November 17th 1989 set in motion the Velvet Revolution which led to the peaceful overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Following a brutal police crack-down on an unarmed student demonstration in Prague on that day, thousands of people took to the streets, asserting their desire for change. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with East Germany, Poland and Hungary already firmly set on the road to democracy, it was clear that the Eastern Bloc was crumbling. The fall of the Iron Curtain ended nearly half a century of a divided Europe, changing the political map of the Old Continent and indeed the world. It marked the beginning of a new era for millions of people. During those tumultuous days the eyes of the world were on the former Communist Bloc, with people around the world glued to their TV sets watching history in the making.
What happened that day?
Around 15,000 students gathered in Prague to honour the memory of Jan Opletal. The Communists had granted permission for a procession that would end at the national cemetery at Vyšehrad. However, the march did not break up there, and despite instructions from the police the students continued on into the centre of Prague to voice their opposition to the anti-reform policies of the Communist leadership. As the march neared the centre more and more people joined it.
However, they did not reach Wenceslas Square. The unarmed students were hemmed in by the police on Národní třída, before the police waded in, brutally attacking them. Around 600 of the demonstrators were injured. Many Czechs were shocked by the police's brutality. The following day students at universities in the capital declared a general strike, and were soon joined by actors from Prague's theatres. On November 19 Civic Forum was established, becoming the voice of the protesters and a partner in dialogue with the Communist regime. The road to democracy had begun.
Following his suicide, Jan Palach was adopted by Czechs as a national hero, while the communist authorities tried – in vain – to erase all trace of what he had done. When Czechs gathered to mark his death 20 years later in 1989, they were met with tear gas and unprecedented police brutality. The clampdown resulted in a week of protests, which some say led to the Velvet Revolution in November that year.
Leaders from around the continent gathered in Krakow on June 4 2009 to mark 20 years since Poland’s first partly free elections which swept the anti-communist movement Solidarnosc to power. In a speech to the crowds at Wawel Castle, former Czech dissident turned president Václav Havel said the elections paved the way for the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
Two decades ago the attention of the world’s media was on the West German Embassy in a normally quiet corner of Prague, where thousands of East Germans were living in a makeshift camp, desperate to escape from communism. On the 30th of September, 1989 the then West German foreign minister made a dramatic announcement: those refugees were free to emigrate to the West.
On November 9th 1989 the infamous Berlin Wall fell, bringing down a barrier that had held East Germans behind the Iron Curtain and the most potent symbol of divided Europe. The fall of the Wall was not just the end of the communist regime in East Germany but anticipated the political changes in the whole of Eastern and Central Europe.
November 17 1989 did not begin dramatically. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of nine Prague students who had led protests in 1939 against the German occupation. Various officially sanctioned commemorations were taking place and the centre of Prague was filled with students.
The demonstration in Prague’s Letná park on November 25 1989 was a sign of the huge momentum for change that had built up in the previous days, and despite the cold weather, with sleet and snow, it was attended by nearly a million people.
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