On the 17 November 1989 a group of students set out on a candlelit procession through the streets of Prague, following the funeral route of Jan Opletal, a medical student killed by the Nazis in 1939. Fifty years later, with central and eastern Europe revolting against Communist rule, the students of 1989 were in no mood to follow the agreed route. Instead they made their way along the river bank to the National Theatre and turned right onto Národní třída, heading for Wenceslas Square. Met by riot police they held out flowers, put their candles on the road in front of them, and held out their bare hands to show their non-violent intentions. The response was brutal, and truncheon blows rained down on the students and the other men, women and children that had joined the peaceful demonstration. It was, in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, “the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight”.
The memorial to mark this momentous first step in the Velvet Revolution that would end Communist rule in just a couple of weeks, is pretty difficult to find. It is on Národní třída, hidden in a small passageway at the point on the street where the students met the riot police. It is close to the Cafe Louvre, where Kafka and Einstein once hung out, and the Reduta Jazz Club where President Havel took President Clinton during a visit that seemed to take in more basement watering holes that palace reception rooms. The simple memorial shows a set of hands. “We have bare hands,” the students told the police, and regardless of the violent response, the protests would remain peaceful. That, and the speed of change, is one of the remarkable achievements of the events of November and December 1989.
What the protests were hoping to achieve was the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, and if you follow Národní třída back down to the river and cross the bridge, on the lower slopes of Petrin Hill you will find the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The image of disintegrating figures coming down the steps reflects the impact on the regime on political prisoners and others caught in the totalitarian system. The numbers, powerful in their specificity, are there to give context to the imagery:
170,938 driven into exile
4,500 died in prison
327 shot whilst trying to escape
The memorial stands at the bottom of one of Prague’s most beautiful spots, the woods and the parklands of Petrin. It is, in a slightly different sense to the student memorial, also tucked away. But that is what makes it so striking, as you approach across the river and the figures gradually come into view.
On our last morning in the city, a beautiful wintery Saturday, we walked from our apartment to the train station on our way back to Berlin. Wenceslas Square was just getting going; racks of books pushed out onto the pavement; the staff of a sports shop washed down the windows; a tour bus driver smoked a cigarette as he waited outside a hotel for his group to finish their breakfast. At the top of the square, in the shadow of the National Museum, we stopped to pay our respects at the memorial to Jan Palach, a sunken cross in the pavement that marks the spot where the 20 year old student set fire to himself following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. A month later Jan Zajíc, who had been on hunger strike following Jan Palach’s death, also committed suicide by self-immolation only a few steps away. The dates of both their deaths are recorded on the Wenceslas Square memorial.
The Czech scientist Václav Cílek reflects on why the memorial works:
“Hardly anyone knows this memorial. Many people pass by without even noticing it. On the cross, there is an inconspicuous inscription. The memorial is unobtrusive, not actually suited for remembrance celebrations. It is not heroic; it is just a private reminder.”
As we stood next to the traffic streaming by and the construction site surrounding the being-renovated National Museum, I couldn’t help but think that the very inconspicuous nature of its construction, even as a non-religious person, was what made it so affecting.
In the end, all places have their memories. What is interesting is how societies, communities and individuals choose to publicly recognise or memorialise the past. In these three sites of memory in the city of Prague, the choice has been for understatement and, to return to the words of Cilek, memorials that are unobtrusive and unsuitable for remembrance celebrations. They are no less powerful for that.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig