Freedom and Democracy Day is a public holiday in Czech Republic every 17 November to commemorate two specific events in the long struggle of the Czech people for a free, democratic society. It also is a time to remember all past struggles for freedom in general, however, and is among the most celebrated of all Czech holidays.
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The original event that 17 November 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 11 November. His funeral on 15 November, however, became the occasion for more protests. By 17 November 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 on 17 November 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 20 November, 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 17 November as a national holiday. Additionally, 17 November is International Students’ Day based on the 1939 events in Prague.
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