“Kdo, když ne my, kdy, když ne ted!” On 17th November 1989 the slogan announces itself intermittently, taking its turn among the others resounding from the impassioned voices of the marching crowds of Prague: “Who, if not us, when, if not now!”. A call to action, if not to arms. A flag, a marker planted resolutely in the present – renouncing the failures of the past and the potential vacillations of the future. The chanting assembly would no longer be the victims of history. It is a masterful piece of rhetoric which loses none of its profundity as we approach its 25th anniversary. Replace the rhetorical with a tone of introspection and there is revealed a depth to this declaration, we hear the underlying self-examination of the Czechs being chanted, the scars of self-doubt borne by all for whom history is something to be overcome. Why the then of the ‘when’, why the they of the ‘who’? The Velvet Revolution of 1989 is a question both of history, and identity.
The former is easier to address, it has much to do with the right and the wrong Russian. In 1968 the slogans were silenced, Leonid Brezhnev and powers of the Warsaw Pact found the reformatory impulses of the Czechoslovak Communist Party threatening, but, more importantly, they had the political will to be threatening in turn, and with rather more force: the Prague Spring was as brief as its suppression was successful. Soviet leadership was ruthlessly committed to maintaining its hegemony, and military intervention, or the threat of it, was an effective support to the status quo. There was both the will and the means.
Since his accession to the leadership of the Soviet Union 1985, Gorbachev had effectively undermined both of these Party staples, removing hard-line belligerents within the leadership and creating breathing space for open dissent. Latterly, the fearless jeering beneath Ceausescu’s balcony would encapsulate the essence of these new possibilities, that is, the potential for mass dissent free from threat. Reform, in time, led to rebellion. Solidarity in Poland set the precedent under these more opportune circumstances, mobilising popular support to make the continuation of the Communist Ancien Régime impossible without democratisation – a suicidal concession for any repressive, one-party state. In Hungary and Germany negotiations to this end were forced by mass demonstrations.
Police action attempted to cork the dam but the scale of the protests required a severity of response for which, supervised by Gorbachev, the states had neither the stomach nor the support. By the 10th of November, the Berlin Wall had ceased to be a barrier. Seven days later, it was for the people of Czechoslovakia to repeat this pattern. The officially sanctioned gatherings of International Students Day offered a forum for the silently discontented to gather, to find a voice. Prague’s students followed their fellows in Bratislava, and marched. The slogans emerged, the when had arrived.
The preliminary efforts of the students were halted by police batons in central Prague, but, as elsewhere, this action proved desperate, and it effects temporary. So temporary, in fact, that within a matter of days almost a million people took to the streets. Inspired and focussed by the demands of the Civic Forum, organised for a general strike, and in Vaclav Havel equipped with a popular alternative, popular dissent had outgrown any vulnerability to state coercion. By the 10th of December, the forty one year existence of Communist Czechoslovakia was ended. This rapidity of revolution has much to do with timing, the ‘now’ of the slogan.
By 1989 the incumbent regimes had no reply, and no will to reply – the antagonists in these righteous overthrows were weak, and their protagonists strong. What of these protagonists? What of their identity? In the events played out on the cobbles of Prague since 1938, this has been amorphous and the role of the Czechs variously, passively and actively, defined by their circumstances. In the students’ liberating, generational call of our studied slogan, there is a denial, a resistance against past identity. The youth of 1989 did not wish to be the annexed and occupied, the temporary citizens of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Rejected too the enthusiasts of 1946 who granted a mandate to the Communist Party, and, though noble in their defeat, the undone liberals of the Prague Spring. Of course, the intervening torpor of nearly twenty years of ailing Communism would not define what identity meant to these singing students. It would be new, it would be now. This would not simply the triumph of one generation, however.
As the days passed in November, so the ranks of demonstrators swelled, the crowds a cross-section of society and age. Witnesses to past terrors and disasters were present, to wrest identity from this history. Let us consider their motivation, and their identity, through Kundera’s observation in A Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
“[T]he past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.”
The past had indeed been wounding, and there was certainly a redemptive quality to participation in the demonstrations of 1989. The people of Czechoslovakia were seizing their future from the bonds of the regime, and in so doing, overcoming the suffering of the past, and providing the freedom to avoid repeating it. They were, by the end of the Velvet Revolution, the masters of ‘who’ they wished to be. This right, once won, is continually exercised. In 1993 identity was in question once more, the resolution ending in the separate entities of the Czech and Slovak Republics.
On one remembrance of national liberation, the president of the former was assailed by missiles and jeers and a footballers’ dismissal during commemorative duties on the 17th November. The general vilification can be seen as an extension of the question, ‘who?’, the question of identity – many do not consider Mr Zeman, his views, or his international relationships, to represent a satisfactory answer.
Which direction is chosen may be immaterial, as it is perhaps in the question alone that the essence of the Revolution is found. It contains the will for self-determination, the right to choose a future and free the past. Twenty-five years on the question is still being asked, and, as this 17th November’s protesters knew well, there could be no more pertinent day to ask it.