Panic! on the Streets of Prague



1989 brought a domino effect of revolutions. Timothy Garton Ash remarked: “In Poland the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, in Czechoslovakia ten days.” Those ten eventful days fell between November 17th and 27th, 1989. After the failure of the Prague Spring, many Czechoslovaks rightfully held doubts about the possibility of revolution, but as events starting in with Solidarity in Gdansk, Poland and continuing in the other Bloc countries seemed hopeful, the revolution in Czechoslovakia became inevitable.


The Velvet Revolution would not have been possible were it not for the monumental events unfolding in the other Communist Bloc countries. The Estonian Singing Revolution was well on its way in Estonia, not to mention the election of Solidarity members to Poland’s government. On August 23rd, 1989, two million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined hands along a 600km stretch of road between Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Finally, November 9th, 1989 brought the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall. Also, on December 4th the border to Austria was opened, effectively ending the Iron Curtain division of East and West.

On the first day of the revolution, a peaceful student demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day began in Prague and ended with violence on Narodni Street, when riot police blocked off escape routes and severely beat students. That first domino began an avalanche, as almost every day afterwards until the end of December brought more protests with more and more people participating. By November 20 an estimated half-million of peaceful protesters took to the streets, up from the 200,000 of the day before. A general two-hour strike that involved all citizens of Czechoslovakia was held on November 27th (various video clips from these protests and from the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 can be seen at the Museum of Communism in Prague). After that, demonstrations were being held almost daily in Prague’s Wenceles Square as well as in Bratislava.

One of the most important developments was the establishment of the Civic Forum by Vaclav Havel and other prominent members of Charter 77 and other dissident organizations, which would establish much of the post-revolution leadership, including Havel as president. The Forum was a mass popular movement for reforms that called for the dismissal of top officials responsible for the violent attack on the students, an independent investigation of the incident and the release of all political prisoners.

On November 28th the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia sensed its defeat and agreed to give up their monopoly on political power. On December 10th, Communist President Gustav Husak appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubcek was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Vaclav Havel became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia since 1948 on December 29, 1989. With Havel as president, the students ended their strike and the Velvet Revolution ended. Afterwards, the first democratic elections since 1946 were held in June 1990, and brought the first completely non-communist government to Czechoslovakia in over forty years.


add your comments

Funny...just watching DVD David Gilmore in Gdansk Poland and it brought to mind the struggles and history of the Slavic countries. As well having worked for a Slovak MD for many years with many Slavic families, I wanted to refresh my memories of European freedom. Your site did just that...thanks...

reviewed by Marie from Canada on Jan.10.2012

I am a regular traveller to Praha and other Czech, Slovak and Polish cities, and find the 20th century interesting and fascinating. I try to remember the important aniversaries, Praha spring, 17 Listopada, and enjoyed reading about the Velvet revolution on this site. I managed to visit Praha in 2008 (just after the aniversary 17 Listopada) and recall the flowers by the Eternal flame. In February 2009 I visited the Museum of Communism.

reviewed by Jonathan Barker from United Kingdom on Nov.17.2011

I don not so much have a report, but I do have a question about the American broadcasting on the events in Prague.
I am writing a novel which takes place in New York City during the ten days of the Velvet Revolution. And I am interested to know what the very first news broadcasts were like on the New York networks. What were the reports and what were the first images that appeared on the screen.
And on what day did the first newsreports filter through to the American Public?
Can anyone tell me more about this?
Or can anyobe tell me where I could find such information?
I would very much appreciate your help,'

Greetings

reviewed by Inez Risseeuw from Netherlands on May.27.2011

Could someone tell me who took this picture above?

reviewed by Stewart from United Kingdom on Jan.18.2011

The Velvet Revolution has always interested me (since I learned about it in University). It is an amazing thing that you all did there.

P.S.Funny thing Brad, I'm American and lived in the UK as well. I have to say I felt more safe and free there than I have ever had in the US. Probably due to having health care and fewer wackos running on the streets with guns. To each their own though.

reviewed by Noe from United States on Nov.11.2010

And you know what, I am rather pleased that, in the UK, not every nut can run to the local store to get a gun, as usually it's not the decent people who rush to buy guns. Also, the Police in the UK do not bear guns either; would you ever dream that? Somehow, UK generally seems somewhat more civilized when it comes to this.

reviewed by Jan from United Kingdom on Mar.12.2010

Brad, just because you can buy guns in your local market doesn't mean that your country is free. Many African countries have access to guns, yet you can hardly call them free. The UK is provides freedom to its people and helps keep it's citizens safe by making guns hard to come by.

reviewed by Nifty Trio from Colombia on Jan.22.2010

You in the UK have never known anything but perfect freedom.
Do tell.
In America, depending upon which state a citizen liives in, we can run down to the local WalMart and buy a gun in under an hour. Some of our states are more free than others.
Nowhere in the UK can you do that.
Tell me again about perfect freedom.
When the people do not have access to the means to project the force of their will, they are at the mercy of how willing is the government to use violence to cling to power. Fortunately the Czech revolution was not too bloody, only because the government was not willing to use harsh measures to put it down. Had they done so, the people would have been powerless to stop it.
A free people must not be barred access to arms.
That is why the UK is composed of subjects.

reviewed by Brad from United States on Nov.17.2009

Here in the UK, it is so easy to take our freedom for granted. At 38 years old, I have never known anything other than total freedom. Then I read about Listopadove udalosti and I truly appreciate how lucky we are in the UK. I thank my special friend for telling me about the Velvet Revolution. Your country has gone through an amazing change, thanks to events that took place 20 years ago. History is a great teacher, don't you think?

reviewed by Darren from United Kingdom on Nov.17.2009

The English translation of an authentic diary of the first few days of the Velvet Revolution by a participating student can be seen here: http://www.unisona.com/VelvetRevolutionDiary/index.html

reviewed by Dan from Czech Republic on Nov.14.2009

i am in a school that wouldn't be possible without the revolution...:,)i am so proud XD

reviewed by Jennifer Rosemary Ruth Coling-Parker yo from United Kingdom on Sep.24.2009

During the second half of the 1980s, the general situation in Czechoslovakia became more easygoing, especially after the introduction of Perestroika reforms in the then-Soviet Union. But the Czechoslovak leadership - still headed by Gustav Husak, who had assumed power after the Soviet Invasion of 1968 - was leery of movements intended to "reform communism from within" and continued to toe a hard line in Czechoslovakia, much to the chagrin of Mikhail Gorbacev. But by 1988 there were organized demonstrations demanding change - and just about one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism in Czechoslovakia became a casualty as well.
The six-week period between November 17 and December 29, 1989, also known as the "Velvet Revolution" brought about the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Almost immediately, rumors (which have never been proved) began to circulate that the impetus for the Velvet Revolution had come from a KGB provocateur sent by Gorbacev, who wanted reform rather than hardline communists in power. The theory goes that the popular demonstrations went farther than Gorbacev and the KGB had intended. In part because of this, the Czechs do not like the term "Velvet Revolution," preferring to call what happened "the November Events" (Listopadove udalosti) or - sometimes - just "November" (Listopad). But we digress.
It all started on November 17, 1989 - fifty years to the day that Czech students had held a demonstration to protest the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On this anniversary, students in the capital city of Prague were again protesting an oppressive regime.
The protest began as a legal rally to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal, but turned instead into a demonstration demanding democratic reforms. Riot police stopped the students (who were making their way from the Czech National Cemetery at Vysehrad to Wenceslas Square) halfway in their march, in Narodni trida. After a stand-off in which the students offered flowers to the riot police and showed no resistance, the police bagan beating the young demonstrators with night sticks. In all, at least 167 people were injured. One student was reportedly beaten to death, and - although this was later proved false - this rumor served to crystallize support for the students and their demands among the general public. In a severe blow to the communists' morale, a number of workers' unions immediately joined the students' cause.
From Saturday, November 18, until the general strike of November 27, mass demonstrations took place in Prague, Bratislava, and elsewhere - and public discussions instead of performances were held in Czechoslovakia' theaters. During one of these discussions, at the Cinoherni Klub theater on Sunday, November 19, the Civic Forum (OF) was established as the official "spokesgroup" for "the segment of the Czechoslovak public which is ever more critical of the policy of the present Czechoslovak leadership."
The Civic Forum, led by the then-dissident Vaclav Havel, demanded the resignation of the Communist government, the release of prisoners of conscience, and investigations into the November 17 police action. A similar initiative - the Public Against Violence (VPN) - was born in Slovakia on November 20, 1989. Both of them were joined en masse by Czechoslovak citizens - from university students and staff to workers in factories and employees of other institutions. It took about 2 weeks for the nation's media to begin broadcasting reports of what was really going on in Prague, and in the interim students travelled to cities and villages in the countryside to rally support outside the capital.

The leaders of the Communist regime were totally unprepared to deal with the popular unrest, even though communist regimes throughout the region had been wobbling and toppling around them for some time.
As the mass demonstrations continued - and more and more Czechoslovaks supported the general strikes that were called - an extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called. The Presidium of the Communist Party resigned, and a relatively unknown Party member, Karel Urbanek, was elected as the new Communist Party leader. The public rejected these cosmetic changes, which were intended to give the impression that the Communist Party was being reformed from within as it had been in 1968. The people's dissatisfaction increased.
Massive demonstrations of almost 750,000 people at Letna Park in Prague on November 25 and 26, and the general strike on the 27th were devastating for the communist regime. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum, which was led by still- dissident (soon to be President) Vaclav Havel. The Civic Forum presented a list of political demands at their second meeting with Adamec, who agreed to form a new coalition government, and to delete three articles - guaranteeing a leading role in political life for the Czechoslovak Communist Party and for the National Front, and mandating Marxist-Leninist education - from the Constitution. These amendments were unanimously approved by the communist parliament the next day, on November 29, 1989.
Well, the old saying that 'if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile' held true, and the communist capitulation led to increased demands on the part of the demonstrators. A new government was formed by Marian Calfa; it included just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (several of whom actively cooperated with the Civic Forum); two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party; two members of the Czechoslovak People's Party; and seven ministers with no party affiliation - all of latter were Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists.
This new government was named by Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak on December 10. The same evening, he went on television to announce his resignation, and the Civic Forum cancelled a general strike which had been scheduled for the next day.
At the 19th joint session of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, Alexandr Dubcek - who had led the ill-fated Prague Spring movement in the 1960's - was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly. One day later, the parliament elected the Civic Forum's leader, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia.
Despite their many shortcomings - not the least of which were political inexperience and serious time pressures - the new government and parliament were able to fill in many of the most gaping gaps in the Czechoslovak legal framework - concentrating in particular on the areas of human rights and freedoms, private ownership, and business law. They were also able to lay the framework for the first free elections to be held in Czechoslovakia in more than 40 years.
The results of the 1990 local and parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia, which were likened at the time to a referendum which posed the question "Communism, yes or no?" showed a sweeping victory for the soon to be extinct Civic Forum (OF) in the Czech Republic, and for the Public Against Violence (VPN) in Slovakia. In other words, "Communism, no thanks."
The turnout for the local elections was more than 73 percent, and for Parliamentary elections more than 96 percent of the population went to the polls!
Czech Petr Pithart of the Civic Forum was elected as Czech Premier, Slovaks Vladimir Meciar and Marian Calfa, both of the Public Against Violence (VPN), were elected Slovak and Federal Premier, respectively. Vaclav Havel was re-elected as the Czechoslovak President on July 5, 1990.

reviewed by During the second half of the 1980s, the from Tanzania on Sep.15.2009

Yes, I was born in Cz 1952 and I remember standing in line for food, meat and salt! There were very difficult times. My older sister left in 1969 to Germany and that time I was only 17, still student and I can tell you, I needed to be a+ to stay at school, they want me to leave badly - sister political emmigrant! I managed to escape in 1980 - when Marshal Tito dead in former Yugoslavia, it happened I was there and I took of to Austria and US!
Yesterday was 40 anniversary of Russian invasion to CZ (8.21.1968) and there was blood!!

reviewed by Dadulka from United States on Aug.22.2008

Thanx for kind words. I am sure every Czech appreciates them. But I have no idea why the Greek person wrote that "the key for the future is communism and socialism" in a review of a paragraph speaking about freeing a country from communistic government. And I am sure it is not a key for the future- it never worked, it doesn't work, and it will never work. Neither Czechs, nor Slovaks wanted to be influenced by Russia, but we didn't have a choice (sadly also because of Americans- but I have nothing against them). Stalin did far worse things than Hitler (because he even cruelly killed his own people without hesitation). And I am very glad that I was born into a free, democratic country, which is now returning to its previous status in the world (the socialistic days only brought us down, it didn't achieve anything).

reviewed by Kate, age 16 from Czech Republic on May.24.2008

Fighting with peace - now that is worth fighting for. Congratulations xx

reviewed by Brad from Australia on May.18.2008

The true showing of the people, not a dictator. Fight the power!

reviewed by Tigger from United States on May.06.2008

Despite difficulties and drawbacks,the first attempt of mankind to build a society without exploitation and inequality shows us that the future of mankind is socialism and communism!

ps.hands off communist youth union of Czech republic!!!

reviewed by vaggelis from Greece on May.02.2008

we need a real great revolution in the world.

reviewed by paraw from United States on Mar.15.2008

Brave, brave people.

reviewed by Tomasz from Poland on Mar.14.2008