This Week Twenty-Five Years Ago: The Velvet Revolution Succeeds, December 1989   2 comments


In Prague on 17 November, 1989, a student rally in Wenceslas Square turned into an anti-government protest and was fired on by nervous policemen. Inspired by events in Germany and infuriated by the attempted crackdown, protesters came out onto the streets in greater numbers to demand free elections. An umbrella opposition organisation was formed, called Civic Forum. On 20 November, two hundred thousand marched; two days later it was two hundred and fifty thousand. Tens of thousands cheered Alexander Dubcek, who had led the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968. He made his first public appearance in more than two decades in Bratislava. On 24 November, 350,000 marched through Prague. That night, at an emergency Communist Party central committee meeting, the General Secretary and the entire Politburo resigned, realising that, this time, there was no hope of Soviet assistance. A new party hierarchy was elected.


The dissident Charter 77 playwright Vaclav Havel, released from house arrest, denounced the party re-shuffle as a trick, an attempt to cling to power. A vast crowd, eight hundred thousand strong, demanded democratic elections. Workers went out on a two-hour general strike as proof of their solidarity, bringing the entire country to a standstill. In the face of such overwhelming people power, the government gave way, abandoning the leading role of the Communist Party and opening the border with Austria.


In early December a new coalition government was formed with a majority of non-Communists, and on 5 December Civic Forum had what was called a turbulent but constructive session with the stand-in Communist Prime Minister, Ladislav Adamec, a sympathetic figure with whom it could work. The Forum had to have a negotiating partner, not wanting the demonstrations to get out of control, demanding ever more concessions from the Communists. The Party ordered its security police to cease its activities and remain in its offices until it could be disbanded. The negotiations with the government had been based on the Round Table principle, following the Polish example. The session discussed the make-up of the new Federal government. Jan Urban was sitting with several Forum people in the basement of the Magic Lantern Theatre when the government rang to ask it to name its candidate for the presidency within twenty-four hours. Soon after, the government’s position worsened, and another call came asking for the name within an hour. No-one had had time to consider this in advance, so Urban said:

I suppose it had better be Vaclav.

The others agreed.

In that case I’d better go and tell him.

At the time, Havel was annoyed. On 10 December seventy-three-year-old Gustav Husák, Communist Party leader since 1968, resigned. Free elections were held at the end of the month; in what became known as the Velvet Revolution, Dubcek was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly, and opposition leader Havel was made President. On the day of the inauguration he laughed and joked with the new foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier that the minister wouldn’t have to look after the central heating any more,  but Havel was clearly nervous, fiddling with his trouser waistband. In the Cathedral, at a mass to mark the installation of Czechoslovakia’s first non-Communist president since Eduard Benes, Havel’s wife Olga had to nudge him when it was time for him to kneel down. Later, in a television interview, he commented, I am constantly aware of the ridiculousness and absurdity of my situation.


Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account vof thge Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

2 responses to “This Week Twenty-Five Years Ago: The Velvet Revolution Succeeds, December 1989

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  1. Reblogged this on Marcus Ampe's Space and commented:
    Much too often people do forget what they can do when they all want to share the same goal.
    Having had approximately 500,000 troops attacking Czechoslovakia, it may be called a miracle that only approximately 500 Czechs and Slovaks were wounded and only 108 killed in the invasion
    It was a shame the Brezhnev Doctrine got her way and that time the people did not manage to come to more freedom, but somehow the citizens reaction to the reform attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization got her seed planted in the soil.
    Today we still bear treasures from that period when the Prague Spring inspired music and literature such as the work of Václav Havel, Karel Husa, Karel Kryl, and Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  2. It’s important for people in the US to be reminded of this. Freedom is not free.

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