Velvet Revolution

05.08.2019 |

Episode #9 of the course Revolutions that changed the world by James Wareing


Today’s lesson returns us to the ideological battle between Communism and capitalism that defined the middle of the 20th century in Europe. We will learn how the Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Prague demonstrated the changing political scene in Eastern Europe and has changed the social and political dynamics of Europe today. Just eleven days after thousands of Czechoslovakian students took to the streets of Prague, the Communist Party gave up power.


What Caused the Revolution?

While the Revolution gained the name “Velvet” due to the smoothness of the transition, which was peaceful and bloodless, previous attempts at revolution had not come about smoothly in Czechoslovakia. In 1968, during the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovakians gained more social and economic freedom, which was soon quashed by the Soviet army. The march originally started with less dramatic origins, on a day designed to commemorate International Students’ Day and the death of a Czech student who was killed by the Nazis. They were no doubt encouraged by the peaceful demonstrations in East Germany, which were met with little resistance by the police. However, the policies of Glasnost, which opened up the political system to more debate and transparency, also played their part in encouraging citizens under Communist rule elsewhere to voice their discontent, but in Czechoslovakia, the Communist party were still not tolerant of any sign of dissent.


Main Events

The march quickly morphed into a protest that took an anti-Communist tone, emboldened by the opportunity to demonstrate their views. The students were met, despite their lack of violence, by a police cordon who proceeded to beat them, injuring around 200 of the protesters.

The protesters, bound together in their conviction even more so after being met with state violence, began to organize, leading to more protests and a series of strikes over the following days. They formed a group called the Civic Forum, led by the dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel. Havel’s artistic talents were useful for structuring a group of protesters unused to being part of organized political movements. He later remarked, “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”

They demanded that the Communist government resign and that Czechoslovakians should be given the chance to hold democratic elections. The government elected a new leader, Karel Urbanek, but this did nothing to quell the popular uprising, who wanted nothing other than to be rid of the Communist party.

By November 25th, the demonstrators in Prague numbered around 750,000. Prime Minister Adamec appeared in front of the crowd with Havel after talks between the two. However, the public response toward Adamec was vitriolic, and he had to withdraw. On December 7th, Adamec resigned, and the Civic Forum nominated Havel as their president. In June of the following year, Havel was elected president in the first fully democratic elections.


What Happened Next?

The end of Communist rule was to spell the end for the political coexistence of the Czech and Slovak factions of the government. In 1993, the two separated to form distinct nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries have since benefited from the increased economic and social freedoms, providing success for Havel’s wish for truth and love to triumph over lies and hatred. They have also been integrated into the EU and NATO, a recognition of their importance as a barrier between Europe and Russia.


How Is It Viewed Today?

By the older generation of Czechs, the Revolution is largely remembered with fondness for the freedoms it brought to the country. However, there has been a concern that the younger generation is not as well educated or in tune to the ideals of the Revolution as they should be. In 2014, a short animated film entitled, What to Tell the Kids, was produced as a way of educating the younger generation on what happened. For the changes that it brought to the country and with Eastern Europe in a period of political instability, Czechs will want to make sure the lessons of the Velvet Revolution are not forgotten.

Tomorrow’s lesson will see our final revolution as we move into the 21st century and learn about the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring.


Recommended book

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes


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