Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holiday in Berlin and The Velvet Revolution

According to the scrapbook of press clippings that I've kept since that time, 20 years ago today, some 10,000 people joined a pro-democracy demonstration in Leipzig. However, the protest organizers said that many skipped the rally to go shopping in West Germany, where approximately 1.6 million East Germans had spent the day shopping and sight-seeing. The shopping avenues of West Berlin had became crowded pedestrian malls for the day, and West Germans greeted their visitors with free lodging, well-stocked store shelves, and plain old curiosity. In all, East German authorities had issued over 10 million exit visas, or enough for 60 percent of the population to visit the West.

Pro-democracy supporters who were not out shopping that day also took to the streets in other cities. It was estimated that 22,000 people participated in rallies in Plauen, Eberswalde-Finow, and Suhl, East Germany.

The democracy movement was not confined to Germany. In Bulgaria, a crowd estimated at 50,000 shouted anti-communist slogans and burned portraits of the nation's ousted leader, Todor Zhivkov. In the biggest independent protest rally in the communist nation's history, the crowd called for an end to corruption, a release of political prisoners, guarantees for freedom of religion, and an end to police repression.

Meanwhile, more than half a million Latvians rallied for freedom from Soviet rule on the 71st anniversary of the former Baltic nation's 1918 declaration of independence. The peaceful demonstration stretched for two miles along the banks of the Daugave River in Riga, the capital.

But all was not peaceful everywhere. In Czechoslavakia, violence erupted on November 17 when 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators who had been given permission to march as long as they avoided Wenceslas Square, a favorite site of previous demonstrations, disobeyed the order. As the crowd headed for the square, army troops in armored vehicles and police using tear gas and clubs broke up the protest. Red-bereted paratroopers of the Czech military forced the demonstrators down Narodni Street, where they were made to run a gauntlet while they were beaten. Seventeen people were injured, and it was later reported that a student from Charles University, Martin Smid, had been beaten to death. According to statements circulated by Smid's girlfriend, he was singled out for reasons unknown, and the police took him around to a dark side street and beat him with batons, then kicked him while he was on the ground.

Fortunately, it was later learned that the death was only a rumor. According to an article in last Tuesday's New York Times, although the crackdown had indeed been violent, no one, in fact, had died. However, the rumor nonetheless shocked many Czechs and is thought to have contributed to the fall of the Communist regime.

The next day, November 18, about 2,000 people, undaunted by the previous night's bloody confrontation, confronted the riot police in Wenceslas Square. The crown chanted, "freedom, freedom" and other slogans, observed a moment of silence, and laid candles and flowers at the foot of the statue of Saint Wenceslas in memory of the injured from the previous night before dispersing. At least three people were chased and beaten by the police and then taken away in vehicles.

By November 20, the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen to an estimated half-million, and the Velvet Revolution was underway.

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