You may be aware that today, November 17th, is the International Students’ Day. But would you like to know this day’s history?
In 1939 in Prague, German Nazis murdered 9 students and sent over 1,200 students to concentration camps after their demonstrations against the killing of Jan Opletal and Václav Sedláček and against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. However, there was no Czechoslovakia at that time, since Germans divided us into Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and Slovak Republic under their government. And so this day infamously made its mark on the calendar.
But the story doesn’t end there, does it? Fastforward 50 years to November 17th 1989. People of Czechoslovakia, or rather the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic are once again fighting for their freedom. The situation in the country had been bubbling from the beginning of the year, which marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a young student who had set himself on fire in January 1969 as a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact. The anti-communist mood hits its peak in November.
The evening of November 16th 1989—high school and university students organised a peaceful demonstration in Bratislava. The event took place in the city centre and was unreported, therefore deemed not allowed by the government. Even though it worried the Communist Party greatly, the evening demonstration was quiet and calm. The students were shouting slogans like: “Freedom of speech! We want school reforms! We want schools for everyone! Democracy, democracy! We want freedom, dialogue, reforms!”
November 17th, Prague—thousands and thousands of students gathered in the city centre to celebrate the International Students’ Day and commemorate the events of 1939. Around 7:30pm, the students got blocked by the special forces of riot police as they were trying to go further into the city centre. The crowd stopped moving, but started chanting “Our hands are bare!” and people standing at the frontline were giving out flowers to the officers. However, at around 8:15pm, the police attacked the students who had nowhere to run, as all the escape routes were obstructed. What followed was brutal as the police forces were beating the students mercilessly.
This faithful day and its aftermath is called the Velvet Revolution which led to the end of the entire Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. We finally gained the independence to decide our future ourselves. We had a chance to finally participate in elections with more than just one answer possible. We got rid of that border between us and the rest of the world. We finally gained freedom.
Hopefully, now you understand why is this day such an important part of our history. Just as important as freedom. This day should remind us all of what our two nations have gone through to gain the rights we have today. And so today is not just the International Students’ Day. Today is also the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day here in our little big country Slovakia as well as in our brother country Czech Republic.