The 17th of November was declared International Student’s Day in 1941 and is still commemorated – mostly at universities – all over the world. Unfortunately, almost no one knows that the events that led to it happened right here in Prague. It is the only international day that has Czech roots.
Demonstrations of 28th October 1939
What happened in 1939? Most importantly, the Czech region of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany on March 15, 1939 and the Nazis established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. When World War II broke out in September, the Czechs believed that Germany would be defeated within several months. The Protectorate was “flooded” with illegal anti-Nazi pamphlets, posters and even newspapers. On October 28, 1939, the 21st anniversary of the independence of Czechoslovakia, numerous demonstrations were held in Prague. When Karl Hermann Frank, State Undersecretary and perhaps the most powerful figure of the occupation regime visited one of the places of unrest, he was beaten and his driver was robbed.
Death and burial of Jan Opletal
The Nazis used force and shot into the crowd at several places. The crowds were dispersed and about 400 people were arrested. The bullets killed a factory worker, Václav Sedláček, and mortally wounded Jan Opletal who studied medicine at Charles University. On November 11th, Opletal died. His burial ceremony on November 15th spawned another anti-Nazi demonstration. The Germans staged some provocations and clashes emerged between the Czechs and the Nazi security forces.
Brutal Nazi response
The Nazis reacted quickly – the following day plans were approved during a conference with Hitler in Berlin and in the evening, the SS and other armed forces took the buildings of all universities in the Protectorate and arrested around 1,200 students. Nine of them were summarily executed on the morning of November 17th, the rest were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. All the Czech universities were closed – originally for three years but the order was made permanent in 1941.
The aim of the Nazis was to shock and dissuade the Czech national movement and to cripple its most radical and active citizens at that time – the students. Therefore, they selected the students (or, in some cases, university representatives) to be arrested or even executed rather randomly. One of the executed was Assistant Professor Josef Matoušek who was a Vice-Chairman of the Czech Federation for the Cooperation with the Germans. The Nazis considered Matoušek a suitable candidate for the post of Minister of Education in the Protectorate Government. There were more people loyal to the Nazis who were swept by this “shoot first, ask later” action. Despite the lack of subtlety, the measures carried the message home. Only then the Czech nation realized that the Nazis really meant to use violence. The resistance movement had not expected such determination and had to pay dearly for its naiiveté.
Of the 1,200 students, 35 (or 20 – sources differ) died in the concentration camp. The others were released in several waves (the last took place in March 1943), only after they were used to blackmail the Czechs.
Declaration of International Student’s Day
Those events were not kept secret and echoed throughout the world. In 1941, the International Student’s Council (predecessor of the International Union of Students) where many countries were represented by refugees, declared November 17th “International Student’s Day” to commemorate the victims of the period of October 28 – November 17, 1939.
From obscurity to a national holiday
After 1948, the Communists tried to downplay the significance of November 17th because their propaganda said that only the Communists were the true resistance against the Nazis. Ironically, the fall of their rule – the so-called Velvet Revolution – started on November 17, 1989. Students of universities in Prague organized a demonstration on the 50th anniversary of Nazi repression against their predecessors. Brutal beatings of the students by the police roused the nation and the communist regime ended within several weeks.
Today, we have a national holiday on November 17th (Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day), which commemorates both the events in 1939 and 1989. Today, the latter overshadows the first – but it is no wonder as it is “only” 25 years versus 75. While November 17, 1939 is perhaps overshadowed by the events of 1989, it will never be forgotten.