During the second half of the 1980s, the tension that was created after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion in Czechoslovakia had eased, especially after the introduction of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. The Czechoslovak leadership, however, still headed by Gustav Husak who came to power after the '68 invasion, was suspicious of movements intended to "reform communism from within" and continued to embrace a hard line. But by 1988 there were organized demonstrations demanding change and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and weakening communist governments in other neighbouring countries, it was not to be long before Czechoslovakia too would be freed from its oppressive regime.
Until 1989, November 17th had always marked student resistance against the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On the morning of November 17th 1989, students gathered at a traditional meeting at Charles University's Karolinum to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal - a student who fell victim to the Nazis fifty years earlier. On that morning, no one ever dreamed that this day, which started out quietly and peacefully just like any other day, would lead to the sudden downfall of the Communist government. A peaceful legal student march that was to lead from Prague's Vysehrad cemetery to Wenceslas Square later that day in protest at oppressive regimes, was violently cracked down by police half way, on National Street. Some 170 students were injured and rumour was that one student was killed. Although it was later revealed false, the news of an innocent death helped to gain massive support and soon resulted in mass protest demonstrations from trade union workers and later average citizens. On Friday, November 17th 1989 a brutal attack on a peaceful student march triggered six short weeks of protest demonstrations that led to the definite end of Communist control in Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Bartuska, was a student leader at the time:
"Well, with every passing year, November 17 looks more and more like a fairy tale because the change which happened here in this country in 1989 was so quick, fast and so unexpected by most of us that it's just unbelievable. The country was so stable, so rigid, so boring before '89. It looked like the change would never come, like we were stuck with socialism for the rest of our lives and our children's lives, and the whole thing crumbled in a few weeks time. So, today it looks more like a miracle."
It was a sudden development that many historians still analyse today, fourteen years later, to determine what actually triggered what Czechs like to call the 'November Events'. Mr Bartuska has made a simple conclusion:
"I am sure that the system would have crumbled with or without the students, with or without the demonstrations, with or without November 17th. When you look at November 17th and the days after, what triggered the whole change was basically very small action by a very limited number of people. It was enough because the system was dead. The people didn't believe in it and nobody wanted to defend it. People were simply fed up and once the Soviet Union said with the new Gorbachev doctrine that they would not intervene militarily, the system was dead and no one was willing to defend it and that's it."
In 1988, Vaclav Bartuska - a twenty year old student at the time - was one of the first academics to be arrested by the secret police, or StB, for subversion of the state. Although never sent to prison, he was subjected to intense interrogation for sixteen months, an experience which he made use of to prepare his friends and fellow students for potential interrogations. He soon gained a reputation of someone who was well informed about StB proceedings and was therefore the first student allowed to gain full access to the secret police files when communist control crumbled:
"I think the biggest surprise for me was that no matter how much information the secret police collected and passed over to the Communist regime, to the top Communists, the leadership of the country did not pay attention. They did not want to hear the bad news. So, the biggest surprise for me was the sheer amount of information which was collected, processed, digested, and then put into facts and files, which nobody read. That was interesting. What was also interesting was that after all those years of abuse and unlimited power of the Communist secret police was that many of the people who worked there didn't know how to work as a real intelligence service. They were just so used to the power they had that once they couldn't just come into a place, show their badge and say 'tell me everything you know', they were just absolutely blocked out."
The Communist leaders were completely unprepared for the massive protests. The dissident initiative, the Civic Forum, led by writer Vaclav Havel, was enjoying more and more public support, which gave it enough power to make demands to the Communists. After several weeks of political reform, Gustav Husak publicly resigned on December 10, 1989. The Communist government had fallen, paving the way to the establishment of a new democratic Czechoslovakia.
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