Introductory Essay


The events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia are known as the “Velvet Revolution,” in part because of the non-violent nature of the protests. As in Hungary, intellectuals led the way and, similarly, their demand for a public commemoration of a significant moment played an important role in the events that followed. On January 15, 1989, a crowd of over 5,000 people marched onto the main square in Prague (Wenceslaus Square) to commemorate the self-immolation of Jan Palach, a Czech student who committed suicide in 1969 to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of his country the previous fall. The government responded to this protest with violence, attacking the crowd and arresting more than 100 participants. Over the next few days, crowds ranging in size from several hundreds to several thousands fought with police on the streets of the capital. Among those arrested was the playwright and prominent dissident, Václav Havel, who was sentenced to nine months in prison for his role in the protests. In contrast with Hungary, however, those in the Czechoslovak Communist Party who wanted reform were a minority without influence. Throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, the government in Prague showed no sign of compromise or change similar to the shifts taking place in Budapest or Warsaw.

On November 17, however, the regime took its repression of dissent too far. On that evening, two student groups—the officially sanctioned Socialist Student Union and a recently permitted alternative student group—marched toward Wenceslaus Square to commemorate the death of a Prague student who had died 50 years earlier fighting the Nazis. As the marchers neared the square, police units confronted them and in the ensuing mêlée several students were badly beaten. Immediately the rumor spread that one or possibly more students had been killed by the police, although no evidence has been found that anyone died that night.

Within two days, opposition organizations had formed—the Public Against Violence in Bratislava, and Civic Forum in Prague. Both organizations were led by writers, playwrights, professors, and other intellectuals. On the night of November 20, close to 200,000 people filled Wenceslaus Square. Suddenly, it appeared that the Czechoslovak Communist Party was a façade. And so it was, because on December 9, the Party transferred power to a coalition government led by none other than Havel, only recently released from jail.