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Digital Archive International History Declassified

Essays

Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution

Oldřich Tůma

How the people and a poet peacefully dismantled communism in six weeks

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Due to Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union, the people of Czechoslovakia were allowed more and more freedoms in the 1980s. But the Czechoslovak leadership, led by the same man who had taken power after the Soviet Invasion of 1968, Gustav Husak, continued to rule oppressively. Despite this, there were several demonstrations demanding change in 1988. This movement was further fueled by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The six weeks between November 17 and December 29, 1989 saw the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime. This period was later termed the “Velvet Revolution” due to the relative ease of the transition. The revolution was completed when former dissident poet, Václav Havel, was elected president. Read on to learn how the people and a poet peacefully dismantled communism in six weeks.

The people of Czechoslovakia had been silently upset since 1968. That year, in what became known as the Prague Spring, members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia collaborated with the Soviet army to suppress what was the beginning of reforms within the Communist Party. These collaborators had maintained power through oppressive of basic freedoms for 21 years. Under the thawing of the Perestroika, disgruntled Czechoslovaks increasingly gave voice to their discontent. While they were angry about many issues, they most wanted to overthrow the current leadership, who were considered traitors due to their collaboration with the Soviets against the Czechoslovak people in 1968.

The Velvet Revolution began on November 17, when students gathered at a legal rally to commemorate the death of Jan Opletal and the fifty year anniversary of a similar protest against Nazi occupation during World War II. The tone of the rally soon changed and the students began demanding democratic changes. The size of the crowd increased, and began to move from the Czech National Cemetery towards Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague. Riot police confronted the protestors, who offered flowers and expressed no resistance in return. In response, police brutally broke up the demonstration by beating the participants with sticks. At least 167 people were injured, and one student was mistakenly reported dead. Although the student had not been killed, the initial rumor of his death spurred further demonstrations and became an initial focal point for the revolution.

The following day, students from Prague University and the Technical University decided to react decisively. The students proclaimed a strike and also called for a general strike on November 27. Theaters, first in Prague and then around the country, immediately went on strike. Instead of performances, spontaneous political debates took place in numerous theater buildings every day. These political debates provided a forum for the discontent of the Czechoslovak peoples. Students took the message from the theaters to the people of the countryside, and the movement quickly spread to cover the nation.

Initially, the students had limited demands, but these demands increased as they were able to release more and more pent-up frustration. The leading demand was the immediate removal of all Communist Party members who were involved in the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Beyond this, the students called for sweeping changes in economics, education, environmental policy and the then current dominance of communist thought and legislation in Czechoslovakia.

On November 19, the Civic Forum was successfully set up as a coordinating organ of the opposition. By cooperating with the students’ strike committee, the Civic Forum became a major political force in the country. This forum issued several documents in which the demands of the students were expressed to the ruling Communist Party. Demonstrations in Prague went on for days: on November 20, for the first time, the number of participants exceeded a hundred thousand; on November 25 perhaps three quarters of a million men and women took part in an opposition demonstration in Prague. From November 20 on, many thousands of men and women demonstrated daily in numerous Czech and Slovak towns across the country. That same day, first some of the print, and then the electronic media, freed themselves from the regime’s control and began covering the historic events.

Although all Eastern European governments faced a loud opposition that year, the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia was completely unprepared for such a large public uprising. They stalled their response, which only further enraged the protesting Czechoslovaks. After a week of procrastination, an emergency session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called. The Presidium resigned, and Karel Urbanek, a relatively unknown politician, was elected as the new Communist Party leader. These changes were not accepted by the Czechoslovak people, who wanted a complete removal of all Communist Party members involved in the 1968 Soviet Invasion. Most people within the country considered these changes to be an attempt by the Communist Party to continue ruling as before, but under the disguise of reforms.

Demonstrations increased as several workers’ unions joined the movement. The addition of workers’ unions to the debates was considered a devastating blow to the communist government. Communism claims to fight for right of the workers, so the loss of this support group signaled the end of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. On November 27 a general strike was held for two hours. The same day, the government met with the leaders of the Civic Forum, including dissident poet Václav Havel. The Civic Forum presented a list of political demands to Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who agreed to remove three articles regarding the role of Communism in Czechoslovak politics and daily life. The demands were unanimously approved by parliament on November 29, 1989.

The acceptance of these demands was quite sudden, given the perspective of the Communist Party. At the beginning of the revolution the ruling government of Czechoslovakia refused to meet with the Civic Forum, not considering it to be a valid threat. However, within two weeks, they were compelled to accept this organization’s status as a political partner and thereafter conceded to its demands. The sudden changes did not end with the constitutional changes of November 29. In the ensuing days and weeks a new government was established with the participation of the Civic Forum and its Slovak partner, Public Against Violence. Public Against Violence had completed many of the same functions as the Civic Forum, only in the Slovak section of the country.

The new government was formed by Marian Calfa; it included just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (several of whom actively cooperated with the Civic Forum); two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party; two members of the Czechoslovak People’s Party; and seven ministers with no party affiliation - all of latter were Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists. Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak named this new government on December 10. The same evening, he went on television to announce his resignation, and the Civic Forum cancelled a general strike that had been scheduled for the next day.

At the 19th joint session of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, Alexandr Dubcek - who had led the ill-fated Prague Spring movement in the 1960’s - was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly. One day later, on December 29, the parliament elected the Civic Forum’s leader, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia. The election of a poet as president, and the smoothness of the transition, led a journalist to dub it the “Velvet Revolution”.

Adapted from: Radio Prague’s History Online Virtual Exhibit The “Velvet Revolution” and Oldřich Tůma’s “Czechoslovak November 1989,” CWIHP Bulletin 12/13.