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The fall of Communism

In November 1989, the English writer Timothy Garton Ash remarked to the leading Czech dissident Vaclav Havel that ‘in Poland it took 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in the GDR ten weeks, perhaps it will take 10 days here in Czechoslovakia?' The revolution did, in fact, take a little longer, but the pace of change was remarkable nonetheless. Even though the former leader, Husák was replaced by the younger Milos Jakes, with Gorbachev's support, the new leader still did all he could to block potential reforms, rejecting perestroika and using brutal force to block even the smallest signs of opposition. While members of the opposition in East Germany openly mocked Gorbachev, the attitude of the opposition in Czechoslovakia was rather more reserved.

Thus, the repression and violence continued. In August 1988, the police brutally dispersed small demonstrations commemorating the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In January 1989, a demonstration in Prague in honour of Jan Palach was also brutally dispersed by the militia. Among those arrested and sentenced were Vaclav Havel, Sasha Vondra and other activists who were nevertheless released from prison early in May. On 28 October, the anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, the militia once again beat up demonstrators in Prague-for the seventh time in recent months. Originally, there were not many people participating in these demonstrations, but then the fall of the Berlin Wall changed everything. People felt that their power had grown, while the authorities felt that theirs had weakened. Accordingly, the number of demonstrations taking place in November suddenly increased to a point where the riot police could no longer control the situation.

On 17 November, during a demonstration by law students commemorating the victim of Nazi occupation Jan Opletal, the unprecedented crowd of 50,000 students diverted their course towards the city centre, where they were assaulted by the security police, leaving 592 people injured. A rumour soon spread that one of the students had died at the hands of the militia. Although this ultimately turned out to be untrue, the story provoked major anti-government demonstrations over the next few days. Only now we know that the "death" of the student was actually a provocation of the Czech secret service, which just got out of control. On 19 November 1989, a free association called the Civic Forum was set up on the initiative of Vaclav Havel and moved its improvised headquarter to the ‘Laterna magica' theatre. On 21 November, the leaders of the Civic Forum addressed a crowd some 200,000 strong for the first time in Wenceslas Square, calling on people to take part in a general strike on 27 November if the authorities did not respond to their demands. On 22 November 1989 more as 100 000 people gathered to the demonstration in Slovak capital, Bratislava, where parallel organization to Civic Forum is created "Society against Agression".

On 23 November, 300,000 people gathered in Prague's Vaclav Square demanding a new government and democratic freedoms. This was simply too much for the government to handle and it fell to pieces. The workers' militia ordered to Prague just melted away. Only the army leadership appeared prepared to stand by the regime, reaffirming their support for Communism and their rejection of the protest demonstrations, while continuing to plan military intervention and the seizure of media installations and military. Nevertheless, the beleaguered government did not have the stomach for a Tiananmen-style bloodbath and it was not, in any case, as if the troops would really fight against their own people. As a result, the Communist regime just collapsed within a matter of days. On 27 November, the opposition demonstrated its power with a successful 2-hour general warning strike. Jakes left office, however, the new Communist leader, Ladislav Adamec, was no more popular than his predecessor had been. When he tried to put together a government in which the Communists still constituted a majority, his proposal was rejected by an increasingly mobilised population and had to be replaced by a government that was equally balanced between the Communists and the Civic Forum. On 10 December, Gustav Husák resigned the state presidency and on 19 December, Vaclav Havel was elected the President of Czechoslovakia.