November 17, International Student’s Day

Two really important demonstrations took place in mid-autumn in former Czechoslovakia. Students played a big role in both of them.

The first one happened back in the time of World War 2. On October 28th 1939 students initiated a peaceful demonstration in Prague, then occupied by Nazi Germany, to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the creation of an independent Czechoslovak Republic.

It escalated in the evening, with conflicts between demonstrators and the police. The police operation led to the killing of Václav Sedláček in the street and to the shooting of medical student Jan Opletal, who died a few days later from his injury.

Opletal became a symbol of the student movement against the regime. His corpse was laid out and driven through the streets of Prague, followed by thousands of students. They sang the Czechoslovakian hymn as the coffin was brought to the railway station, a train sending him back to his hometown.

What followed was Hitler’s order to close down the universities in Prague, Brno and other cities for three years. They stayed closed till the end of the war.

In the early morning of November 17th SS started to attack the first dormitories in Prague. Thousands of students were arrested and brought to Prague-Ruziny. The SS deported 1200 of those students to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. Nine members of student councils were executed immediately. The Nazi regime used the buildings of the universities for their own purposes. Valuable items were either brought to Germany or burned.

Two years later, in 1941, an International Student Council in London declared November 17th the “International Student’s Day” in memory of all the students whose lives were stolen.

In 1989, 50 years after the initial demonstration, another student movement led to the beginning of a revolution in Czechoslovakia. Just like in 1939 students demonstrated peacefully in the streets of Prague. This time to commemorate their forerunners from 50 years ago, and to protest against the communist regime ruling the country.

Plaque in Albertov "When - if not now? Who - if not us?"
Plaque in Albertov
“When – if not now?
Who – if not us?”

Not much different from before, conflicts arose. Police attacked demonstrators and about
600 people were hurt. The next day students proclaimed an indefinite strike. Prague’s theatre actors supported them and stopped playing.

This demonstration is generally seen as the beginning of the Velvet Revolution

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