Czechoslovakia’s two-hour general strike Favorite 



Apr 30 2012



A general strike can be one of the most potent noncooperation methods
in the repertoire of nonviolent resistance. It is a widespread
cessation of labor in an effort to bring all economic activity to a
total standstill. Although it is easy to broadcast the call for a
general strike, it is exceedingly difficult to implement for the maximal
impact that it potentially exerts. What’s more, a general strike must
be called prudently, because it loses its effectiveness if weakly
The Occupy movement’s calls for a general strike in the United States
on May 1 make me think of an instance in which a general strike was
brilliantly carried out and with great effect, in Czechoslovakia in 1989
— for only two hours.
For years beforehand, the sharing of
subversive literature, drama and ideas against the communist regime had
been occurring in Czechoslovakia, virtually unseen. In fact, historian
Theodore Ziółkowski reminds us
that “almost from the moment when the Soviet empire, after Yalta,
swallowed up the nations of Eastern Europe, the fight against Communism
began.” Thousands of clandestine samizdat (Russian for
self-published) publications had been manually typed on onion skin with
carbon paper, read, passed from hand to hand and circulated sub rosa.
Incarcerated authors and dramatists worked intensively in contemplation
and planning from their prison cells. While building strong networks
among these civil society organizations in formation, Czechoslovaks
considered how to withdraw their cooperation from the communist
party-state, and thereby bend it to the popular will.
On November 17, 1989, in Czechoslovakia’s capital, Prague, police
brutally interrupted a student demonstration. In response, the
Czechoslovak people undertook what came to be known as the Ten Days, as I have recounted in more detail elsewhere.
Events seemed to unfold instantaneously, but anyone who has studied
nonviolent struggles knows otherwise. Aided by Radio Free Europe and
labor unions, Prague’s theatrical circles would become catalytic in
organizing a massive national resistance, including major demonstrations
against the procedures of the regime. Citizens were emboldened by
listening to Radio Free Europe and reading samizdat, and were thus aware
of the popular national nonviolent mobilizations already underway in
Poland, Hungary and East Germany. The Czechoslovaks also benefited from a
more enlightened Soviet policy than during the crushing of the Prague
Spring in 1968. These relative advantages, and the caliber of leadership
emanating from the playwrights and thinkers in theatrical circles,
meant that the Czechoslovaks would be able to bring about their 1989
Velvet Revolution with astounding haste and effectiveness, a key element
of which was the breadth of participation in a general strike.
Overnight on November 17 — Day One — and into November 18, students
became determined to go on strike. They spread word to Prague’s Charles
University and other colleges and universities. Although students were
the first to call for strikes, by Saturday afternoon the denizens of
Prague’s famous theaters had declared their support and were proposing a
national general strike for November 27. The students straight away
endorsed the proposed general strike and for six weeks would persist in
striking on their own, to a great extent backed up by similar
noncooperation measures by actors and dramatists. As the students
published releases announcing their strikes, the theatrical managers and
actors circulated theirs, while Radio Free Europe broadcast texts
transmitted by telephone. Official media, having long toed the
government line, condemned the officials’ violence of November 17.
Employees at television stations denounced biased coverage and disputed
untruthful news reports. Broadcasts of the first photographic images of
the Prague demonstrations proved to be critical because they disclosed
to thousands what was happening in their own country.
On Day Three — Sunday, November 19 — a crowd of 200,000 gathered in
Prague for a demonstration to protest the police brutality against the
students. That night a citizens’ pro-democracy organization called the
Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum) emerged, many of whose members had been
persistent critics of the party-state. Over the following three days,
throngs occupied Prague. Tens of thousands of young people and students
took over Wenceslas Square, carrying flags and chanting slogans:
“Freedom,” “Resign,” “Now’s the Time” and “This Is It.”
With playwright Václav Havel as the guiding light, Prague’s Magic
Lantern Theater became the nerve center of the Civic Forum, in part
because of its proximity to Wenceslas Square. Its wardrobes and changing
rooms were assigned to committees, and Havel became the author and
mediator for the Civic Forum’s statements and positions. Throughout the
Velvet Revolution, the forum would act as the speaker for the
Czechoslovak people, while coordinating the collective nonviolent
actions of the broad opposition. The Civic Forum encompassed most
perspectives and sentiments of opposition, and included some
reform-minded communists. A Slovak group, Public Against Violence, acted
as partner to the forum.
Prague’s theaters were perfect for hearty political debate. Instead
of the curtain rising on productions, the actors would lead audiences in
discussions of the situation. Signs instantly appeared in theaters
across the country reading “We Strike” or “On Strike,” rousing unity
because of the popular esteem for the dramatic arts. Theaters in
Bratislava, Brno and Ostrava went on strike the next day. Wherever
actors and dramatists gathered, they joined the noncooperation.
On Tuesday, November 21 — Day Five — the Civic Forum and student
representatives met officially with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who
guaranteed that no violence would be administered against Czechoslovak
citizens. The government announced that “socialism was not up for
discussion,” but no one missed the meaning of such a meeting in the
midst of mounting popular defiance. In Wenceslas Square in Prague and in
Hviedoslav Square in Bratislava, mass demonstrations ratified calls for
a general strike on November 27. Václav Havel addressed the multitude
as the exemplar of the Civic Forum, his speech blunter and less courtly
than usual. When he and the respected banned priest Václav Malý spoke,
the crowd could hear every word, because rock groups had lent huge
amplifiers. A message from the Roman Catholic František Cardinal Tomášek
declared, “We cannot wait any more,” stressing that Czechoslovakia was
surrounded by countries that “had broken the back of totalitarianism,”
referring to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. Bells rang. One
journalist reported 200,000 sets of key rings unforgettably jangling.
Throngs chanted “Today Prague, tomorrow the whole country!” and “Time’s
up!” Striking students held sit-ins at institutions of higher learning
throughout Prague.
On Wednesday, November 22 — Day Six — the Civic Forum formally
announced a two-hour general strike for Monday, November 27. The forum
and its partner, Public Against Violence, sought an incapacitating
general strike with the participation of virtually every citizen to
exert sufficient pressure on the government to accelerate a rapid,
nonviolent transition of power. A general strike could reduce the threat
of reprisals among large numbers of participants, yet many were
ambivalent about hurting an already stagnating economy. By limiting the
strike to two hours, the effect of a general strike would be wielded
while minimizing harm to the economy.
Coal miners in northern Bohemia announced that they would join the
work stoppage, but no one knew to what extent laborers in the country’s
smokestack industries would join the growing noncooperation action. By
Thursday, November 23 — Day Seven — Wenceslas Square saw more than
300,000 marching. The party-state started to split and divide. The
ministry of defense that day announced that the Czechoslovak military
forces would not be deployed against Czech and Slovak peoples. The Civic
Forum issued a statement renewing commitment to a Czechoslovak
tradition: “We are against violence and do not seek revenge.”
Striking students insistent on free elections and a change in
government then sent hundreds of their numbers into the countryside to
visit industrial plants and talk with workers, enlisting their
involvement in the general strike. The government raised calamitous
warnings of economic breakdown and tried in other ways to frighten the
workforce not to join the general strike. Reporters who traveled to
machinery works encountered busloads of communist militia members
blocking the students from contacting the laborers and sharing handouts.
The Reverend Václav Malý, now a spokesperson for the Civic Forum,
proclaimed that workers at more than 500 enterprises had pledged to
On Saturday, November 25 — Day Nine — the Civic Forum pronounced the
upcoming national general strike as a “referendum” on communist rule. In
Prague, 800,000 marched; in Bratislava 100,000 demonstrated. On
national television, with Havel announcing that the planned November 27
national general strike would proceed, the forum had become the rudder
for the nationwide preparations for the two-hour strike action. The
forum encompassed virtually the entire Czechoslovak opposition to the
party-state, served as the representative for the Czechoslovak public,
coordinated the opposition’s civil resistance and had become a national
voice. Comporting itself in a sensible, ethical and deliberately open
manner — if a slightly chaotic one — the Civic Forum called its program
“What We Want” and concentrated on civil and human rights, a free and
independent judiciary, multiparty electoral democracy and political
pluralism, economic and free-market reforms, and alterations to the
nation’s environmental and foreign policies.
Roughly 6,000 strike committees were at work preparing to bring all
economic activity to a halt. As midday approached on Monday, November
27, the population stopped functioning as church bells rang. Minutes
before noon, a television broadcaster stated that he was joining the
strike and would go off the air. Taxi drivers aligned themselves so as
to block Prague’s ring road with a two-mile succession of cabs. This
elegantly executed national noncooperation action lasted from noon until
two o’clock — during lunchtime, so as not to endanger jobs. The
colossal industrial strike reflected no divisions between classes, as
laborers, workers of all skills, intellectuals, academicians, students,
artist and theatrical personnel together orchestrated the nationwide
general strike.
This countrywide, successful act of noncooperation brought the Civic
Forum and the government into discussions that would soon lead to a
peaceful democratic transition of power. The party-state began to yield.
The Civic Forum and the government began discussions. The “leading
role” of the communist party, protected in a constitutional clause, was
formally rescinded. On December 29, 1989, the Federal Assembly, the
communist-dominated national legislature, unanimously elected Havel as
The artists, playwrights, academicians, priests and activist
intellectuals wanted genuinely revolutionary change that would transform
Czechoslovakia permanently and construct a resilient democracy. Years
of prudently building the strength of civil society had culminated in
the ability to mount a memorable and effective national general strike.
With the united voices of the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence,
the people had brought about an expeditious transition of power. Czech
educator Jan Urban explains
the logic of those who were coordinating Czechoslovakia’s Velvet
Revolution: “[F]rom the first moment, we wanted to be aggressively
nonviolent in our stance — to make a power of our lack of weapons.” He summarized,
“In the course of one week, in November 1989, Winter blossomed into
Spring in Czechoslovakia. A nonviolent mass movement … triumphed … in
transition from the negation of the old to the building of the new.”

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