On this day in 1939, all the universities and colleges in Prague closed. 1,200 Czech students were arrested, and nine students and professors were executed. November 17th has since been known as International Students’ Day.
On the 28th of October in 1939, the Medical Faculty of Charles University held an anti-Nazi demonstration to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic. During this time, Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany.
“On October 28, 1939, demonstrators, many of them wearing the peaked cap made famous by Masaryk, gathered on Wenceslas Square to protest against German occupation.” – Prague: A Cultural History by Richard Burton
Jan Opletal, one of the students attending the demonstration, was shot in the stomach during the Nazi’s efforts to suppress the riots, and was severely wounded. He died from his injuries 14 days later.
His funeral was held on November 15th and the procession, which travelled from Prague to his home in Moravia, was attended by thousands of students. It soon turned into another anti-Nazi demonstration. Students tore down the German street signs, which symbolized the humiliation of the Nazi occupation.
This exasperated the Nazi’s and, in retaliation, on November 17th they closed down all the institutes of higher education in Prague, arrested over 1,200 students, sent them to concentration camps, and executed one professor and eight students without trial.
“The memory of this sacrifice runs deep in the Prague student community.” – Prague: A Cultural History by Richard Burton
As a result of these tragedies, in 1941, the 17th of November was marked as International Students’ Day. Fifty years later, on November 17, 1989, history would repeat itself.
Late in the fall of 1989 students organized a demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day and to pay homage to the student martyr Jan Opletal. What began as a peaceful, officially sanctioned march soon turned into a violent demonstration against the communist government during which students voiced their disapproval of the communist party and demanded it’s resignation. By nightfall the riots became violent and students were brutally beaten by riot police.
“The demonstrators were met by ranks of riot police easily recognizable by their white helmets.” – Prague: A Cultural History by Richard Burton
This demonstration was attended by over 15,000 people and would eventually lead to the general public going on strike, demanding the very same thing as the students; that the country’s communist government resign. This demonstration, which took place on November 17, 1989, is believed to have sparked the Velvet Revolution which eventually led to the freedom of the Czech people.
“The demonstrators sat down in the street while some of them handed out flowers, sixties-style, to the police.” – Prague: A Cultural History by Richard Burton
As a result of the events of 1989, November 17th was marked as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day in 2000.
November 17th is an important day for Czechs not just for one, but for two reasons. Two significant events in Czech history took place on November 17th and both played a pivotal role in the Czech Republic’s fight for democracy and freedom. The first of these events is the student demonstration against the Nazi occupation, which took place on November 17, 1939, and the second, which took place fifty years later, is the demonstration against the communist government, which took place on November 17, 1989.
A memorial was built on Národní třída (Avenue of the Nation) in Prague to remember the Velvet Revolution and the students who started it.
Czech citizens still gather at the students’ memorial on the 17th of November to light candles for those who participated in the demonstrations of 1989.
You can learn more about International Students’ Day and the Velvet Revolution in Richard Burton’s book Prague: A Cultural History.