This year, for the seventh time, the Czech Republic is marking November 17 -the "Day of Students' Struggle for Freedom and Democracy" - as a state holiday. Two events of great importance in Czech history have occurred on this date. In 1939 Czech students were brutally persecuted by German occupying forces; five decades later November 17 saw the state security forces in Prague intervene against a student protest, sparking a process of democratisation in Czechoslovakia that was later to become known as the Velvet Revolution.
November 17 1939
On the anniversary of the foundation of independent Czechoslovakia on October 28 1939 Czech students took to the streets to protest against the Nazi occupation. The demonstration was violently broken up, when shots were fired into the crowd. One of the student leaders, Jan Opletal, was seriously hurt and later succumbed to his injuries. His funeral became a huge demonstration against the occupiers, with thousands of Czechs taking part. A violent reaction swiftly followed. On the night of November 16 the Nazis closed down Czech universities. Soon afterwards nine students were executed and 1,200 were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Before the war had ended November 17 had been named international day of students.
November 17 1989
Exactly fifty years later, on November 17 1989, around 15,000 students gathered in Prague to honour the memory of Jan Opletal. The Communists had granted permission for a procession that would end at the national cemetery at Vysehrad.
However, the march did not break up there, and despite instructions from the police the students continued on into the centre of Prague to voice their opposition to the anti-reform policies of the Communist leadership. As the march neared the centre more and more people joined it.
However, they did not reach Wenceslas Square. The unarmed students were hemmed in by the police on Narodni trida, before the police waded in, brutally attacking them. Around 600 of the demonstrators were injured. Many Czechs were shocked by the police's brutality. The following day students at universities in the capital declared a general strike, and were soon joined by actors from Prague's theatres. On November 19 Civic Forum was established, becoming the voice of the protesters and a partner in dialogue with the Communist regime. The road to democracy had begun.