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The bodies of the Velvet revolution. Remembering 1989 in the Czech Republic

During the 1990s, the commemoration of November 17th 1989 was dominated by the generation of witnesses and former dissidents. Today, it is mostly in the hands of the younger generation that did not directly participate in the events of 1989; they must find other ways to formulate the significance of the commemoration.

Národní Street in Prague has become a place of commemoration of the last Czech (Czechoslovak) great historical turning point – the fall of the communist regime. On November 17th 1989 a student march was violently repressed here. This event triggered nationwide social changes leading to the fall of state socialism. The two authors of this article do not have the events of November 1989 in their living memory, yet in our teenage years, the surge of our parents’ generation was the closest one can get to the so-called “great history”.

May 2, 2019 - Čeněk Pýcha Václav Sixta - History and MemoryIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

The Velvet Carnival in 2017. Photo: Jan Hromádko / Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

Although it might seem that the current generation has not done anything that will be written into future history books, history has certainly not ended. The way the commemoration of November 17th has been changing suggests a shift in how history is understood and what the current topics of the politics of memory are.

Two levels of memory

Laying wreaths, lighting candles at a memorial plaque, showing red cards at protests against the current President, Miloš Zeman, slam poetry events, readings of Václav Havel’s works, shining torches in the hands of demonstrators calling for the resignation of the prime minister, the march of the Velvet Carnival allegorical procession, and writing messages on the wall – these are just some of the ways people in the Czech Republic in recent years have remembered the fall of state socialism. What these diverse forms of remembrance all have in common is the emphasis on their performative dimension: All who want to participate in remembrance come to Prague’s Národní Street, also because of the rich cultural programme that accompanies the celebration every year.

There are two basic ways of talking about November 1989 and memory in the Czechoslovak context. On the first level, memory was an important co-driver of the events that happened at that time and a reservoir of the symbols of the protesters. The wave of protests that occurred as early as January 1989 foreshadowed the march on November 17th where mostly students commemorated the legacy of Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire in January 1969 in protest against the occupation of the Warsaw Pact troops (August 1968). It seems that the protesters began to remember the political activity of the late 1960s and used these symbols for their own purpose. It is the commemoration of Palach’s sacrifice, which was very clearly associated with his physicality, to which the symbolic act of self-immolation strongly refers. Palach’s face became an identifiable symbol of protest.

The second level of memory was the creation of a narrative describing the changes in 1989. November 17th 1989 is often mentioned in connection with bodies – this time with the collective body of a student march that was a victim of police violence. In the end, the police beatings were acts that mobilised society and resulted in the Velvet Revolution, which, incidentally, happened without any physical violence. Given how closely the remembrance of November 17th 1989 is associated with physical experience, we have chosen the body as a metaphor that will help us understand the changes in the remembrance.

Let us now shift our attention to the present. November 17th 2018, in the afternoon. Although Národní Street is closed off because of the celebrations, there are two tram cars with numbers 39 and 89 on them at the “Národní divadlo” (National Theatre) tram stop. Inside, every half hour visitors can learn about the history of the events they are commemorating. A video shot on November 17th 1974 is playing on a screen which depicts laying wreaths at the memorial plaque with international guests in attendance. November was also commemorated in Czechoslovakia before 1989. While today the transition to democracy is at the centre of attention, in the period of socialism, commemorations focused mainly on the fight against fascism, commemoration of the student protest against the Nazi occupation in 1939 (a student named Jan Opletal died and another nine student leaders were executed, others died in concentration camps, Czech universities were closed). So at the very beginning of the commemoration there were bodies – dead bodies as the victims of Nazi violence and malevolence. The funeral of Opletal took place on November 15th 1939 and that turned into a great manifestation.

Making connections

The events of 1939 were commemorated as International Students’ Day – an international day in 1941 that was proclaimed in London in connection with the Nazi repression of students at Czech universities. This day was also remembered after the war, although it reflected the Cold War rivalry. Students and representatives of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia commemorated this holiday as a day of struggle against fascism and the suffering of Czech students and teachers. However, at least according to the media at that time, the commemoration was rather awkward, mainly conveyed by laying wreaths in memory of the victims. If there was any movement on the Students’ Day, it was in the direction of restriction against direct political references, for example, celebrating in the form of an innocent student carnival.

Today’s relationship between the two dimensions of November 17th is well illustrated by the topography of celebrations that take place on Národní Street (i.e. a place connected with police violence against students). Today, Albertov (the place of Opletal’s funeral) is the place where politicians make speeches and then move to Národní Street. There the cultural programme is attended every year by tens of thousands of people.

There have been several attempts to connect the two places. The first attempt dominated the 20th anniversary (in 2009) when the Opona society organised a march called 20 Years Without a Curtain – A Thing to Celebrate!, which followed the same route as the 1989 march. A more recent attempt was a run that followed the same route; the event is now organised annually under #runjinak by the platform Díky, že můžem (Thanks that We Can). The two events focus on 1989 (the year 1939 is not that important), but their concepts differ. While the march in 2009 focused on civil society and critical engagement, the run is an apolitical way to join the celebrations. The last major attempt to emphasise the importance of 1939 was a proposal to rename the day as “International Students’ Day and the Day of Fight for Freedom and Democracy”, which was approved by the chamber of deputies, only to be rejected in 2016 by the Czech senate.

There is also something else connected to Albertov – two commemorative plaques. The first was unveiled in 2006 and has the simple inscription: “When – if not now, Who – if not us?” and the date November 17th 1989. It is a quote from one of the student banners in 1989 at the meeting in Albertov. The second commemorative plaque was placed directly across the street in 2014. The dates November 17th 1989 – November 17th 2014 are engraved on it together with the explanation: “25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the march of students of Prague universities from Albertov to Národní Street.” This plaque is dedicated to “all the brave citizens of our country who were not afraid to express their opinion and fight for freedom and democracy”, and was unveiled by the presidents of the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia to mark the 25th anniversary.

Although a commemorative plaque is always a reflection of the official celebration and politics of memory, it is clear the two versions point to different aspects of remembrance. While the plaque commemorating the 25th anniversary will soon become outdated (although it is the more recent one), the plaque that only bears a simple inscription is far more likely to survive because it can be interpreted in different ways. The simpler plaque calls for more activity, and the inscription can be updated by one’s own political activity. This is one of the dominant symbols of how November 17th 1989 is commemorated today – a call for civic engagement. If we were to refer again to the physical aspects of remembrance, the newer plaque is rather static and refers to the so-called laying of wreaths, while the older one’s inscription can be perceived as a call for action, not just physical movement. However the question remains: what should this engagement look like?

Link to the past

Last year’s protests against the current politicians were on such scale that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who faces allegations of co-operation with the Communist State Security, chose to lay a flower on Národní Street in the early morning hours. Zeman decided not to come at all. Yet both of them were attacked – at least symbolically – because the flowers they had laid were thrown into the bin by protesters, an act that was investigated by the police. In this way, in the minds of some of the participants in memory acts, the two politicians became a symbol that links to the dismal past. Throwing flowers away could have been seen as act that is more in line with the police violence in 1989, rather than active political action. The group that has organised the Velvet Carnival (Sametové posvícení) since 2012 works with political symbols in a more sophisticated way. The Czech word posvícení refers to a church consecration ceremony – so November 17th 1989 is a metaphor for the consecration of a new regime. Thus the Velvet Carnival is both an opportunity to celebrate and to criticise the present situation, when everything is overturned in the carnivalesque sense. There were masks present in the procession that are caricatures of politicians and the current political scandals along with various forms of social inequality. The body is present here wearing masks. Unlike bowing to buried bodies, the carnival bodies are a symbol of active life and political engagement. In this sense, mockery does not equal violence; rather it is a call for dialogue.

Looking back at the various forms of commemoration, we can thus distinguish between political and apolitical forms of engagement. We may ask whether the November 17th events or the particular commemorative acts (e.g. organising a run, a speech, lighting a candle, a concert, etc.) is a particular political demonstration, or a cultural celebration that puts the current political topics of today out of sight.

Important division

Let us turn back to three decades ago. It was 1989, on a rainy day in the town of Most in Northern Bohemia. A group of students are trying to persuade the local miners to join the general strike in response to the violent crackdowns on the students on Národní Street. The hostile expressions on the miners’ faces clearly show that the situation is heading towards a conflict rather than an agreement. To the question “what was the government’s greatest mistake?” the group of miners respond: “That it was too soft.” A scene from the film Něžná revoluce (A Tender Revolution), directed by Jiří Střecha and Petr Slavík in 1989, clearly shows that acceptance of the revolutionary ideals outside its centre in Prague could by no means be taken for granted. Every year, crowds walk through the centre of Prague to commemorate November 17th 1989. We can also ask how do these miners spend this day? What did the regime change for them and their children?

This picture has its counterpart in events that already happened between November 8th and 11th 1989 in the same region of Teplice. In that period, hundreds – and later thousands – of people gathered to protest against the disastrous air pollution, and through a petition they forced the city leaders and representatives of the communist party to negotiate with them. The negotiation took place on November 20th, but under the influence of the Prague events, its content went far beyond air pollution in the local region. Nevertheless, here too the physical dimensions of the protest came to the fore, when the protesters were no longer willing to accept the serious effects the poor state of the environment had on their bodies.

The tension between the local and the national (Prague and the regions) is one of the central themes that links the years 1989 and 2019. Indeed, historian James Krapfl (author of Revolution with a Human Face, 2013) has shown that the key actors in the early days of the revolution were the local leaders of the Civic Forum, who collected ideas from citizens, organised protests and negotiated with representatives of the local authorities. He has referred to the period between November 17th and November 27th 1989 as a time of a true bottom-up mobilisation in most of Czechoslovakia. Neither this mobilisation, nor its main actors are much commemorated today, and the same is true for the problems that border regions face now.

The fact that local activists would neither have their voices heard nor be recognised at the national level could already be seen at the national congress of the Civic Forum that took place on December 23rd 1989 where two-thirds of the 92 delegates were hailed from Prague. Krapfl then links the disappointment of the local activists with the departure of the ideals of the revolution, which, according to him, is symbolised by two post-November politicians, Václav Klaus (the Czech Republic) and Vladimír Mečiar (the Slovak Republic). The miners from Most and the organisers of the mass mobilisation of the Czechoslovak population, in the first phase of the revolution, represent the bodies that are excluded from today’s celebrations, namely, those who stand on the margins.

Next generation of commemorations

During the 1990s, the commemoration of November 17th 1989 was dominated by the generation of witnesses and former dissidents. Today, it is mostly in the hands of the younger generation that did not directly participate in the events of 1989; they must find other ways to formulate the significance of the commemoration. If we want to look at contemporary remembrance from a distance, we have to remember that even our own bodies become part of particular commemorative acts.

We should think about what part of our bodies do we want to become during the celebrations – is it the static body, recognising the victims of violence in the past, but not going any further? Another option is to take seriously the call for action that should not be only limited to one day a year. It is also important to have one’s own movement under control so that it does not turn into violence, like the case of throwing away flowers or throwing eggs at politicians.

After all, non-violence associated with regime change in Czechoslovakia is still the major legacy of the Velvet Revolution, which was triggered by a violent act. But this act was eventually transformed into an activity that led to change. The insight into both the history and commemoration of November 17th 1989 leads us to the conclusion that one of the central issues of the current anniversary should be a focus on the incorporation of the currently excluded bodies into the discussion surrounding 1989.

Čeněk Pýcha is a historian and media theorist. He works at the education department of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. He is co-author of the educational website http://socialismrealised.eu.

Václav Sixta is a historian and educator specialising in contemporary history and its commemoration at the education department of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

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