Czechs and Slovaks tend to refer to the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989 as "November" or the "November events," rather than "Velvet Revolution," a phrase coined after the event. English-language dictionaries, however, formally accepted Velvet Revolution as a new term in 1990. It denotes the demise of a fierce, hard-line communist regime that had repressed its citizens and atomized its society for decades and that conceded power within days when confronted with persistent, but entirely nonviolent, popular demonstrations.
These large protests in Czechoslovakia occurred after decisive events in surrounding communist countries suggested irreversible political change in the region. Partly contested elections in Poland resulted in a noncommunist prime minister. Hungary's new generation of reform-minded Communists met with opposition forces and opened part of its border with Austria, allowing visiting East Germans to flee the Soviet bloc. That contributed to the disintegration of the oppressive East German regime, which opened its borders with, most famously, the demolishing of the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November. Some two million East Germans flooded through it and breaches made in the Berlin Wall in the following two days. Even Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's Communist leader who had been in power since 1956, ended his reign on 10 November.
Repression in Czechoslovakia, particularly the "normalization" process that reversed the liberalizing reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968 and punished anyone even notionally associated with it, ensured that most people would not challenge the regime. A small group of post-1968 political activists risked, and often lost, their jobs, liberty, and personal health by writing and speaking against the regime. These dissidents codified their political demands in Charter 77, signed on 1 January 1977, which called on the regime to respect the domestic and international laws concerning human rights that the regime itself had signed. The regime's intolerance was such that the leaders behind Charter 77 were arrested as they attempted to mail the document to government officials. There were never more than about two thousand signatories of Charter 77 in a country of over fifteen million, but the movement represented an important show of ethical and political resistance and ultimately provided a collective conscience and a fledgling organization for the revolution.
The spark for regime change came in November 1989. Small, unsanctioned protests had occurred that year and earlier, but they had met the wrath of police. A march on 17 November in Prague, however, was sanctioned by the regime because it commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the killing of Czech university student leaders by Nazi Germans. The iconography of antifascism was encouraged while expressions of universal human rights and political pluralism were banned. The march attracted more people than expected and included prodemocracy banners. The demonstration deviated from the officially approved route and headed toward central Prague's famous Wenceslas Square. Police intercepted some marchers and responded with characteristic brutality while other demonstrators broke off in another direction, to be met again by riot police. Rumors spread that a student had been killed. Perhaps sensing a turn in public opinion, the security services attempted to deny their wrongdoing, even putting on view two unharmed students who bore the supposed victim's name. News of the brutality nevertheless spread, even circulating on videotapes; foreign correspondents reported the regime's behavior abroad.
Czech citizens were outraged both by the police repression, which included numerous confirmed beatings of peaceful, unarmed marchers, and by the regime's duplicity in denying it. Crowds arose in support of the initial protestors but marched in an orderly manner. The staff of the Prague Theaters, in a country where the arts mattered, expressed support for a strike; theaters elsewhere followed. Numerous university officials pledged not to impose academic penalties for illegal political activity. Charter 77 signatories, students, and others gathered in Prague's Magic Lantern Theater on 19 November and formed Civic Forum (CF). Led by the dissident playwright Václav Havel (b. 1936), this wide-based opposition movement (expressly not a political party) issued demands and called for the resignation of Communist leaders. A similar movement, Public against Violence (PAV), was formed the next day in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.
By 20 November, over two hundred thousand people were demonstrating in Prague, and—in an ideological blow to the regime—many official trade unions and Communist university student organizations joined them, making available their centrally located facilities to coordinate demonstrations.
On 24 November, Alexander Dubček, the leader of the popular reform movement of 1968 that was crushed by Warsaw Pact forces, arrived in Prague from Bratislava and was enthusiastically received by the crowds. During the same day, an "extraordinary" meeting of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called, at which senior leaders were dismissed. In the evening, as Dubček joined Havel on stage at the Magic Lantern, the Communist Party leader Miloš Jakeš resigned, replaced by an unknown Communist, Karel Urbánek. Other hard-line Communists continued at their posts, signaling not conciliation by the regime but intransigence and the possibility of violence against protestors. The public rejected this reconstituted leadership and continued protesting. In Slovakia, the well-known actor Milan Kňažko read PAV statements on television, making the revolution known throughout the republic. For the next two days, crowds of up to 750,000 protested in Prague's Letná Park, where compulsory and contrived pro-Communist rallies had been routinely held. Havel thought that Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was sympathetic to change and invited him to address the crowds. Adamec lost any support he might have had by using the unreformist, communist-era language of "restoring order." In defiance, the crowds jingled their keys, providing one of the iconographic images of Czechoslovakia's emerging peaceful Velvet Revolution.
With the regime deemed still recalcitrant, CF led a two-hour general strike on 27 November. The brevity of this measure was inversely proportionate to its symbolism: it was deliberately kept short to keep the regime from lambasting it as economically irresponsible. Instead, many worked an extra two hours to fend off such accusations and to sustain the economy and guarantee essential services. As much as half the population participated, making the strike undeniably successful. On 28 November Adamec consented to negotiations with CF, led by Havel, and proposed the formation of a new federal cabinet (which proved still to be Communist-dominated) and revisions to the constitution that would end the Communist monopoly on political and educational life. The Communist parliament accepted them on 29 November.
These changes, however, were insufficient and demonstrations continued. After further but ultimately futile resistance by the regime, on 10 December the Communist president, Gustáv Husák, announced a new coalition government that included representatives of CF and PAV; non-Communists now formed the majority. Husák then resigned on television. CF rescinded its general strike for the following day. Dubček was elected speaker of parliament on 28 December; the next day, the still-Communist parliament elected Havel president of Czechoslovakia. CF and PAV won the first fully free postcommunist parliamentary elections, held in June 1990.
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Kukral, Michael Andrew. Prague 1989: Theater of Revolution: A Study in Humanistic Political Geography. Boulder, Colo., 1997.
Skilling, H. Gordon. Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia. London, 1981.
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Wheaton, Bernard, and Zdeněk Kavan. The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988–1991. Boulder, Colo., 1992.