Twenty-five years ago, On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and that’s what most Americans remember about the beginning of the end of Communist control in Eastern Europe.
A week later, demonstrations started in Bratislava. On November 17, high school and university students began protesting in Prague. Over the next few days, demonstrations sprang up all over Czechoslovakia, and as many as 500,000 protestors had banded together in Prague. Keep in mind that the current population of Prague is only about a 1.2 million. On November 27, the top dogs of the Communist party in Czechoslovakia all resigned. By the end of December, walls and fences had been torn down along the borders with Germany and Austria, parts of the constitution had been changed, and Vaclav Havel had been elected president of the first democratic government since the war.
Not a single person died. And thus comes the name: the Velvet Revolution.
Today is a public holiday here in the Czech Republic, where I’m living. There’s a party down in the park later, special programs on TV, and I just heard sametová (the word for velvet) on the radio.
Last week, one of my classes had an assignment to bring in a photo that was important to them and describe what was happening in it. I assumed they’d bring family photos. Out of six students, four for them brought pictures of the Velvet Revolution: flag-waving protestors, peaceful demonstrations, Vaclav Havel before he became president. They told me how the crowds had grown and grown, and how the masses sang for freedom. Out of those six students, only one remembers the Velvet Revolution. The rest weren’t even born yet. Still, it holds an important place in their hearts.
In another class, I asked if anyone there remembered. One student raised her hand. “I was in university,” she said. “I went to the demonstrations. In the middle of it, I didn’t believe things would change.” But they did.
And now my older students—who once had to do gas-mask drills in school, just in case the Americans attacked—have me for a teacher. Sometimes words and songs and hands without weapons can change the world.