4 December 2015

Czech Students stand up to extremists to commemorate International Students’ day

By Jakub Caloun

The International Students’ Day, celebrated every year on 17th of November, is an occasion for students to gather and celebrate a crucial day in Czech history. Unfortunately, this year’s celebrations were hijacked by a political meeting of the extremist anti-Islamic movement, which prevented Czech students in Prague from commemorating the deeds of their predecessors.

The 17th of November is International Students’ Day and one of the most important national holidays in the Czech Republic. It commemorates the violent repression of peaceful student protest by the Nazi occupants in 1939. An event that resulted in the immediate closure of all universities, and the deportation of 1200 students to concentration camps—the vast majority of whom died in the camps. A further 9 protest leaders were executed without trial in Prague.

In the light of these horrible actions the international community declared the 17th of November the international day of students.

November 17 played its role in Czechoslovak  history once again in 1989, when students gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1939 events.

These peaceful protesters were beaten up by the communist police, sparking a number of demonstration, and eventually the democratisation process of the Velvet Revolution.

This is why every year on the 17th of November, Czechs  gather,at the places where the 1939 and 1989 student protests took place, to commemorate the fight for liberty.

But this year situation was different. Instead of students celebrating their struggle for freedom, the campus in Prague was occupied by extremists from Bloc Against Islam— who were even joined by the president of the Czech Republic. Only the supporters of the movement and president were allowed in, while majority of students and senior academicians were refused entry, officially due to security restrictions.

Many saw this as a victory of the nationalistic movements fuelled by the immigration crisis, which we see gaining momentum all over Europe.

Thankfully, Czech students did not give up and organised alternative event on the 22nd of November, called ‘The Real Celebration of the 17th of November’. The event immediately attracted attention of thousands of people, mainly students, and flooded the social media. Chancellors of most Czech universities took patronage over the event and many of them came in person and delivered short speeches.

The student gathering turned out to be immense success. Around 3 thousand people came, many with flowers or candles to place under the plaque, singing the student as well as Czech national anthem. Students and professors who spoke remained strictly apolitical in their talks and stressed the importance of understanding and open debate, as opposed to populism and hate. The event was broadcasted by the state TV and covered by all major media, sending a clear message – students are still willing to fight for liberty and tolerance, whether it was during Nazi era, under to communist rule, or now with the rise of xenophobic populism. And they can do so with piety and style, things that were  sorely missing in the meeting of the president and extremists.

November 17 belongs to all Czechs, not just to the president and a minority of anti-islam extremists. Thankfully, the current generation of czech students have shown that they are still the moving force of society. By standing firmly behind their values, they have defended the legacy of previous generations, and made sure that International Students’ Day will remain a symbol of liberty for all.

Jakub Caloun is a native of the Czech Republic, a Regional Director for European Students For Liberty, and a student at the University of Durham.