It’s been a year of personalities great and small and actions of small people making big changes. And as an historian I cannot help thinking that there has been a strange symmetry with occurrences in the Czech Republic’ history. The year began with the soon to become seismic events Mohamed Bouazizi’, a Tunisian market trader set himself alight in protests at state corruption, making himself an instant catalyst for the youth of the Middle East whose potential was being stifled by Western-backed dictators, who saw these strong men as in the more immediate past as a bulwark against Communism and in the more recent aftermath of 9/11 a bulwark against Islamic extremism. The protests soon took upon a life of their own, and were in the main peaceful large scale protests held in symbolically significant areas such as city centre squares. Aside from the contributions of Facebook and Twitter whose contribution to the events are yet to be critically assessed, parallels with the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
In 1968 university student Jan Palach also set himself alight in protest at the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops who had arrived to crush the Prague Spring which had called for greater political and social freedoms led by Alexander Dubcek. In 1989, hundreds of thousands people of all walks of life spent night after night in Wenceslas Square braving the cold and the riot police to call for the end of the Communist regime. Led by Vaclav Havel and his Civic Forum Party, the motley assembly of playwrights, actors and other dissidents and backed by workers throughout the country, the protests bought the regime to the end via peaceful mean.
22 years later I walk the streets of Prague soaking up this history. I realise not all is perfect in Prague or the wider Czech Republic, but at least the people can voice their opinions through the ballot box and other forums without the fear of a knock on the door at 3am or end up being forced to spend their lives in a menial job in punishment for their political transgressions. The actions of the Czechoslovak people in 1968 and 1989 have proved an example of how to achieve victory over tyranny and dictatorship without bloodshed. To them, to Jan Palach, and Vaclav Havel. I say Dekujeme. Dekujeme (Thank you, Thank you).