How they checkmated communism in Prague
It was early June 1989. Vaclav Havel had been released from jail just days before, yet he was full of what, in retrospect, seems an almost prophetic certainty. Thousands of his countrymen had written letters petitioning for his release at a time when declaring solidarity with Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident was a clear and dangerous act of civil disobedience. “We Czechs are finally finding our courage,” he said, as if sensing the people’s new readiness to confront the guardians of their communist police state. “Sooner or later, they will make a mistake, perhaps by beating up some people. Then 40,000 people will fill Wenceslas Square.”
And so it was. Four months later, one week after people power brought down the Berlin Wall, revolution came to Prague. Students organized a small rally in the old Vysehrad cemetery, the burial grounds of Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak in the hills overlooking the city. As they marched toward Wenceslas Square, bearing candles, riot police cut them off. Men, women, children all were beaten, brutally. Those who fell were kicked and clubbed where they lay.
The night of Nov. 17 — “Black Friday,” as it quickly came to be known — set Czechslovakia alight. The next day, thousands of Czechs turned out in the streets. As Mr. Havel had foreseen, his job (and that of the small circle of dissidents surrounding him) would be to fan that spark, stoke the fire — and guide it.
Twenty years later, we can only marvel at how brilliantly they performed. Prague was 1989’s happiest revolution, a delirium of good feelings. This gentle revolution, this “Velvet Revolution,” as Mr. Havel dubbed it, was sheer theater, a geopolitical spectacular that unfolded in vignettes, scenes and acts, with cameo appearances by famous faces from the past. Alexander Dubcek. Joan Baez. Dissidents just released from jail and eminent emigres suddenly returned home. The theme music was the Velvet Underground, “Waiting for the Man.” The stage was the Magic Lantern, the underground theater that served as Mr. Havel’s headquarters. The backdrop was Prague, impossibly beautiful, impossibly romantic, the city of a hundred spires, tawny ocher houses and churches, sifting late afternoon light, moonlight on the Vltava.
The audience, of course, was the world. We watched it happen on TV. We saw the people assembled in Wenceslas Square, hundreds of thousands of them, jingling their keys and ringing hand bells: “Your time is up,” their good-humored farewell to communism. It was so pure, so clean. It was the climax of the story, the “Year of the Fall,” a turning point in history: cliche transmuted into truth. We knew our heroes would win. Everyone swept up by it felt young again, as though the world had suddenly, mysteriously, euphorically been made new. Disney could not have worked a more seductive transformation. Here were our children, taking to the streets. Here were our children, bloodied and beaten. Here were our children, finally, victorious.
It helped that this revolution could be counted in days, a miracle of compression. Once confronted, the communists almost ran from power. When was it finally and decisively won? An organizer of the Nov. 17 Vysehrad rally told me that he knew it was over that very day, when he expected several hundred people and 10,000 or more showed up. Others say it ended on Dec. 29, the day Mr. Havel became free Czechoslovakia’s new president.
For me, the moment was Day 11. Half a million people had gathered to hear Mr. Havel speak in a park high above the city, not far from where it all had begun. To this day, I can hardly remember it without tears.
As Mr. Havel finished, a light snow began to fall, and, as if on cue, his listeners took their places. One by one, in singlefile, hand in hand, they began to march toward Wenceslas Square, more than 1 1/2 miles, following a rickety horsedrawn cart bedecked with the wings of angels.
It was so very gentle, so strong and irresistible. Slowly, the procession wound its way through the paths and woodlands of the park, now covered in white. Slowly, it snaked down the medieval streets behind the castle and into the square in front of the president’s palace. There were no chants, no cheers, no hints of confrontation. Just the unbroken line of people, holding hands and passing silently in the white darkness, the line looping back and forth outside the forbidding gates.
From the castle, it wound down the steep hills of Mala Strana, past the great baroque cathedral, its ornate spires lighted in the snowy night; down Mostecka Street with its cafes and restaurants; across the shimmering Vltava at Charles Bridge, with its 400year-old statues of Czech kings and religious saviors; through the narrow streets of the Old Town; and finally into Wenceslas Square, where I watched three policemen join the procession, their caps set at jaunty angles, dancing along in tall black leather boots.
Still the procession came, weaving through the snow, all swinging their arms, skipping, happy, joyous. The first of the marchers had reached the square. The last still waited patiently in the park. Hand in hand, they bisected the city. Hand in hand, they drew a line. Here, on one side, stood the people; on the other, their oppressors. This was the moment. Everyone had to choose. From high above the city, I looked out at these people dancing through the streets. Prague lay away in the distance, lighted and luminous in the snow. O silent night. O holy night. Never in my life have I seen anything so beautiful. I doubt I ever will again.
Michael Meyer, Newsweek’s bureau chief for Eastern Europe in 1989, is the author of “The Year That Changed the World” (Scribner, 2009).