Prague in November – always cold and gray. Except for November 17, when there is a warm chill atmosphere, no matter the weather. The casual smiles and the crowds of students have a special flavour today.
Prague celebrates its national day. Prague celebrates the international student day. Both celebrations are very much geopolitical. Five decades apart, in 1939 and 1989, November 17 played an important role in setting the European future.
In 1939, after Nazi Germany decided to close Czech universities for three years in response to the Oct. 28 protests the same year, on the night between Nov. 16 – Nov. 17, the Nazi security forces carried out raids in Prague, Brno and Pribam in an effort to capture and execute the leaders of the student organizations and arrest other members. Nine students were executed without trial and 1200 arrested and put in concentration camps. Only 35 survived the camps. To honor the students’ sacrifice, three years later, in 1941, the International Student Council has adopted the so called Statement of Allied Students on Nov. 17, which was declared the International Student Day.
In 1989, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Nazi repression turned into a demonstration against the communist regime. The students from Prague universities gathered at Albertova in the afternoon of Nov. 17 and at around 4PM they started singing Gaudeamus Igitur – the academic anthem that is usually opening the university year. The group of about 500 persons grew into thousands and even tens of thousands (the State Security documents speak of 15ooo persons). Their demonstration was the trigger of a larger protest that went on into the night, the first step into the making of the Velvet Revolution.
Czechia’s Nov. 17 national holiday, initially named „The Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy” is since 2016 named „The Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy and International Student Day”, to reference the events in 1939 as well. And it makes sense. I bet all of us were thinking about the freedom of our student days as we read that title… 🙂
In May, when I was in Prague as a visiting professor at Charles University, historical photos from the various students’ demonstrations were highlighted in an open gallery set in the park nearby the May Day Bridge over Vltava. Today, I am here to discuss about the geoeconomic challenges that the world faces as a keynote speaker for the Charles University geopolitical conference.
And all I can think about is how education is the key constant, the key driver for our lives, our society – the key ingredient for development. Both a challenge and a hope for the future. Just like freedom.