Appreciating Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution 30 years later

By Jan Zdralek

October 14, 2019

Every time students, faculty and staff enter the SAIS Nitze Building, they are greeted by the same sight: a piece of the Berlin Wall displayed in the front courtyard. This memento evokes a bygone era when Europe was divided into two radically different spheres of influence—one democratic, the other authoritarian. 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, this period abruptly ended when the Berlin Wall was torn down and thousands of people poured from communist East Germany into free West Germany. Soon after, other authoritarian regimes in Central Europe, including that of Czechoslovakia, began to crumble.

“It was the moment the Cold War ended, the hour the German people came back together, the night the Soviet empire cracked,”recalled Professor Daniel Hamilton of SAIS’s Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation. Hamilton found himself on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall on that day, visiting a dissident Lutheran pastor whose church provided refuge for disaffected East Germans. “Berlin that night was simply the world’s biggest party. The city that had come to symbolize Europe’s divisions suddenly became a symbol of a continent coming together.”  

Professor Erik Jones, now the Director of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS and a second-year SAISer at the time, recalled how he biked to Cathedral Heights to visit a friend whose girlfriend was an East German he had met over the summer. Together, they watched the Wall come down on TV. “The world was obviously changing. The pace was unsettling. We had watched Gorbachev, and so [we] knew that there was movement in the Soviet Union. We had also seen the migration out of East Germany into Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (toward the West). But the fall of the Wall was dramatic.”

Over the summer of 1989, while the Wall still stood, the number of East Germans who emigrated to Czechoslovakia hoping to find a way into West Germany increased significantly. Needing no special permission to enter a fellow socialist country, the refugees swelled the West German embassy in Prague. As many as 2,000 people were packed into the compound with newcomers continuing to climb the fence. The crisis was resolved on September 30, 1989, when the West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced that all refugees on embassy grounds would receive documentation to legally travel to West Germany. This dealt a serious blow to the East German authorities and precipitated the Wall’s fall several weeks later. Despite the fact that these dramatic moments unraveled right under the Prague Castle—the residence of the president—the country’s communist leadership was able to maintain power.

Up to that point, the regime had worked hard to quell political unrest. In January of 1989, communist militias and police brutally suppressed a peaceful protest commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student of philosophy who committed suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet-led occupation in 1968. In June, state-run propaganda denounced a dissident manifesto entitled “A Few Sentences (Několik vět),” which called for, among other things, the release of political prisoners and freedom of assembly. In November, however, a relatively small student protest triggered a precipitous sequence of events, which resulted in swift regime change by the end of the year. Because of its non-violent nature, the episode is called the Velvet Revolution in today’s Czech Republic and the Gentle Revolution in Slovakia.

To understand the origins of the precise date of the Revolution, one must go 50 years back in time. By October 1939, Nazi Germany had already occupied Czechoslovakia for seven months. During a student protest against the German occupation in Prague, Jan Opletal, a student of medicine, was fatally wounded by the Nazis. His funeral in mid-November mobilized the Czechs, who once again demonstrated against the occupation. As a result, the Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath ordered the closing of all Czech universities and colleges on November 17, 1939. The date was soon universally recognized as International Students’ Day.

On November 17, 1989, the Czechoslovak students, encouraged by the fall of the Berlin Wall just days earlier, organized a demonstration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of International Students’ Day. The demonstrators on National Avenue (Národní třída) faced brutal police counterattack and were suddenly trapped in an “alley of beating.” A rumor about a dead student, which was later proven false and which had paradoxically been staged by the communist secret police, mobilized the Czechoslovak society, already agitated by the crackdown on the nation’s youth. In the next few days, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched in opposition of the regime, a feat unmatched in Czech or Slovak history. In a few weeks, the main communist leaders of Czechoslovakia began to step down and power-sharing negotiations began. By the end of the year, the country had a new President, the dissident and playwright Václav Havel, and was preparing for its first democratic elections since 1946.

Czechoslovakia began its political and economic transformation and Prague became an exciting place to be in the 1990s. Of this era, Professor Jones said, “I remember being excited by the Velvet Revolution and unsettled by the Velvet Divorce [the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic—or Czechia and Slovakia]. I worked in Prague in the early 1990s at the Central European University. It was an amazing place and time. But it was a time of significant change and adjustment as well.”

Soon enough, both countries were admitted to Western organizational structures, including NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, as Professor Hamilton reminds us, the job remains unfinished. “We have every right to be proud of these achievements. But we should have the courage to admit that we grew complacent. As time marched on, the vision of a Europe whole and free became more slogan than project, and the business of knitting the continent together was left undone,” he said.

The legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is two-fold. First, it emphasizes the danger of growing complacent about freedom and democracy. Students passing that piece of Berlin Wall by Nitze can take a moment to think about the sacrifices people made for these values. Second, events such as the Velvet Revolution demonstrate the power of a student movement to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Students should not be afraid of future quests, however dire they may be.

Student club SPARK! for Europe cordially invites you to the discussion entitled Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution at 30. Our honorable guests will include:  Daniel Hamilton, Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor at SAIS; Václav Bartuška, Ambassador-at-Large for Energy Security at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and direct participant in the student demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution; Clifford Bond, former US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina and diplomat at the US Embassy in Prague from 1987-1990; and Michele Bond, former US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho and diplomat at the US Embassy in Prague from 1987-1990. Please register here.