By Maeva Chargros
The story is known – some would even say simple: on November 17, 1989, a large demonstration in Prague triggered the Velvet Revolution, that would peacefully end four decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia; Václav Havel would be the President of the new federal Republic, which would split between the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Then, both countries would join NATO and the European Union, keeping close diplomatic ties. Czechia would constantly be confused with Chechnya, and Slovak diplomats in Brussels would have to organise regular mail-swapping meetings with their Slovenian counterparts. Meanwhile, everyone would keep talking about Czechoslovakia as if these two countries only made sense when together.
Nonetheless, if you sit down and listen to Czechs and Slovaks, you realise the story is not that simple: for them, the Velvet Revolution cannot be reduced to just one demonstration, one election, and one painful breakup.
Therefore, instead of a banal memo about various events organised around the Czech Republic to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this major historical milestone, here is an attempt to help international readers to see the events from a Czech, or actually Czechoslovak perspective, through the eyes of people who actually saw the events as they happened – on TV, in the newspapers, or on the main square of their city or village. I interviewed three historians, who were in very different locations in November 1989. They were between 7 and 19 years old, thus each gives a very different perspective on the events that unfolded thirty years ago. All of them are now part of the Euroculture team at the Department of History of Palacký University in Olomouc. You will find more information about them at the end of this article; their age at the time of the Velvet Revolution is given next to their names in the article.
The Velvet Revolution took place on November 16-17, 1989. However, to some extent, we could almost say it had started one year earlier, when the communist regime failed to seize an opportunity to ensure its survival. On October 28, 1988, as Jan Stejskal (18 years old at the time, turned 19 in autumn 1989) recalls, the authorities exceptionally allowed one celebration that was usually banned: the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the First Czechoslovak Republic (October 28, 1918).
“They [the communist authorities] wanted to trash these memories as a bourgeois Republic. The people of that year were somehow forgotten, deleted from textbooks. Of course, there were mentions of Masaryk, but as a president who was fighting against the workers’ class. For the first time, it was a public holiday, and we had a bank holiday.” He happened to be in Prague on this day, and the two events he witnessed showed, at least for him, that something was simmering. “In the morning [on Wenceslas Square], there was an official demonstration, with some military parade maybe. There was a tribune, with all these communist bosses. At the end of the meeting, instead of the national anthem, which would be appropriate for celebrating the founding of the state, they played the International workers’ song. It was quite embarrassing. At that moment, people just left.”
On his way back to the train station, later that day, he stopped again on the same square to see a completely different scenario: “it [Wenceslas Square] was full again, a huge crowd, but these people were not organised by the communists. They were around the statue of St Wenceslas. The police appeared, heavily armoured, and saying in a megaphone that this meeting was illegal, that they had to leave. The crowd started to wave flags and sing the national anthem, and then the police started beating people.”
The contrasting events between the morning and the afternoon left a sharp impression on him: “Bolsheviks in the morning with their international workers’ song on the day of the Republic, and republicans in the afternoon, beaten by the communist police; I believed that from this moment on, it was unbearable, it would not work.” And indeed, it did not work. The year 1989 was marked by multiple signs that the communist system was reaching its limits, and not only in Czechoslovakia. Soon, demonstrations were turning into the dismantlement of a wall, with consequences reaching beyond the German borders: in Prague, Eastern Germans were queueing, even camping in the embassy’s garden, for a safe-passage to the West.
Three main ‘concepts’ were discussed during these interviews – and all of them could be seen as pieces of the puzzle needed to understand what happened in 1989. Starting with democracy, which is, in Jan Stejskal’s words, indivisible: “If you want to have democracy, you can’t have just a part of it. Once you make one step, it’s done: democracy would like to have you all, too. Either you have it, or you have nothing.”
However, decades of communist regime had a major impact on how this concept was approached, including in Czech historiography. Antonín Kalous, who was 12 years old when the Velvet Revolution unfolded, explains how the communist perspective attempted to provide a fragmented version of this crucial concept: “They would like to claim that the takeover in 1948 was legitimate, but it was not, and no one can say that it was, nor that it was done like it should have been done. The communists took over all the powerful departments and ministries, which means they had the army and the secret services under control, so you cannot speak of any democratic development.” First lesson from European post-communist countries: democracy is not an à la carte menu, and it should never be so. It should not be a farce either: “It was ironic that the same Parliament, which was [before November 1989] the Communist parliament, unanimously elected Václav Havel as President. […] What we all said was that you started to read the newspapers from the beginning, because there was interesting things from the beginning, not just sports at the end.” It was a situation that triggered distrust in political institutions as well as in the overall system that included a state-controlled press and a constantly suppressed civic society: “The public life was non-existent or not really liberal, free. You were forced to attend a demonstration on the first of May, and if you didn’t show up, you had problems. People never wanted to participate in events where you were not really pushed to go to, and they did not get involved in public life.”
November 1989 brought this part of the Czechoslovak society back to life, though. Organising a nation-wide general strike in the late 1980s under a communist authoritarian regime was not an easy task. However, Czechoslovaks were determined to make it happen, since it would truly be a blow to the regime and the authorities would “feel it”, as J. Stejskal  explains. Of course, there were the usual difficulties we tend to forget about nowadays, such as communication between cities or even between two buildings in one city, since smartphones and social media invading our private lives were still not even a dream in Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Another barrier was the system itself: “Under the communist regime, all male students starting a certain year of their university studies had to attend one day per week of military exercises, instead of the military service, because there was an obligatory military service for everyone who turned 18 years old. But if you went to university, you were partially exempted. You had to serve it in other way, and you could serve one year attending every week some military classes, and then to go just for one year to military service, and to receive some lower rank of sergeant or something like that in the army. This training was supposed to be on Monday morning [meaning November 18, 1989!] for all the students, and they were supposed to be there in uniforms, and that day they had this kind of military marching exercises on the playground between dorms [in what is called the “Envelopa area” by many locals, which nowadays includes many student dormitories, the main canteen of the university, as well as the buildings of the faculties of law and natural sciences] in the early morning. These were older students, and they said ‘well, we would like to join the strike but as we are doing part of our military service this way, we can’t strike as a soldier, it would be desertion’. So, what to do? We had an idea: they pretended to go to the exercise, to try somehow, and we just surrounded all the space and did not let them in. We disrupted the exercise this way, therefore, they could not be accused of deserting the army. I remember some officer shouting at us, yelling at us, and then they all left and joined the strike.”
Democracy is also about allowing people to oppose the established system, to make their voices heard. After four decades without these basic political rights, Czechoslovaks – especially the younger generations – were determined to not remain silent after rumours of a student being killed at the main demonstration in Prague spread throughout the country. News that we now know were not true but sparked a wave of indignation across Czechoslovakia – demonstrations were also organised in Bratislava and in other Slovak towns.
“One day at school I found my class teacher crying, when I asked her what was going on, she dismissed me saying: ‘You will be the generation to suffer the consequences of these changes.’ Today, I am surprised that someone still truly believed in Communism here in the late 1980s. However, she was quite right – except that I enjoy the consequences.” Lukáš Perutka was 7 years old when the Velvet Revolution happened. Therefore, his memories are sensations-oriented: he remembers thinking the demonstrations were some sort of festive events, and he thought it was funny to jingle the keys with his father on the main square of their small town in Moravia. He emphasises how crucial it is to actively include young generations in all aspects of political life, or at the very least, not to despise them when they decide to join the debate.
The Czechoslovak youth played an incredibly important role in the events of the end of 1989; not only university students, but also high-school students, and let us mention here that primary school pupils were active witnesses as well. They saw their parents talking about the events with their neighbours, they heard their hopes and their doubts, and they remember to this day what these historic moments felt like. Those who were too young to join the protests might remember speeches, but also crowds of people from all generations shouting “nejsme děti!” (“we are not children”) as a response to an arrogant politician who thought he could belittle demonstrators and dissidents.
A government should never forget to listen to the youth. It should even fear the consequences of any lack of interest in what matters to them. Otherwise, they will prevent you from entering your workplace, no matter your title, position and the symbolic authority attached to them. They will show you that only a handful of university students can bring a small town to a standstill and disrupt an entire high-school if you do not let them decide on their own future. They will build carton walls in front of your office to show you that you have been disqualified, that your authority is unwelcomed and worthless. They will take over the role of the media and inform people in cities, towns and villages across the country if your government fails at delivering the basic democratic reforms they demand. They will listen to those you refuse to listen, be it at pubs, on the main square, in schools or in churches.
These events might sound similar to more recent news from another continent: it actually was the point. Nonetheless, these anecdotes all come from Jan Stejskal , who took part in the organisation of the occupation strike at Palacký University in Olomouc, as well as in the dissemination of essential information around the city during this fateful month of November 1989. “I remember us shouting on the students [of the high-school in Prostějov]: ‘we are not allowed to be inside the school, so everybody, let’s get out, we will speak on the main square! […] We distributed some documents, and people were coming from work, so my friend was standing on a bench, speaking to them, saying it would be good if they joined the general strike.” The general strike was planned on November 27, 1989.
A day L. Perutka  remembers easily, since he noticed that his mother did not go to work, exceptionally. Meanwhile, around a couple of hundreds of kilometres up north-west, A. Kalous  was sitting in a classroom, asking with his classmates to be allowed to join the strike on the main square – which the teacher could not allow, since she was responsible for them and it was still dangerous to join such demonstrations. As J. Stejskal  explains, nobody knew what to expect, and everyone thought military force would be used at some point. The whole country was stunned by how fast things went from November 27 onwards. In just a few weeks, the whole regime and its institutions fell apart.
Education is important, and so is active inclusion of young people in the overall discussion about democracy and freedom. About the awareness of the youth nowadays regarding key historical events such as the Prague Spring (1968) and the Velvet Revolution (1989), A. Kalous  adds: “The big difference is that speaking of 68 was impossible when I was a kid. Speaking of 89 is possible now, and we should do it to show what happened then and before, and why it happened. Simply to explain that Communism was a disaster, that the practices then were horrible, and that such regimes lead to non-democratic developments. […] I don’t think that young people know about it or care about it. They take lots of things for granted. If you don’t see what was there before, what the struggle was about, then why should you care? But I try to tell my kids about it, so that they know what happened.”
L. Perutka  gives us a quick reminder of what this struggle meant: “I enjoy the changes after 1989. I am among the lucky ones who have used the gained freedom to become who I always wanted to be. I spent many of the past 15 years abroad: Spain, Mexico, the United States. Something that would be impossible for me under the restrictive communist government unless making unwanted compromises to my personal, moral, ethical, and labour integrity.”
It is such a powerful warning, after hearing from A. Kalous  about Václav Havel’s Audience (1975): “I cannot participate in something I do not agree with.” Unfortunately, back then, “you were simply pressed to agree”, he continues. Due to this context, citizens stopped taking part in any form of civic movements or public life, repeating the historical tradition of passive resistance, retreating to their “chata” (summer cottage, countryside house) or their backyards, avoiding festivals that became extremely rare despite the underground culture. Freedom became an abstract concept, to be found mostly in dissidents’ banned music, cinema, literature, and samizdat. A. Kalous  adds: “I think that the Central European countries did not experience a lot of democracy in their history, and it is very difficult to get back to something which actually does not exist.” Indeed, we can see nowadays how the quality of democracies in both Poland and Hungary is deteriorating. “If there is, according to certain democratic principles, a development which leads to an undemocratic situation, you cannot stop it by democratic means in these young and unexperienced democracies.”
Also, regarding the situation with the Central European University – from which both A. Kalous  and J. Stejskal  graduated – he comments: “If you’re a dictator, you do not want an island of critical thinking analysing what you do. You want to have clever people who will help you keep the power. We are lucky in the Czech Republic that in the elections until now, there was always some kind of a draw. There’s no party or coalition with the same ideas which would have a constitutional majority. Otherwise, I would fear the same would happen here, but maybe I’m too pessimistic.”
An interesting insight given how Western media tend to perceive these more balanced outcomes as negative, hindering the capacity of governments to move forward with reforms and their political agenda. From a Nordic perspective, though, the tradition of compromise in politics as well as the upholding of proportional representation in parliaments remain a crucial aspect of strong liberal democracies. Yet another example to show how enriching Central European history and politics can be even for the all-time champions of Western Europe – despite this region’s bad reputation there. L. Perutka  summarises the overall situation: “In those times the opportunities for a common man or a woman were scarce, but the state provided for them. You did not worry about your job, education, health care, retirement. Nowadays, such a system is experiencing a renaissance. I think that this may present a real threat to our freedom because we are slowly giving up on ‘pursuit of happiness’ and creating an almighty and all-knowing state that will solve all our problems for us.”
In case you need a reminder of what chasing such a dream of a ‘perfect state’ can lead to (hint: major disappointment ahead), please watch the film-documentary Český sén (2004).
Talking about such an “almighty state”, it was of course difficult not to ask about their opinions regarding the developments in Hong Kong – please note that these interviews were recorded in the end of November 2019.
For J. Stejskal , this topic brings us back to the concept of democracy as an indivisible concept. For instance, he keeps wondering how the Chinese model can possibly function, since it is partially free in terms of economy and trade especially, while the rest is under strict control of the authorities. However, the struggle of people in Hong Kong is fully understandable, if not actually relatable for him: “They have economic freedoms, and they would like to keep their political ones as well. In China, they have economic freedom, but no political freedom, and for me these are just two faces of one coin! This is for me a really big question, because you cannot give just a part of [democracy and freedom]. At least here, it didn’t work.” As for L. Perutka , he warns us about the lack of international support shown towards the civic society in Hong Kong: “What I find troubling is the lack of international, even moral, support voiced by democratic countries and their respective leaders in this matter. They should remember the prophetic words of Adam Michnik: ‘The worst thing about communism is what comes after.’ As we know from our own history, the democratization process is always very fragile and international support is crucial in its institutionalization.” From Central Europe to Hong Kong, the message could very well be, coming from those who remember the past as it happened: hold on to your freedom, for it is the guardian of your democracy.
The Velvet Revolution brought freedom and democracy, but it also indirectly brought a less pleasant consequence: the so-called Velvet Divorce between the Czech and the Slovak parts of Czechoslovakia. When asked about their impressions at the time and now, the two medievalists are both sceptical, if not nostalgic: “being born Czechoslovak, there was nothing else you could imagine than this state, so it was really painful; I think a majority of people wanted to have a referendum. I believe the division was premature”, says J. Stejskal , for instance. He regrets that the government, at the time, did not try harder to find a compromise. He understands that with the problems that appeared around the same time in Yugoslavia, and the war that broke out there following the end of the Tito era, people might have been scared of similar developments in Czechoslovakia. The so-called ‘divorce’ happened smoothly, though: “I don’t think there are better relations between two European states than between Czechs and Slovaks. It turned out positively, but I still think it could have been possible to keep both together. Slovaks are still home in the Czech Republic anyway.”
A. Kalous  adds an interesting perspective: to him, Slovaks are the winners of the 20th century. He explains: “After 1867, when the Austrian-Hungarian dual monarchy was created, Hungarians suppressed Slovak schools, there was not really much Slovak intelligentsia, not really a big intellectual power. When Czechoslovakia was created, 90% of industry and 80% of agricultural production were in the Czech part. At the end of the 20th century, the situation is completely different. I don’t want to say that it’s bad or that I hate them for it, no, I like Slovaks, I like Slovakia, I like the country, I have many Slovak friends. I’m always happy that when we meet somewhere abroad, Czechs and Slovaks stick together. I liked Czechoslovakia and I would have been happy if it stayed. Still, we beat the politicians because we still like each other!”
As for L. Perutka , he sees the division clearly as an opportunity for both states: “It may be a paradox, but I think the division of Czechoslovakia brought better relations between the two, now independent, countries. Both arrange their things separately and this relieved important tension between them.”
The story is indeed very simple. Two nations cohabited peacefully for decades, building a relationship that involved more than just institutional cooperation. They created together an example of democracy in an interwar Central Europe tempted by fascism and extreme nationalism, then they later revolted against authoritarianism together, and eventually, they rebuilt their democracy together. Their respective populations chose not to pay too much attention to an unpleasant breakup, and as a result, they thrived as one of the best transnational ‘brotherhood’ examples, with the Nordics as sole competitors in this all-sides-win game on the European continent. Meanwhile, toxic nationalist competition deteriorates the atmosphere within the European Union, going as far as vetoing crucial enlargement policies. Perhaps the story is that simple? The true European heart beats where Masaryk and Štefánik chose democracy, unity, and diversity, back in 1918, in this ghost-like state (not all ghosts are scary!) that we all remember even if it ceased to exist before we were born: Czechoslovakia. At least, this heart beats in many of those who were “born Czechoslovak.”
Thank you very much to all three interviewees who accepted to give some of their time for The Euroculturer.
Antonín Kalous is the Head of the Department of History at Palacký University (Olomouc), where he is also the Director of the Euroculture programme. He teaches medieval history and his research focuses on political, cultural and church history. During the Velvet Revolution, he was 12 years old and he was living in a small town near Hradec Králové.
Lukáš Perutka teaches Modern History at Charles University in Prague as well as at Palacký University in Olomouc; he focuses mainly on Czech(oslovak) immigration to Latin America and the USA, as well as on the history of these regions. During the Velvet Revolution, he was 7 years old and he lived in his hometown in Eastern Moravia.
Jan Stejskal teaches medieval history at Palacký University in Olomouc. He focuses mainly on church history and the history of religious practices. During the Velvet Revolution, he was 19 years old; he took part in the occupation strike at the university in Olomouc and travelled to Prague and to other small towns in Moravia on numerous occasions to help with the communication between the cities, as well as to take part in some events, including the massive and historical demonstration at Letná in Prague.