On November 17, 1989, riot police suppressed a student demonstration in Prague, sparking the “Velvet Revolution,” which toppled the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia and led to the election of Václav Havel as the country’s first non-communist President since 1948.
On November 17, 1939, Nazi forces stormed the University of Prague and executed nine Czech students after demonstrations against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia were prompted by the death of fellow student Jan Opletal, who had been shot two weeks earlier at a Czechoslovak Independence Day rally.
During the so-called “Sonderaktion Prag” ordered by Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath, the Nazi-representative heading the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, all Czech universities were also shut down and more than 1,200 students were sent to concentration camps.
Throughout the war and with support from Czechoslovak President-in-exile Edvard Beneš, efforts were made to convince students of other nations to acknowledge November 17 as a day of commemoration, celebrating and encouraging resistance against the Nazis and the fight for freedom and democracy. And in 1941, the date was proclaimed as International Students’ Day by representatives of fourteen countries, including the Soviet Union.
In 1989, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Socialist Union of Youth (SSM) of Czechoslovakia organised a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day and the fiftieth anniversary of the murder Jan Opletal. A similar demonstration was held the previous day by Slovak high school and university students in Bratislava.
But with most members of SSM privately opposed to the Communist leadership, the march, inspired by the same tide of freedom that had swept Berlin, quickly turned into an anti-Communist demonstration. Riot police tried to beat back the demonstrators and violently dispersed the protest, beating protesters, using water cannons on the crowd and making numerous arrests.
But the show of force only galvanized the resistance. In the following days, the students were joined by Czechoslovak citizens of all ages, and by November 20, half-million Czechs and Slovaks were filling the streets of Prague and taking over Wenceslas Square. Four days later, the entire top leadership of the Communist Party, including General Secretary Miloš Jakeš, resigned.
On November 28, after weeks of protests and workers’ strikes, the Communists finally announced they would cede power, and the parliament then removed the one-party provision from the constitution. Two weeks later, President Gustáv Husák resigned after appointing the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia in 41 years.
Rebel playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel became the 10th President of Czechoslovakia, the first non-Communist to lead the nation since Edvard Beneš. And in June 1990, six months after the Velvet Revolution started in Prague, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.
Václav Havel remained President until the “Velvet Divorce”, when Czechoslovakia split into two independent states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.