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PRAGUE – It was 20 years ago today that a student rally, which began peacefully, ended with police-wielding batons and barking attack dogs. The police crackdown was intended to send a message to would-be protesters: stay home or get hurt. But the message sent was not the one that was received. Instead of retreating into fear, a normally passive society had reached a breaking point. They were was incensed by the police's violent response.
(And there was also the bizarre rumor that one student had been killed. Bizarre because the rumor came complete with a full-name — Martin Smid, along with other personal details; bizarre because it turned out that not only was the young Smid not dead, but if he was beaten at all it was not severe enough to even go to a hospital; bizarre because the woman who made the public claim did so in excruciating detail — a torrent of kicks and truncheon blows that were supposed to have left the young man lifeless; bizarre because the woman who made the claim seems to have mysteriously disappeared. The speculation is that the police made up the grisly death story to further dissuade would-be protesters. Of course that has never been proven, and one cannot rule out that the Gothic tale was a student concoction, with the hopes of generating public outrage. Regardless of who was behind the rumor, public outrage won the day.)
Twenty-one years after Warsaw-Pact troops swooped into Czechoslovakia to crush a reform movement known as the Prague Spring a new generation of students had no firsthand knowledge of Soviet tanks rumbling through their city streets. But the students knew enough to be wary — and smart. They were fed up with the Marxist-Leninist ideology being forced upon them at the university and they were fed up with the government's seeming indifference to the deteriorating plight of their society. But the students were smart enough to know that they couldn't just hold a protest without official permission. And they knew, of course, that they would never get permission to hold a demonstration if their stated aim was to protest the government. So they picked an important date from history — a 50th anniversary to be precise. On Nov. 17, 1939, the occupying Nazis carried out a brutal crackdown against students, killing several and shutting down the universities. The first student to die, Jan Opletal, was killed during a previous protest, which begot further demonstrations. Nine years later, when the communists swept into power, Opletal became a martyr.
Fast forward half-a-century, and the communist regime was in a pickle. Hungary had taken down its barbed-wire border blockades with Austria and East Germans were walking out of the Soviet-block. Other East Germans were pouring into Prague, discarding their smoke-belching
Trabants, and walking into the West German Embassy. Then, of course, the Berlin Wall collapsed. All the while the silence from Moscow was deafening. Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev had implemented 'Glastnost' (openess) and Perestroika (reform) in the mid-1980s.
This was not 1968, there would be no "brotherly assistance" as the the Soviets had dubbed the invasion. Despite the warning signs all around them, the Czechoslovak regime could not simply deny students an opportunity to commemorate a man murdered by the Nazis.
And so the students marched. There were no chants of "down with the government" or "freedom now"; instead the students called on their fellow citizens to join them in their march. Along the way more and more Czechs joined in — and others expressed their solidarity from their living-room windows.
The confrontation with police came when a large group of protesters sought to break-off from the prescribed route and walk toward Wenceslas Square — the main square in the city center.
All of the dissidents who resisted the oppressive measures imposed by an all-powerful government deserve the admiration of hose who value human freedom over all else. But I have to say that I find the Czech dissidents especially admirable. In Poland Lech Walesa stood atop a
Solidarity movement that was 1 million strong. In Czechoslovakia the dissidents numbered mere hundreds, maybe thousands. In Poland Walesa and his cohorts knew the had the backing of The Vatican and Washington. And they realized at some point — I can't say just when — that if they pushed long enough and hard enough, that the communist regime would eventually crumble. The Czech and Slovak dissidents had no such notions, but they kept doing what they did simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.
Jan Urban, a leading Czech dissident, tells a marvelous story of how he stood atop Wenceslas Square in the summer of 1989 with Adam Michnik, a leading figure in Poland's solidarity movement. As they looked out across the night-time square, decked out in the communist's red stars, Michnik said to Urban, "Imagine some day these will all be gone." Urban looked at him incredulously, and said. "No, you don't understand..." Michnik cut him off and said, "No, you don't understand."
Despite their best efforts the Czech dissidents were so isolated, that they really couldn't grasp the bigger picture. But when the time came to act — they were ready. The dissidents quickly joined forces with the students, and the students were ready to let the dissidents lead.
During the ensuing days the protests grew — hundreds-of-thousands, some say a million, filled a park at Letna, dangled their key chains and chanted, “Havel to the Castle,” among other things.
Not only was there no military assistance coming from Moscow but the Kremlin wasn't even offering the Czechoslovak government moral support. The Czech communists were on their own. They could do a Tiananmen Square, and send in the tanks. But with Poland having already held quasi-free elections earlier that year — in which pro-democracy advocates won a majority; with Hungary having thrown open its border with Austria and with the fall of the Berlin Wall — sending in tanks to fire on their own citizens had to look pretty unpalatable, and so the communists negotiated. They sought a power-sharing agreement. But Havel and his dissident supporters rejected that. The communists would have to give up power, the dissidents insisted. And on Dec. 10 the communists did just that.
Havel, a dissident playwright who had been languishing in a state-prison earlier that year moved into Prague Castle on Dec. 29, as president of a democratic Czechoslovakia.
And the Velvet Revolution — with a fairy-tale ending — was born.