Road to Revolution
A misguided plot by the secret police, the rise of Vaclav Havel, and the end of Communist rule
Thirty years ago, a ragtag team of students, actors and artists brought down the Communist government in Czechoslovakia, which had reigned for more than 40 years. News of police brutality in response to a peaceful protest ignited a spark in the Czechoslovak people, many of whom had been silent for many years. They took to the streets in record numbers, demanding change. In honor of this anniversary, we recount the major highlights of the Velvet Revolution.
As East Germany loosens border restrictions with Czechoslovakia, thousands seek refuge in Prague. Despite the crumbling Eastern Bloc, Communist leadership maintains a hardline policy and ignores calls for reforms and opening a dialogue between the government and the public.
East Germans are granted exit permissions and the Berlin Wall is breached due to massive crowds swarming its checkpoints. While Czechoslovak activists call for change, Communist leaders remain silent.
November 17: The Turning Point
Just eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the people’s discontent culminates in the country’s largest protests in 20 years, according to Radio Free Europe. Czechoslovakia’s proxy Communist Party known as the Socialist Union of Youth approve what was originally supposed to be a memorial procession for Jan Opletal, a student killed by the Nazi government in the 1930s.
By late afternoon the procession grows to 15,000 students. They walk to Vyšehrad and continue to Národní třída where the police had blocked all exits. Photos published by RFE show the students sitting peacefully with candles when police attack. Approximately 600 demonstrators are injured. As the crowd disperses, Ludvík Zifčák is spotted lying on the ground and then carried to an ambulance, planting the seeds for even greater public outcry to come.
November 18: Dead Student and the Call to Strike
Radio Free Europe reports that a mathematics student named Martin Šmíd was killed by police during the previous day’s demonstration. The report is actually false. Zifčák, mistaken for dead, was in fact a member of the secret police, and Šmíd’s name was given to a RFE source by Dragomíra Dražská as part of a misguided plot by the regime to divide the resistance, according to the Independent. The truth unknown at the time, this galvanizes the Czech population against the ruling regime.
Theatres become public forums for debate and university students all over Czechoslovakia join the call for democracy. Amid the rumors of the Šmíd’s death, actors, students and others from the theatre community gather at the Realistic Theatre in Prague to call for a general strike on 27 Nov.
November 19: Civic Forum Established
Playwright Vaclav Havel and other dissidents establish Civic Forum, unifying most of the opposition under one organization. They call for the release of political prisoners, an independent investigation into the 17 Nov. demonstration and the discharge of all high officials responsible for the violence. Meanwhile, their Slovak counterpart Public Against Violence also gains traction.
Government officials broadcast an interview with Martin Šmíd in an effort to dispel rumors of his death. To their dismay, this does little to quell the public.
Tensions rise as more and more join the demonstrations. Riot police form a blockade on the Charles Bridge in order to halt protestors from approaching Prague Castle and infiltrating theatres.
By the fifth day of protests, 200,000 have joined the demonstrations. Czechoslovak Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec meets with students and members of the artistic and theatre communities, but refuses to meet with Havel. While he agrees that violence will not be used to break up demonstrations, he vows to “protect socialism, about which no discussion is possible.”
Havel addresses the public for the first time since the beginning of the protests from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house in Václavské náměstí. The following day, Civic Forum moves its headquarters to Laterna magika theater as demonstrations continue from Prague to Bratislava and beyond. By this time, the Socialist Party newspaper had broken with government censorship and live reports of the revolution begin.
As the crowds grow to 300,000, the Civic Forum announces that Communist Party Secretary Miloš Jakeš and other party leaders have resigned. The crowds cheer on Havel and Alexander Dubček, a leader in the reform movement during the 1968 Prague Spring, in Václavské náměstí.
November 25: Demonstrations Grow
Demonstrations surpass 500,000 people and protests move to Letná since Václavské náměstí cannot accommodate the large numbers.
Adamec meets with Havel for the first time to negotiate a new government. Afterward, Havel, Dubček and Adamec appear before an enormous crowd at Letná, where Adamec is booed by onlookers.
November 27: The Strike
Millions throughout the country participate in a two-hour symbolic strike, with 50 percent of people stopping work and 25 percent showing their support. Despite the government’s attempts to subvert the strike, its success illustrates the Communist regime’s lack of legitimacy in the country. A bust of Joseph Stalin with the caption “Nothing lasts forever” is seen in Václavské náměstí.
For the third time, Havel and Civic Forum leaders meet with the Communist government, which finally agrees to relinquish its monopoly on power and form a new government.
November 29: End of Communist Rule
The Federal government unanimously votes to remove the provision in its constitution that gives the Communist Party a leading role in the government. Havel and Civic Forum leaders call for the army to protect the interests of the people and not interfere with political discourse. This effectively ends more than 40 years of Communist rule in the country.
The Czechoslovak government announces it will open its southern border with Austria.
Not long after the events of November, President Gustáv Husák resigns and Havel takes his place on 29 December. The rebel playwright remains one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved politicians to date.