Today is International Students’ Day and a public holiday in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia thanks to the martyrdom of nine at the hands of the Nazi occupation forces this day in 1939.
The previous fall, Hitler had cowed the allied powers into ceding the mountainous Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to the Third Reich in order to avert war — leading to Neville Chamberlain‘s famously mistaken “peace in our time” speech.
In March 1939, Germany reneged its part of the bargain and gobbled up Bohemia and Moravia, essentially the modern Czech Republic.
That this would collapse Chamberlain’s vision of peace and set Europe’s powers on the road to war with Berlin was cold comfort to the occupied Czechs. They had their own problems.
On October 28, youth demonstrations in Prague against the occupation resulted in the shooting of Charles University medical student Jan Opletal
Two weeks later he succumbed to the injury, and his funeral turned into an anti-occupation riot forcibly quashed by German arms. According to the London Times account:
On November 17 at 3 a.m., the Gestapo entered all students’ colleges, men’s and women’s, without allowing them to dress, tied the students in groups of three, and dragged them away … Between 3 o’clock and 8 o’clock in the morning the Gestapo visited students’ homes and lodgings. Those opposing arrests and parents who withheld information were immediately shot at, and the wounded were refused attention. The Gestapo broke into high schools as well as into the university …
The prisoners were taken to the Ruzyn barracks and to the Sparta football stadium, where cold water was flung over them and were made to wait until the evening. Then, in the barrack yard, 124 students and teachers* were shot before their fellow-students, the first nine being presidents of students’ associations, including the brilliant young sociologist Dr. Matoushek [English Wikipedia entry | Czech], son of a former Minister of Commerce.
Universities in the cities were declared closed for three years; they would not in fact re-open until after the war.
The day, subsequently memorialized as den boje studentu za svobodu a demokracii (Day of the Students’ Fight for Freedom and Democracy), entered Czech history a second time a half-century later.
The nine students and professors executed on 17 November in Prague were:
- Josef Matoušek (historian and associate professor; participated in the organisation of Opletal’s funeral)
- Jaroslav Klíma (student of law; Chairman of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia, requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)
- Jan Weinert (student of Bohemistics and Germanistics; requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)
- Josef Adamec (student of law; secretary of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
- Jan Černý (student of medicine; requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)
- Marek Frauwirth (student of economics; as an employee of the Slovak embassy in Prague, he was issuing false passports to Jews trying to flee from the Nazis)
- Bedřich Koula (student of law; secretary of the Association of Czech students in Bohemia)
- Václav Šafránek (student of architecture; record-keeper of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
- František Skorkovský (student of law; Director of a Committee of the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants, Chairman of the Foreign Department of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
A student protest at Opletal’s grave on this date in 1989 helped catalyze the Velvet Revolution that toppled Czechoslovakia’s Communist government.
The larger figure was circulated in the days following by Czech sources. It is not clear to me whether that number proved unfounded, or whether subsequent memorials simply came to focus on the leading nine — whose executions are certain, and were even announced by German communique.
Throughout 1941, efforts were made to convince students of other nations to acknowledge November 17th as a day of commemoration, celebrating and encouraging resistance against the Nazis and the fight for freedom and democracy in all nations.
In 1989 independent student leaders together with the Socialist Union of Youth (SSM/SZM) organized a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day. The students used this 50th-anniversary event to express their dissatisfaction with the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. By nightfall, what had begun as a peaceful commemorative event turned violent, with many participants brutally beaten by riot police, red berets, and other members of law enforcement agencies. About 15,000 people took part in this demonstration. The only person left lying where the beatings took place was thought to be the body of a student, but in fact turned out to be an undercover agent. The rumor that a student had died due to the police brutality triggered further actions; the same night, students and theater actors agreed to go on strike.
The events linked to the International Students’ Day of 17 November 1989 helped spark the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day is today observed as an official holiday in both the Czech Republic (since 2000, following a campaign by the Czech Student Chamber of the Council of Higher Education Institutions) and Slovakia.
You may also wish to read the following:
We know that you could spend hours, days, weeks and months finding some of this information yourselves – but at this website, we curate the best of what we find for you and place it easily and conveniently into one place. Please take a moment today to recognize our efforts and make a donation towards the operational costs of this site – your support keeps the site alive and keeps us searching for the best of our heritage to bring to you.
Remember, we rely solely on your donations to keep the project going.
Thank you in advance!
If you have not already subscribed to get TresBohemes.com delivered to your inbox, please use the form below now so you never miss another post.