• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
So begins a walking tour with Vladimir Hanzel, following the route of the historic students’ march in Prague on Nov. 17, 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This march was the first event of the country’s so-called Velvet Revolution that led to the end of Communism here. Mr. Hanzel, a music journalist by profession at the time, had earlier that year become personal secretary to Václav Havel, who would become the last president of Czechoslovakia. Hanzel had participated in demonstrations before, but this one amazed him – not only in size but for its youthful faces.
About 10,000 people began the rally. Five thousand made the decision to push toward the city center. “Demonstrators were shouting, ‘Czechs, join with us!’ and people in pubs, cafes, even apartments, they could hear it and they really came to us and the number kept growing,” Hanzel said.
People came to windows and balconies to wave and show their support as the mass of people made its way along the Vltava River, past the National Theater, and on to Národní Street, where rows of riot police blocked the way. Students passively met commands to turn around by offering flowers. The police responded with beatings. Nearly 170 people were injured. A short six weeks later, the regime had fallen and playwright Václav Havel was elected by parliament as the new president.
With Communist governments toppling around them, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev encouraging reform, change was in the air. Hanzel says he believes the regime would have fallen eventually.
Today, just two small plaques commemorate where the march began and finished. And even Hanzel is surprised by details when he reads his diary from that time. He doesn’t think anyone who showed up that Friday night 20 years ago could comprehend how their evening would end. “I don’t think anyone knew that at the end of this march would be the start of the end of the regime.”