Thursday, November 17, 2011

Czech Public Holiday Today - Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day

Today is a public holiday in the Czech Republic - Den boje za svobodu a demokracii (Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day) commemorating the student demonstration against Nazi occupation in 1939, and the demonstration in 1989 that started the Velvet Revolution.

On November 17, 1989, a Friday, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague.  That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19th through late December.  By November 20th, the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had risen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000.  

Twenty-two years ago today, it started off as a peaceful officially-sanctioned march in Prague to commemorate Czech student Jan Opletal, who died at the hands of the country's Nazi occupiers in 1939.  Students, however, soon started to chant slogans against the communist regime.

Jan Opletal (Jan. 1, 1915 - Nov. 11, 1939)

Home of Jan Opletal

It is said that about 15,000 students had joined the demonstration.  They walked to the grave of Jan Opletal and - after the official end - continued from the Czech National Cemetery at Vyšehrad to Wenceslas Square calling for democratic reforms.  However, they never made it there.  At about 7:30 pm, when they were halfway through their march at Národní Street, the students were stopped by a cordon of police.  The students offered flowers to the police while singing songs and shouting "we have bare hands", but the police suddenly began to beat the young demonstrators with night sticks.  

Prior to this, the police managed to block all escape routes.  Nearly 200 people were injured.  One student was reportedly beaten to death.  Although this was later proved false, it served well for mass student support amongst the general public.

There is a memorial dedicated to November 17th at Wenceslas Square, and each year people place flowers and candles there to remember this day's events.  The President of the Czech Republic always places flowers atop the memorial, as well.  

Memorial to Jan Opletal

Along Národní třída, inside the arcade near No. 16, is a bronze plaque with a cluster of hands forming the peace sign and the date "17.11.1989" in memory of students clubbed in the street by police on that date.

Student Memorial on Národní třída