Case Studies

Czech Independence Day Speech

The dramatic changes in Eastern Europe happened so rapidly and over so broad an area that making these events understandable for students can be a challenge. This case study uses a landmark speech by Vaclav Havel as a means to unpack the rapid events of 1989.

President Václav Havel’s “Czech Independence Day Speech” marked the first celebration of Czechoslovak Independence day since the fall of the communist regime during November and December 1989. I included this document in a two-semester sequence of courses (in which students had the option of taking either or both of the courses in the sequence) on Nationalism in Eastern Europe, which was taught almost exclusively on the basis of reading and analyzing primary source documents.

This course was offered within the University Honors Program at my institution (the George Washington University), so it was a small, seminar class of highly motivated and highly qualified students. Throughout the two semesters, by reading and analyzing source texts, we pursued the origins, development, splintering, possible decline and reassertion of Nationalism in the region from the late eighteenth century to the present.

This source illustrated the reappearance of issues related to nationalism in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet imperium, and brought home to the students the fact that the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia did not necessarily lead to a "living happily ever after" ending for the common state of Czechs and Slovaks. It also led into wider considerations of the role of commemorations and political rituals in the politics of identity.

By the time the class was discussing this particular text, the students had garnered a semester's worth or more of experience in approaching primary source texts. My practice was to assign context-giving readings from a narrative textbook or textbooks, to provide some framework from which the students could approach the documents. Where necessary I could also intervene to explain important contextual issues that were not clear from the readings.

This source and all the primary sources for the course were included in a course packet distributed at the beginning of the semester and including the primary readings for the entire semester. Students had read other sources related to the problem of nationalism and communism, and indeed had read Václav Havel's essay "The Power of the Powerless," so they had some familiarity with Havel's approaches and style.

Since I taught this document in a small, seminar class, I began discussing it and the other readings for that day's topic jointly with the students, in the typical seminar discussion. By this stage in the semester the students had already markedly developed their ability to read and analyze a primary source text, to identify quickly not only the major points in a given extract, but to recognize their significance to the author, the intended audience, and their setting in the general context both specific and more widely. All of these skills should be transferable to other sources and even other types of sources.

Throughout the semester I tried to limit my role to facilitating (even prodding and pushing) discussion along, rather than lecturing. Still, from time to time, I served as an additional "textbook" as it were, able to throw out significant details of the context that perhaps were not fully developed in the other readings the students had already done, or that they had overlooked. I tried to ask them leading questions when spontaneous discussion flagged, but did not attempt to direct the discussion towards my exclusively pre-determined end point.

For example, one question I asked specific students was how they would react to the speech if they were Czech, Slovak, or a member of a minority community such as a Roma (Gypsy), and why. That stimulated some imaginative discussions and proved productive. Perhaps this sort of approach could be taking within a group context, with groups of students assigned to read the text and formulate responses from various points of view (not just national, but, for example, points of view of other Czechs who were political opponents of Havel).


The broadest conclusion that we all took away from this exercise, I believe, was that every political epiphany is followed by a "morning after" (not to sound too cynical about it). Discussing this speech helped open the students to appreciating the sources and course of the post-communist development of identity politics. Through the contextual reading of such sources, students were also exposed to the more general changes that occurred in the political and social life in Czechoslovakia (and the Czech Republic and Slovakia) following the euphoric moment of liberation. In fact, the Czechoslovak example made a useful contrast and compare case for discussing developments in other countries of the region that experienced somewhat different transitions (Yugoslavia, of course, but also Poland, Hungary or Romania).

The text is a good example of Havel's style, and has a strong effect on the reader. The likeliest future use of this text will not be in a small seminar class, so I will adapt its presentation to a more lecture-oriented class with larger student numbers. In that sort of class, I will adapt more structure-giving techniques, such as formally dividing the class into working teams, perhaps with each being assigned a particular point of view as suggested above. Teams could work on response papers, including questions for discussion, from their assigned point of view, which could be circulated either on paper or using other forms of information technology such as Blackboard or downloadable podcasts, weblogs, or discussion bulletin boards. These technological assets were not available to me when I taught the Honors course, which was several years ago, before my institution even used web-based syllabus delivery.


Document 1: Havel's Independence Day Address, 1990

Hugh Agnew
The Elliott School of International Affairs
Washington, D.C.