November 17 is twice as important for Czechs

November 17 is not at all just an ordinary day in the Czech Republic. If you take a look at the Czech calendar, you will see that November 17 is marked as a public holiday. It is called the Day of a Struggle for Freedom and Democracy. It is a very important day for Czechs not only for one, but for two reasons!

On this day, Czechs commemorate two remarkable events in the Czech history – one happened in 1939 and another one exactly fifty years later, in 1989. The former commemorates the student demonstration against Nazi occupation, the later the demonstration against the communist government, which was again held by students, and led to the so called Velvet Revolution. Both evens are significant in fighting for freedom and democracy of the Czech people.

Czech flag But why both events took place on November 17 and not on some other day? Well, both evens are connected. And I will tell you how.

It all started on October 28, 1939, which was the 21st anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic. On this day there were big anti-Nazi demonstrations in Prague, which were suppressed by Nazi forces – you probably know that Czechs were occupied by Hitler’s Germany back then. One student, whose name was Jan Opletal, a nineteen year old student of the Medical Faculty of the Charles University in Prague, was seriously wounded there and died few days later.

His funeral, attended by thousands of students, turned into another anti-Nazi demonstration. This provoked the Nazis so much that on November 17 they ordered to close all Czech universities and colleges, plus over 1200 Czech students were sent to concentration camps, and nine students were executed.

Because of this terrible act, November 17 is since 1941 marked as International Students Day by the International Union of Students.

Fifty years after such oppression, in 1989, Czech students organized a demonstration to commemorate the student martyr Jan Opletal and the International Students Day. It started off as an officially-sanctioned march, but turned quickly into demonstration demanding the resignation of the country’s communist government. Students were brutally beaten by riot police. This annoyed the public so much that they went on strike as well, demanding the same thing.

Demonstrations, which were held afterwards, were attended by more and more people. With the growing street protests and with other communist regimes falling around, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia finally announced on November 28 they would step out.

November 17, 1989, started the so called Velvet Revolution. As a result, the first democratic elections since 1946 were held in June 1990 and brought the first completely non-communist government to Czechs and Slovaks in over 40 years.

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