Richard Nisley

The Velvet Revolution
History - World Released - Nov 01, 2014

It was getting near Christmas, and the communist regime that had held Czechoslovakia in its iron grip for 40 years was letting go. Led by the gentle poet and playwright Vaclav Havel, the change had been, as one American journalist put it, “A very well-mannered revolution.” It had come NOT as a call to arms, but as an appeal to men’s better angels. Tonight was the tipping point. Speaking to tens of thousands of factory workers in Wenceslas Square, Havel said: “We are at the crossroads of history--again. We are ready to talk but there is no way to return to the previous system of totalitarian government. Our leaders have brought our country to the point of moral, social and economic collapse. We want democracy and a free Czechoslovakia. We want to rejoin Europe. Today!”

Havel closed with his answer to the regime’s continued threats. It was an appeal to the soldiers, police and People’s Militia to heed their own conscience, to think for themselves as individuals, to see what was happening around them and act independently of their officers, “first and foremost as human beings and citizens of Czechoslovakia.” It was uniquely Havelian, a call to choice, for personal responsibility, a plea to people as people to give voice to their conscience and act within their own power.

Three days later, Havel and his ascendant revolutionaries held a massive rally at the soccer stadium in Letna Park, in the hills above Prague where a giant statue of Stalin once stood. Speaking to half-a-million people, Havel said, “If anyone had told me a year ago that I would see this, I would have laughed.” The crowd guffawed. A year ago, Havel had been in prison. With that, he turned the microphone over to Ladislav Adamec.

What was Havel doing, giving this forum to a member of the ruling communists, to one of THEM? Behind the scenes, Adamec had asked for Havel’s support. He calculated that with the opposition behind him, he could persuade the communist Central Committee to appoint him general secretary, a man acceptable to both camps who could unify the country and take Czechoslovakia down the path to reform. Havel was pretending to go along. At best, he considered Adamec to be a man of the minute, rather than the hour. By giving him a chance, Havel calculated that he could destroy the communists’ last best hope.

And he was right. Adamec blew it, spectacularly. The first word out of his mouth, incredibly, was “Comrades!” He called for discipline, an end to strikes, economic rather than political change. Pausing for what he expected would be cheers, he realized he was undone. “No,” the crowds shouted back, amid a mounting chorus of jeers and boos. Adamec struggled manfully to continue, all but drowned by angry shouts: “Resign! Resign!”

With that, communism was finished in Czechoslovakia. The end came, not with violence, but in the way Havel insisted it should come, “gently, gently.” As snow began to fall, the poet called for a moment of silence for those “fallen in the fight for freedom.” A horse-drawn cart left the park, decked out with banners and the wings of angels, with bells jingling, and the people began to follow. One by one, the half million at Letna Park joined hands and in single file began to walk toward Wenceslas Square, more than a mile away, scarcely saying a word in the gently falling snow. The procession wound its way down through paths and woodlands of the park, now covered in white. It snaked down the medieval streets behind a castle and then into the square in front of the darkened presidential palace. There were no chants, no cheers, no hints of confrontation, only the sound of footsteps in the snow. It was a scene right out of Disney’s “Fantasia” where--after the devil has had his night on Bald Mountain--the people emerge solemnly into the light of day.

For hours the procession passed. From the castle it wound down the steep hills into Mala Strana, past the great cathedral, its ornate spires lit in the snowy light, across the shimmering Vltava River via the famed Charles Bridge with its four-hundred-year-old statues of Czech kings and religious saviors, through the narrow streets of Old Town, and finally into Wenceslas Square. Watching from atop the hill, an American reporter who had witnessed first hand all the events leading up to this moment, wrote in his notebook: “O silent night. O holy night. Never in my life have I seen anything so beautiful.”

Such was Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Of all the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989--culminating in the downfall of the Berlin Wall--Czechoslovakia’s was the shortest and most peaceful. And the man who led it, Vaclav Havel, was then elected unanimously as president of the new democratic government--in time for Christmas. Yes, a poet, playwright, essayists, and philosopher was picked to lead his country out of the despair, government corruption, and economic collapse created by the communists.


In the darkest of times, when all hope appears lost, it’s the poets who so often provide mankind with a ray of light. For much of the twentieth century, Czechoslovakia had its need of poets. Before Vaclav Havel, it was poet Jaroslav Seifert, who gave his country hope through two World Wars and the occupation of two brutal political forces--the Nazis and the Communists. In 1984, Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. One of his poems, about his beloved Prague is reprinted below. He died in 1986, three years before the Iron Curtain came down. Czechoslovakia has produced several literary giants, including novelist Frank Kafka, dramatist Karel Capek (who introduced the word “robot” to the world), Jaroslav Hasek (“The Good soldier Svejk”), Milan Kundea (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Ludvik Vaculik (“A Cup of Coffee With My Interrogator”), and two important Jewish writers who wrote searing accounts of life under Nazi occupation and persecution--Jiri Weil and Arnost Lustig.

Prior to the twentieth century, Czechoslovakia led mostly a peaceful existence from the time it converted to Christianity. Prague, the capital city of what is now the Czech Republic, was founded in the early ninth century when Princess Libuse stood on a hill above the River Vltava and envisioned a great city that would rise there. This was in a region of pasture lands and forests known as Bohemia. She married a plowman named Premysl, heralding the beginning of the Premyslid dynasty. The city she foresaw expanded swiftly into what is now Old Town.

The most famous of the early Bohemian rulers was Vaclav I, better known as “Good King Wenceslas.” Much revered by his people, he died a martyr’s death at the hands of his brother and was later declared the patron saint of Bohemia. King Wenceslas was later immortalized in an English Christmas carol.

The king who made Bohemia a mighty European power and developed Prague into a major capital city was Charles IV. Few rulers have left so lasting a mark on a single city as Charles IV did on Prague. Born in the city on May 14, 1316, he spent part of his youth in Italy, and was educated at the court of France and the University of Paris. Although christened Vaclav, he changed his name to Charles after his Uncle, Charles IV of France. At the age of 13, he married the sister of the future King Philippe VI of France, Blanche of Valois, but three more wives were to follow. He became king of Bohemia in 1346, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1355. This, and four dynastic marriages, helped him consolidate his domains, adding parts of modern-day Germany and Poland. Legal and constitutional reforms made Bohemia one of the most advanced medieval states in Europe.

Despite his international vision, Charles did not neglect his capital, and Prague soon became the intellectual and cultural center of his empire. On his initiative St. Vitus’s Cathedral and the Charles Bridge were constructed. In 1348 Charles added a fourth district to the city, the carefully planned New Town. Such remarkable churches as the Karlov and St. Mary of the Snows were begun at this time, as was the glittering castle of Karlstejn, outside Prague. Charles founded Prague University, the first in Central Europe, which attracted scholars and artists from Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere, many of whom stayed, adding to the city’s culture. Today, Charles IV is known as the father of his country, but his true legacy is Prague. Despite all later additions and changes, the city retains the major monuments and urban structure he imposed on it.

Prague is often called the City of a Thousand Spires, due to its tall cathedrals and towering medieval castles. As mentioned above, Jaroslav Seifert wrote a poem about his beloved city, which he called “The Royal Pavilion.” An excerpt follows:

When I gaze out on Prague
-- and I do so constantly and always with bated breath
because I love her --
I turn my mind to God
wherever he may be,
beyond the starry mists
or just behind the moth-eaten setting
to thank him
for granting that magnificent setting
to me to live in.
To me and to my joys and carefree loves,
to me and to my tears without weeping
when the loves departed,
and to my more-than-bitter grief
when even my verses could not weep.
I love her fire-charred walls
to which we clung during the war
so as to hold out.
I would not change them for anything in the world.
Not even for others,
not even if the Eiffel Tower rose between them
and the Seine flowed sadly past,
not even for all the gardens of paradise full of flowers.
When I shall die -- and this will be quite soon --
I shall still carry on my heart this city’s destiny.

From “The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert,” translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers. See also “The Year That Changed The World: the untold story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall” by Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer.

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