AAU’s Dr. Joshua Hayden led a tour on November 17 through the heart of Prague to reflect on the power of student revolutions in liberating Czechoslovakia from dictatorship.
For over 84 years, this very same day has witnessed two significant events that overturned the fate of a nation under authoritarianism. It is celebrated as the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy.
The day is also recognized worldwide as International Students Day. It was no coincidence that students were among the main players in the fight for the truths veiled by tyranny.
Dr. Hayden’s “Leading a Revolution” tour was a time-travel pass for students to take a glimpse at this arduous battle for liberation, reminding them of their responsibility to uphold freedom and democracy in the face of lies and hatred.
The Uprising of the Victims
The journey started at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the base of Petřín Hill. Overshadowing the lust garden were statues of humans eroded at the hearts as they marched towards nowhere.
From 1968 to 1989, life during the communist occupation was one in which hearts were silenced in fear of the regime’s punishments.
“I was fourteen then. We knew the things we were taught at school and the stuff they talked about were all lies and propagandas. But we were too afraid to speak up. Nobody wanted to one day disappear without a trace,” said a Czech resident.
In 1979, this censorship was brought to light by Vacláv Havel’s “Charter 77 Manifesto” and later “Power of the Powerless” essay. These documents gave a voice to the unheard and exposed the injustice of falsified speeches, stirring conversations within student movements and acting as a catalyst for an uprising.
Outcasts to Mainstream Rebellions
Crossing Legií Bridge as we arrived at the island of Střelecký Ostrov, Dr. Hayden turned on a rock song to begin a story about an unconventional character within the revolution.
The track was from The Plastic People of the Universe, an independent rock band representing Velvet underground culture. Their presence turbulated the monotony of communism with their non-conformist looks and subversive music: a breach between arts and politics.
The Plastic People also gained tremendous popularity among the younger generation with their political engagement in the civic forum—a symbol of freedom of expression.
“Our nation needs people who are educated, but even more than that – honest, not experts with diplomas and warped consciences,” said Martin Klíma, a student protester on November 17, 1989.
In 1976, the band members were arrested and convicted of “organized disturbance of peace.” Outraged by the suppression, many young people joined “Charter 77” in the manifestation of the Velvet Revolution set forth by their idols.
All Revolutions Started Underground
The tour quickly entered the crowd awaiting the Festival of Freedom on Národní třída. As we navigated through puddles of spilled beer and huddles of celebratory toasts, we arrived at Nová Scéna—home to the Laterna Magika theater group and former headquarters of the Civic Forum.
Hidden away in a corner of the city center, the theater was a meeting place for the Civic Forum members in 1989. Weeks ahead of the revolution, Vacláv Havel could be seen rehearsing his demonstrations and assembling tasks for the dissidents.
The Nová Scéna became the transit for students to receive their tasks to rally workers against the communist regime.
Described as a hot labyrinth with no air, the theater took on a new life. Revolutionists worked under piles of papers at the makeshift sewing tables. Journalists gathered between the costume racks for a smoke break. While actors and actresses were busy making coffee behind the stage.
“The whole Laterna Magika was working for the revolution. Everything was flurried and feverish, but people were unbelievably kind to each other. Everyone knew we had no other choice,” said Eda Kriseová, a Civic Forum member.
One History, Two Revolutions
Wenceslas Square was the last destination of the “Leading a Revolution” tour with Dr. Hayden. At the heart of the plaza, students took turns making a toast to the freedom earned by the sacrifice of past generations.
Eighty-four years ago, university students also gathered at this very same square, but under much different conditions. They were gunned down by Nazi soldiers for opposing the authoritarian government.
Jan Opletal, a medical student and ringleader of the movement, was shot dead in mourning by his fellow strikers.
On that fateful day of November 17, 1939, fascists stormed universities during the night to arrest protesters. Nine ringleaders were executed, and 1200 students were sent to concentration camps, where many died away from their homeland. University education was suspended for the next three years in Czechoslovakia.
On November 17, 1989, now under the communist regime, students once again flooded the street to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal. The twenty minutes route from Albertov Street to Národní třída turned into a seven-hour fight for freedom as communist soldiers ambushed unarmed protesters.
“We knew there were consequences, but we did not anticipate this much violence. There were policemen everywhere. Many of the strikers turned out to be communist spies under disguise,” said Jiří Schwarz, a protester on November 17.
This declared the Velvet Revolution, which overthrew communist rule in just two months after a forty-year occupation.
November 17, 2023
Following in the footsteps of their seniors, university students today continued to organize protests on this day to cast their voices against iniquity. This year, a Climate Strike by different college departments was spotted in Prague, Brno, and Olomouc to demand measures against environmental crises.
As told by history, students play a major role in the upholding of freedom in a democratic society. November 17 will forever be a reminder to young generations of their power to take action against the injustices of the world.
As Vacláv Havel said: “Truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred.”