For many expats living here in the Czech Republic, it is a struggle to adjust to the new routine of national holidays, different from those we know growing up in the US or the UK. One day, you wake up expecting a normal day, but when you walk outside, all the stores are closed, the trams and buses run on holiday schedules, and everyone you know is already out celebrating.
Out of all of these holidays, perhaps one most important here in the Czech Lands is the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day on November 17th, which commemorates two separate events that took place on the same day— the 1939 student protest against Nazi occupation and the beginnings of the 1989 protests against the totalitarian government of Czechoslovakia—events that are as patriotic and important to Czechs as the 4th of July is to Americans.
On November 17th 1939, months after the Nazi Germany army invaded the non-German part of Czechoslovakia, Czech students protested the occupation and its racist policies. The Nazi response was quick and vicious—troops opened fire upon the demonstrators, the leaders of the demonstration were quickly executed, dozens of Czechs were sent to the concentration camps, and Czech universities were closed for the rest of the war.
This tragedy served as inspiration in 1989, when 15,000 students gathered in Prague to demonstrate against the Communist government. When the peaceful demonstration was broken up by the riot police and students were beaten, Czech and Slovak students and theatres went on strike. The Velvet Revolution (as we now know it) had begun; over the course of the next 11 days, the students and actors were joined by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Czechs and Slovaks supporting the students’ demands. At the revolution’s peak, nearly 800,000 protestors demonstrated in Prague, filling the streets around Wenceslaus Square and Letná.
After 11 days of protests, the Communist government finally gave in to the students demands and allowed for free elections. The famous Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel wins the elections to become the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia in 41 years.
Unlike many state holidays where people use the day off as an excuse to drink and be merry, November 17th is holiday when, instead of celebrating, many Czechs use the day to exercise their right to protest. In Prague, many people gather on Wenceslaus Square with signs, costumes, in groups or alone, in order to voice their concerns. Parents often bring their children to show them where they were when the 1989 protests began, or how important it is to make their voices heard politically.
This is not to say that Czechs don’t celebrate this holiday without a beer or two. Expats may find may old dissidents gathered in their favorite pubs around the center, reliving the days of 1989 with a cold pivo and swapping stories about running from the police with friends and neighbors.
So happy 17th November to you!
Your Team of PraguExpats