvet Revolution
On November 17th 1989 thousands of students met to commemorate the events of 1939, but their gathering soon changed into a protest against the communist regime - with the resulting police attack and the events that lead to the fall of communism, just 12 years ago. Martin Klima was a representative of that generation of students at the meeting with President Havel.

"Currently I am working in a company that develops computer games and that certainly is the kind of job that I wouldn't have been able to have in the previous regime. I think that fundamentally events were developing, society was developing in a way I hoped. Certainly, I was much more naive at the time, so there were things I hoped would develop faster, or in a better way, but on the global scale, I think we are moving in the right direction."

As for the contemporary generation of students. Martin Klima disagrees with those who say they are not as active, nor as involved as their predecessors.

"Well, they don't have the chance to overthrow communism, which is a good thing, but I think students can be active and are active in the free society we have."

Author: Olga Szantová
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