The Moratorium To End The Vietnam War was my introduction to student activism. Although I was still attending high school, I paid close attention to the daily toll of death and destruction going on in Southeast Asia. The tiny handful of us high schoolers linked up with a larger group from college to form our town’s ad hoc group of peaceniks.
In the Autumn of 1969 we participated in the non-violent demonstration we knew simply as “The Moratorium”. We wore our black armbands and participated in the “Sit In” on campus. It was the prelude to more non-violent student actions that my group and I participated in, once we became college students. That was a very important day in the life of a 17 year old, not yet in college.
The peace movement of the 1960s and 1970s certainly was only one of many similar uprisings in history. However, the type of activism that we know today began in Eastern Europe at the dawning of World War Two.
In 1938, German dictator Adolf Hitler’s plan to annex Austria to Nazi Germany was a reality. His next scheme was the subjugation of Czechoslovakia. The plan was to annex the west and north regions of the country that contained the major defensive fortifications. The area also known as the Sudetenland.
Hitler alleged that the Czechs were persecuting the ethnic Germans who lived in the Sudetenland. The British, Czech, and French met with Italy and Germany to form the Munich Agreement. History tells us that Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler’s claim that Germany’s complaints were justified. England and France strongly advised Czechoslovakia to bow to Nazi demands. After a period of unrest between Germany and the Czech leadership, Czechoslovakia capitulated to Nazi demands after Britain, France, Germany and Italy signed the Munich Agreement. The Sudetenland passed into German jurisdiction.
From there, it was only a matter of time that the German Wehrmacht could effortlessly move into the rest of the nation. March of 1939 saw Hitler proclaim the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”. This move effectively dissolved the nation of Czechoslovakia.
Later that year, the students at Charles University’s, Medical School held a demonstration to commemorate the creation of an independent Czech Republic. One victim of the resistance demonstration was a student named Jan Opletal. His body was to be brought from Prague to his Moravian hometown. Opletal’s funeral procession on November 15th, consisted of many thousand students. This event quickly became another anti-Nazi demonstration.
The result was drastic retribution by the Nazis. All of Czechoslovakia’s colleges and universities were closed down. At least 1,200 students were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Then nine individuals, students and professors, were executed without trial on November 17th.
It was 1941, when the International Students’ Council, meeting in London, declared November 17th should be an international commemoration.
In Athens, Greece, in 1973, the students at the Polytechnic school went on strike against the military regime. They baricaded themselves in the school and broadcast pro-democratic messages from a self-constructed radio station. On November 17th, Greek military forces invaded the school. A tank smashed through the gate of the Polytechnic. Official investigations revealed that several students were permanently injured but nobody was killed. The event is still under international scrutiny.
Once again, in Czechoslovakia, student leaders and Socialist Union of Youth organizers conducted a mass demonstration in honor of the 50th Anniversary of International Students’ Day. The demonstration became a platform for students to protest their opposition to the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. The event became violent when riot police and law enforcement began beating the participants. This was the beginning of the “Velvet Revolution”. The eventual internal defeat of the Czech Communists were the result.
Hence, we see that November 17th is doubly important for people in the Czech Republic as well as for people involved in student and youth activist movements globally.
It is my hope that any activist and civil rights activities that take place on November 17th and at other times, remain peaceful.
The Blue Jay of Happiness salutes the brave students who speak up against oppression, discrimination, and war.