Freedom and Democracy Day 2018 and 2019
Freedom and Democracy Day, more formally “Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day,” is a public holiday in Czech Republic.
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The holiday comes every November 17th and commemorates two specific events in the long struggle of the Czech people for a free, democratic society. It also stands for all of their past struggles for freedom in general, however, and is among the most celebrated of all Czech holidays.
The original event that November 17th commemorated was the resistance of student demonstrators in 1939 to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Initially, a student named Jan Opletal was shot in a protest and died on November 11th. His funeral on November 15th, however, became the occasion for more protests. By the 17th, there were thousands of protesters. In response, Nazi police shot down nine of the leaders dead, sent 1,200 of the protesters to concentration camps, and closed all Czech colleges for three years.
On the 50th anniversary of the original protest, November 17th, 1989, Czech students again demonstrated against oppression, this time of the Soviet-backed, Communist government of Czechoslovakia. As the protests grew, police began to beat students to subdue them, but this only caused the crowds to swell. By November 20th, the number had reached half a million. The communist government finally succumbed to the immense public pressure and allowed democratic reforms to take place. On National Avenue, in the area where police began to beat the protesters, you can see a bronze plaque commemorating the bravery of the students who led what is now known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
The first demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution actually took place in Bratislava, Slovakia, but they quickly spread to Prague. Even though Czech Republic and Slovakia ceased to form the single nation of Czechoslovakia in 1993, both nations still keep November 17th as a national holiday. Additionally, November 17th is International Students’ Day based on the 1939 events in Prague.
Freedom and Democracy Day is celebrated in Czech Republic with ceremonial rituals, flying of the Czech flag, wearing of ribbons with the national colors (red, white, and blue), and listening to music that is in some way connected with the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
Should you be in Czech Republic on November 17th, some things to do include:
- Attend the main celebrations, in Prague. There, many gather on National Avenue and light candles in Wenceslas Square. A wreath and flowers are laid at the “victory plaque” in the square, and the president gives a speech. A parade and patriotic music are also part of the event.
- Visit history museums in Prague, such as the City of Prague Museum and the multi-building National Museum. Especially, however, visit the Museum of Communism in Czech Republic, which gives a stark account of life in Czech Republic during the Cold War. Communism is depicted as a “dream” that turned out to be a “nightmare.”
- Tour the Bohemian Paradise, a region of Czech Republic where you can see numerous natural and man-made wonders within short distance of each other. There are many castles, including Trosky Castle, Valecov Castle, and Kost Castle. There are also many sandstone rock formations with curious shapes, such as Hruba Skala (“Rock Town”). You can get a wonderful view of the area from Kozakov hill, where you will find both a chalet and lookout tower.
Freedom and Democracy Day is the perfect time to learn about the recent history of Czech Republic and to explore its past and natural wonders as well.