New book examines Czech students' role in demise of Communist system

13-11-2003

A new book entitled "Students and Communist Rule between 1968 and 1989" has just appeared on the bookshelves. The aim is to highlight the special role Czech students played not only in overthrowing the communist regime fourteen years ago, but throughout the totalitarian era.

The unique role of Czech students in 1989 sets the country apart. Nowhere else in the former eastern bloc did students become so involved in the anti-communist movement, as the author of the book Milan Otahal explains.

"There wasn't any other country, where students would step out in 1989 as an independent power and supply the opposition movement with a political agenda."

In the revolutionary year of 1989, it was the students who became politically involved, since the economic situation in the Czech Republic had been relatively good and the working class had no reason to become involved in a mass resistance movement.

However it's also untrue to claim that the majority of ordinary people kept silent and did nothing to oppose the communist regime. It was extremely important that they showed resistance in their everyday life and risked their careers in order to protect others from the Communist Party. An example would be doctors sending patients into early retirement just to save them from political persecution. Mr. Otahal believes this was the best thing to do at the time, because the time was not ripe yet for action.

"You usually keep silent in times when the conditions aren't right for open opposition, for marching in the streets and screaming "the President is a cretin!" This would make no sense. There has to be a certain situation so you can step out with something."

However the conditions changed dramatically in the mid 1980s. By then, a new generation of students appeared, students who did not remember the 1968 Soviet-led invasion and therefore were no longer afraid. They were already brought up under the regime and it was clear to them that it was completely pointless to discuss reform. The only thing they were willing to accept was a completely new, democratic rule.

A strong anti-regime movement flourished at the Faculty of Musical and Performing Arts, because the students as well as the teachers were no longer selected according to their political activities but rather by their talent. This meant that the overall atmosphere at this school was much more relaxed in terms of political views. Together with friends, student Martin Mejstrik managed to bring together both members of the official Communist youth organization and the illegal groups and organized big student meeting, which later turned into the Velvet Revolution.

Martin Mejstrik, now a senator, believes students have always functioned as a system of checks and balances in Czech history.

"If my memory serves me correctly, ever since the seventeenth century, whenever there was a life threatening situation students always cried out. I believe they will do so again, even though there would have to be a really alarming impulse to get some reaction."

Mr Mejstrik is convinced that students are quiet at the moment because they don't feel under any political danger.

13-11-2003