If you are an international student in Czech republic, maybe you have wondered, why today is a holiday? Or were you just satisfied that it is as such? Maybe you even know that 17th November is globally recognized as International Students´ Day. Well anyhow – good for you… but it was not always so calm and peaceful holiday as it is nowadays.
It all started more than 80 years ago. In late 1939 the Nazi authorities in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (as the area of Czech countries was known during the Nazi Germany occupation) suppressed a student demonstration in Prague held by students on 28 October (another Czech holiday) to commemorate the anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic (1918). During this demonstration the student Jan Opletal was shot, and later died from his injuries on 11 November. On 15 November his body was supposed to be transported from Prague to his home in Moravia. His funeral procession consisted of thousands of students, who turned the event into an anti-Nazi demonstration.
17th November 1939
In retaliation to previous events, Nazi security forces proceeded in the night on 17th November 1939 with the raid towards the students and students´ dormitories in major Czech cities with the aim to hunt down the leaders of the student organizations at Czech universities. After that 9 student leaders were executed in Prague military barracks without trial. A total of 1,200 arrested students were transported to the concentration camps where they tried to survive the next 3 years.
The very same day the Nazis also closed ALL Czech universities indefinitely – firstly it should be for 3 years, but after Czech paratroopers killed the ruling deputy Nazi leader of our country in 1942 (the only successful assassination of any german high official in all European occupied countries – he was main architect of Holocaust and even Hitler called him “Man with iron heart), the reopening of Czech universities was not acceptable and had to wait until end of the war.
2 years after this – on 17th November 1941 in London this very day was announced as an official International Students´ Day. And until today it is also the only International day with the roots in the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia)
From the second war forwards then the 17th November was a special day for all students, especially in Czechoslovakia. It gradually rose in importance again in the time of communism (1948 – 1989). Especially from 1968 when we were invaded by “friendly” communistic armies of the Soviet Union and its allies to make sure we will not get stranded from the Communistic family to the “dark forest” of democracy and “evil capitalism”. Those forces (over 300 000 soldiers) then stayed in Czechoslovakia for another 20 years. On 17th November 1968 students of all Czech universities announced 3-day protest strike in reaction to current events and the fact that the process of democratization of our country – called Prague Spring stopped due to invasion of Soviet forces. Events of this year were also a reason why the Soviet Union stopped to be seen generally in Czech countries as liberating the friendly country, but from that moment was seen by the majority of Czech people as adversarial invaders and occupying force (Generally in the same way Germany was seen in WWII).
17th November 1989
From the beginning of the year 1989, most of the people in communists ruled East-European countries were more and more frustrated with the ruling regimes, lack of freedoms of speech, travel and general tiredness of nearly every aspect of life in a communist society. There were lots of smaller demonstrations from most important happened again on 17th November (1989) when the commemoration of 50th anniversary of Nazi repressions grew into demonstration and peaceful march against the presently ruling communistic regime. The manifestation began by the singing of international students´ hymn Gaudeamus igitur (interesting lyrics, btw.) and student speeches. After the people walked to the centre of Prague, where they were stopped by a police force, they tried to resist peacefully but were eventually beaten and scattered by the special police forces. As it was filmed and spread within the country and as everyone saw how police beat “their children” – most of the country joined the peaceful protests and strikes and eventually the communist leadership was forced to step down and to allow free democratic elections. As nobody was killed during this whole “revolutionary time” is is widely known under the name Velvet Revolution.
From that time the 17th November is in Czech republic celebrated not only as International Students´ Day but also as Day of Fight for the Freedom and Democracy and it is also a national Holiday.
That´s the story of one day in history in a small (and usually) peaceful country – the story of our liberty and story of our students – students like you.
Remember, remember the 17th November,
the oppression, the hope and the blood
There is no reason why this student´s day
should ever be forgot