The history of the Czechoslovak state, which came into existence in the early twentieth century, is marked with a series of bitter memories of totalitarianism that reigned after a very short period of democracy. Twenty years after the new country was established, a parliamentary system was replaced by the Nazi protectorate and soon after the World War II by communism, dominance which lasted for forty long years.
Students were always to be found amongst the opponents of such regimes – they played an important role in fighting against them. Though the history of their opposition is full of sad examples of injustice, violence and lost lives, we can also observe countless stories of courage, honor, and self-sacrifice.
After Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, they were well aware of the dangers the young students posed to them. And they were right. Czech students decided to let the whole world know about their disagreement with the occupation. On October 28, 1939, on the anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, students throughout the country (and especially in Prague) protested against the Nazi oppression.
One of them, a young medical student named Jan Opletal, was seriously wounded in the shootings that occurred during that peaceful protest and later died of his injuries in the hospital. His funeral was attended by several thousand students and was again a protest against the occupation.
In retaliation for the massive protest, the Nazis proceeded to close all Czech universities. Jaroslav Klíma, the President of the Czech Student Union, was amongst those who organized the funeral of Jan Opletal. He was arrested at night and the next day, on 17th November, he was executed alongside with eight other student leaders.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Over a thousand students were loaded into trains in the following days. None of them knew what was coming; none of them even knew about the executed student leaders. They could only take few basic things with them, and many of them took books to learn for exams thinking they would be back soon. When they got off the train in the German concentration camp Sachsenhausen, they suddenly understood they no longer needed books. For many of them, it turned out to be their final destination.
The peace after the World War II did not last long. The Communist Party began seizing power in the country. Students were once again one of those who realized the dangers represented by communism.
During the student demonstration for democracy at the Prague Castle in February 1948, a group of several hundred students were brutally beaten by the members of the People’s Militia. The Militia were beating the protesters’ heads against sidewalks, including girls, who were vainly shouting: “November 17″. Soon it escalated into a shooting.
One of the participating students, Josef Řehounek, was shot and although he survived, the communist apparatus soon found him. A series of harsh interrogations (he lost all his teeth, spent a year in a detention cell) didn’t break him, but the party haunted him for the rest of his life.
February demonstration was just the beginning of the student struggle against the new dictatorship. Many paid with their lives. Karel Bacílek, Boris Kovaříček and Veleslav Wahl, all law students, fought in the anti-fascist resistance and now openly opposed communism. They were sentenced to death in a show trial.
The main objective of the movement Boris Kovaříček started was to unite liberty-minded students. He couldn’t even walk after the series of sadistic interrogations. When they led him to the gallows at dawn, he allegedly said to the attending president of Senate: “Don’t you think, Mr. President, that you are doing something unjust?”
Those three above-mentioned students were soon followed to the scaffold by their colleagues. Others have spent years in prison and labor camps. A huge number of others could never finish their studies.
The brutality of the communist government in dealing with its opponents is horrifying. The testimony of the survivors and archive materials speak about the barbaric methods of torture against the interrogated. One of them, Miloslav Choc, a 24-year-old political science student, was subjected to a series of inhumane interrogation. On the scaffold, however, he laughed at his tormentors and his last words were: “You can execute me, but you cannot break me.”
During the sixties came the first steps towards reform. Student leaders were aware of their opportunity and didn’t stay behind in the event that we call the Prague Spring when the whole nation believed in a change to a freer society. However, the country was sentenced to another twenty years of solid totalitarianism after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact forces in 1968.
A sad chapter of the military occupation is represented by the students Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, who burned themselves on a protest. The second of the aforementioned wrote in his goodbye letter to his family: “I know the value of life and I know that it’s the most precious thing. But I want a lot for you, for all, and so I have to pay a lot.” Finally, he added: “We must never accept injustice.” Although the Communist Party tried to cover up their stories, they became a symbol of revolt against the occupation and oppression.
At the end of the eighties, with the Soviet bloc crumbling down, the time came for a change in Czechoslovakia. A key role in the events known as the Velvet Revolution was again played by students. During the revolutionary year of 1989, Prague students created a movement called Stuha (Ribbon). Its main goal was to awaken sleeping college societies to fight against communism. Probably none of the founders had hoped they would be able to achieve this goal but believed that this struggle will ultimately lead to victory. And it did.
The Stuha movement participated in organizing and moderating massive student demonstrations that were planned to commemorate the 17th November. A group of several thousand students was surrounded during the demonstration. There was no escape. Special police forces brutally beat unarmed, while the peacefully sitting students were vainly shouting the now famous phrase: “We have bare hands.” This brutal police action prompted society to action. The revolution was set in motion.
The 20th century in Czechoslovakia was a century of totalitarianism and injustice. It is more than admirable how much courage young people had in a fight that most of the time seemed lost. Even in such times, there were those who decided to take a stand against the government. Students, mainly university ones, have always been against any totalitarian regime. They were willing to risk everything in support of people’s rights, justice, and freedom.