Irish reactions to the Velvet Revolution in 1989

Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history,  like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated.

So, what happened on November 17th 1989? It was something extraordinary. It was a student protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of student Jan Oplatel in 1939 by the Nazis. However, it would turn out to become much more than that.

Jan Oplatel’s own death came about following protests planned by Czechs to offer civic disobedience against the Nazi Protectorate one year on from the Munich Agreement. On October 28th 1939, the mass demonstration saw scuffles in Wenceslas Square that ended in the wounding of several policemen, the death of a Czech worker. Otakar Seldlácek, and the fatal wounding of Opletal. Opletal’s funeral took place on 15th November 1939 and was attended by 3,000 students and watched by some 10,000 onlookers. [1]

Jan Opletal.

Jan Opletal.

While the funeral itself was peaceful, the trouble began once it ended. When students congregated to sing patriotic songs and shout anti-Nazi slogans, Secretary of State for the Nazi Protectorate Frank, had his car overturned, and his driver was beaten up. In retribution, the Gestapo raided a committee meeting of Prague Student’s Union and made arrests the next day. In Brno, 1,200 students were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Back in Prague on the 17th November 1939, eight Student Union members were taken out by the Nazis and shot. As Peter Demetz notes however, these were not necessarily radical left-wing students. Indeed he writes in his account of the events that they were ‘committed to policies of the government-sponsored National Solidarity and were in no way active in the resistance’. The ninth victim was a Slovakian Jewish man Marek Frauwirth, believed by Czech police to be a Communist. [2]

And so it was not just to remember Oplatel but all of these various people that students took to the streets in November 1989. There were a number of things which made the protest in 1989 so extraordinary. For one thing, this protest was officially sanctioned to go ahead. This was due to the fact that chief organisers of the march, to go from Albertov to Vysehrad, were members of the SSM, a Communist student organisation. More remarkably still, the protests echoed closely those of fifty years before. Tony Judt notes that:

…when marching students began to chant anti-Communist slogans the police attacked, scattering the crowd and beating up isolated victims. The police themselves then encouraged the rumour that – in a replay of Opletal’s own murder – one of the students had been killed. [3]

Later acknowledged as a false report, it nevertheless had the effect of mobilising students more strongly, and Judt goes on to note that within twenty-four hours, the universities were occupied, mass demonstrations were taking place, and the police looked on. [4] In her more detailed account of the events, Mary Heimann describes this false rumour as ‘the “pebble” that began the national “avalanche” which overwhelmed the current regime.’ [5]

This overwhelming of the Communist regime saw things change rapidly as dissidents from groups like Charter 77, who despite their fame in the Western world, were virtual unknowns in their own country and whose original Charter barely mustered a few thousand signatures, established the Civic Forum that effectively became first a shadow, and then the real, government.

Following on as this had from similar events all over Soviet satellite states in the same period, perhaps most notably with the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, the events in Prague were international news, and didn’t escape the notice of the Irish media. The events were followed closely by Ireland’s main newspapers, the Irish Press, Irish Independent and the Irish Times.

The story of the murdered student found its way into an editorial in the Irish Times entitled ‘Prague Dawn’:

The astonishingly rapid escalation of support for the radical reformers was seen in the participation of ordinary citizens who swelled the ranks of the demonstrators to an estimated quarter of a million. Many students in schools and universities mounted sit-in strikes against the brutality of the police attacks on last Friday’s much smaller demonstration, in which a student was beaten to death. [6]

The same newspaper also had a report from AG Brain who witnessed Havel’s speech to an estimated half a million people (an exaggeration surely) on Wenceslas Square. Brain wrote that ‘Mr Havel wrote three years ago that the restoration of Stalinist rule in the wake of the Soviety invasion of 1968 virtually brought history to a halt in his country. It was a moving moment, therefore, to hear him declare before a throng of half a million on Thursday night that ‘history had returned to Czechoslovakia”‘. [7]

History had indeed returned – even though to some this was the end of history – and an Irish Times editorial in the same issue as Brain’s piece entitled ‘Prague’s Indian Summer’ made reference to the country’s history. This time it was said that:

The hope must now be that Czechoslovakia will advance inexorably towards a national variant of social democracy or democratic socialism which will bring peace at last to the sad ghosts of Tomas Masaryk, the state’s founding father, and his courageous son Jan. No matter what difficulties lie ahead, the proud spirit of the nation has been reanimated decisively. [8]

The other Irish dailies were also following the story with great interest. The Irish Press made the events in Czechoslovakia front page news:

The Irish Press frontpage on November 25 1989

The Irish Press front page on November 25 1989.

Many of the articles in all three of Ireland’s major newspapers focused strongly on the return to the public limelight of Alexander Dubcek. His reappearance was described by the Irish Independent as ‘a symbolic turning of the tables’ following the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968. The Irish Press reported somewhat more presciently that while he was a popular hero, he was in the eyes of many, yesterday’s man. [9]

Dubcek was a symbol of reform Communism – socialism with a human face – while Havel was a symbol of anti-regime dissent. Havel would become President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989 with Dubcek installed as head of the Federal Assembly. What began as a sanctioned student commemoration of a previous student’s challenge to an unwanted regime ended with the death of Communism in Czechoslovakia. A new era required a new face, and at that moment, it was Havel who seemed the more appropriate choice.


[1] Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven: Yale, 2011 125; Sedlácek is named in Demetz, Prague in Danger, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2008, 79 but not in Heimann’s account.

[2] Heimann, Czechoslovakia, 125-126; Demetz, Prague in Danger, 81.

[3] Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London: Pimlico 2007, 618.

[4] Judt, Postwar, 618.

[5] Heimann, Czechoslovakia, 301.

[6] Irish Times, 21 November 1989.

[7] Irish Times,  25 November 1989.

[8] Irish Times,  25 November 1989.

[9] Irish Independent, 25 November 1989; Irish Press, 25 November 1989.

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Filed under Communism, Czechoslovakia, Fascism, Socialism, Twentieth Century

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