How they check­mated com­mu­nism in Prague

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

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).

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