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  • Kati and Roger

Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day

Candlelit memorial to those murdered during student demonstrations in 1939 and 1989.

Candlelit memorial to those murdered during student demonstrations in 1939 and 1989

17 November is a national holiday for the Czech and Slovak Republics, known as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day. Crowds gather in Prague, Bratislava, and other cities throughout the two countries to commemorate student demonstrations against oppressive regimes. Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day is among the most celebrated of all holidays in Czechia and Slovakia. So where does it come from?

The Satirical Parade of Masks during Festival Svobody in Prague

During October 1939, Czechoslovakia had been under Nazi occupation for about seven months. Everyday life was capsized and institutions could no longer function without surveillance - including academia. Students were enraged by the distressed state of their country and their education under Nazi rule. Universities and schools were subjected to heavy censorship, and many professors found themselves in positions of considerable danger in case they were suspected to be enemies of the Nazi regime.

Crowds gathering in Prague during Festival Svobody

28 October 1939 was the 21st anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic after World War I. Students in Prague decided to organize anti-Nazi demonstrations, and chose Independence Day as the most appropriate time for broadcasting their subversive message to the government. During these protests, a medical student at Charles University was shot in the stomach. His name was Jan Opletal. Only 24 years old, Jan Opletal died as a direct result of the injury two weeks later on 11 November 1939. Already angry students and professors were incensed by the murder of their fellow academic, and the anti-Nazi demonstrations continued for days, gaining more people all the time.

Jan Opletal

By 17 November 1939 there were thousands of demonstrators storming the streets of Prague. Though the protestors succeeded in communicating their message, it meant that they also succeeded in further angering the already ruthless Nazis. The Nazis became so provoked by the demonstrations that the party ordered all Czechoslovakian universities and colleges closed, sent 1,200 students and professors to concentration camps, and executed nine students. In order to honor the bravery and conviction of these students, professors, and other academics, as well as to remember the atrocities performed against them, 17 November was declared to be World Students' Day by the International Union of Students in 1941.

The Satirical Parade of Masks during Festival Svobody in Prague

Let's fast forward fifty years to November 1989. Czechoslovakia is once again forcibly occupied, this time by the Soviet-backed communist regime. There are parallels between the conditions of academia under Nazi and Soviet rule: oppressive censorship, limited academic freedom, and an increasingly impassioned population of students and professors among them. Once again, students were infuriated by an oppressive regime's endeavors to crush academic efficacy.

Many buildings decorated with the Czech flag for Prague's Festival Svobody

17 November 1989 was the 50th anniversary of the events and heinous operations that led to the creation of World Students' Day. In order to remember Jan Opletal and the other academics who were punished, tortured, and murdered under Nazi rule, a group of students decided to organize a commemorative march in Prague, and even gained official permission to do so. However, what began as a memorial march quickly transformed into a political demonstration of students demanding the termination of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia. Riot police were unyielding in their tactics to suppress the demonstrations, subjecting protestors to brutal physical violence. These cruelties performed by the riot police only fuelled the protestors. Their numbers grew to over 500,000, including workers who went on strike to join the students in the streets.

This was the spark of the Velvet Revolution.

Protestor at Festival Svobody holding a sign: "Our representatives dance to China's tune"

On 28 November 1989, the communist party of Czechoslovakia announced its withdrawal from government. Communist regimes were collapsing all around, and the resolve of the public was much too strong for the crumbling party to quell. The humanitarian, environmentalist, and civic activist Vaclav Havel was named (the last) President of Czechoslovakia the following month, and the country held its first democratic elections since 1946 in June 1990. The elections saw an enormous voter turnout (95%) as well as overwhelming support for Vaclav Havel and the parties Civic Forum (started by Havel in the Czech part of the country) and Public Against Violence (Civic Forum's Slovakian equivalent).

Crowds gathered during Festival Svobody not only to commemorate past events, but also to protest current events. The sign translated in English: "Miloš belongs in the trash!"

17 November became known as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day, and was named a national holiday in 2000. As we mentioned earlier, it is still one of the most celebrated holidays in both the Czech and Slovak Republics. In Prague, the day is celebrated by holding an event called Festival Svobody (Festival of Freedom). This year, crowds gathered at Festival Svobody to participate in a satirical parade of masks, a candlelit memorial, as well as witness the Concert for the Future, slam poetry, dance, and street art. Some people decided to use the event to stage their own protests against current president of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman. President Zeman was not present at this year's Festival Svobody, although it has been tradition for the president to lay a memorial wreath of flowers and deliver a speech. Perhaps he was being cautious: during Festival Svobody 2015 he received harsh criticism for speaking alongside far-right extremists, and was pelted with eggs the previous year.

Protestor's sign comparing the Czech Republic's president, prime minister, senate chairman, lower house speaker, and their policy toward China to the group of individuals who in 1968 signed the letter of invitation to the USSR that caused Warsaw Pact troops to invade the Czech Republic in August 1968

Look out for next year's events: Friday 17 November 2017

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