Friday, December 2, 2016

Civic Forum: The Velvet Revolution of November 1989 and Beyond

Because I'm teaching my course on modern East Central Europe again this fall, it seems an appropriate time to remember the so-called "Velvet Revolution" (a sappy term I never liked) in the course of which dissidents peacefully forced the hard-line Czechoslovak communist regime from power in 1989.

The driving force behind the revolution were the dissidents such as Václav Havel, associated with the Charter 77 human rights movement. As the spirit of protest spread throughout the bloc in the fall of 1989, they organized themselves as  the "Civic Forum" (Občanské fórum, OF).

I acquired this small--I guess you would call it a (?)--mini-placard some years ago in a Prague antiquariat. It displays the name of the organization against the background of the Czechoslovak flag. It is the size of a small bumper sticker (193 x 63 mm.) but is printed on stiff (now yellowed) pasteboard and thus lacks adhesive, which makes me wonder what its intended use was: for display in apartment or store windows? (After all, Havel's famous essay on "the power of the powerless" anchors its notion of "living in truth" in the story of those who agree vs. decline to accede to the regime's supposedly meaningless and harmless demand that they place its propaganda signs in their windows.) For display in an automobile? And when? The dampstaining at the bottom suggests that it was actually placed in a window where it would have been subject to condensation arising from a heated interior in cold weather.

It is at once an inspiring and a sad memento. Although Czechoslovakia had been an island of liberal democracy among the post-World War I successor states that drifted toward authoritarianism, it became one of the most hardline communist states after 1948, and indeed, its leaders (in contrast to those of Hungary and Poland) refused even to nod to the de-Staliniziation "thaw" in the wake of Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin's crimes in 1956. Following the short-lived and optimistic episode of the "Prague Spring," crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks in August 1968, the regime pursued a quietly brutal policy of "normalization."
Despite this long history of resistance to reform, the communist regime collapsed in only ten days in 1989 in the face of determined citizens jingling their keys and refusing any longer to be afraid. Former dissident Václav Havel became president at the end of December 1989.

By 1991, however, the movement split into conservative-capitalist and liberal factions. The latter triumphed in the elections of 1992, and the latter passed from the scene.  A cautionary tale about politics in more ways than one.

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