Ever since 1941’s conference of the International Students’ Council in London, the world commemorates students’ assets as well as sacrifices on 17 November’s International Students’ Day. History remembers many students’ protests that inspired nations to stand up against various flaws or unfairness of the systems, such as the anti-Nazi protests in Prague (1939), the Athens Polytechnic Uprising against the Greek military junta (1973) or the student demonstrations that triggered the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (1989). The usual reaction of the totalitarian governments is self-defence, and instead of dialogue, they don’t hesitate to use police violence against the protesters.
Unfortunately, in some cases, even the democratic governments’ reactions to protests don’t exactly come across as listening to their peoples’ concerns and calls for a better future. For example, the recent arrests of environmental activists or allowing the use of rubber bullets against the protesters during the student demonstration in London (9 November 2011) doesn’t look entirely indifferent to the tactics the totalitarian regime would deploy. Except for these similarities with the actions of dictatorship regimes, both of these examples are further symbolising the fact how our governments ignore the calls of young people to be able to affect their future. Our future.
One of the few successful instances of students’ demands being answered was the Velvet Revolution which led to the fall of Communism in former Czechoslovakia. Following massive protests that begun on 17 November in Prague, 11 days later the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced that it was changing the constitution, in order to relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. In practice, this spelt the end of the totalitarian regime in the country.
The barbed wire and heavy military presence were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria. On 29 December 1989, Václav Havel became the first democratic President of Czechoslovakia since the 1948 communist putsch. The central role played by the students during those events consisted of promoting and organising the meetings of the illegal opposition. Students also organised a decisive march on November 17 that consequently triggered the whole revolution. The official reason for this particular march was to commemorate International Students Day.
The historical paradox is that this annual event has its origins in Prague. It was first established by the International Students’ Council in London in 1941. The original occasion was to commemorate the anniversary of 1939’s brutal Nazi attack on the University of Prague. The funeral procession of the student Jan Opletal, who was killed by Nazis during an earlier demonstration, took place on the 17th of November 1939. The consequent clashes with Nazi occupiers turned this event into an anti-Nazi demonstration. The drastic measures taken by Nazis resulted in the execution of nine student leaders; over 1200 students were sent to concentration camps and all Czech universities were shut down.
Athens Polytechnic University
17 November is also well remembered in Greece because of the events that took place at Athens Polytechnic University in 1973. In protest against the Greek military junta (1967-1974), the students; or “Free Besieged” as they called themselves; barricaded themselves at the university’s campus and begun to broadcast the following message across Athens: “Here is Polytechneion! People of Greece, the Polytechneion is the flag bearer of our struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy!”
The student rebellion begun on November 14, 1973, ended 3 days later in bloodshed when a tank crashed through the gates of the University. Although the military rule ceased to exist 8 months later, in July 1974, the student uprising is praised by many as a symbol of resistance to tyranny.
Past, present and the future
Athens Polytechnic Uprising and Prague’s march are one of few examples where students, directly or indirectly triggered movements that successfully overturned a corrupt system. Today, 30+ years after the march which triggered the Velvet Revolution, many things are different. Following the “Velvet Divorce” in 1993, democratic Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and since then both, Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the NATO and European Union to enjoy the stability and prosperity of the Western Bloc.
The general values the students in Athens, Prague, London and many other cities stood up for throughout our history however still appear to be present. In other words, students are still the leading force in questioning various controversial policies introduced by our governments. Whether it’s the 2011’s Occupy Movement tackling the economic elite, unequal wages and lack of opportunities in or the current Extinction Rebellion fighting for the environment, the eternal student fight goes on.
Even though, unlike in Prague ’89 or Athens ’73, the 2011’s Occupy Movement or the current environmental protesters do not demand a change of the political system. There are however many common ideas those movements have in common. They all emerged from young peoples’ concerns about our future. They all demand fairness and the say of the majority as well as the protection of the public interests from the ignorance and greed of the unelected few in powerful positions.
© this article features photos by: BBC, Reuters Greek Reporter and The National.