1989 – Regime Collapse

Over the course of 1989, the communist regimes in Europe started to collapse. Although the changes progressed more slowly in Czechoslovakia, the steadily strengthening protests culminated in a student demonstration in November.

The so-called Velvet Revolution began at an authorised student demonstration assembled to commemorate the student victims of Nazi repression in 1939. The official student representatives were joined by radical student democracy groups. Police intervention against this student demonstration surprisingly initiated a wave of dissent throughout the general population, which not only swept away the leaders of the Communist Party and state, but also led to the collapse of the constitutionally guaranteed rule of the Communist Party in 1989 and its replacement in parliament and government with representatives of the constituent opposition. It meant the fall of the communist regime and the pluralisation of social life.

Czechoslovakia and East Germany were economically the most powerful states in the Eastern bloc, with only isolated expressions of dissent (see Normalisation – Dissidents). At the same time, together with East Germany and Romania, Czechoslovakia had one of the most rigid regimes in the 1970s and 80s. Paradoxically, Czechoslovakia thus became more conservative, and, at the end of the 1980s, even more repressive than the centre itself, the Soviet Union. During the mid-1980s, under the policy of perestroika, the Soviet Union, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, to some extent opened up its economic, social and even political sphere to civic activities and revised the Brezhnev Doctrine. This change led to liberalisation in other countries under its influence. Due to the economic crisis, a tense situation arose in Poland and Hungary in particular, placing social pressure on the respective governments. As a result, these countries were then forced to accept semi-legal political opposition and slight changes to their economic systems. The Czechoslovak Communist Party, on the other hand, held fast to its positions and its political and economic monopoly. It only began to attempt very slow and superficial top-down reforms due to incentives from the Soviet Union. However, it did not find wider support for them. Citizen distrust and lack of will to make changes proved that the arrangement based on the collaborative “Lessons from the Crisis”, which defined the occupation as helpful (see 1968 – Invasion), was not sustainable.

Conditions suitable for a revolutionary situation gradually started to form at the start of 1989, when the dissident movement, which had been repressed and isolated by the state apparatus, joined the strengthening civil activities. A series of reminders of the occupation and an unfavourable ecological situation then triggered larger public protests, with an unclear programme for the time being (see The Kid and the Housekeeper). The nervous communist leadership did not make any significant concessions and suppressed demonstrations by force, punishing the organisers through various social or economic repurcussions or with criminal charges. The actual trigger for the wider-reaching series of protests constituting the “Velvet Revolution” was the crackdown by the combined forces of the secret and uniformed police against the student demonstration on Národní třída in Prague on 17 November 1989. Neither the Communist Party leadership nor the state apparatus were prepared for the subsequent rapid developments or the struggle with the fledgling opposition. The Communist Party continued its ideological work (see Letter to the Editor) and even began clashing with its supposed supporters (see We are not children!), in this case the workers of a machining factory. Meanwhile, mobilised groups of students and the new civil activists tried with mixed results to involve more sections of the population (see Revolution in the Regions). A successful general strike, mass demonstrations, and the creation of a broad opposition movement called the Civic Forum then brought a forced compromise leading to the relatively rapid collapse of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakias power monopoly. The symbolic turning point then came with the election of the leader of the nascent opposition, the dissident Václav Havel, in December 1989. This transformation culminated in the first fair elections in June 1990, in which the Communist Party was clearly defeated.

Recommended literature:

Here when we need them
Letter to the editor
One-sided fight
Revolution in the regions

The kid and the housekeeper
We are not children