ON 26 NOVEMBER 1989, the playwright and anti-communist dissident Václav Havel addresses a demonstration at Prague’s Letná Plain during the Velvet Revolution, which ended communist rule in Czechoslaovakia. Nearly eight hundred thousand people attended the protest, which was also addressed by Ladislav Adamec, the prime minister, and Alexander Dubček, who had attempted to reform the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as its first secretary during the 1968 Prague Spring.
The seeds of revolution had been sown on 19 January, when protesters commemorating the twentieth death anniversary of Jan Palach—a university student who self-immolated in opposition to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring—were violently dispersed by the police. Protests against the communist regime continued through the year. On 17 November, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Socialist Youth Union held an officially sanctioned demonstration on International Students’ Day, which commemorates the 1939 storming of the University of Prague by the Nazis. Fifty thousand unarmed students chanted slogans demanding an end to communist rule and police brutality. As the march headed towards Prague’s Wenceslas Square, in defiance of government orders against entering the city centre, the police blocked all escape routes and beat protesters with batons. In response, daily demonstrations soon spread throughout Czechoslovakia.
Havel’s Civic Forum emerged as the voice of anti-communist dissent during the protests. It demanded a removal of politburo members involved in the 1968 invasion, an inquiry into the 17 November violence, democratic reforms and the release of all political prisoners. On 29 November, following 11 days of protests and a two-hour general strike, Adamec and the Civic Forum negotiated an end to one-party rule. (The Velvet Revolution earned its name by achieving political change without the loss of a single life.) A month later, Havel was elected president, while Dubček was elected chairman of the legislature.