The Jingling of Keys

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Reflections on the Czechoslovak struggle for nationhood

The unpredictability of humanity, that’s the story that sticks in my mind about the political uprising in what was Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.

That and the jingling of keys.

The Czech and Slovak people had been seeking greater freedoms for many years since the Communist take-over in the wake of World War Two. Then, it seemed suddenly, freedom came.

Dubbed the Velvet Revolution or sametová revoluce, it was also known as Gentle Revolution – a non-violent transition of power that took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989.

This period of upheaval saw popular demonstrations against the one-party Communist government.

Forty one years of savage, powerful and repressive control was over.

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German troops march through Prague in World War II.

This march towards freedom started in 1968 and the Kremlin had reluctantly allowed some liberalisation.

As the Czech and Slovak people sensed their newly won freedom of speech and public demonstration would be revolutionary, that democratic processes would soon be achieved.

All that changed one night with a severe crackdown by Warsaw Pact member armies that resulted in many deaths and the imprisonment of dissidents.

Yet in the days and months that followed protests sprung up like flash fires in a number of cities.

Czechoslovakia was created as a country in its own right at the end of World War I. But then during World War II from 1939 to 1944 it was a German-controlled state.

Then the Russians took over and while the Czech and Slovak people had been seeking greater freedoms for many years since the Communist take-over, it was not until the late ’80s that it took hold.

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From what I can remember there was a key turning point as a march set out. The Russian secret service KGB had been good at predicting human behaviour.

The discussion has always centred on the KGB having infiltrated the protest movement and was trying to influence decision-making.

Agents secreted within the march were complicit in the process along with those secret police directing the march along its predicted route.

At one stage a protester appeared to have been shot. Yet the protesters remained calm and continued their march rather than respond to the apparent shooting.

Things changed. It was as if the leaders sensed they were being manipulated.

When the group, which numbered thousands, reached a pre-determined intersection, instead of turning right – as expected or influenced by the StB secret police or Russia’s KGB – someone near the head of the procession made that decision that would help change the course of history.

While the KGB could expect to predict human behaviour 90% of the time, they could not count on it all of the time. The march turned left and reached a different square, one not surrounded by KGB operatives. One in which people could demonstrate their wish to be free.

Today, standing in Wenceslas Square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, you cannot help but wonder about those days.

The square is actually a rectangle in the heart of the city, rising up the slope to the National Museum. It is the centre of business and cultural activities.

Looking over the square is a majestic statue of St Wenceslas on his horse.

All around, you are aware of how the new generation has been able to adapt to what the world has to offer.

I am speaking with Yarmilla, an economist who grew up during the Communist years.

“It was the will of the people,’’ she tells me. “We were there because we wanted to be there.

“There was so much hope.’’

While Yarmilla lived through the revolution her parents endured the entire Soviet occupation.

“It was as if they had lost 40 years of their lives.’’

Yarmilla also tells me about the jingling of keys during the protests.

That was to signify support. Yet it had a double meaning; symbolism  the unlocking of doors and was the demonstrators’ way of telling the Communists, “Goodbye, it’s time to go home”.

The Czecheslovak journey towards freedom started in The Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation that bloomed on January 5, 1968, when the reformist Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

The reforms were Dubcek’s attempt to grant additional rights to the citizens. These included loosening of restrictions on the media and speech.

This provided hope for much of the population who were seeking change; however, any reformist ideas had been brought to a halt by August 21, 1968.

On the pretext of violence against Russian interests Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, in order to put an end to the Prague Spring.

The tanks stood in front of all government buildings including the building of Czechoslovak Radio.

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In protest against the occupation, people in Prague flooded the streets and demanded from the soldiers to leave.

Wenceslas Square became the centre of demonstrations and much violence.

The Soviet Union’s action halted the pace of the reforms in Czechoslovakia and had harsh consequences for the whole nation.

Dubcek was replaced by Gustav Husak who reinforced police authorities and purged the party of its liberal representatives and intellectual elites supporting the Prague Spring.

The so-called “normalisation period” had begun.

That was until International Students Day on November 17, 1989, when riot police suppressed a student demonstration in Prague.

By November 20, the number of protesters had grown from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000.

As well as the organised mass demonstration in Wenceslas Square, actors and students travelled to factories inside and outside Prague to gain support for their colleagues in other cities.

A mass demonstration erupts in Hviezdoslav Square in downtown Bratislava. In the following days, it moves to the Square of the Slovak National Uprising.

A two-hour general strike involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia was held on November 27. The next day, in response to the collapse of other Warsaw Pact governments and the increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced that it would relinquish power and dismantle the one-party state.

Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December.

On December 10, President Gustav Husak appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned.

Alexander Dubcek was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Vaclav Havel the president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

Open questions

Some still contend that the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was staged by the Communist StB secret police.

The most contentious points were:

  • It is not clear to what extent events were spontaneous or orchestrated by the secret police. For example, the incident with the “dead student” was staged by secret police provocateur Ludvik Zifcak and assisted by other secret agents who took him to the hospital and initially disseminated the rumour.
  • The Army and People’s Militia were ready to attack the demonstrators, but did not receive orders to do so.
  • Secret police carried out surveillance on the leaders of the revolution and had the ability to arrest them. However, they did not do so and let the revolution proceed.
  • Explanations include a possible split between different factions of the Communist leadership, the collapse of communism elsewhere and the absence of the military power of the Soviet Union.

    Key points

Wenceslas I: The Duke of Bohemia from 921AD until his assassination in 935, purportedly killed on the doorstep of a church in a plot by his own brother Boleslav I. His martyrdom resulted in his sainthood. He was declared the patron of the Czech nation and is the symbol of Czech statehood.

Karel Havlicek Borovsky: A Czech poet, journalist, economist and politician who lived between 1821 and 1856. He is considered as one of the leaders of the Czech national awakening.

Alexander Dubcek: First secretary of the communist party of Czecheslovakia and went on to be prime minister of the new republic.

Vaclav Havel: Rebel playwright and human rights activist who was installed president Czecheslovakia on December 29, 1989. Famous for his V for victory sign.

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” Vaclav Havel 1936-2011

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Vaclav Havel
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