On Thursday November 21st, at noon, students of Prague and elsewhere left the premises they had been occupying for four days, or in some cases longer. This action was the focus of a nation-wide ferment of resistance to policies of collaboration with the invader. A new phase of the struggle had started. But how did the students’ sit-in strike come about? Why was it such a surprise for all observers? And why, despite the inevitable deficiencies, was it so successful? Let us try to find some of the answers.
The whole country had been feeling sick. It was the third month since the invasion, the old popular leaders were still the same, but the confidence people used to have in them, the blind unquestioning confidence in them as individuals, started to wither away. The Moscow agreement on the ‘temporary’ stationing of foreign troops created the first doubts. Then the freedom of the press was further restricted. The most popular weeklies, Reporter and Politika, were stopped in November. Travelling abroad was to be made more difficult. In one sphere alone the policy of the pre-invasion period was allowed to continue without hindrance: the revisions of economic structure which the Russians had supposedly intervened to forestall. (The projected Employees’ Councils did fail to appear though). And to sum it all up, Gustav Husák, the Slovak party leader, voiced his theory on ‘the two periods of deformations in the party’—one before January 1968 and one after that date. In short, the leaders were making one compromise after another, and indeed it was not quite clear what they were forced to do and what was their own initiative.
The plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was scheduled for November 14th, and many people expected that things would be clarified there. It was expected that somebody would be calling a spade a spade—though it remained unclear who that somebody would be. The way in which the session had been postponed from week to week, and eventually from month to month, suggested a great tug-of-war behind the scenes, but details of this only rarely leaked out. Indeed anything was possible, from a wide offensive on the part of the activized and well-organized conservative forces to a consolidation by Dubcek and the centrists.
Young people had been continuously warned about the possible consequences of action in the streets. It was said that this could even bring the Russian troops back into the cities. But on October 28th, the 50th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic, crowds of teenagers spontaneously swarmed through the streets without anything happening.
Thus, in the second week of November, the prevailing atmosphere was one of expectation. Resolutions from all over the country were pouring into the Central Committee in support of the post-January political trend—but people had the bitter feeling that not much attention would be paid to them. This feeling certainly did not help to decrease the anxiety. And on the 17th students were to celebrate their International Students Day—the 38th anniversary of Czech Universities being closed down by the Nazis. What would the students do? Would they give in and endeavour merely to ‘survive’, as so many others in the country had done? We all vividly recalled how it had been, only a year ago, after the Strahov demonstration: everybody agitated at the brutality of the police, all authorities scared of another students’ appearance in the streets, and a helicopter circling round the University quarter of Prague. Now, however, things were different.
One thing was quite clear. We did not intend to be complicit with the course of events that had started to prevail in Czechoslovakia. We were determined to show in one way or another our opposition to what we call ‘the policy of the lesser evil’—‘the policy of concessions’. We were determined to carry on resistance. November 17th was clearly a marvellous opportunity, particularly in view of the Central Committee session which we expected to conclude just about then. We decided to go into action, into an action co-ordinated at least on the Prague level.
The idea actually sprung up from several sides. The radical faction among the Prague students started studying the possibilities of a demonstration as early as the beginning of November. Soon after, we heard from colleagues from Nitra in Central Slovakia, about their plan for a long-term strike in support of 15 points of theirs. These points corresponded to what we had wanted on the day of invasion—immediate convocation of the fourteenth party congress, the opening of discussion on the total withdrawal of troops, a ban on all illegal activity by the foreign forces, the removal of the neo-Stalinist bureaucrats, etc. Roughly at the same time preparations for a march through the cities, to commemorate the victims of 1939 and ‘all victims in the struggle for freedom of thought,’ were going on in several towns of Bohemia and Moravia, particularly in Liberec and Brno.