On March 25, 1988, a candlelight demonstration for religious freedoms and civil rights attracted thousands of protesters in Bratislava in Czechoslovakia’s first mass protest in nearly 20 years.
After over a decade of so-called normalization in Czechoslovakia, the iron fist imposed by the Soviet Union across Central and Eastern Europe started slowly crumbling from the early 1980’s, as the Eastern Bloc’s communist leaderships began to lose some of their influence and repressive power.
Although change appeared on the horizon, political repression, cultural censorship, and judicial persecution of dissidents were still a daily reality in Czechoslovakia, as in other neighbouring satellite states. Calls for greater religious freedoms, heavily curtailed and virtually non-existent since the 1950’s, nevertheless grew louder in Catholic Slovakia, and a petition to that effect was signed by nearly 300,000 Slovaks in late 1987.
The original idea for a peaceful protest in favour of religious freedom was formulated by exiled dissidents gathered within the Slovak World Congress (SWC), chiefly by its vice-chairman Marián Šťastný, after the 1987 SWC General Assembly in Toronto. The SWC’s initial project was to organise demonstrations in front of Czechoslovak embassies around the world for the following March 25.
Details about the manifestation were also smuggled to dissidents within Slovakia, and while the original “diaspora demonstration” was abandoned, plans for a protest in Bratislava took shape.
Spearheaded by Roman Catholic dissent groups in response to the Slovak World Congress’s initiative, words for the upcoming March 25 demonstration spread across Slovak underground networks by word of mouth or illegal leaflets and was widely circulated by foreign broadcasting stations such as Vatican Radio, the Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe.
Despite the communist regime’s attempt to discredit, prevent and suppress the protest using all the tools at its disposal, more than 10,000 people gathered on March 25 in a powerful show of defiance against the communist regime of Czechoslovakia.
Holding candles in their hands and singing religious chants and anthems, demonstrators peacefully gathered on Hviezdoslav Square, located close to the National Theatre in central Bratislava, even after the formal request to hold a protest was rejected. Although non-violent, the manifestation was suppressed by the secret StB police using water cannons, sticks and batons to disperse protesters. Over 120 people were detained, and many were injured by the police.
Extensively covered in foreign media, the Candle demonstration and its repression are sometimes seen as a precursor to the Velvet Revolution and the collapse, one year and a half later, of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
Today, March 25 is commemorated as Struggle for Human Rights Day in Slovakia and remains a potent symbol of Slovak resistance in modern history.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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