November 17th is not at all just an ordinary day in the Czech Republic. It is a very important day for Czechs not only for one but for two reasons.
The original event that 17 November commemorated was the resistance of student demonstrators in 1939 to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Initially, a student named Jan Opletal was shot in a protest and died on 11 November.
His funeral, attended by thousands of students, turned into another anti-Nazi demonstration.
Students tore down the German street signs, which symbolized the humiliation of the Nazi occupation. This provoked the Nazis so much that on November 17 they ordered to close all Czech universities and colleges.
One witness to those events said that the Gestapo and German soldiers had swept into student dorms in Prague, Brno, and Příbram, and dragged students off to Ruzyně prison. Nine student leaders were murdered by the Nazis and more than 1,000 sent to concentration camps.
As a result of these tragedies, in 1941, the 17th of November was marked as International Students’ Day. Fifty years later, on November 17, 1989, history would repeat itself.
Fifty years after such oppression, in 1989, Czech students organized a demonstration to commemorate the student martyr Jan Opletal and the International Students Day. It started off as an officially-sanctioned march but turned quickly into a demonstration demanding the resignation of the country’s communist government. Students were brutally beaten by riot police.
At least 167 people were injured. One student was reportedly beaten to death, and – although this was later proved false – this rumor served to crystalize support for the students and their demands among the general public. A number of workers’ unions immediately joined the students’ cause.
This demonstration, which took place on November 17, 1989, is believed to have sparked the Velvet Revolution which eventually led to the freedom of the Czech people.
During the Velvet Revolution from Saturday, November 18th, until the general strike of November 27th, mass demonstrations took place in the main cities.
Massive demonstrations of almost 750,000 people at Letna Park in Prague on November 25 and 26 and the general strike on the 27th were devastating for the communist regime.
With the growing street protests and with other communist regimes falling around, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia finally announced on November 28 they would step out.
A memorial was built on Národní třída (Avenue of the Nation) in Prague to remember the Velvet Revolution and the students who started it.