By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
The Soviet Union had lost more than 25 million people and suffered billions of dollars of damage during World War II. Therefore, it resolved to erect a buffer zone along its borders. Determined to have friendly governments in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin worked to install communist leaders.
Communist Control after World War II
In the words of Winston Churchill, “an iron curtain [had] descended across the continent”. Eastern European states called themselves “people’s democracies”, but they were one-party dictatorships. Their constitutions offered basic freedoms and civil liberties only so long as such rights didn’t conflict with what controlling authorities determined was in the states’ best interests.
A key factor in maintaining communist control was an authoritarian system of justice. This included expansive secret police networks that were quite adept at suppressing opposition. Information was censored, and travel was regulated. Eastern Europeans were able to get around within the Soviet bloc, but passage to capitalist Western democracies was much more difficult.
By 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had succeeded Joseph Stalin as the leader of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev predicated much of his authority on abandoning the repression of the Stalinist past. His denunciations of Stalin inspired some Eastern Europeans to imagine that they could exercise some greater independence from Moscow.
But when Poland named an alleged reformer, Wladyslaw Gomulka, to the position of general secretary, Soviet leaders immediately flew to Warsaw. In exchange for the promise to retain the communist system and loyalty to Moscow, the Soviets did grant Poland slightly more latitude.
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Czech Protests against Communist Leaders
In December 1988—in a speech at the United Nations—Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union was unilaterally cutting its forces in Eastern Europe by 500,000 troops and withdrawing six tank divisions.
But in removing the threat of force in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev had made it possible for one Soviet domino after another to come crashing down. The whirlwind dissolved communist control in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany but had no immediate effect on Czechoslovakia.
Throughout much of the year, Czech security police had repeatedly used force against peaceful demonstrators. On November 17, 1989, an approved student march to commemorate Czech students killed by Nazis 50 years earlier evolved into a more contemporary protest.
Peaceful Protests at Wenceslas Square
Security forces confronted the procession. Many demonstrators held up their hands to show they were unarmed. But the police used clubs to beat women, children, and men alike. Unbowed, the students kept up their protest, and they were joined by a cross-section of society. Vaclav Havel, the veteran of Charter 77, and other dissidents held daily political meetings in Prague’s theaters, while others, from all walks of life, gathered in the historic Wenceslas Square.
An independent Czechoslovakia was announced in the square in October 1918. And it was at the foot of the majestic St. Wenceslas statue that young people gathered in the magical year of 1968, hoping to reform socialism. But the crowds in November of 1989 exceeded any that preceded them
Every day since the students had been attacked on November 17, the citizens of Prague descended on Wenceslas Square in a peaceful show of solidarity. They waved flags and sang songs of freedom. And unlike Friday the 17th, the state’s security forces left them alone. And so, the crowds grew.
Different Generations, One Goal
Over the course of the week, various opposition activists spoke to the crowds from the balcony of a socialist publishing house that overlooked the square. These speakers often arrived straight from the Magic Lantern Theater just 100 yards away, where Havel and others had made their revolutionary headquarters. With each passing speaker and each passing day, it became clear that the revolution in Czechoslovakia was underway.
By November 24, more than 200,000 people had flooded Wenceslas Square. That evening Alexander Dubček, the legendary figure from the Prague Spring, appeared on the speakers’ balcony. The crowd erupted with approval, thunderously chanting his name. TV cameras beamed the scene around the country.
Dubček’s presence signaled that the long march towards freedom in Czechoslovakia was finally at hand. Vaclav Havel followed: One revolutionary generation linked to another. One week after the first demonstration ended in violence, the communist party’s entire central committee resigned. It was November, but spring had arrived at last.
The Velvet Revolution
Over that weekend, nearly a million people filled Prague’s Letná plain—a hill overlooking Prague—to call for democratic reforms. And on Monday, November 27, a general strike paralyzed the city as the people demanded free elections.
Over the next few weeks, the communist party’s prescribed leading role was stricken from the constitution, borders with Austria and West Germany were opened, and Havel became president. After the police attack on November 17, no violence interrupted the people’s peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia. It was so smooth, so peaceful, it became known as the Velvet Revolution.
Common Questions about the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia
Nikita Khrushchev was Joseph Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader. He didn’t believe in the repression of the Stalinist past and denounced Stalin. This gave many Eastern European countries more courage to speak freely.
The aim of the student march was to commemorate the deaths of students at the hands of Nazis 50 years earlier. But the march turned into a protest of contemporary issues. The protestors marched towards Prague’s Wenceslas Square and were confronted by security forces. They were beaten by the security forces even when they showed they had come in peace.
Since that confrontation, citizens of Prague went to Wenceslas Square every day and sang songs of freedom while waving flags. The security forces didn’t do anything in the subsequent days. After Friday the 17th, the revolution was a peaceful one unbothered by security forces, nicknaming it the Velvet Revolution.