November 17 is not just a national holiday. It is a reminder of freedom and democracy, which is not taken for granted
It was the students who, in the chilly autumn weather, brought tens of thousands of people into the streets of former Czechoslovakia. They showed unprecedented courage and determination to live differently after 40 years of totalitarian rule. Dignified and, above all, free.
The revolutionary events at the end of 1989 were sparked by a gathering of approximately 15,000 Czech and Slovak students in the university district at Prague's Albertov. It took place on November 17, 1989. The chosen date, which later shaped our modern history, was not arbitrary. They came to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of medical student Jan Opletal. His tragic death pointed to another significant historical event, again connected with the immense courage of the young generation.
International Students' Day
Jan Opletal was fatally injured by Nazi German forces during a student demonstration against the German Nazi occupation. Opletal's death triggered a wave of further protests, which were brutally suppressed by Nazi Germany. Subsequent events led to the execution of nine students, with more than 1,200 others deported to newly established concentration camps.
The tragic events were concluded by the then Reich Protector Konstantin Von Neurath, who decided on November 17, 1939, to close all Czech universities and dormitories. The day of Jan Opletal's funeral was set as International Students' Day in London in 1942.
A Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy
Opletal's message was not forgotten during more than 40 years of repression under the communist regime. The assembly on November 17, 1989, expanded from the original 15,000 to 50,000 students. The crowd carried national flags, chanted demands for the observance of human rights, and called for the resignation of communist politicians. The peaceful demonstration was brutally suppressed by the State Security. Hundreds were injured. The brutal intervention sparked an outraged reaction throughout society, leading to further, much larger demonstrations and strikes across Czechoslovakia. The sequence of events culminated in the fall of the communist government in December 1989 and the first free elections in June 1990.
It is no coincidence that the International Students' Day, celebrated today on November 17, is also the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy. In key historical moments, it was the students who bravely stood against evil in various forms," says Katarína Slobodová Nováková, the rector of the University of St. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava. She urges students to be proud bearers of democratic values and to use education to shape positive societal changes, following the example of their older colleagues. "Let them never forget that freedom is not taken for granted, even in the 21st century in many countries," she adds.