During an astonishing 6-week period in 1989, between November 17th and December 29th, a non-violent “Velvet Revolution” took place in Communist Czechoslovakia. It overthrew the 44 year old Soviet backed regime put in place by Josef Stalin at the end of World War II, and replaced it with a free democracy. It was nicknamed the ‘Velvet‘ Revolution because it was a successful, non-violent rebellion.
By the 2nd half of the 1980s, the Cold War was slowly thawing. The Soviet Union was a bit more open, thanks to Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, which opened the USSR’s government to debate, and Perestroika, which reformed Soviet politics and economy. Unfortunately, the same was NOT true in Czechoslovakia. Their hard-line Communist Party stopped Gorbachev’s reforms in their tracks. Dissidence was still not tolerated and political activists were imprisoned. Gustav Husak, in power since 1968, would allow NO reforms.
All that changed however in 1989 …
First with Poland’s Solidarity toppling their Communist party in September elections, followed by the peaceful conversion of Hungary from Communism to democracy in October. Finally, the shocking fall of the East German Berlin Wall on November 9th. Regardless, the Czechoslovak Communist Party continued to carry out their hard-line policies. That continued repression, combined with the slow collapse of the Soviet Bloc, inspired Czechoslovaks to demand change from their government as well.
But let’s step back for just a bit. Remember Czechoslovakia only became an independent country in 1918 after World War I, when the losing Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up like a Sunday roast. Following its unfortunate inclusion into Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II, Czechoslovakia became part of the Communist bloc behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain in 1945. Twenty long years of repression followed.
Then a glimmer of hope. During the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, a reform effort swept through the government. Human rights and a free press were actually encouraged. People were able to openly criticize Communist rule, travel more freely, and form new political parties! Though modest, this was far too much for the Kremlin. In August, thousands of Soviet troops rolled into the country. A young playwright and poet named Vaclav Havel, spoke out against the invasion on Radio Free Europe. Soviet occupation led to the worst of the East European regimes with all the reforms killed.
Under Communist rule, over 250,000 Czechoslovaks were imprisoned, many dying in forced labor camps.
A small underground movement of resistors managed to survive. Opposition was mostly symbolic though because of the severe repression. One example was that rock music became a medium for political dissent. This included The Plastic People, who wrote protest songs in English. The band members were thrown into prison in 1976.
In 1977, a non-violent, pro-democracy group calling themselves Charter 77, wrote a Manifesto calling on the Communist regime to live up to international human rights demands. One of its founding members was Vaclav Havel. This prompted the government to imprison its members and ban Charter 77. Havel was sentenced to five years of hard labor. Fast forward now another 2 decades to 1989.
The Velvet Revolution began spontaneously on Friday, November 17th.
A student march took place marking the 50th anniversary of the death of a student Nazi protestor, Jan Opletal, in 1939. However, it quickly turned into an anti-Communist protest, with students carrying banners and chanting slogans. Riot police stopped the students marching from the National Cemetery to Wenceslas Square. A stand-off ensued in which the students peacefully offered flowers to the riot police. They were met with tear gas and water cannons. The police began beating the young students with night sticks. 167 were hospitalized.
The demonstration and violence inspired workers’ unions and other civic groups to also organize. Theaters became dissident meeting places where activists devised strategies and held open discussions. At one meeting at Prague’s Magic Lantern Theatre on November 19th, a group calling themselves the Civic Forum was established as a collection of spokespeople for the democracy. Former members of Charter 77, including a much older Vaclav Havel, came together along with other dissidents to unite their opposition against the Communist Party.
The Civic Forum became the heart of the democratic movement.
They boldly demanded the resignation of the Communist government, the release of political prisoners, and investigations into the Nov. 17th police brutality. They chose Vaclav Havel as one of its leaders, who used his literary talents to craft the movement’s messaging, challenging the government in ways that captured the public’s imagination. Havel showed the deadening effects of Communism on ordinary people and their lives.
The next day, a sister initiative – Public Against Violence – was born in Bratislava, Slovakia. Both were joined en masse by Czechoslovak citizens – from university students to factory workers. Subsequent marches, protests, and strikes took place in the following week – too large to be silenced by police brutality. This barrage of nonviolent activism had a profound effect on the people. Even larger mass protests were held in several Czech and Slovak cities. People shook their keys in the air as a symbol for change.
Tens of thousands gathered in protest, chanting in the streets, “It’s finally happening!”
It took 2 weeks before for the state-run media began broadcasting reports of what was actually occurring in the cities. In the meantime, students traveled to countryside towns and villages to rally support outside the capital. Vaclav Havel became the face of the opposition. He knew that many more would have to join them in order for the movement to succeed. So the Civic Forum sought to organize a General Strike for November 27th that would span ALL of Czechoslovakia.
You’re probably asking yourself ‘What were the hard-line Communist leaders plotting in the meantime?!’ Well, they were unprepared to deal with such a huge popular unrest. As the mass demonstrations continued, more and more citizens supported the general strikes. The enormous mass demonstrations – up to a million people in a country with less than 16 million – were a collective show of defiance. An emergency session of the Central Committee was called where the Communist Party President resigned, and a relatively unknown elected.
The Civic Forum and Public Against Violence rejected this cosmetic, token reform and the people’s dissatisfaction only increased.
On November 25 and 26, massive demonstrations of over 750,000 people took place at Letna Park in Prague. On Monday, Nov. 27th, 75% of the Czechoslovak population participated in a 2 hour General Strike, showing the mass support behind the Civic Forum and People Against Violence. The strike finally showed the Communist regime that the people would no longer quietly obey and more importantly, the government was powerless to stop them.
Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum, led by Vaclav Havel. That day, they presented their list of demands: to form a new coalition government and to DELETE the leading role of the Communist Party from the Constitution. Adamec agreed to them all and personally guaranteed that no violence would be used against peaceful citizens.
These amendments were unanimously approved by the Communist Parliament the next day, November 28.
A new compromise government was formed including only 9 members of the Communist Party with 7 new, non-communist Ministers, all of whom were members of the Czech or Slovak forums. This new government was named by president Gustav Husak on December 10th who, under threat of yet another general strike, went on national television that evening to announce his resignation.
After Christmas, on December 28th, at the joint session of the two Federal Houses, Alexander Dubcek – who led the ill-fated Prague Spring in 1968 – was elected Speaker. One day later, parliament elected Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia!
Despite lacking serious political experience, the new parliament was able to fill many of the gaps in human freedoms, private ownership, and business law. The military was transferred from communist to democratic control. They also laid the framework for the first Free Elections in 44 years. The results of the following year’s elections were basically a referendum on ending Communism in a sweeping victory for democracy.
The turnout was more than 96%. Vaclav Havel was formally elected President by the people.
After the 1990 elections, efforts to craft a new democratic constitution were stalled by the political and economic differences between Czechs and Slovaks. Some Czechs saw the poorer Slovakia as a drag on the economy. Slovaks saw the Czechs as having too much power and control in Prague. This division led to the “Velvet Divorce,” peacefully creating 2 independent nations: the Czech and Slovak Republics in December 1992. Vladimir Meclar became Prime Minister of the new Slovakia. The once mighty Soviet Union eventually collapsed in December 1991 under Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1997, at the urging of President Havel, the Plastic People reunited. In 2009, they were honored at Prague’s National Theater as part of the 20 year celebration of the success of the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel remained in office as President until 2003 and passed away in 2011 at age 75.
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