Listopad, Prague 1989
27 June 2002
Here are the possible trigger events: Growing discontent with the hard-line communist government's lack of reforms in the face of the Soviet Union's withdrawal of influence and its own perestroika (late 1980s onwards); the media campaign of Alexander Dubcek, a politician making his comeback after twenty years in the wilderness (from 1988); the year of revolutions (1989); the breach of the Berlin Wall (9 November) and subsequent fall of the East German government; the rally in Prague that became a revolution (today, Friday 17 November); the unprecedented police brutality, and beating to death of the mathematics student Martin Smid, today, at almost 7pm, on Narodni trida, approaching Vaclavske namesti, Wenceslas Square.
Listopadove udalosti, the November events:
Now, today, Friday, a demonstation to commemorate the death of student Jan Opletal at the hands of the Nazis. It is 4 pm and somewhere up to 10,000 people have gathered at the medical school. It is a legal rally, licensed by the government. Later the crowd will be led from Opletal's grave in the Czech National Cemetery at Vysehrad into the centre of town, towards the site of the most famous anti-Soviet protests of 1969, towards Wenceslas Square, towards 7 pm and the riot police and the beating.
1939. March. Nazi Germany invades. Later that year, the 21st anniversary of the Chechoslovak Declaration of Independence, celebrations become protests and Jan Opletal, a medical student, is fatally wounded. His funeral is twenty days later, exactly fifty years ago. The ensuing demonstrations result in the universities being closed, nine student leaders being sentenced to death, and over a thousand others being sent to the camps.
In a hour's time, the crowd will leave Vysehrad, led by Ludvik Zifcak. Zifcak leads it onto Narodni trida towards the forbidden Wenceslas Square where the protestors, carrying flowers and no weapons, sitting on the floor, will be violently attacked by the police. 167 will be injured. In three hours time, the student Martin Smid will be beaten to death. His friends, witnesses, tell Petr Uhl; Uhl will tell Radio Free Europe; tomorrow, Saturday, news of Smid's death will be broadcast every hour on the hour across Prague.
This is the catalyst.
Hearing the news, veterans of 1968 join the young students on the streets. The crowds double and redouble. Two days from now, on Sunday, 100,000 will take to the streets. In three days, 200,000. One week from today on November 24 a one half million people will come out to protest and hear Alexander Dubcek speak. The next day, another half million to hear Victor Havel. Another two days: three million strike.
Six weeks from now, December 28, Dubcek is elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly; a day later and Havel is president. By the end of 1989 the Velvet Revolution is over.
Resistance continues in Czechoslovakia well into World War Two. On May 27 1942 German Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heidrich is assassinated, and Heydrichiada, the terror, begins. There are no more protests for three years.
In the aftermath of Nazi brutality and the war, right wing parties are banned and Czechoslovakia swings to the left. Yet despite the communist coup of February 1949, Vitezny unor, and despite the propaganda of the Soviet advisors, the country maintains a relationship with the west. There is still enough feeling for anti-communist protests in 1955.
In 1968 the Prague Spring blooms: A relatively unknown Alexander Dubcek is appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party and begins a programme of reforms, proclaiming basic human rights and liberties. "2000 Words", manifesto of personal control and struggle, gains popularity as the populous being to build a socialism with a human face in a Prague at the centre of Europe, buzzing with rock and jazz.
On the night of August 20 1968, Soviet tanks roll into the city. The process known as Normalisation begins.
Dubcek will spend the next two decades in the Slovak forestry service, exiled from political life. In January 1969, philosophy student Jan Palach self-immolates in Wenceslas Square. The severity of the put-down of both the government reformists and the protests creates a hard-left government and a terrified population, a situation that will last almost twenty years.
Three hours from now, the death of Martin Smid will trigger a revolution that before the end of the year will free Czechoslovakia.
1977: The one bright spot in these bleak years. Victor Havel, a playwrite, is one of those who forms Charter 77, an underground group keeping track of the human rights abuses of the government. Yet only a thousand people sign.
April 1988, Gorbacev visits Prague. Like Dubcek twenty years earlier he is a reformist, and privately Moscow is upset at the Czechoslovak's hard-line stance. Prague, though, believes perestroika is a temporary deviation from the Marxist-Leninist line; it learnt its 1968 lesson too well.
But why does Smid have to die? And why didn't the revolution come earlier? The opportunity has come many times before.
Just over a year ago, Sunday August 21 1988 on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion: a tiny protest swells to 10,000 as onlookers join the demonstration. For hours they chant on the streets of Prague, until eventually the police arrive and break up the crowd by force.
A month later, October, on the 70th anniversary of founding: the police beat passers-by and tourists in a crowd of 20,000.
The beginning of this year: Havel is arrested at the 20th anniversary of Palach's death in Wenceslas Square. A week of demonstrations follow.
Yet none of these protests gathered enough support to topple the government. Only a month ago, on the 71st anniversary of founding, 20,000 people were protesting in central Prague. To put this into perspective, at the same time Leipzig was seeing crowds of ten times this. In recent months, pro-democracy demos are attracting very few.
So why the brutality? There is a year of proof that these protests are getting no larger.
Twenty-four hours from now, while the news of Martin Smid's death is being broadcast every hour on the hour on Radio Free Europe, the state will show on television footage of two Martin Smids, both from Charles University in Prague, both alive.
Two days from now, when Uhl realises he has been spreading disinformation planted by the StB, the secret police, he tells journalists he has been victim of a plot. He is arrested minutes later.
Three hours from now, the death of Martin Smid never occurs. Ludvik Zifcaf is a member of the StB, and when he leads the protest onto Narodni trida he knows the riot police will be there. It is arranged.
The death of Zifcaf-as-Smid, the third-and-false Martin Smid, is staged. The witnesses are more members of the StB; Uhl is a stooge.
It is possible the undeath of Smid is a campaign by the communists to discredit the democrats, to accuse the dissident leaders of spreading false information. But given the lack of popular and public dissent over the past year, this hardly seems necessary.
There are rumours that Zifcaf as well as being a member of StB is a KGB plant, part of a plot by Gorbacev and the Kremlin to destabilise the hard-line government and replace them with the reformists. A government hard-line because of the Soviet invasion in 1968; invaded in 1968 because of its reforms; reforming because of its close links with the West, only communist because of anti-right-wing sentiment after the Nazi killings in 1939 -- the killing of Jan Opletal exactly fifty years ago, and the reason for today's protests.
Police brutality in recent months hasn't worked so the StB/KPG plot goes for broke, massive beatings and the apparent death of a known dissident: a classic provocation.
But it goes too far. Listopadove udalosti.
4 pm, Friday November 17, 1989. In three hours time, Martin Smid will not be killed.
Six weeks from now, at the culmination of a revolution triggered accidently by high-level polical machinations, Havel will be named as the new president.
On Monday November 20, in three days, Victor Havel, veteran of Charter 77, will proclaim the demands of the newly-founded Civic Forum as journalists clamber and surge through his apartment and over furniture to gain a look at him.
In less than a week, Havel will speak to a half million people, fifty times the number of people at tonight's protest. Dubcek, leader of the 1968 reforms, will join Havel the next day.
This Sunday night, the 19th, the Cinoherni Klub theatre: led by Havel, Civic Forum is established, a reaction to an event that never occurred. Outside, a light powder. The first snow of the last winter of occupied Czechoslovakia is in the cold, dry night air, falling, over Prague.