On November 17, 1989, the Czechoslovak nation woke up to what was ostensibly a normal day. 10 days of protests and strikes later, the government had given up its power, and the country was officially on the road from communism to democracy. That is the so-called Velvet Revolution in a nutshell. But the question is: what happened?
First, we have to take a look at what was happening in the rest of the region. Over in the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been loosening his country’s grip over the rest of the Eastern bloc. Soviet control over the satellite states had been a hallmark of the whole communist period, so his policies of perestroika (political restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were already a huge departure from the status quo.
What this meant was that countries that had had their economic and political systems dictated to them from Moscow suddenly had the opportunity to make their own changes. Several countries immediately took these and ran with them – like Poland, where changes had already been bubbling under the surface for the entire decade of the ‘80s, or Hungary, where economic reforms had already begun to allow some level of private business. These 2 countries were the first to experience actual revolutions, with a series of roundtable discussions leading to Poland’s departure from a communist government in April of 1989 and Hungary’s following in October.
In the region, that left East Germany and Czechoslovakia, but both countries had conservative, hardline governments that were unwilling even to accept Gorbachev’s new policies. But we all know what happened in East Germany – come November 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, a visual symbol of the end of communism there.
That left just Czechoslovakia, and while it may not have been obvious to the average citizen, their communist system wasn’t long for this world either.
November 17, 1989
November 17, when it all began, was actually a holiday to begin with – International Students’ Day, in honor of a number of students whom the Nazis had murdered 50 years previously. The government had given its approval for a march in commemoration of that, but what was conceived as a small ceremony turned into a protest march against the regime, with thousands of people streaming into the streets of Prague to join the progress.
The government, wanting to react quickly, sent out the riot police to disperse the protesters. In the ensuing chaos, it appeared as though a student had died. Although it was a baseless accusation and in fact no one had been killed, the rumor spread throughout the country and even into the western media. Radio Free Europe picked up the story, and suddenly headlines appeared across the world decrying the Czechoslovak communist government for killing its citizens, particularly a student.
What Came Next
Although the dead student was actually just a baseless rumor, it spread like wildfire and provided a motivation for people to speak out and protest against the government. The students and theatres went on strike, a move which was eventually followed by mass protests in Prague and elsewhere, and finally a general strike. The government, however, took a few days to really react, at first preferring to play down the protests’ importance and defend themselves against accusations of undue violence. Eventually, they had to start meeting with students and members of the small dissident movement, who had organized themselves into a unified group called the Civic Forum.
With the public finally making itself heard, the students and the Civic Forum actually had a leg to stand on, and the government was forced to negotiate with them. The Presidium, or the leadership committee of the Communist Party and therefore the government, resigned, and a more moderate group took its place. Even that step, though, did not pacify the populace or the Civic Forum, and the strikes continued. Finally, on November 29, the Federal Assembly amended the constitution such that the Communist Party was no longer guaranteed a leading role. The Velvet Revolution – which gets its name from the smooth, non-violent manner in which it took place (poetically reminiscent, people thought, of the fabric) – was over.
The Revolution’s Main Man
If there was one man who really came out on top of everything at the end of the Velvet Revolution, it was former dissident and eventual president Václav Havel. A playwright who had previously been jailed for the inflammatory pieces he wrote about the communist government, Havel emerged as an ideological leader within the dissident movement especially around the time of the revolution.
On December 29, the first round of elections catapulted Havel into the presidency, a position that would be solidified in June of 1990 with the first full, free elections. Although the success of Havel’s presidency still receives a fair amount of debate, and his skill as a politician by no means matched his skill as a writer, his leadership at such an important moment in history cemented his status as a national hero.
Only the Beginning
After the 10-day lighting strike that was the Velvet Revolution, the real work began. Years of political and economic transitions took the country through numerous bumps in the road, including the political disagreement that led to the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the creation of two new countries in its stead, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Despite the difficulties in the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the country has emerged as one of the strongest countries of the former Eastern bloc economically speaking. Historical sites that were once left to rot have emerged as renovated masterpieces, and Prague has blossomed into a cosmopolitan center of business and culture. It can be easy to forget the country’s recent history, though, while you’re wandering through its picturesque streets. Next time, when you walk up Národní třída from the National Theatre to Wenceslas Square, remember the events that happened there only just over a quarter century ago – events that would begin the process of making the country what it is today.